On the Birthday of Death

paper cranes

It was no longer smoke, or dust, or even a cloud of fire. It was a living thing, a new species of being, born right before our incredulous eyes.
William L. Laurence, Eye Witness Account: Atomic Bomb Mission Over Nagasaki (War Department press release)

There was a flash, so bright — as if
from the world’s largest camera,
come to capture everyone in
their work clothes.

We children ran to the top field
& turned & looked.
What new kind of cloud was this?
What new kind of tree?

It stood for hours on the horizon,
brewing its own weather, we guessed,
or setting fruit. No one could imagine just
how strong the wind, how terrible the rain.

But we were farmers’ kids.
When we saw white birds
streaming away toward the west,
we knew what to think.


With apologies to Gregory Corso for the title.

UPDATE: Marja-Leena Rathje just reminded me about a post she did last year, Art of the Hibakusha, which described her friend Tomio’s recollection of watching the Nagasaki explosion from 80 miles away as a boy. I think this must have been the original seed of inspiration for my poem above. Thanks, Tomio and Marja-Leena!

Also, Japan Focus has just republished a searing editorial by James Carroll: The Nagasaki Principle. Do go read.

13 Replies to “On the Birthday of Death”

  1. I recently watched Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August, about Nagasaki through memories and remembrances, and while he was criticised for not having character development, instead having a main character, Grandma, who perhpas is somewhat like Mother Courage, through whom the memories and emotions flow, I found it very powerful. He also avoided politics. It’s about the people. No-one understands the atomic bomb like the Japanese do.

    That’s the power of your poem, too. And perhaps the white birds were cranes, too…

  2. This is powerful, Dave. Odd coincidence too, because we have Japanese-Canadian friends visiting right now. They are from near Nagasaki, and one of them wrote a year ago about his sighting of the bomb, and which I blogged. It still gives me shivers, the personal rather than the impersonal. World powers are still threatening use of these weapons and forget the personal, don’t they?


  3. Last year I folded two paper cranes on the anniversary. Taking the time to remember what hell we brought on earth, as the birds slowly emerged from each precise crease. Beautiful poem, Dave. The voice is both wise and innocent.

  4. Brenda – I haven’t seen that film. I’ll have to see if I can get ahold of it. Thanks.

    Marja-Leena – I added an update to acknowledge the influence of your friend’s recollection. I guess it must’ve made an impression on me, though I completely forgot about it! The other link I added touches on your question of personal vs. impersonal, i think. One of the really chilling things about William L. Laurence’s propaganda piece is how little empathy he had for the human victims — and how much fellow-feeling he displayed for the bomb itself! While most of us are not prey to the sociopathy that drives our leaders, and do not fetishize death and destruction per se, we still choose to believe in comfortable lies rather than facing up to the truth of our complicity in violence.

    Rachel, robin andrea, MB – I’m glad you connected with this. I’ve been struggling with it all weekend.

  5. Thanks for the mention, Dave, didn’t realize it influenced you! The Nagasaki Principle article is excellent and I’m going to pass that on to Tomio. Something that amazes me is that the Japanese do not carry a hatred for the American nation, unlike so many other countries.

    Keep forgetting to add a note of thank you for the link to your father’s article on the Hutterites in Alberta. These people have settled in many areas of Canada, and have faced some ostracism due to their “difference”. This article should open a few eyes.

  6. The photography reference – the way people’s bodies were burn into walls like they were merely images being burned into negatives – very potent.

  7. Thanks. Yeah, people died in all sorts of unusual ways. The lucky ones just turned into puffs of steam and radiocative ash, with or without leaving a “shadow” in the manner you describe. Survivors also spoke of people a little farther from Ground Zero turning into charcoal where they stood. Bodies caught up in 500 mph winds turned into lethal missiles. People farther away, who happened to have been facing the wrong direction when the bomb exploded, had their eyeballs melt and run down their cheeks like wax from a candle. To say nothing of the horrors of severe burn cases and radiation poisoning, of course.

  8. Brenda – I just saw Rhapsody in August. I found it very effective, and affecting. And I thought the characters were quite believable, really – not that i demand realism in a film. Thanks for the recommendation.

  9. Ah, yes, I am subscribed to your comment feed- so I saw this.

    I felt it was quite an amazing film and when I read some reviews afterwards I found not only that I didn’t agree with them, but that they had missed the deeper anguish, and the deeper reverence, the poetry.

    Especially I felt Grandma was a ‘well developed’ character, and through whom the holocaust of the bomb revealed its human toll. I didn’t even mind the character that Richard Gere played, though perhaps he was pushing conciliation, but surely he reflected in some capacity a Japanese attitude towards the Americans.

    The only part I found overdone was the “eye” of the bomb – to show an eye literally like that didn’t work for me.

    The storm at the end, I found that sonorous and sad, willful and exuberant, the past and the present becoming one, and almost ecstatic because of its familial caring and acceptance of the broken and troubled life that is a heritage of war.

    I was moved by the way Kurosawa revealed the horror of Nagasaki through the remembrances of survivors, and through the remembrances of the grandchildren. The parents’ generation I think he portrayed with some humour.

    The most moving scene for me, besides the final one, was of the survivors who every year on the anniversary arrive and bring plants and flowers for planting in the memorial garden at the school they attended on that fateful day. That scene, its sunshine, the businesses of the people, the continued honouring of those who died, or were wounded or striken with radiation poisoning, of the city that vanished, haunts…

    Glad you found it ‘effective, and affecting’ too.

  10. Yeah, I thought you were subscribed to the comments — i would’ve emailed this if you hadn’t responded. I agree with your reactions: the eye in the sky was a little cheesy, but the rest was good. Perhaps to an American reviewer the kids might’ve seemed overly earnest, or the adults overly shallow, but the characters behaved like many of the Japanese I knew during the year I lived there. The drinking scene, in particular, gave me goosebumps – I heard so many exchanges that were just like that. And in the mid-80s, at least, a lot of teenagers really were that wholesome and innocent – like middle class American teenagers of my parents’ generation, I suppose. And I did know at least one elderly Japanese woman who was fairly similar to the grandmother in the movie: pious, somewhat credulous about things we would consider superstitions (the Kappu), but very open and critical toward the ways of the world. I think old age gives Japanese women a little more license to speak their minds.

    The ending of the movie probably would’ve bothered me if it hadn’t been The End – slower and slower slow-mo ending in a freeze-frame. I guess Kurosawa was trying to suggest something about the way we view historical events, so often forgetting the real people who were and are enmeshed in them.

  11. Your reading, relating your own experience in Japan in the mid-80s to the flavour of Japanese culture through the characters Kurosawa created for this film, adds to my appreciation of Rhapsody in August. I wondered what you thought of the title- it seems a bit odd, is it the translation?

    You know I just saw it and I can’t remember the drinking scene! The kids were great, though. Ernest, polite, willful, though with delightful pranks.

    What I liked most about the end was how everyone individually went off to find the Grandmother. It wasn’t a group decision.

    And the way they slipped and fell in the mud and got up and kept going, big swarthes of mud over their clothes, skin. In the end, and the image I would probably approach the film through, if I were to write on it, would be of mud and rain.

    Bomb and body. Memory and memorial. Mud and Rain.

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