Thursday, June 17, 2010

Nuclear Homecoming

Today is the birthday of John Hersey, perhaps most famous for his book Hiroshima, which began life as a nofiction piece in The New Yorker. In the summer of 1985, I read obsessively about nuclear weapons, both their genesis and their current status, and Hiroshima was one of the books I read. Best book of that summer? War Day, by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, a sobering piece of fiction about life in the U.S. after a massive nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; it's still a compelling read. I remember Hersey's book as being elegaic in its depiction of the lost city and the suffering of the people.

Several hundred years from now, some enterprising graduate student might write a dissertation about my poetry. That graduate student might muse about the theological and nuclear themes in my poems. In some ways, they seem so separate, and yet, in some ways they dovetail. What will that dissertation conclude? Hmm.

That graduate student might read this stanza from my poem "Century of Ash and Smoke" (unpublished) and see the influence of Hersey:

If I had lost you
in the bomb blast at Hiroshima,
I might have found your likeness,
fused into concrete.

The poem goes on to talk about a bomb blast at the office, about the office worker becoming a permanent part of the office. A cheery little poem.

The other day, I started writing a poem about bread, and before I knew it, I had a character set off on some sort of journey into a post-apocalyptic landscape with loaves of bread in the backpack. I puzzle over this. It's an ongoing theme in my writing. I understand why I find the post-apocalyptic landscape compelling. What I don't understand is why I always start at the beginning of this story (or is it the beginning?). What happens to these characters? Why don't I ever write about the end of the story? What happens to these people after the journey?

Maybe I'll write some of those poems, now that I've noticed this lack. Maybe I've got a book trajectory, once I do.

Or maybe I'll discover what I already knew. The part of the apocalyptic narrative that interests me most is the build up to the catastrophe. The aftermath doesn't always interest me as much.

I still go back to watch some of those 1980's nuclear war movies (I have two of them on videocassette tape--how long will I support that medium? Do I get DVD copies of those movies?): War Day, Testament, and Threads. I often watch only the first hour or so. As the movie world descends more permanently into the post-blast world and becomes desolate, I get impatient.

I have yet to watch the post-apocalyptic movies released around Christmas, The Road and Book of Eli. I wonder if I'll feel the same way. I read The Road and loved it, even though I thought it was about the bleakest book I've ever read--but so eloquently and elegantly written!

Nuclear Homecoming. Now there's a title. I have a sneaking suspicion that it would only attract a small subset of people, but that the larger chunk of potential readership would run for the metaphorical hills from a title like that.

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