from A Sail to Great Island


My Century

The year I was born the atomic bomb went off.

Here I’d just begun, and someone

found the switch to turn off the world.

In the furnace-light, in the central solar fire

of that heat lamp, the future got very finite,

and it was possible to imagine time-travelers

failing to arrive, because there was no time

to arrive in. Inside the clock in the hall

heavy brass cylinders descended.

Tick-tock, the chimes changed their tune

one phrase at a time. The bomb became

a film star, its glamorous globe of smoke

searing the faces of men in beach chairs.

Someone threw up every day at school.

No time to worry about collective death,

when life itself was permeated by ordeals.

And so we grew up accepting things.

In bio we learned there were particles

cruising through us like whales through archipelagoes,

and in civics that if Hitler had gotten the bomb

he’d have used it on the inferior races,

and all this time love was etching its scars

on our skins like maps. The heavens

remained pure, except for little white slits

on the perfect blue skin that planes cut

in the icy upper air, like needles sewing.

From one, a tiny seed might fall

that would make a sun on earth.

And so the century passed, with me still in it,

books waiting on the shelves to become cinders,

what we felt locked up inside, waiting to be read,

down the long corridor of time. I was born

the year the bomb exploded. Twice

whole cities were charred like cities in the Bible,

but we didn’t look back. We went on thinking

we could go on, our shapes the same,

darkened now against a background lit by fire.

Forgive me for doubting you’re there,

Citizens, on your holodecks with earth wallpaper—

a shadow-toned ancestor with poorly pressed pants,

protected like a child from knowing the future.

from A Sail to Great Island, published by University of Wisconsin Press 2004

artwork:  Nan Hass Feldman, Coming Home Into Harbor