Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Of Atomic Bombs and Other Apocalypses

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 hadn't remembered until doing some Internet wanderings 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.

It's also the birthday of Tony Kushner.  I remember long ago, in 1994, my friend who dreamed of writing plays told me about Angels in America, which she had just read.  It happened to be available from the Quality Paperback Book Club, so I ordered it.

I consumed it in one sitting.  It has haunted me ever since.

I watched both Angels in America and Perestroika when they came to the Kennedy Center during the mid-90's.  Wow.  Sometimes I forget the power of live theatre.  The HBO version came out in the early years of this century, and it, too was powerful, but when I'm watching something on a screen, I assume that part of the power comes from high-tech sorcery.  With live theatre, I give all the credit to the humans on the stage.

I have spent the years since wondering about the idea of writing that tackles the big issues of an age.  I've thought of August Wilson writing a play that represents the life of African-Americans during the twentieth century, one play for each decade.  And he pulled it off!

Some days, I think I dream too small.

It's oddly comforting to think about Angels in America, a play written about a dark time in American history.  I remember the early days of the AIDS crisis, when we weren't quite sure of the cause and how to prevent it and even as we discovered more about it, the thought that haunted us was that maybe there were additional transmission routes that we hadn't found yet.  The disease seemed more ravaging in those days, as people went from healthy to corpse in six months or less.  And then, as now, the government seemed helpless--or worse--in the face of the devastation.

And yet, here we are, into a generation or two saved by protease inhibitors.  There's recent talk of a pill that prevents transmission.  Darkness can be split apart by light.

I have hopes that ten or twenty years from now, we'll look back and say, "We were at a turning point, but we didn't see it then.  The world was about to emerge into a better place, but boy did it look bleak then."

And what writers/works will we see as the documenters of that dark time?  As a writer, is it better to document the dark time or to dream of the brighter future?

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Kelly Cherry has written a wonderful series of poems on Oppenheimer: 'Vectors'.