Nuclear power plant cattenom

Nuclear and heliographic poetry

Craig Santos Perez

Plastic was an integral component in the hydrogen bomb, a fact that transitioned our class from plastic poetry to nuclear, heliographic and radiation eco-poetics.

We began with Japanese writer Toge Sankichi, who survived the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and lived nearly another decade to write poems and join the anti-nuclear peace movement before succumbing to cancer. There is a monument in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park with one of his poems, “Prelude” (1952):

Give back my father, give back my mother;
Give grandpa back, grandma back;
Give my sons and daughters back.

Give me back myself,
Give back the human race.

As long as this life lasts, this life,
Give back peace
That will never end.

Then we read British writer C.S. Lewis’s poem, “On the Atomic Bomb.” Lewis also wrote a short essay, “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948). Both consider how the threat of the atomic bomb might change how we view Death, Nature, Humanity, and God.

A very different poem is “A Little Atomic Bomb” (1967), by American poet Charles Bukowski. It is a haunting poem about the insanity of the nuclear arms race.

Next, we examined “It was that Indian” (1992), by Acoma Pueblo writer Simon Ortiz, who once worked in the uranium mining industry. This poem speaks to how the nuclear weapons industry exploited and poisoned Native American lands and bodies.

Lastly, we turned to the Pacific, which was the site of 50 years of the dirtiest and most destructive nuclear weapons testing in the 20th century, irradiating waters, islands and peoples. Many poems emerged from the Pacific anti-nuclear movement; one of the most well-known is “No Ordinary Sun” (1964), by Maori poet Hone Tuwhare.

To end, we viewed a powerful spoken word piece, “History Project” (2011), by Marshallese poet, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, who speaks to the cancerous legacy of nuclear testing in her home islands.

In the essay, “Radiation Ecologies and the Wars of Light” (2009), scholar Elizabeth DeLoughrey suggests that the “global rise of militarized radiation transformed our relationship to light and that the relationship between light and ecology is more than metaphysical. In fact, ecology as a discipline has close ties to the radioactive militarization of the Pacific” (472). Indeed, the legacy of nuclear weapons and the atomic age not only continues to impact the humanities, but it also continues to impact global ecologies, militarism and geopolitics.

There are no student poems in this edition as the class is working on poetry revisions right now. For further reading, see Rob Wilson, “Towards the Nuclear Sublime: Representations of Technological Vastness in Postmodern American Poetry” (1989).