Let Us Be Midwives!

Here’s a second part of my short series marking August 6th, Hiroshima Day, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on that city, killing tens of thousands.*

Did the previous post’s intentionally odd linkage of personal grief with the deaths of thousands seem thoughtlessly, even offensively, narcissistic? Or did that consideration never occur to you? Not to make a show of putting on the hair shirt, but that sort of question does occur to me.

I’ve come to an acceptance that with poetry that charge is hard to avoid. A poem — one performed to an Internet audience like this project has, or to one spread over time on a silent page — works as a connection between one voice and the audience of one, as one. We may talk usefully of inspirations or conceptually of muses, we may choose to represent causes of multiple voices, but in the end a poet, or any writer, is asking for your attention with a claim from their attention. It’s that simple.

So, must what we put in our poems’ attention field be important, generally important? That’s a heavy burden to put on a few singing words, perhaps making also a claim to be novel, beautiful, even a source of pleasure. The bombing of Hiroshima passes any test of consideration surely, but today’s piece by Sadako Kurihara (translated by Richard Minear) makes choices in portraying this epochal event.

hiroshima-shadows

Imagery beyond poetry. The intense flaming light from the Hiroshima blast burnt shadows onto walls.

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Although short, it’s a narrative poem, and its story has power as story, so I’m not going to summarize it here today, asking instead that you take the 2 ½ minutes to listen to the performance of it. Let me instead tell you a little bit I’ve learned about its author.

Kurihara was an anarchist poet who grew up in an increasingly militarized and authoritarian Japan before the war. Living away from her country’s cultural centers and holding unpopular ideas, she and her family lived a life of poverty and obscurity, marked only by occassional run-ins with the authorities. Throughout the war, she continued writing poetry, though publication was out of the question. On August 6th she was at home in Hiroshima when another country’s military dropped an A-bomb on it. The poem I perform today was completed by September and was published early in 1946 after the defeat and occupation of Japan. It predates by a few months John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”  article that helped form widespread attention to the particulars of today’s event. It therefore is likely one of the first poems written or published about the bombing.

Sadoko Kurihara

Sadoko Kurihara

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The poem reads like an eyewitness account, though from what I’ve read in the past few days about it and its author, it’s based on events she heard about from those who had sought shelter in the basement of her city’s central post office.** So, there’s a choice here. Kurihara used someone else’s story, a vary particular one, to portray one aspect of this large event, one small enough to fit into this short narrative poem.

In the last post, I talked about how near grief can seem larger than massive suffering. This poem uses that effect to do its work. My performance of Kurihara’s “Let Us Be Midwives!”***  has a player gadget below so that you can hear it. Some ways this post can be read will not show that gadget, so I provide this highlighted link to also play it. I’d originally thought I do a more complex musical setting for this poem, one that would somehow (that I’d have to figure out) express the massive horror and scale of destruction. But I lacked anything like the time, focus, and opportunities to do that. Instead, the music has a simple and entirely major chord guitar part that I performed live in one-take, and I spent most of the compositional time making the drum part. In the end I decided to add nothing else, as I think Kurihara’s poem is powerful enough to earn your attention without further elaboration. If you’d like to read the poem yourself, here’s a link to four of  Sadako Kurihara’s poems including this one.

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*There will be no ethical discussion today about the decision to drop the bomb, nor any attempt to adjudge and weigh the evils of any side in World War II. Not that that isn’t important, but it’s nothing I want to try to summarize in a few hundred words. Any reflexive “How many American lives were saved, so spare us the stories of Hiroshima” take should pause and consider that Kurihara opposed that war and her country’s militarism. That would be like accusing Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five  as cozying up to Nazis.

**This may bring to mind stories of others sheltering in the largest ruins of their cities today.

***The poem was further subtitled, in the translation I used, “An untold story of the atomic bombing” but it is also referred to under another English translation of the title as “Bringing Forth New Life.”

Palingenesis — three anniversaries noted

Today’s post is part of observing three anniversaries this week: this blog’s launch six years ago, Atomic Bomb Day (noting the anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and my late wife’s death in 2001. An odd combination? Well, yes, but they coincide.

Odd? Personal loss has an odd size. If one holds one’s hand in front of one’s eyes it can block out the entire sun. How close grief is to one, has a similar effect. When the 9/11 plane crash attacks occurred a month after my wife’s death, it was objectively a sad, horrible, thing. To some small and nearby degree it impacted the place I worked. There were employees traveling, in the air as the attacks became known. We had at that time a floor of offices in a tall local building in St. Paul, over a thousand miles away from the attacks, but a tower named at that moment ominously “The World Trade Center.” And the radio network I worked for had a large news component. Everyone and I did what we needed to do in the wake of the attacks. It was not that I did not care or have consideration then — but the sharp pain of that public grief could not be felt to the same degree in my self still encased in loss.

So too the atomic bomb attacks on the two Japanese cities must have been in 1945 to many Americans. Some had lost loved ones in that war, some feared for losses to come. Some were waiting for what, how many, conventional deaths before the war’s end, and wondering if one of them would be their own.

Those nearby close things can blot out an atomic bomb. Ethical philosophers try to make true weights and perspectives, poets on the other hand talk instead of how it feels to think of these things.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet whose importance is now obscured by judgements of excessive conventionality against the bright lights of Dickinson and Whitman’s new approaches, wrote the poem which I’ll perform in part today. Written and published in 1864 during the American Civil War, it’s author certainly knew of the generalized grief and loss of that war and the human slavery it was fought over* — but he also had closer griefs. His wife had not only died in 1861, she died in his arms, her body on fire from a household accident as he himself was burn-scarred trying to extinguish the blaze. And then his teenaged son was serving in the Civil War and was grievously wounded in 1863.

Longfellow-bomb-Renee

Three anniversaries remembered. There’s no way to picture this blog in a single picture, so we’ll show Longfellow.

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The opening section** of “Palingenesis”  considers memories and grief, considers the imperfection of the rebirth that the obscure word used as the poem’s title offers. If the eternal noises of the sea and ghostly apparitions in the mist may strike us as all-too-tired poetic tropes to our 21st century judgement, the image at the end of the segment I perform, the ashes from which some fabled alchemist might be able to reconstruct a burnt rose still has power for me. This “rebirth” without scent, and without the ability to change and bloom, is not a true rebirth, it does not repair the loss.

My life path after my wife’s death is a complicated story including joy and gratitude. Are those considerable things big enough to obscure the loss — in reverse, a planet bigger than a hand? I cannot honestly weigh that, other than to live in the scent of life and to bloom. Starting this project, even if over a decade after my wife’s death, was one way to return to poetry what my young poet-wife would have given.

I have at least one other planned part to this anniversary post, one other musical performance that doesn’t yet exist. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find time to do that, but this part that I did complete is available below. You can play the performance with the graphical gadget below where you see it — and where you don’t, you can use this highlighted link.

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*A close friend, a U. S. Senator, was beaten unconscious and seriously injured on the floor of the Capitol over an anti-slavery speech which was deemed insulting for inferring the same crimes of sexual slavery Longfellow wrote about in a poem.

**The rest of Longfellow’s “Palingenesis”  concludes with the realization that a forward-looking new birth, not an attempt at exact repair and reincarnation, is the better answer. Not only would the entire poem produce a piece longer than I prefer to present here, I think the poem’s older poetic language might wear down many current listener’s interest. Here’s a link to the complete version.