The Responsibility of the Poet in a Nuclear Age

Coda, June/July 1985

“Imagining Events I Pray Will Never Occur”:
The Responsibility of the Poet in a Nuclear Age
by Honor Moore

In 1982, Honor Moore wrote “Spuyten Duyvil,” a poem that was first published in the Village Voice during the week of the June 12 March for Nuclear Disarmament in New York City. It subsequently appeared in a New England Review/Bread Loaf Quarterly special issue, which has been republished as an anthology, Writing in a Nuclear Age, edited by Jim Schley. The anthology is available for $8.95 from the University Press of New England, 3 Lebanon Street, Hanover, New Hampshire 03755. (603) 646- 3349.

Last year Moore collaborated with composer/ guitarist Janet Marlow who set her reading of ‘Spuyten Duyvil” to music. From that came an audio cassette: Take Hands: Singing and Speaking.for Survival. Issued last winter, the tape also includes anti-nuclear performances by poet/essayist ‘Susan Griffin and songwriter/pianist Margie Adam.
“Writing the poem and producing Take Hands with Margie Adam and Alan Austin of Watershed Tapes took over a year from the biography I am writing of my grandmother, the painter Margarett Sargent, for Viking/Penguin,” says Honor Moore. ‘‘But, I felt compelled to reach the largest possible audience with these pleas for nuclear awareness.”
Take Hands is available for $8.45 (postpaid) directly from Watershed Tapes, P.O. Box 50145, Washington, D.C. 20004, or by calling (800) 638-8798. It is being distributed to bookstores by the Inland Book Company of East Haven, Connecticut.

It is a day in February when weeks of snow have been followed by two days of rain and warm weather. I have been asked to think about whether the poet has a particular responsibility in a nuclear age. As I drive north at dusk, I pass field after field, a pure emptiness disturbed only by odd black ridges, random stacks of old tires which seem to rise as the snow melts.


Already my imagination is at work. Spent tires on a snow field might, at a less precarious time in history, evoke miles of highway journeys, but today their forms twist like awakening corpses of nightmare reptiles, reminders that in a nuclear age this landscape persists on a kind of existential sufferance.

This consciousness is new for me. In January of 1982, when I got a phone call inviting me to an organizing meeting of Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmament (PAND), I was quick to put the caller off. I heard myself making typical New York excuses—cluttered calendar, too much work; old defenses kept me from hearing the hollowness of my voice.

My politics come from the viscera of my daily life and work, not global concerns. My poetry is political because I write as a conscious woman in a patriarchal culture. The contradictions in my rationalization eluded me: the nuclear issue seemed abstract and impersonal. What can I possibly do about it? If they blow us up, they blow us up.

As the days passed, the intensity of the PAND organizer’s plea stayed with me, and soon after, I found myself reading Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth in The New Yorker. “It may be only by descending into this hell in imagination now that we can hope to escape descending into it in reality at some later time… ,“ he wrote. When I read those particular words, something inside me began to change. Gradually I realized that beneath my indifference lay fear and despair. My refusal to confront the reality of the nuclear threat protected me from experiencing my own terror and grief.

It seems to me no accident that it was the word “imagination” that cracked my resistance. In the process of making a poem, imagination forges from the fragments and images of daily life a way out of the chaos of disordered feeling, a way into understanding and integration. Like the figure in a fairy tale who is, through the magic of a stranger encountered on a bleak and dusty road, fed the food of heaven and clothed in radiance, I had been empowered by an unexpected encounter. I pledged to take myself on an imagined journey through nuclear destruction and bring back a poem. Sharing such a journey in the communal safety of a poetry reading, listeners might experience, as I had, a change of heart.

But imagination, the spirit of poetry, like the stranger in the forest, has a life of its own. I sat for weeks with my willingness, waiting, without knowing it, for the way in. The power of my poetry had always come from my ability to colmnunicate in images the emotional intensity of actual experience. This poem would require an act of negative visualization, the imagining of events I prayed would never occur. I knew this work would have to come to me as mysteriously as my awareness of the tires in the snow.

One evening, armed with my journal, 1 ventured out for a midnight reading by a poet friend in a Hell’s Kitchen bar in New York City. Sometime during the reading, in spite of my interest in her work, the clink of glasses in the dark, the buzz of video games from the next room, I began to write. The next morning I read what I had written: twelve pages, the germ of a poem I would call “Spuyten Duyvil” (Dutch for “the devil’s tail”), after the small river which separates the Bronx from Manhattan at the northern tip of the island. The pages included, as I expected, fragments of a journey, into nuclear holocaust, but what surprised me was that I entered this monumental, “public” subject through the private pain caused me by a failed personal relationship.

In writing the poem, I came to believe that the nuclear arsenal is a perverted expression of grief and anger at failure of connection in the human community, a consequence of the attitude which kept me in denial, unwilling to integrate the devastating possibility of nuclear destruction into my emotional reality. Such denial of feeling is total among those in government, who, with no apparent twinge, can describe New Zealand’s unwillingness to allow nuclear powered or nuclear armed ships into its harbors as “nuclear allergy” (The New York Times, February 14, 1985) or defend, as President Reagan has, the “Star Wars” strategic defense program by saying that it has “a good chance of keeping all or at least the bulk of [missiles] from getting to the target.” (Italics mine, The New York Times, February 14, 1985.)

It is the task of the poet to imagine the spectacle of a nuclear mishap in the Wellington harbor, the physiological impact of radioactive fall-out on a herd of sheep in the Chathams Islands, the disjunction of the constellations that a heavenly explosion might cause. Poetry can expose what language like “nuclear allergy” and “Advanced Strategic Missile Systems” so criminally trivializes.

As I worked on “Spuyten Duyvil” during the weeks after that night in the bar, I struggled to keep my language present and dangerous. In a section of the poem in which the speaker’s body is burning in the nuclear flame, she says,

        I stay awake to speak this

        My fingers have burned to bone and so
        have yours.

We are all here to speak.

There were times, working on the poem, when I felt powerless, unable to find release in writing or even in weeping. On Easter day, “Spuyten Duyvil” was a chaotic stack of recorrected papers. I was near the end, but the intensity of my imagined journey had rendered me numb: I didn’t know what to do next. I rarely seek help before a poem is finished, but when I asked a close friend to sit with me while I worked, I realized I could not stay alone where my imagination had taken me. Reading aloud to her and talking about my work, I recovered my feelings, and a narrative poem in nine sections evolved.

A week later in Iowa City, I read “Spuyten Duyvil” in public for the first time. When I finished, there was a painful silence. When I asked, people expressed despair and a sense of powerlessness. On the plane back to New York, their silence haunted me. I realized the audience had experienced the same despair that writing the poem had released in me. It was my hope that hearing “Spuyten Duyvil” would do more than simply overwhelm an audience, that it would instead move listeners out of despair and into action. I had not accomplished what I set out to do; the poem needed more work.

I thought back to the airport in Cedar Rapids, where the chairs all point in one direction. I had not been able to face my Iowa friends as we sat and said our goodbyes. “Turn the chairs to face each other,” I thought. This was of course impossible since they were riveted to the floor, but I had been given a key image. By the time I reached New York, I had writen a new conclusion. If we cannot rip chairs from an airport floor, we can, in simple ways, begin to work loose the rivets of our despair.

        If their anger frightens you,
        try to understand their grief If you can’t

        understand what they say, watch
        how they move.

The possibility of nuclear annihilation threatens not only human life but the life of poetry. Jonathan Schell has reminded us that nuclear war would destroy not only present life, but also the records of our past and the possibility of a human future. Think of literature. Not only would the poems of our own time be burned, but the poems of the past would be exploded out of existence, and the poems of the future would never be written. No single poem or person, not hundreds of poems or persons, can reverse the process which has brought us here, but each of us has a responsibility to be conscious of the reality we live with, and that reality includes the possibility of the destruction of all that we know:

        …It is not

        thunder. There is no time to make amends.
        You will not know her as you wished,

        and you will never see your face in the
        faces of your nieces and nephews.

Writing “Spuyten Duyvil” moved me out of despair into fear, through grief, and finally into hope. With hope I can live in a nuclear age as a wholly conscious person. With hope I can do what is morally required of me as a poet and a member of the human community for our survival.