a sunroof sky
full of kanji and silk
wisteria dancing across the wind
my daughter laughing in that so saturated face
as friend and i sit down to a morning game
i swore i would take advantage of his saki rejuvenation
i seem to remember
the taste of my wife's lips
so sweet a touch of harmony
quickly replaced by the happy wet kiss of my child
giggling so to almost annoy
this fierce competition
my new pocket watch stating
with such fine western precision
you have time to champion
it's just but 8:13
i seem to remember
wind chimes singing
to the laughter
and graceful chatter
that rose to cacophony
as i anticipate movement
then look out and vision
with ancient eyes
the whirl and rash
i seem to remember
the distant sound of wings
floating across my sunroof sky
of eyes squinting to see through the roof
and my child suddenly turning white
the brightest white
the hottest white
the darkest white
i shall never see
i can't seem
where I left my soul
i think it's where my shadow
left a halo
burned into the ground
Copyright 2006 by Shaun Hull
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Ground Zero" by Shaun Hull, offers a devastating first-person account of the atomic bombing of Japan during World War II. Sixty-one years ago this month, the US Army Air Forces dropped nuclear warheads on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first, and hopefully the last, time that nuclear weapons were deployed in warfare.
I held Hull's poem for this issue of the newsletter because the phrase "Ground Zero" also reminded me of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is hard to believe that it will be five years this coming September. And how many other sad anniversaries will pass this month, and every month, remembered only by the families around the world who have lost loved ones in war? Hull's poem artfully combines these particular and universal concerns, adding enough historical detail to bring the characters to life, but appealing to primal emotions that cross cultural boundaries.
The opening lines immediately convey a mood of elegance and freedom, a lightness that also makes this idyllic world fragile and vulnerable. Sunroof glass can shatter, silk is easily torn. This is a ceremonial and civilized culture, as symbolized by the chess game, the kanji (Chinese characters used in the Japanese language), and the pocket watch's "western precision". There's a subtle irony in the speaker's trust in Western (maybe even American) technology, which will soon incinerate everything he holds dear. Unknown to him, the watch is counting down the seconds until their death.
I admire how this poem is so dramatic yet so understated. Hull doesn't need to use the words "atomic bomb", "World War II", "Hiroshima", or any other explanatory terms that are already overdetermined by the readers' familiarity with these events. The saki, kanji and other evocative physical clues create the Japanese atmosphere, while the blinding light and burnt shadows are recognizable as the effects of an atomic blast. This is how a bombing victim would actually experience it, without the interpretive overlay. The war is the farthest thing from the narrator's mind when the bomb hits, which makes the destruction of his world more poignant.
Hull chose to write this poem in a modern stream-of-consciousness style without punctuation or capital letters, such as e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams often used. The advantages of this style are its accessibility and spontaneity; the disadvantage is that it can create a monotone effect. "Ground Zero" largely avoids this trap by varying the length and rhythm of the lines, and by repeating "I seem to remember" in order to give the poem a formal structure.
A few lines could use some editing for clarity or grammar. "It's just but 8:13" sounded awkward to me. In ordinary speech, a person would use one or the other of those modifiers, not both. "It's still but 8:13" or "only just" or "still just" would all sound more natural. In the second stanza, the lines "then look out and vision/with ancient eyes" did not make grammatical sense. "Vision" is being used here as a verb, which is unusual enough that it breaks the flow of the poem. Perhaps Hull was thinking of "envision." Since "look out" sufficiently describes the action, the lines could be rewritten as "then look out with ancient eyes/at the whirl and rash/of humanity".
Finally, poets should be careful not to repeat their own good lines within the same poem. The phrase "sunroof sky" was powerful the first time, but when re-used just two stanzas later, it felt belabored, especially since "roof" occurs yet again in the next line. Try a different modifier for the second "sky", something about its color perhaps, or an image from an earlier line (silken sky, wisteria sky, chiming sky). The image of the floating wings is lovely, and heartbreaking when we realize that these are the wings of enemy planes, not graceful birds. Don't distract from it with recycled lines that remind us that a poem is artifice, not real life.
Hull uses paradox to excellent effect in the last part of the poem: "the darkest white/I shall never see". This inversion shows us how dramatically the narrator's world has turned upside down in an instant. From vision to blindness; from light that illuminates to light that, unbelievably, brings darkness. "i seem to remember" becomes "i can't seem to remember". And finally, the ultimate reversal or impossibility: is the narrator speaking to us from the other side of death? His soul is missing, his shadow "burned into the ground". He is like a wandering ghost, a spirit in limbo, unable to orient himself in this new reality. Like radiation, the spiritual fallout from atomic warfare lingers far beyond the victims' lifetime, to haunt the place where the angel of death left his dark halo.
Where could a poem like "Ground Zero" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Joy Harjo Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: October 1
$1,250 award from the Colorado-based literary magazine Cutthroat is named after a prominent Native American poet and activist
Reuben Rose Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by October 10
Contest run by the Voices Israel poetry society offers $750 and anthology publication for poems up to 41 lines; fees accepted in US, UK and Israeli currency
This poem and critique appeared in the August 2006 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques