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

“High Noon at Los Alamos” is a long narrative poem, free verse with no end-rhyme or meter, but still an island full of wondrous sounds. Nearly every line has examples of internal assonance, slant rhyme, or alliteration, and there are myriad examples of sound echoes across adjacent lines. By way of example, look at the sound echoes in the words highlighted in the poem’s first few lines:

To turn a stone    [“turn” and “stone” are slant rhymes]
with its white squirming [“white” sets up echoing the long “i” sound of “pry” in next line]
underneath, to pry the disc [“disc” sonically prefigures the next line’s “eclipse”]
from the sun’s eclipse––white heat [“eclipse” echoes “disc,” “white” slant-rhymes with “heat”]
coiling in the blinded eye: to these malign [“blinded” recalls long “i” of “white’ and “pry” and has internal assonance with “eye” and “malign”]
necessities we come [“come” slant-rhymes with both “dim” and “time” in the next line]
from the dim time of dinosaurs [see above]

Another source of the poem’s sonic power is its repetition of the word “fire”—six times in stanza 2, with five of those repetitions occurring in as many lines. The repetition communicates urgency; this is more than recitation of history; we are also, partly through the poem’s music, made aware of the speaker’s passion for her subject.

Have you heard of the Doomsday Clock? Maintained since 1947 by the members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science and Security Board, it symbolizes the threat of global nuclear war and, since 2007, also the threat of climate change to humanity and the world. In the Clock’s iconography, midnight (or you could think of it as a kind of “high noon”) represents global catastrophe, with our degree of risk expressed as the number of “minutes” we are away from that time. Originally set at seven minutes to midnight, the Clock has been set backward and forward 22 times, the smallest number of minutes being two, in 1953, and the largest seventeen, in 1991. As of January 2017, the Clock is set at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight.

In later life, Robert Oppenheimer became increasingly concerned about the Pandora’s Box he’d opened, and his efforts to limit the proliferation of nuclear bombs eventually ended his career and political influence. I read a biography of his life a few years ago (American Prometheus), an interesting story of how personal ambition can occlude your vision of the possible consequences of your actions. But for me, Oppenheimer will be forever remembered in the gaunt, haggard figure I saw in a short black-and-white film, the one where he intones these lines from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” We don’t have multiple worlds to destroy, though. Just this one, and all of us in it.

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