Poetry Sunday: “High Noon at Los Alamos,” by Eleanor Wilner


High Noon at Los Alamos

To turn a stone
with its white squirming
underneath, to pry the disc
from the sun’s eclipse––white heat
coiling in the blinded eye: to these malign
necessities we come
from the dim time of dinosaurs
who crawled like breathing lava
from the earth’s cracked crust, and swung
their tiny heads above the lumbering tons
of flesh, brains no bigger than a fist
clenched to resist the white flash
in the sky the day the sun-flares
pared them down to relics for museums,
turned glaciers back, seared Sinai’s
meadows black––the ferns withered, the swamps
were melted down to molten mud, the cells
uncoupled, recombined, and madly
multiplied, huge trees toppled to the ground,
the slow life there abandoned hope,
a caterpillar stiffened in the grass.
Two apes, caught in the act of coupling,
made a mutant child
who woke to sunlight wondering, his mother
torn by the huge new head
that forced the narrow birth canal.

As if compelled to repetition
and to unearth again
white fire at the heart of matter––fire
we sought and fire we spoke;
our thoughts, however elegant, were fire
from first to last––like sentries set to watch
at Argos for the signal fire
passed peak to peak from Troy
to Nagasaki, triumphant echo of the burning
city walls and prologue to the murders
yet to come—we scan the sky
for that bright flash,
our eyes stared white from watching
for the signal fire that ends
the epic––a cursèd line
with its caesura, a pause
to signal peace, or a rehearsal
for the silence.


from Sarah’s Choice (University of Chicago Press, 1989 © Eleanor Wilner)


Eleanor Wilner’s most recent books of poems are Tourist in Hell (University of Chicago Press) and The Girl with Bees in Her Hair (Copper Canyon Press). A former MacArthur Foundation fellow, her poetry is widely anthologized, most recently in The Best American Poetry 2014 and 2016 (Scribner). She teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Start the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.