Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Not Nostalgia 1955 A Test Memories of Lee Rossi—National Poetry Month 2022

                                   Putin's nuclear alert was a flashback to Cold War terror for many.

After Vladimir Putin launched the Russian invasion of Ukraine and encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance on ground and the united opposition of NATO and most of the rest of the world, he was stung by crippling economic sanctions and defensive military aid to Ukraine.  To scare off Western action he pointedly announced that he had ordered a full nuclear alert and let unnamed “sources” hint that he was willing to use battlefield nukes if Russian territorial integrity was threatenedStunned commentators were aghast at the threat and everybody had a flashback to the bad old days of the Cold War when atomic Armageddon seemed just around the corner.  None were more deeply affected than aging Baby Boomers like me who grew up under what I have called “the inevitable umbra of the mushroom cloud.”

Luckily, President Joe Biden and other members of the nuclear club did not take Putin’s bait.  They did not place our enormous, planet killing nuclear forces on a matching alert in which a miscalculation or mistake on either side could launch an unstoppable catastrophe.  After a few days hand-wringing over the threat subsided and most experts decided that even Putin was not crazy enough to pull the trigger

But now almost six weeks into the invasion with Russian forces disastrously routed around Kyiv and a massive new offensive in the east despite stubborn resistance, Russian military analysts are reminding the Western press that the use of battlefield nukes has always been part of Russia’s ground war doctrine and that chemical weapons although banned by international law were “used effectively” in Syria.  In fact, the new Russian commander was known as the Butcher of Syria for his relentless attacks on civilian populations including gas and possible biological attacks.

Given that background Portside, an on-line journal of “material of interest to people on the Left,” thought that a memoir poem by Joe Rossi about growing up under nuclear threat was an important reminder.

Eerie aftermath--a mannequin and a destroyed building in the blast zone after a 1955 Nevada nuclear test.  Photos like this were published widely--and studied by young boys.

Like Rossi I remembered 1955 bomb tests in the Nevada desert.  Thanks to the new television set in the living room of my family’s Cheyenne, Wyoming home, the photos in Mom’s Life magazine, and whispered conversations between my parents, I was fully aware of what was going on.  I was only six years old but still had dreams of mushroom clouds.  The dread would only become worse in a few years when Francis E. Warren Airforce Base was selected at the site of America’s first operational Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) base.  Folks in Cheyenne even bragged about being a Top Ten Target for obliteration in a Soviet attack.  The trajectory of my life as an anti-war activist was set in motion by the lingering terror.

Poet Lee Rossi.

Lee Rossi was born in St. Louis, Missouri.  He studied 5 years for the Roman Catholic priesthood before leaving the seminary and devoting himself to the study of failure. He draws inspiration from poets living and dead.  He is the author of three books of poetry and has appeared in numerous anthologies. His poems, reviews, and essays have been published in journals throughout the country, including The Harvard Review, Poetry Northwest, The North American Review, Main Street Rag, Tar River Poetry, The Spoon River Poetry Review, The Southeast Review, The Atlanta Review, The Green Mountains Review, The Sun, Poetry East, Chelsea, The Wormwood Review, Nimrod, the Beloit Poetry Journal, Poet Lore, Pedestal, The Southern Poetry Review, and The Southern Indiana Review. He is a winner of the Sense of Site poetry contest sponsored by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. From 1986 to 1992, he edited Tsunami, a journal of contemporary poetry based in Los Angeles. He is currently Staff Reviewer and Interviewer for Pedestal, an on-line magazine based in North Carolina. Rossi’s poetry collections include Ghost Diary in 2003, Wheelchair Samurai in 2010, and Darwin's Garden in 2019 from which today’s featured poem was taken.

1955 (12 Miles from Ground Zero)

We didn’t have much education,

eight grades for mom and dad,

even fewer for me, but we read

all the time, the daily Globe,

Time and U.S. News, every week

another article on the nuclear threat.

With Russia only thirty minutes

over the horizon, we’d have almost

no warning before fifty megatons

vaporized downtown,

and with downtown only 12 miles

away, who knew if we’d be vapor

too. I knew, of course, having studied

the diagrams, downtown the center

of the target, concentric rings spread-

ing out into the city and suburbs,

the houses, parks, grass and trees,

the animals and pets, the schools

filled with thoughtful children.

We’d survive, I decided, radio-

active perhaps, glowing with

a plutonium tan, but only if the Russians

could hit what they were aiming at.

In the meantime, I checked our fruit cellar,

the jars of pickles and peach preserves,

rank on rank, what we had to eat

and drink after the firestorm.


Lee Rossi 

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