Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Century of Ash and Smoke

Yesterday as I drove home, I heard news of Vladimir Putin ordering new ICBMs, which he says will be able to penetrate any anti-missile defense.  In return, the U.S. is moving equipment into place that could protect various countries.

There was this moment when I thought, ICBMs?  What year is this?  It feels very cold war.  It feels very much like the made for TV movie from 1983, The Day After.  In that movie, the run up to nuclear exchange comes from the U.S.S.R crossing borders into West Germany.

Yesterday I thought about how apocalypses seem to come and go in cycles.  I get used to thinking that I don't need to worry about nukes, and then I realize that we were actually safer during the cold war, in that we knew where all the missiles were.  I think that ICBMs are less a threat than suitcase nukes, and then the leader of Russia begins building them again.

This summer brings us the 70th anniversary of the first nuclear explosions.  Most people will probably not be observing these anniversaries at all.

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That graduate student might read this stanza from my poem "Century of Ash and Smoke" (unpublished) and see the influence of Hersey: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

Here's the rest, less Hersey than September 11, 2001:

You leave for work
and have the bad luck not
to run late, to be in your office
when the bomb detonates.

You’ve spent so much of your life
at the office, and now you’ll be there
permanently, your remains mixing
with the melted office supplies,
your ashes drifting away
with the whisps of scorched
paper and shredded records.

Cheery little poem, eh?

It would be interesting to do a count.  How many apocalyptic short stories have I written?  How many apocalyptic images weave their way through my poems?  I wonder if I'm more likely to have the apocalypse come by way of disease or nuclear war.

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 and stories, 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?):  The Day After, 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.

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.

No comments: