“A Poetics of Hiroshima” by William Heyen
Imperial Air Force pilot Sachio Ashida, unable
to fly over the burning city to report
to his superiors what had happened to it,
landed his plane, borrowed a bicycle,
& pedaled into it. He’d remember
a woman in front of her smoldering home,
a bucket on her arm. Inside the bucket
was a baby’s head. The woman’s daughter
had been killed when the bomb fell.
This is atrocity. You’ve just now descended
from a stanza wherein a baby’s head—
were its eyes open or closed?—was carried
in a bucket by her mother.
An Imperial Air Force pilot stopped his bike
in front of what had been her home.
I’ve wanted us to breathe ashes & smoke,
but we cannot. This, too, is atrocity.
What’s true for me is probably true for you:
I’m tired of trying to remember this.
Somewhere in Hiroshima the baby’s head
is dreaming, wordlessly. No, it is not—this, too,
is atrocity. Ashida went on
to live a long life. He felt the swing & weight
of that bucket on his arm. No,
he did not. He did. He sometimes dreamed himself
pedaling backwards away
from that mother. I don’t know whether
he did or not. Meanwhile,
we rave about the necessity of a jewel-center in every poem.
I’ve used a baby’s head
in a bucket on her mother’s arm. Whether
this is art, or in the hands of a master could be, or whether
art is atrocity, or not, I’m sick of being,
or trying to be, part of it, me
with my weak auxilliary verbs which vitiate
the jewel-center, me
with my passives, my compromised stanzaic integrity,
my use of the ambiguous “this”
which is atrocity. No, it is not. It is.
For years my old high school coach visited my home
with dahlias in a bucket,
big red-purple & blue-purple heads
my wife & I floated in bowls on our tables.
Have I no shame? This, too, this story
that evokes another, this narrative rhyme, this sweet
concatenation of metaphor,
is atrocity. Coach fought on Iwo Jima
for ten days before & ten days after
the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi.
He returned there fifty years later, brought me
a babyfood jar half-filled
with black sand from one volcanic blood-
soaked beach. He did. But at Marine reunions,
he couldn’t locate any of his buddies
from his first outfit. No, he could not.
He once laid out on my desk aerial photos of runways
the Japanese used to “wreak havoc”—his words—
& said that hundreds of thousands of GIs would have died
if HST had not given the order.
As a participant in necessary atrocity, I agreed.
I still agree. But it doesn’t matter if I agree—
what matters is whether poetry itself agrees. Incidentally,
Ashida was in training to become
a divine wind, a kamikaze.
1945. I was almost five. Col. Tibbets named
our Enola Gay for his mother.
The 6th of August. Our bomb, “Little Boy,” mushroomed
with the force of 15 kilotons of TNT.
“A harnessing of the basic power of the universe,” said HST,
as though the universe were our plowhorse.
In the woman’s home, her daughter was beheaded.
I don’t know if Ashida learned exactly how,
though we & the art of atrocity would like to know.
In any case, what could this mother do?
She lifted her daughter’s head. She laid it
in the aforementioned jewel-center.
She was not thinking of the basic power of the universe.
Did she place oleander blossoms on her baby’s face?
Did she enfold her daughter’s head in silk, which rhymes with bucket,
& sick, & volcanic, & wreak havoc? …
(Buckets appear often, as a matter of fact,
in the literature of exile, for example
in Irina Ratushinskaya’s prison memoir Gray is the Color
of Hope—coal buckets & slop buckets,
ersatz food placed in what were toilet buckets.
“Time to get up, woman. Empty your slop bucket.”
Irina drags her bucket daily to the cess pit.
She doesn’t know if she can ever become a mother.)
Ashida attained the highest black belt, went on
to coach the American Olympic judo team.
He did. I spoke with his daughter
at an event where I received a poetry prize,
a check for a thousand George Washingtons
& an etched glass compote
for a book on the Shoah. I said I once heard her father
lecture on Zen—the moon in the river,
River flowing by that is the world with its agonies
while Moon remains in one place,
steadfast despite atrocity.
I remember that she seemed at ease,
she who had known her father
as I could never.
While teaching at the University of Hawaii,
I visited Pearl Harbor three times, launched out to the memorial
above the Arizona. Below us, the tomb
rusted away—a thousand sailors,
average age nineteen—for nature, too, is atrocity,
atoms transformed within it, even memory.
We tourists, some Japanese, watched minnows
nibble at our leis.
No, we did not. This was my dream:
I knelt at a rail under a Japanese officer with a sword,
but now there are too many stories for poetic safety,
for stanzaic integrity—woman & daughter,
Ashida at his lecture, my high school coach carrying heads
of dahlias grown from bulbs
he’d kept in burlap to overwinter in his cellar,
even persona Heyen at Pearl Harbor
bubbles of oil that still
iridesced the Pacific swells as jewel-centers iridesce
our most anthologized villlanelles….
A bombing survivor said, “It’s like when you burn a fish on the grill.”
I end my sixth line above with the word “home.”
My first draft called it the woman’s “house,” but home
evokes satisfaction, mmm, a baby’s
contentment at the breast, the atrocity
of irony, & home hears itself in arm, & bomb, & blossom,
& looks forward to shame & tomb.
I cannot not tell a lie.
Apparently, I am not so disgusted with atrocity
as I’d claimed to be—my atoms
to the mmm in time & come—for closure,
as, out of the azure,
into the syntax of Hiroshima, “Little Boy” plunges—
I’ve centered this poem both to mushroom
& crumble its edges—
& “Fat Man,” 21 kilotons of TNT,
will devastate Nagasaki. What is your history? Please don’t leave
without telling me. Believe me,
I’m grateful for your enabling complicity.
I know by now you’ve heard my elegiac ē.
I hope your exiled mind has bucketed its breath.
I seek to compose intellectual melody.
I fuse my fear with the idea of the holy.
This is St. John’s cloud of unknowing in me.
This is the Tao of affliction in me.
Don’t try telling me my poetry is not both
beguiling & ugly.
“There was no escape except to the river,” a survivor said.
but the river thronged with bodies.
Black rain started falling, covering everything the survivors said.
I have no faith except in the half-life of poetry.
I seek radiation’s rhythmic sublime.
I have no faith except in beauty.
I seek the nebulous ends of time.
This is the aria those cities have made of me.
I hope my centered lines retain their integrity.
I have no faith except in atrocity.
“A Poetics of Hiroshima” previously appeared in Great River Review, in The Seventh Quarry (Wales), and in A Poetics of Hiroshima (Wilkesbarre, PA: Etruscan Press, 2008). Reprinted by permission of the author.