The most famous shadow in the word
is the fastest ever made.
The most ordinary of mornings
is the quickest disposed of.
The second hands on the frozen watches
the most accurate of all.
There are speeches, there are prayers.
The seminars and the journalese are endless
on their way to that purest glamour
the sun close as a mirror while a city shaves.
Light, which is god and father,
Shadow, which is mystery and image,
where have you gone, words, things, we favoured?
You are too close together. You do not exist.
Vincent O’Sullivan Selected Poems p143
I saw the shadow O’Sullivan describes when I represented New Zealand at an educational conference in Hiroshima. During our breaks, in the streets little children would run up to take the hands of white strangers - something trusting about holding hands. Pedestrian crossings had different bleeps -– so many people had been blinded. Those at the blast’s epicentre would never know what happened, but for many it would be a slow, lingering, painful, dreadful death. Locals told me they found it difficult to marry people from other parts of Japan, the risk of deformity in the new-born child still high. The conference over, I returned to the peace-park, where urged on by giggling Japanese school girls I rang the peace bell, before being photographed with them and then walked around the museum slowly and soberly. One exhibit was a stone plinth from the old post office. Someone had been sitting on the steps. There, seared on the stone is the shape of that person, a slighter darker silhouette. For a brief moment that body had blocked light from the explosion. The museum photos show utter devastation. Not just of humans and their buildings. But every living thing been caught in the maelstrom – fly, horse, dog, moth, chrysanthemum, maple, cherry, water lily and goldfish. We have no right I believe to do that to other life.
The spectre of the nuclear bomb has hovered over my life, an evil addition to the mayhem of war. I know about the carnage inflected by the artillery barrages on the Western Front destroying horses, oaks, moles, liverworts and butterflies. Kublai Khan smashed hitherto impregnable Chinese cities with massive catapults. The rocks these machines hurled did not discriminate between soldier, civilian, dog, mouse, pheasant and sparrow. But somehow the scale of nuclear annihilation beggars description. What is even more sobering is that as a weapon the Hiroshima bomb was a mere tidler compared to those developed since. No nation is now an island. Terrorism adds a new dimension. Humanity is at risk from its own technology. We did not create the planet upon which we exist. We briefly are but its tenants and stewards. Now as a species we are capable of making it uninhabitable.
Contradictorily, having said that I acknowledge that President Truman’s green light for its use was based on the evidence presented about potential casualties from an attack on the main Japanese islands. They also at the time were relatively unaware of the long-term affects of radiation. I also admire Truman’s courage in standing up to MacArthur when he wanted to use nuclear weapons in Korea.
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3 days ago