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

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

When I was a child in the Sixties, nuclear attack (“duck and cover”) drills were a routine part of the school day. We learned to hide under our desks and NOT PANIC, trusting the grownups around us somehow to protect us, even though some of us also had neighbors who were building underground bunkers stocked with months of water and provisions. I don’t recall Hiroshima or Nagasaki being more than glancingly mentioned in my public-school history classes, but my friends and family certainly knew and were filled with dread about “the bomb.” My first real knowledge of what it meant on a personal human level came from a slim volume I found hidden behind others on a shelf in our home, a reprint in book form of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” an article that comprised the entire edition of The New Yorker on August 31, 1946. It follows the fate of six people living in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, and those images of a city reduced to ash, burned children, and skin slipping like rubber gloves off human arms was part of what my generation of middle and high school students carried, somehow mixed up with other more everyday anxieties like the next chem test or whether we’d get asked to the winter dance.

We grew up with this dread and then—sometime around glasnost—it subsided for a period of years. As my children were born, I recall feeling relief they would not have the specter of nuclear annihilation embedded into their psyches as it had been in mine. There were other global fears and stresses, of course, and new horrors like terrorism and shootings at schools. And none of my children have experienced even one day of our country not waging some war, but at least they would not, I thought, have to fear the end of—everything.

With the 2016 election, that all changed. The rhetoric surrounding our president’s contretemps with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, has escalated to a degree that resurrects the fear of nuclear holocaust, and the news—not to mention pop culture, the Internet, and my family’s dinner-table conversations—now is full of casual references to how many minutes it will take long-range missiles from North Korea to reach and “melt” cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Our children and grandchildren once again are learning the ABC’s of how to cope with a nuclear threat. Even if we do manage to avoid triggering actual use of these terrible weapons, the damage has been done and continues to be done to our collective psyche.

Today’s poem was written in the time of MAD (mutually assured destruction) détente, but it has obvious relevance to the situation we find ourselves in today. The title does some heavy lifting, letting us know from the outset both that the poem is going to be about nuclear weapons and also communicating a jolt of doomsday dread. Los Alamos is the town in New Mexico recognized as the birthplace of the first atomic bomb, the primary objective of The Manhattan Project. That project was headed by Robert Oppenheimer, whose work resulted in the first nuclear detonation on July 16, 1945, on a site code-named “Trinity“—after one of John Donne‘s Holy Sonnets! All this gets evoked by those two words—”Los Alamos”—in the title. But there is more: “high noon” also suggests a showdown or day of reckoning, an already-chilling notion that in the context of nuclear weapons becomes very menacing indeed.

The poem aims to cover large territory, perhaps as a way of communicating the depth and breadth or the destructive power of the weapons that become its ultimate subject. It begins in prehistoric times, describing the rise and fall of the species of dinosaurs whose “tiny” heads housed “brains no bigger than a fist,” a human appendage that prefigures the appearance the human race later in the poem. The end of the Dinosaur Age, the speaker tells us, came with powerful “sun-flares” that destroyed not just the dinosaurs but also their habitat—melting glaciers, searing meadows, and “toppling” huge trees. The poem’s camera pulls back to show the wide-range devastation and then pulls in to remind us that such a cataclysm also causes the loss of individual life, here represented by a single, tiny “caterpillar stiffened in the grass.”

The first stanza also suggests that the solar flares triggered a mutation that bridged the gap between “apes” and humanoid species. So, a monstrosity of destruction is both our heritage, what begat the kind of brain that is capable of making the bomb, and, the poem will make clear, our future. Its destructive capacity is foreshadowed in the way that first extra-large brain tore through the birth canal of the mother who bore it; what happened to the dinosaurs is a cautionary tale.

Stanza 2 jumps forward several millennia to a time when “fire,” the same “white fire at the heart of matter” seen in the solar flares, becomes all that human beings “sought” and “spoke” and “our thoughts . . . were fire / from first to last.” Here the poem returns to the time of the Trojan War, recalling how men watched for signal fires lit on mountaintops from Troy to Argos, and then drawing a line from those fires to Nagasaki and the skies “we scan” now “for that bright flash” communicating the end of “the epic.” The epic here is larger than The Odyssey; it is the story of humankind, and we are 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.

In this passage, the line drawn from the dinosaurs through the Age of Troy to the present is likened to a line of poetry containing a “caesura,” or pause—times when the nuclear threat did not loom so large. As the poem makes clear, however, a caesura is not permanent and interrupts the line only briefly. It may signal “peace” but it may also signal “a rehearsal / for the silence.” We all know what that “silence” means, and it has come again to trouble our dreams and the dreams of our children.

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