Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Atomic Anniversary: Spiritual and Poetic Connections

Today is an important nuclear anniversary.  On this day in 1945, scientists exploded the first nuclear bomb at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.

Robert Oppenheimer named the site, and when asked if he had named it as a name common to rivers and mountains in the west, he replied, "I did suggest it, but not on that ground... Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love. From it a quotation: 'As West and East / In all flatt Maps—and I am one—are one, / So death doth touch the Resurrection.' That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, 'Batter my heart, three person'd God;—.'"

I love a scientist who loves John Donne.  Metaphysical poetry and atomic weapons:  they do seem to go together in intriguing ways.

I am a poet who is always on the lookout for interesting intersections, and thus, I must note that at sunset last night, we began a Jewish holiday.  In a blog post yesterday, Rachel Barenblat, poet and rabbi, explains: 

"Tonight at sundown we enter into Tisha b'Av, a communal day of mourning. On Tisha b'Av we remember the fall of the First Temple in 586 BCE, and the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE; we remember pogroms and tragedies throughout our history; we remember human suffering writ large; we recognize the brokenness in all creation; we enter into a process of communal teshuvah, repentance/return. For many of us this is a day of fasting and contemplation.

On the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, tradition tells us, Moshiach will be born -- our deepest hopes for redemption, entering our world at our moment of greatest mourning and sorrow. And beginning on the day after Tisha b'Av, we count forty-nine days -- seven weeks -- until Rosh Hashanah, the new year."

I'm most comfortable with the day of mourning aspect; on this day, we could mourn the atomic age and all the violence that has been leashed upon the world.  But my poet brain wants to explore that deep hope for redemption and the nuclear bomb. 

I hadn't remembered until doing some digging this morning that the explosion was scheduled for this date because Truman had an important meeting with Allied leaders in Potsdam on July 17.  Bomb as savior?

Oh, so many poetry possibilities!  There's the desert aspect, the prophets that so often emerge from wilderness areas.  There's the fact that this part of the country has become a detonation point for various immigration fights through the last four decades.

Those of you who have been reading this blog and/or my poems for awhile now will be saying, "Haven't you already explored this poetic terrain?"

Indeed, I have.  Yet I think there may be more to do. 

But for today, let's look back.

I wrote this one first, and it appeared in The Ledge:

Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site

I didn’t develop a taste for locusts until later.
Instead I craved libraries, those crusted containers of all knowledge,
honey to fill the combs of my brain.

I didn’t see this university as a desert.
How could it be, with its cornucopia of classes,
colleagues who never tired of spirited conversations,
no point too arcane for hours of dissection.
I never foresaw that I might consume too many ideas,
that they might stick in the craw.

I never dreamed a day would come when I preferred
true deserts, far away from intellectual centers.
No young minds to be midwifed,
no hungry mouths draining my most vital juices,
no books with their reproachful, sad sighs, sitting
in the library, that daycare center of the intellect.

The desert doesn’t drown the voice
the way a city does. No drone
of machinery, no cacophony of crowing
scholars to consume my own creativity.
In the desert, the demand is to be still, to conserve
our strength for the trials that are to come.

Here, the earth, scorched by the fissile
testing of the greatest intellects of the last century, reminds
us of the ultimate futility of attempting to understand.
The desert dares us to drop our defenses.
In this place, scoured of all temptations, all distractions,
the sand demands we face our destiny.

I wrote this one a bit later, and I've often wondered if it is too similar to the first one. Is it a revision of the first one? But I've decided that although they share similar themes, they are distinctly different. It appeared in Sojourners.

Baptismo Sum

In this month of dehydration,
we keep our eyes skyward, both to watch
for rain and to avoid the scorn
of the scorched succulents who reproach
us silently, saying, “You promised to care.”

And so, although we thought we could stick
these seedlings in the ground and leave
them to their own devices, we haul
hoses and buckets of water to the outer edges
of the yard where the hose will not reach.

The idea of a desert seduces,
as it did the Desert Fathers, who fled
the corruption of the cities to contemplate
theology surrounded by sand
and stinging winds. My thoughts travel
to the Sanctuary Movement, contemporary Christians
who risked all to rescue illegal aliens.
I admire their faith, tested in that desert crucible.
I could create my own patch of desert in tribute.

Yet deserts do not always sanctify.
I think of the Atomic Fathers
who hauled equipment into the New Mexico
desert and littered the landscape with fallout
which litters all our lives, a new religion,
generations transformed in the light of the Trinity test site.

I back away from my Darwinian, desert dreams.
The three most popular religions
in the world emerged from their dry desert
roots, preaching the literal and symbolic primacy
of water, leaving the arid ranges behind
as they flowed towards temperance.

I cannot reject the religion of my ancestors,
who spent every day of their lives
remembering their baptism before heading to the fields
to make the dirt dream in colors.

The careful reader (or future grad student writing a dissertation) will notice the old familiar themes: apocalypse and the effort to live in hope, atomic issues, gardens, farm families, intellectual lives and a variety of spiritual connections.

I wrote these poems before I traveled to the desert Southwest.  When we were there at Christmas, I remember thinking about the poems I wrote and how I was pleased that I had gotten the details right.

Where will I go next?  What still seems relevant?  Stay tuned!


Maureen said...

Excellent poems.

Poet Kelly Cherry has been fascinated with Oppenheimer for a long time. I reviewed her "Vectors"; she has a book planned.

Kristin said...

Thanks! I'll keep an eye out for Kelly Cherry's book--thanks, too, for that info.