3. Cranes, Hiroshima 1986
When the rice farmer
trances over the fields his paper
room is waiting.
Even the blades of grass
beside the road are the colour
of polishing oil.
Autumn is the perfect
season for walking home.
Overhead, during the day,
did you see the cranes
swirling in the fickle wind,
spiraling round in leaves,
in clouds that left no shadows ?
“I keep the deities to one side
of this life you lead me into.
They smile like
framed portraits of people
in old clothes.”
Madeleines for the survivors. Holographs of the forgotten. Genealogies of invisibility.
I lived my teenage years in fear of nuclear annihilation.
The fear was very real, acquired by a curious young mind that had just begun to meet the world at the same time that the adults had perfected the means to violently eliminate our species. I remember from at least the early 1980s, just as I was beginning to take notice of the media and political and cultural life, the spectre of nuclear warfare between NATO and the Warsaw Pact seemed to cast a terrifying shadow across every moment and place and event. The fear could be felt every night in the evening news and in tele-movies such as The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). It could be felt in books such as Raymond Briggs genre-defining graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982), and even on Countdown on Sunday evening in music videos like Neneh’s hit “99 Luftballons” (WWIII caused by the accidental release of red party balloons) and “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
The fear was shared by everybody. From the late-1970s the Soviets and NATO had installed hundreds of medium and short-range nuclear weapons throughout most of eastern and western Europe, enough to extinguish human civilisation many times over. Even so, from late 1983, when I was in year ten at high school, Reagan and Thatcher challenged the Soviets to an intensification of the arms-race by installing new Cruise and Pershing II missiles in the UK, Germany and Italy. On the television I saw hundreds of thousands or people march through the cities of western Europe, people afraid to know that they and their families were now dwelling in a target zone or were otherwise surrounded by a pall of ground zeros that at any time could erase absolutely everything. I joined the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984, ready to take-on the human war-machine to the tune of “Power and the Passion” by “The Oils”. I had the NDP mail me VHS copies of the censored but Academy Award winning Dr Helen Caldicott lecture If You Love This Planet (1982) and put on instructional lunchtime screenings at my small country school. I hosted an anti-nuclear radio show on the University of Newcastle’s 2NUR-FM (intro Country Joe and the Fish’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”; outro Judy Small’s “Walls and Windows”), probably around the time of the 1984 Palm Sunday anti-nuclear peace march. By the mid-1980s the Palm Sunday rallies in Australia were attracting hundreds of thousands inspired by the world-wide anti-nuclear marches and protests like the Greenham Common Woman’s Peace Camp. Amidst all this, just as the Cold War seemed at the brink of diabolical consummation (which it was, only in an unexpectedly well-ordered fashion) I found myself in Hiroshima.
Everyone should take the journey to Hiroshima. Ground zero of ground-zeros. For me, it began early one frosty April morning in a chauffeured Toyota Cressida. April is the cruelest month. My host family were taking me on a spring holiday. I remember looking out from the back-seat of the car at the last remnants of snow clinging to a pair of puce granite planters standing either side of the stairs leading up to the house. I was holding in my hands an exemplar of exquisite planning, a minute-by-minute run-down of every event for the next five days. We humans have developed incredibly sophisticated technologies for the preservation and transmission of knowledge, but in my personal experience my host family’s A4 fold-out holiday itinerary takes the cake for unequivocal precision. So, at what-ever o’clock it was, let’s say 6:30 a.m., we set off for the station. We were joining the high-speed Nozomi line, meaning “hope” or “wish”. I was beside myself knowing that at last I was about to experience the thrill of the Shinkansen—to fly on an elevated track at approximately 300 kilometres per hour down the spine of the archipelago, drinking tea and listening to New Order on my recently acquired Sony CD Walkman. The cutting edge. To my host father’s imperceptible satisfaction the extraordinary bulbous sleek machine slid along the platform sharply on time and almost silently stopped. We got on, and then promptly got off on pure speed. We zoomed past apartments and suburbs, then vegetable farms and rice paddies and small forests, were thumped from green fields into tunnels and shot out into eruptions of steel and glass and industry. Japan flashed before my eyes.
The free-floating terminal velocity of the Shinkansen journey is profoundly unlike the concentrated static density of being in Hiroshima. I remember arriving at a grey concrete station that looked just like all the previous stations, although I don’t recall getting off the train. I remember walking out across a flat concrete square toward yet another black Toyota Cressida. I then experienced the unexpected emergence of a very visceral architectural anxiety. As we walked toward the car it slowly dawned on me that every building around the flat square looked almost the same. Hiroshima was a city of homogenous brutalist concrete and brick structures spread between interlinked parks and highways and apartments and stores. Of course. Nothing was more than 40 years old.
The feeling of sudden alienation at the station was somewhat intensified for having arrived directly from Kyoto. I’d just spent a few days walking amidst the most extraordinarily ancient, precious and beautiful temples and gardens, like the fifteen hundred year old Yasaka Pagoda, the treasures of Eikan-do, or Saihoji. I appropriately left Kyoto in a pall of melancholy, knowing that the next stop was Hiroshima. Kyoto, jewel in the Japanese crown, had been at the top of the atom bomb targeting committee’s list of targets throughout the spring of 1945. Instead of being annihilated, however, it was given a last minute reprieve by USA Secretary of War Henry Lewis Stimson, who had honeymooned there and fallen in love with it. And so Kyoto was dropped from the list and Hiroshima slipped to the top.
In her poem “On the 32nd Anniversary of the Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”, Denise Levertov writes of
“… the shadow,
the human shadowgraph sinking itself
indelibly on stone at Hiroshima
as a man, woman or child was consumed
in unearthly fire—
Three decades now we have lived
with its fingers outstretched in horror clinging
to our future, our children’s future,
into history or the void.
The shadow’s voice
cries out to us to cry out.” (123)
I remember the human shadowgraph. Someone sitting on the steps of the Sumitomo Bank, at 8:15am probably waiting for the bank to open. The body momentarily stopped the four thousand degree flash as it was vaporised, its silhouette burnt behind it in the stone. At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum I also remember seeing the famous battered watch, hands frozen at the time the bomb struck. And I recall, I think, a display with large clumps of melted rock and concrete and tile and steel fused with human bones and glass.
This was almost too much. I had to go and sit in the car for a while on my own, a little shattered. I realised, in the most involuntary and corporeal way, that humanity had created the means to make of ourselves a new fossil-rich geological strata. Rather than taking hundreds of millions of years of grinding time, however, the Atomic seam would be made by thousands of burning sunbursts melting our bodies, cities, technologies and cultures into a dead conglomerate miasma. This would be a forgetting so absolute that only lumpy, lossy, opaque material traces could possibly remain, meaningless to an indifferent cosmos. Even those traces would one day be atomised, our human civilisation reduced to a period of shadows in epochal strata.
It took me a long while to come to terms with what I’d seen and felt at Hiroshima. It wasn’t until a year or two later that I was able to finish the poem Cranes, which I’d started drafting but couldn’t quite come to grips with while still sifting and reaching through my memories of the experience at the museum. Was it really thigh and cranial bones melded with roof tiles? How could I have been standing there at ground zero, pretty much, occupying a space right where the blast once was? How is it possible to speak anything about this, in either language?
The breakthrough came when, as a university student back home in Sydney, I first saw the classic, perhaps defining post-war film Hiroshima mon amour (1959), directed by Alain Resnais with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras. The first few minutes of the film survey, as if from the lead female character’s memory, the moments before and then during the destruction and suffering of the blast. I recall a moment of uncanny understanding while watching the film, perhaps as the sugar in the choc-top started to kick-in, that my experience in Hiroshima was not just a significant event in my personal life, but was also deeply existential and historical at a common human level. How could I not see it? The melted polis has been utterly erased of the material conditions for remembering, like a suicide. In the film, we soon find out that the memories narrated by the female lead may not in fact be hers. The male lead constantly disputes her “false narrative.” Did she really see what she reports? In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze writes about the film and its two discordant characters:
each has his or her own memory which is foreign to the other. There is no longer anything at all in common. It is like two incommensurable regions of past … (‘I’ve seen everything, everything. . . You’ve seen nothing in Hiroshima, nothing …’) … Is this not a way for each of them to forget his or her own memory, and make a memory for two, as if memory was now becoming world, detaching itself from their persons? (117-118)
Memory was now becoming a world attached to the forgetting. I began to think of Hiroshima as an articulable erasure, a place that had become a kind of four-way hinge between subjective and intersubjective modes of absolute memory and absolute effacement. An irrevocable sadness. A place of infinite forgetting.
When the rice farmer trances over the fields his paper room is waiting. Perhaps he is going to the bank. His shadow is bound in a double-helix of memory and forgetting, the essence of life but fragile as hell. The reverberations from the Hiroshima detonation were so deep they echo into the present through a museum of terrifying objects that deface subjectivity. The poem is a mode of sublimation, as it is impossible to return to the subjectivity of the experience because it is no longer possible to access the geography in which the language event occurred. The past is truly another country. It has been obliterated. In the holographs of the forgotten, the erasure of memory is equivalent to the erasure of being itself.
Overhead, during the day, did you see the cranes swirling in the fickle wind, spiraling round in leaves, in clouds that left no shadows? They smile like framed portraits of people in old clothes.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2, the Time-Image. London: Athlone, 1989. Print.
Levertov, Denise. Poems 1972-1982. New Directions Paperbook. New York: New Directions Pub., 2001. Print.