20TH CENTURY POETRY AND WAR
PART 5: The Nuclear Age

 
     
     

 

 

 

CONTENTS
Introduction
  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
August 6, 1945 
Apocalypse  GO
Your Attention Please  GO
Talk in the Dark  GO
  other wars
  responsibility
  women's voices

August 6, 1945 by Alison Fell

In the Enola Gay
five minutes before impact
he whistles a dry tune

Later he will say
that the whole blooming sky
went up like an apricot ice.
Later he will laugh and tremble
at such a surrender, for the eye
of his belly saw Marilyn's skirts
fly over her head for ever

On the river bank,
bees drizzle over
hot white rhododendrons

Later she will walk
the dust, a scarlet girl
with her whole stripped skin
at her heel, stuck like an old
shoe sole or mermaid's tail

Later she will lie down
in the flecked black ash
where the people are become
as lizards or salamanders
and, blinded, she will complain
Mother you are late. So late

Later in dreams he will look
down shrieking and see

ladybirds
ladybirds



   

INFORMATION

   


'Enola Gay': this was the name given to (and painted on) the plane which carried the bomb to Hiroshima. The pilot's mother was called Enola Gay.
'Marilyn's skirts': there is a famous film clip/still photograph of the American movie star Marilyn Monroe, in which she walks over a pavement air vent and the warm air from it blows the full skirt of her light-coloured dress upwards over her head.
'drizzle': this means 'rain lightly', but here is used to evoke the way the bees descend, buzzing, on to the flowers.
'salamanders': a salamander is a lizard-like amphibian with a smooth skin. In ancient legend salamanders were supposed to be able to live in fire.
'ladybirds': there are numerous versions (not all in English) of the nursery rhyme which begins, 'Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, Your house is on fire and your children are gone'. There are numerous explanations for it, too. Ladybirds are quite difficult to dislodge, and the rhyme, when recited, was traditionally supposed to induce them to fly off of their own accord.

   

HISTORY

   


Although the count-down had begun long before, the final order to drop 2 atomic bombs on Japan was given by President Harry Truman - who himself was in the air at the time, flying home from Germany. (He had been at the Potsdam Conference, meeting the UK's prime minister Winston Churchill and the Russian leader Joseph Stalin to discuss how to sort out post-war Europe).

In a letter he wrote 8 years later Harry Truman said, 'Dropping the bombs ended the war, saved lives and gave the free nations a chance to face the facts'. He had asked a military chief to estimate how many US soldiers might be killed if the US army invaded Japan. He was told it could be up to a million. 'We sent an ultimatum to Japan. It was rejected.'

The B-29 Superfortress bomber named 'Enola Gay' had been (with 14 others) specially modified to carry the weight of an atomic bomb yet still fly high and fast. The crew were trained to operate the planes, but they were not told just what bomb they were carrying until take-off on August 6. The only member of the crew in the know was the Enola Gay's pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets Jr. The bomb had a nickname too: 'Little Boy'.

The Enola Gay flew from the island of Tinian in the Pacific, accompanied by 2 observation planes, there to observe the military experiment this was. On the way, Paul Tibbets did a symbolic and unscheduled circuit of Iwo Jima, the Pacific island where many US soldiers had been killed in a month-long battle with Japanese troops earlier in 1945 - the first US invasion of Japanese territory. (Nearly 7,000 US Marines were killed there; only 212 of the 20,000 Japanese survived. There is a famous photograph of soldiers raising the US flag on Mount Suribachi. It's not quite what it seems, as the first film was unsatisfactory and the scene was re-shot later. )

After 'Little Boy' was dropped, 'a bright light filled the plane,' wrote Paul Tibbets later. 'We turned back to look. The city was hidden by the mushrooming cloud.' His co-pilot, Robert Lewis, wrote in his journal, 'What have we done?'

On the ground, the blast demolished buildings, killing many people. Half an hour later, a fire storm began, which turned into a tornado. Over a large area a black, sticky rain fell, leaving indelible stains. In the river, the fish died. Many people were severely burned. An estimated 140,000 people died either at once or within a few days.

An interviewer asked Paul Tibbets, much later on in life, what he thought was the significance of the 'mission'. He replied: 'The use of the bomb helped save countless American, Allied and Japanese lives. It demonstrated the spectre of atomic destruction, such that those weapons have never again been used in anger. But to me the most important thing will be that we convinced the Japanese that it was futile to go on fighting'. What sort of answer is that? It's a military answer. (To spell it out a bit: the lives 'saved' were soldiers' lives, the ones who didn't have to invade Japan after all. The lives that weren't saved were civilian lives. One of the most significant, and dreadful, developments in 20th century war was the killing of many millions of innocent non-combatants.)

   

IDEAS

 

 

 


This apparently simple poem achieves its depth by twisting together key images and ideas which work together - and work on the reader's imagination.

- First, the girls: mother Enola Gay, sex symbol Marilyn, and the burned child whose mother is lost.
- 'Enola Gay' is written on the warplane's skin. Marilyn's outer skin of clothing is stripped from her waist down by a strong and sudden blast of wind. The child's whole skin is stripped by fire.
- Comparisons: The hot wind lifting Marilyn's skirt - the heat blast of the bomb. Bees droning down on to the flowers, like miniature bomber aircraft (and also evoking the black rain).
- Contrasts: red fire/ice; moist drizzle/'hot white' flowers (suggesting 'white heat' too).
- Colour plays on the mind's eye: apricot, white, scarlet, black, scarlet spotted with black. The natural world, plunged into unnatural heat, is made harshly tropical: 'apricot'; 'lizards', 'salamanders'.
- Implications: even the skin of a mermaid's tail is scaly; and 'an old shoe sole' is leather, which is also skin.
- The poem's predominant sense: sight or loss of sight. The blinding light in the sky; the metaphorical and erotic 'eye 'of the man's 'belly'; the blinded girl.
- The 'Ladybird, ladybird' jingle has obvious resonances: the scarlet girl flecked with black , children consumed by fire, burning dwellings. And it's a nursery rhyme: the plane is called after the pilot's mother; the bomb is called 'Little Boy'; and a blinded, burned little girl is wandering through the burning city waiting for her mother to come.

The poem, slight though it appears, holds a great deal. We can enter into the experience of the dying girl, trailing her own skin. We can share her nightmare: blindness, and the loss of her 'so late' mother. We can enter into the experience of the man in the 'Enola Gay': the sexual thrill of letting loose the weapon, the laughter and amazement - and the nightmare, the haunting horror afterwards. 'What have we done?' One answer is, 'an act of violation'; which is what this poem is about.

The value of poetry, especially brave poetry that tackles subjects to which poetry might seem to be utterly alien, is to find a way through our own mental skins. Photographic images of Hiroshima after the bombing are horrifying and deeply distressing; but two-dimensional, distant and unreal. Poetry, better than photographs, can take one right into the scene. And, as this poem does, it can remind us of our own responsibility. This poem invites the reader to see through 'his', the bomber's, eyes, as well as through 'hers', his victim's. They both suffer. For the man the nightmare will not go away.

As another poet (TS Eliot) said: 'After such knowledge, what forgiveness?' That question doesn't expect an answer. But one has to be found. It almost certainly requires the aggressor to acknowledge the crime of aggression, and the victim not to seek revenge. There are examples throughout history of individual aggressors and victims who have managed to do just that: there is room for hope. The next step? Limiting and controlling acts of aggression - and that can be done, too.

What has all that to do with this poem? Poems (and plays, too) like this one allow us to 'be', for a moment, both aggressor and victim, and so gain a better understanding - long enough perhaps to make use of it.

 
            
     

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