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Century of poetry and war

PART 5: the nuclear age


Talk in the Dark by Denise Levertov

We live in history, says one.
We're flies on the hide of Leviathan, says another.

Either way, says one,
fears and losses.

And among losses, says another,
the special places our own roads were to lead to.

Our deaths, says one.
That's right, says another,
Now it's to be a mass death.

Mass graves, says one, are nothing new.
No, says another, but this time there'll be no graves,
all the dead will lie where they fall.

Except, says one, those that burn to ash.
And are blown in the fiery wind, says another.

How can we live in this fear? Says one.
From day to day, says another.

I still want to see, says one,
where my own road's going.

I want to live, says another, but where can I live
if the world is gone?


  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
August 6, 1945 GO
Apocalypse GO
Your Attention Please GO
Talk in the Dark GO
  other wars
  women's voice

'Leviathan': a huge mythical beast. A 17th century British philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, used it as a metaphor for the state. He was the man who famously described human life as 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'. Matters would only improve, he said, when people followed the 'first law of nature': living peacefully.
'ash', 'fiery wind': for many people the most evocative images of the Hiroshima explosion
'if the world is gone': it was generally understood that the world's nuclear weapons (50,000 by 1979, close to the time this poem was written) have the capability to destroy the planet.

No-one who did not live through the Cold War years can know exactly what a dark shadow the bomb cast. Many people found it difficult, or just pointless, to look ahead or make plans; some went off the rails, some even committed suicide. Feelings of uncertainty, helplessness and apprehension marred relationships, beliefs, and creativity. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT) of the 1970s did little to ease things: after all, nuclear weapons still existed. (And some radiation damage had already been done: between 1945 and 1980 there had been over 1,220 nuclear tests, and those carried out before1962 were above ground, dispersing radioactive fall-out. In the early 1990s it was estimated that by 2001 around 430,000 people would have died from resultant cancers.)

Of course there were many protests, in many countries. In Britain the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was founded in 1958, and to this day provides up-to-date information on the nuclear arsenals' state of play. But public protest from anti-nuclear campaigners and the peace movement was not enough to influence the military policies of the superpowers, by turns paranoid, fearful and assertive. The fear of communism, in particular, powered both home and foreign policies in America - indeed it was the decline of communism in the late 1980s that brought the Cold War to an end.

But the justified fear (and continued existence) of nuclear weapons hasn't ended. The countries which are known to have nuclear arms (the USA, Russia, the UK, France, China, India and Pakistan) are not all or always stable. There are also other countries, such as Israel, which have not admitted to possession of nuclear weapons. There is a risk that small nuclear weapons may be in the hands of terrorist groups. The monster is bigger than the men who made it, and not fully controlled.

So, it seems, is militarism, which still dominates government policies, still costs vast amounts of money in maintenance alone. In the UK, a submarine armed with nuclear warheads patrols the sea depths every moment of every day, using taxpayers' money that could be better spent on health, education and the environment.

In 1947 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (whose compilers are opposed to nuclear warfare) featured on its cover what has come to be known as the Doomsday Clock: a clock face with its hands set at approaching midnight. Midnight is the Apocalypse In 1947 the 'nuclear time' was 7 minutes to midnight. In 1949, when the Soviet Union exploded its first bomb, the hand moved to 3 minutes to midnight, and returned there in 1981 when the superpowers' nuclear arms race accelerated. Now the hand creeps closer to midnight when other powers threaten nuclear conflict.

The poem is in the form of a sad conversation - in the dark, where so many people find it easier to express their deepest feelings. It's a conversation carried out on behalf, as it were, of all people living in the shadow of the bomb.

These people (there could be more than two) are talking in a metaphorical darkness, created by the possible futurelessness of the nuclear age.

In the dark, the only answer to 'How can we live?' is 'From day to day'. This is how people live who are enduring pain or grief or tragedy or hopelessness.

But for people working for peace it's quite the wrong answer. Living from day to day is the last thing we should do. Living from day to day means accepting a situation, or at any rate not thinking beyond the immediate business of living. If that's what the citizens of the world do, then events will go on being dictated by statespeople and people whose answers to conflict are military answers.

To work for peace effectively, we have to abandon a 'crisis management' approach and think ahead - which means thinking beyond our own lifetimes (however long they are allowed to be). Politicians speak of 'the bigger picture', more often than not when justifying actions which give grim short-term prospects for some or many. The movement for peace has its bigger picture, too, which starts with valuing individuals, and ends with the peaceful welfare of the globe. It means working to shift the persistent mentality of 'arm-to-survive' and replacing it with a consistent will to negotiate and co-operate.

People have been digging the foundations for world peace for over two centuries; now we are building on them - working 'from day to day', yes, but with a positive future in mind. And there are no nuclear arsenals in our big picture.

Look on this website for some of the signs of peace-building going on.

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