After the obscenity

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Return with effects

The following undated journal pages were among Corporal Ryan's personal effects. Include with items to be sent to his mother. Attach inventory.

I was 36 years old the day I arrived at Kure, south east of a city now
known for an obscenity. Belsen, Dachau, or, closer to home,
Changi. But also Dresden, Nagasaki and the capital
of the prefecture where I am based —
Hiroshima.

No longer young, I have spent my life with children. My boyhood
sped in Fitzroy's narrow streets, playing cricket with paling
bat and india-rubber ball or sailing in paper boat
regattas when bluestone gutters brimmed
and our vessels foundered or flew.

I became a country school teacher while still almost a child. Drawn to far,
flat horizons and black skies blistered with stars. I grew used
to earnest conversations in the local pub, where some
farmer would ask, 'Is the moon over Ouyen
the same one they see in Melbourne?'

My hungry heart has roamed. Whom have I known1? For nearly
twenty years I have been a flying Dutchman, a wandering Jew,
carting enlightenment to the outer reaches of the Wimmera,
the Mallee. Never in one place long enough to belong
or marry, always the liked outsider.

I carried my books in packing cases from one town to another —
the world I made for myself after supper, by the light
of a kerosene lamp. I refined my schoolboy
Latin, Greek, read The Iliad. And then,
I studied Japanese.

I loved the intricate characters — word, picture, sound. In black sweeps
and scratchings, diverse elements compounded. My struggling
crosshatchings scraped with spattering nib
across the paper, until finally
there was order.

I enlisted early, only to be classified B2. I was relieved. But when
Japan surrendered, I was suddenly of use — an Australian
with a degree in Japanese. No one now expected to fight,
we were an occupation force. I was to be
a translator.

Feasible, if all I had to do was read and write — I could not
speak the language. More Caliban than Prospero,
I had no words to make my purposes known2.
But I did not hate. The war had not
touched me.

No one close to me had died. My brother deserted when our part
had just begun. My father is an old man. Japan,
not the enemy, but a land of myth and mystery.
The Japanese turned out to watch
when we arrived.

Not like the newsreels of liberated France. No cheering crowds,
just ragged soldiers and rows of women in kimonos,
blank faced, babies on their backs. They made
no sound. No roses in our way,
no myrtle3.

We were freighted to the warehouses of Kaitaichi, five miles
from Hiroshima. One day I took the train to see the ruins.
It was easy to find the centre of the blast — poles
and steel stanchions bent like stamens
from the dead heart.

No memorials, just an eternity of razed houses, a stony desert.
Everywhere a level scree of broken pottery and tiles.
Such a fragile world to destroy with such force4.
I strained the pieces through my fingers,
dead soil, waiting for rain.


One skeletal structure remains5, its hive stripped bare; its metal
spokes framing air. A slatted dome, no steeple, open doors,
no people. Covered in fine dust,
I scrambled within its
rock-strewn centre.

The Americans' Geiger counters click like crickets. All interest,
no concern. They dart about rubbing their hands together,
believing high summer will last forever.
I am anxious. I feel the unseen drift
settle on my skin.

I write home often. My letters are cheerful. I remember birthdays.
At the army gift shop I buy embroidered handkerchiefs
for mother, stockings for my sister.
Later, I tell them, I will send
happy coats6.

I cannot imagine ever going back.


Notes

1. Tennyson’s Ulysses 'For always roaming with a hungry heart / Much have I seen and known.'

2. The Tempest Act I Scene II. Miranda tells Caliban 'I endow'd thy purposes / With words that made them known.'

3. Browning's The Patriot

'It was roses, roses, all the way,
With myrtle mixed in my path like mad.
The house-roofs seemed to heave and sway,
The church-spires flamed, such flags they had'

4. On witnessing the detonation of the first atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer famously uttered a line from the Bhagavad Gita, 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.'

5. The Hiroshima Prefectural Products Exhibition Hall was completed in April 1915. The 6 August 1945 nuclear explosion was almost directly above this building and it was the closest structure to withstand the explosion. The building has been preserved in virtually the same state as immediately after the bombing. It is commonly known as the Atomic Bomb Dome or A-Bomb Dome.

6. These details come from a letter Steve Ryan sent his mother and sister from Kure on 24 November. (The letter does not indicate the year.)

Steve Ryan was my uncle and his experiences with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan were the starting point for this poem. Unlike the persona assumed here, my uncle survived his time in Japan.


Jo McInerneyJo McInerney is a poet living in country Victoria. Her poems have appeared in Meanjin, Quadrant, Blue Dog and Antipodes. Her haiku and tanka have been published in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

 

Topic tags: Jo McInerney, 'Return With Effects', australian poem, steve ryan, hiroshima, world war two, nuclear blast

 

 

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Existing comments

What a beautifully sustained gentleness of tone and movement. A moving invitation to thought and feeling.
Joe Castley | 09 July 2008


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