Friday, July 16, 2010

We Have Become Death

On this day in 1945, the United States exploded the first atomic bomb. I often forget this anniversary, and frankly, some years, August 6 and August 9, the more famous bomb explosion dates, just slip right by me.

I have nuclear stuff on the brain as I revise my manuscript, "Ash Wednesday at the Trinity Test Site." For those of you currently revising a manuscript, I direct you to Diane Lockward's blog posting, where she talks about what she's learned as a reader for a book contest--fascinating stuff. She talks about making the manuscript smaller. I wonder if I have too many poems in my manuscript. I usually try to keep a book length manuscript around 75 pages total, which includes table of contents and the pages that separate the parts of the book and the acknowledgements, so I don't think she's talking to me. January O'Neil also talks about revising her manuscript for her second book in this post.

I also think of Eavan Boland's comments on the first book, which has in many ways changed from what it used to be. Long ago, the first book would simply be everything a poet had written at a young age. It was only later that books had certain shaping themes or became sophisticated in other ways. She says that most people's first books are actually their second or third books because it takes so long to get the first book published, and people keep revising them. She mourned the loss of those early poems that never see the light of day.

Of course, she wrote about this some time ago, and I wonder if the age of Internet publishing and blogging and other methods of getting our early poems out there have changed this dynamic she describes.

I think about my early poems, which revolved around my family and various ideas of heritage, particularly as manifest in the Southern experience and as women. In short, I wrote a lot of poems about my grandmother. If they had been published early on, I wouldn't be embarrassed by them, but I've moved on.

My formative late adolescence years happened late in the Cold War (although at the time, we didn't know we were at the end of the cold war), where I expected nuclear war any day. I'm still haunted by all sorts of nuclear images.

I think of Oppenheimer watching that explosion. In one book I read, the author states that these scientists were fairly sure what would happen, but not certain. There was some fear that they might somehow ignite the earth's atmosphere and destroy the planet. But they proceeded anyway.

Oppenheimer says that he watched the explosion and thought about The Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds." Once we had a crew of guys come to cut down a tree. The leader with the shaved head took off his shirt and tattooed across his back was the same line; it was a big tattoo--I could read it from inside the house. On that same day, from the gay guys' apartment complex on the next street, I could hear disco music, The Village People and Donna Summer, in an endless loop, interrupted by the buzzing chain saws from the tree crew. Some day I'll use these details in a poem or a short story. Or maybe now that I've recorded them in my blog, I won't feel the need to use the details elsewhere.

I love the way that blogging helps me weave all these seemingly disparate strands of thought together in my brain. I love that I can scroll back through my blog for inspiration. I enjoy the idea that I'm engaged in a larger conversation with other people who are blogging, and I can both recommend writing and make a reference for myself for later.

I think that much of our writing, whether it be poetry or blogging or the great American novel or letters to loved ones--and yes, even perhaps the business e-mail--comes out of that impulse to resist death. We want to leave a record that we've been here. We live with the knowledge that everything we love will be lost, as John Dufresne says in The Lie that Tells a Truth. We create our art as an act of resistance.

1 comment:

Jeannine said...

I am also writing about a similar topic, my father's work at ORNL and growing up in Oak Ridge, where my best friends' parents were all physicists. I feel that all of us who were kids during the seventies were affected by all the worry about nuclear war and nuclear poisoning and nuclear power. Like today's kids are taught to fear global warming.