Adam Steiner reviews a new collection of poems dedicated to the survivors of nuclear holocaust.
Antony Owen, The Nagasaki Elder (V. Press, 2017) 68pp.
For me the title of this collection contains a neat double meaning. On the surface it refers to the fading generations of Japanese citizens and their families (the Hibakusha*) who survived the nuclear holocaust of the American bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II – to whom this collection is dedicated. At this reading, the book’s title refers to the aged survivor and their memories of the experience of the atomic bomb as it was dropped; it also works as metaphor for a tree, which easily outlive humans, the elder and the runes of its bark wearing the scars of time and experience, deepening with age.
Fat man awakens,
devouring breath, birdsong sky,
There is a common claim for poetry to be written of the now, to be contemporary in both mode and message, but this book turns that idea on its head. A book focussing on the use of the atomic bomb in World War II, might seem like an anachronism when faced with the glut of conflict and future wars being debated across the world right now. But with recent events of old-hat sabre-rattling between the United State and North Korea, the UK General Election schism over the disarmament of the Trident nuclear defence (read – first strike) system and the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki – this book is a timely reminder of the very real fallout endured by nations and individuals who bear the brunt when a global power decides to “press the button”. The fact that there is even a current exhibition on this very issue, Truman on Trial shows how uncertain is the legacy of the A-bomb – and its validity as a weapon of defence – in order to prevent harm – is cast in a baleful shadow – war rarely saves, but so easily it does harm.
In light of this, the scope of the book is widened, beyond Japan, on a trawl through history. The second half of the book, The Human Blitz, focuses more on the bombing of Antony’s native Coventry, contemporary wars and other forms of nuclear disaster. These are all gathered fragments with which civilisation attempts to shore up its ruin.
Picture the unused ferris wheel –
caged within its silence,
spent with sun’s rusted rouble.
A park near Chernobyl
The poetry in this book is stark and vivid. Owen does not mess about, casting solid images, the burnt shadows of the victims, and more pertinently the survivors who bear witness to these awful events. Antony applies presence and absence, the point of impact contrasted with the eerie stillness that follows flattened earth and muted lives. I particularly enjoyed the Senryu poems, that apply a haiku-like form to leave powerful and indelible images that haunt you long after the poem has been read and absorbed:
warm torn skin, dimpled, fragrant
cloud vapours consumed.
Francis Fukuyama famously threw out his ironic essay, announcing the end of history in the early 90s, too many people took too much notice, and he helped give rise to the non-subject of International Relations, intended as the study towards ending all war, and began the process of re-description: not ethnic cleansing and genocide – “displacement of peoples”; not bloody civil war and state-sponsored destruction of one’s country – “conflict”.
Clearly the mere study of international diplomacy has not been sufficient to make a difference beyond Western elitism and the continued fait accompli of peacekeeping missions The Nagasaki Elder provides a new sense of history, a year zero on contemporary conflict; not that all wars are generic, but that they often occur under the same conditions, such that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The poems in The Nagasaki Elder are an attempt to reconcile the damage done by war with possibilities for a better future – before it is too late.
We must rebuild our learning before new cities,
and look into eyes of those who remain
to see hell is only made by the blind
One of Owen’s poems from The Nagasaki Elder recently featured in the Morning Star.
*Hibakusha (被爆者) is the Japanese word for the surviving victims of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The word literally translates as “explosion-affected people” and is used, often derogatorily, to refer to people who were exposed to radiation from the bombings.
Adam Steiner has worked as an NHS cleaner and mental heath development worker. His first novel, Politics of the Asylum, about his experiences working in the NHS is published by Urbane Publications (2017). He tweets @BurndtOutWard. Steiner’s poetry, fiction and artwork appear in The Bohemyth, I Am Not A Silent Poet, Rockland Lit, Proletarian Poetry, The Next Review, Fractured Nuance zine, BoscRev: 4, The Weary Blues. Work forthcoming: The Arsonista, Glove zine and Low Light Mag.