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How to Survive Nuclear War

dreamed early 1980s by Maxine Kumin

After reading Ibuse's Black Rain
Brought low in Kyoto,
too sick with chills and fever
to take the bullet train to Hiroshima,
I am jolted out of this geography,
pursued by Nazis, kidnapped, stranded
when the dam bursts, my life
always in someone else's hands.
Room service brings me tea and aspirin.

This week the Holy Radish
Festival, pure white daikons
one foot long grace all the city's shrines.
Earlier, a celebration for the souls
of insects farmers may have trampled on
while bringing in the harvest.

Now shall I repent?
I kill to keep whatever
pleases me. Last summer
to save the raspberries
I immolated hundreds of coppery
Japanese beetles.

In some respects,
Ibuse tells me,
radiation sickness is less
terrible than cancer. The hair
comes out in patches. Teeth
break off like matchsticks
at the gum line but the loss
is painless. Burned skin itches,
peels away in strips.
Everywhere the black rain fell
it stains the flesh like a tattoo
but weeks later, when
survivors must expel
day by day in little pisses
the membrane lining the bladder
pain becomes an extreme grammar.

I understand we did this.
I understand
we may do this again
before it is done to us.
In case it is thought of
to do to us.

Just now, the homage that
I could not pay the irradiated dead
gives rise to a dream.
In it, a festival to mourn
the ritual maiming of the ginkgo,
pollarding that lops
all natural growth
from the tumorous stump
years of pruning creates.
I note that these faggots
are burned. I observe that the smoke
is swallowed with great ceremony.
Thereupon every severed shoot
comes back, takes on
a human form, fan-shaped,
ancient, all-knowing,
tattered like us.

This means
we are all to be rescued.

Though we eat animals
and wear their skins,
though we crack mountains
and insert rockets in them

this signifies
we will burn and go up.
We will be burned and come back.

I wake naked, parched,
my skin striped by sunlight.
Under my window
a line of old ginkgos hunkers down.
The new sprouts that break from
their armless shoulders are
the enemies of despair.


"How to Survive Nuclear War" was originally published in Ploughshares, and was collected in Kumin's The Long Approach. A dozen other poems incorporating dreams can be found in Kumin's Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief. She won a Pulitzer for Up Country. All her work is concrete, personal and forceful; she's been flamed by some critics for her sometimes savage opinions. I admire her.

--Chris Wayan--

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