On Language, Bombs, and Other Things That Exist

by: Kimberly Grey

As poets, we often assemble language to disassemble meaning—or we disassemble language to assemble meaning—and this is all an effort to translate the ordinary (a pair of socks, the name of that place, subway car, chair versus shadow, the front of a sparrow, something afloat like a naked rock) into an extraordinary textual or speech act. The result, we hope, is something new and transformative.

I am aware that I am typing this on a computer, a machine that allows me to press a letter into existence. The more letters I press, the more words appear, and meaning is made. I use this technology, as most now do, to employ this technique.

Technique and technology share a similar etymological root: tekné from the Greek meaning “art, craft”; the Greek tekhnologia meaning “a systematic treatment of an art, craft, or technique,” originally referring to grammar, then “art, skill, craft, method, and system of making.”

The twentieth century was the century of making. The most influential inventionsincludednuclearpower, thepersonalcomputer, airplanes, automobiles, antibiotics, television, the internet, and the radio. It also gave us modernism, a transformation of art and culture in western society, which was perpetuated by war and industrial growth, along with technological advancement.

The modernist movement in poetry, according to scholar Albert Gelpi, “desired a coherence against the instability of nature, the unreliability of perception, and the tragedy of human history.” It is conceived as arising out of and occurring between the two world wars, in effort to subvert romantic tradition, “the dominant aesthetic and cultural ideology of the 19th century.” This period, which gave us Pound and Eliot, focused on invention and artifice, fracture rather than organic sentiment and wholeness, which can be seen in Eliot’s famed exclamation at the end of The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” One can read modernist poetry as an attempt to piece together the fragments that come with rupture in post-war life. Form, then, became even more a product of the imagination, the supreme faculty of cognition capable of creating coherence.

Much of this aesthetic posturing and thought took place in the midst of increasingly destructive World Wars, a period that began with the advent of chemical weaponry and ended, horribly, with the only two explosions of atomic weapons in history. The bomb, thus, became the main piece of warfare modern poets reacted against; its violent reality was now an embedded part of actual bodies and of the human psyche. Because of this, we began to see language and its constructions shift as the bomb altered the place of language in the political-social sphere. With this shift, arguments about the perceived role and responsibility of the poet when writing about human suffering changed. “The poet’s role is not to oppose evil, but imagine it,” wrote Robert Duncan in a 1966 letter to his friend, the poet Denise Levertov. Levertov was a woman who held her role as activist highly and in the same regard as her humanness. Both of these identifications came first for her and thus informed her role as “poet.” Duncan and Levertov’s inability to reconcile these contrasting positions ended their long, close friendship and correspondence.

We see these two distinct approaches to war employed by many 20th century poets. Opposition and protest on one hand, and imagination and interpretation on the other. I wonder, as a poet myself, at what point these gestures merge.

In “Life at War,” a poem from Levertov’s book To Stay Alive, she asserts our capacity to construct in contradicting efforts. Those who can make poems and imagine through form and language, also make bombs, partake in war:

we are humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
loving kindness we who have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—

who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary: there acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Vietnam as I write.

Levertov moves quickly, almost in the same breath, from the compound word lovingkindess to a napalm-bomb reference. These, she suggests, happen concurrently, and the reality of suffering in Vietnam is never far from Levertov’s imagination. In fact, it is so close that Levertov cannot help but to shift from the collective to the singular “I” pronoun as she asserts the action of her writing. She must hold, simultaneously, the knowledge that her action of making is happening at the very same moment that people are dying. To not hold these two realities in juxtaposition would be an erasure of our human collective realities.

In contrast, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai employs Duncan’s imaginative interpreting in his poem “The Diameter of the Bomb,” imagining both the bomb’s literal and abstract scale of impact:

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

Amichai begins in concrete fact: a measurement, a list of causalities, and then extends outward into abstraction to show the traumatic rippling effects of the bomb, both physical and metaphysical. Eventually, its impact extends up “to the throne of God” who then ceases to exist within the circulating and endless devastation. It is the bomb that has enabled this suffering, this metaphoric godlessness.

Can a poem plainly state and document present-tense violence? Or must it, as Duncan wrote, “feed upon thought, feeling, impulse, to breed itself, a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping”? If our imaginative process resembles a poetic interpretation of violence, at what point does the aestheticization of war become problematic? I, for one, cannot answer this question. So, I’ve sought out work that comes nearest to witnessing both objectively and artistically.

Inger Christensen is a poet who approaches this merging of poetic gesture. In her 1981 book-length poem alphabet, she employs a meditative and systematic form, cataloguing and asserting the existence of things in the natural world as they become juxtaposed against the fear of death, destruction, and ecological devastation in the Cold War era. She begins:

apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist

The word “exists,” is third-person present. It is a perpetual. It means to continue to be, regardless of understood limitations. In alphabet, Christensen uses the word exist 103 times:

doves exist, dreamers, and dolls;
killers exist, and doves, and doves;
haze, dioxin, and days; days
exist, days and death; and poems
exist; poems, days, death

Overlapping repetitions. As it proceeds, alphabet follows Fibonacci’s mathematical sequence, where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21 . . . ), and this sequence determines the length of each section, of which there are 14, alphabetically moving from A to N. The first section contains one line and the last 600. The poem exists within the confines of its own formal limitations, while connotatively and denotatively reflecting on said formal limits:

given limits exist, streets, oblivion

As she contemplates existence and oblivion, Christensen wavers between seeing things as resilient or diminished, and we’re presented with objects as things that are somehow eternal and destructible. This linguistic scaffolding is constructed around the invisible but potent effects of the nuclear era. What happens when blackberries and cicadas and doves exist along with hydrogen bombs and bromine and chromium? Then, Christensen tells us, bombs exist, killers exist, widows exist.

There’s causality in Christensen’s manner of listing which mirrors the causality of technological advances—progress that seems certain to lead to world destruction. We see environmental devastation brought about by these various modern technologies, and Christensen anticipates our climate-change dread with many of her images: “the poison helicopter’s humming harps,” famine, ice ages, “polar bears, stamped like furs with their identification numbers.”

But, for Christensen, the bomb becomes the major mechanism of destruction, the thing which the poem, the physical world, and language itself must survive:

cobalt bombs exist
wrapped in their cloaks
of cobalt-60 isotopes

who half-life
ensures the most
harmful effects

there’s no more to
say; we ensure that
the harm is as great
as it can be; [. . .]

She continues:

it’s all erased,
so the first
the crucial
nothing gets no chance
to make the poetry
that wind can make
in air or water;

Here, Christensen comments on our purposeful creation of a warfare that destroys so utterly. In the face of that destruction, even the void that lives within us, that “crucial nothing” from which poetry arises, will lose its capability to generate poetry, to project beauty like the invisible ripples that wind makes in the sky or on a pond. The bomb, she imagines, can destroy even the sense of absence out of which art springs.

There is a narrative rift in this book just as there is a rift in the bomb-laden world. Progression in the poem and technological progress in our world exist through repetition, but not through any formal narrative arc, and progress doesn’t seem to have a logic. Christensen wants us to feel the robotic power of that progress in her somewhat detached voice. Still, there is movement in the book, and we see it in the various frequencies of repetition; as we proceed through each letter of Christensen’s A-N alphabet, those repetitions diminish. In the first 38 pages, the word exist appears 85 times. In the last 38 pages, it appears 18 times. In the presence of the bomb and of incessant progress, we exist less and less.

There exists, in this dwindling, the psychological limits of narrative. Christensen said herself, “I did not sit down and say, ‘now I will write a catastrophic poem’.” But catastrophe becomes inherent through the book’s incantations. The repetitions themselves create the effect of Roland Barthes’ Hermeneutic Code; we feel an accumulation of emphasis and interruption, of assertion and the visible withholding of conventional narrative structures. It is in the act of defamiliarizing language, through repetitions, (which, as Gertrude Stein defined, serve as moments of insistence and renewal) that one is free to recognize language again as if for the first time. And under the shock of such insistence, the activity of existence, through repetition, becomes the way the text survives. This is not unlike the way humans also survive.

Christensen’s alphabet ends at N, a letter that conjures nth, as in an unspecified, enumerating series. N as in nuclear. N as in, possibly, THE END. Nothing, nihil, nil.

With this alphabetic conclusion, the world the poem previously conjured ceases to exist. For now, every natural thing—apricots, blackberries, cicadas, doves, eider ducks, fig trees, fisherbird herons, sweetgrass, hares, love—only exists in juxtaposition with the man-made technologies that will eventually obliterate them. These are the things of poetry—nature, love, mortality—and the advent of the bomb can destroy them all in a single moment. “Poetry is one of the ancient arts,” said Mary Oliver, “and it began as did all the fine arts, within the original wilderness of the earth.” Christensen recalls the original wilderness while simultaneously insisting that people, and our inventions, have the capacity to obliterate it.

alphabet ends with the following seven lines, which seek to pronounce the innocence that cannot sustain itself in a nuclear world. Here, she imagines children viewed by the hare of fairytales, and the children are seemingly innocent at first, but always on the verge of danger.

a group of children seeks shelter in a cave
mutely observed by only a hare

as if they were children in childhood’s
fairy-tales they hear the wind tell

of the burned-off fields
but they are no children

no one carries them any more.

By the final two lines, their childness has been effectively erased by the devastating effects of the modern bomb, of nuclear power, climate change, and all the ways modern invention has impacted the world. Innocence is obliterated.

Despite the urgent and foreboding tone of alphabet, though, Christensen called the book “a plea . . . that life can continue.” And isn’t that what all poems are? Verifications that, regardless of subject, the poem’s very existence is evidence of the continuation of life? In our desire to keep writing regardless of the state of the world, and through this action of making, a poem becomes the afterimage of both lived experience and imaginative work. It emerges out of and survives the original violence. And if its existence can’t solely prove that human life can continue—through atrocity, time, and technological advancement, a poem can, perhaps in the purest sense, prove the resilience and enduringness of language.

Kimberly Grey is the author of Systems for the Future of Feeling, forthcoming in 2020 from Persea Books, and The Opposite of Light, winner of the 2015 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize. She has been awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and teaching lectureship from Stanford University, and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy. She is currently completing her doctorate at the University of Cincinnati.

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