This post originally ran on August 9th, 2016 on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Today is the anniversary of the bombing at Hiroshima. I think we still need to hear Thomas Merton’s words because we need to keep asking ourselves when have we promoted an “atmosphere of devotion” for destructive power.
On August 9th another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, though Hiroshima was still burning. – Thomas Merton
On this day in 1945, the city of Nagasaki was bombed. In 1961, the priest-poet, Thomas Merton, responded with the “anti-poem,” “Original Child Bomb,” named after the Japanese word for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
As an anti-poem, “Original Child Bomb” enters into the same faceless, disjointed language of a political system that can conceal the horror of dropping atomic bombs on cities. In his essay, “War and the Crisis of Language,” Merton writes:
For poets are perhaps the ones who, at the present moment, are most sensitive to the sickness of language-a sickness that, infecting all literature with nausea, prompts us not so much to declare war on conventional language as simply to pick up and examine intently a few chosen pieces of linguistic garbage.
Though written in the dehumanizing language of official reports, filled with sums and figures and using troubling language, like “burning briskly” for the work of human hands, this anti-poem is haunting:
The bomb exploded within 100 feet of the aiming point. The fireball was 18,000 feet across. The temperature at the center of the fireball was 100,000,000 degrees. The people who were near the center became nothing. The whole city was blown to bits and the ruins all caught fire instantly everywhere, burning briskly. 70,000 people were killed right away or died within a few hours. Those who did not die right away suffered great pain. Few of them were soldiers.
As a Trappist monk, Merton weaves religious concepts and liturgical elements throughout the poem, suggesting that atomic capability is a new religion, and that the bombing is a new ritual, or an anti-ritual, like this is an anti-poem. Linking such destruction with code words like “dimples” and childish excitement during Christmas, suggests the monstrous nature of this new religion.
It’s the kind of poem that makes us wonder when we have entered into this ghastly ritual. When have we looked at bombed cities and noticed only smoke and ruins and ignored the broken bodies? When have we promoted an “atmosphere of devotion” for destructive power?
Or, worst of all, when have we become “fatigued by the whole question” of “What is going to happen?”
Click on the audio above. Stefano reads the poem with a rich and resonant voice and accompanies it with historic announcements and a fitting piece by Hildegard von Bingen: “Only the Devil Laughed.”