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Two earlier Rich poems, "Night-Pieces: For a Child" and "The Demon Lover," anticipate her later use of nuclear imagery to depict subjective experience. In the former poem, the poet as a young mother anxious about her child suddenly wakes up in the middle of the night "in a dark/ hourless as Hiroshima/ almost hearing you breathe/ in a cot three doors away" and then combines the primeval and the modern, when the mother imagines herself and her infant "swaddled in a dumb dark/ old as sickheartedness, / modern as pure annihilation," as the two of them "drift in ignorance." "The Demon Lover" also combines progeny and aimlessness with annihilation, when Rich records a dream about being bombed, and then adds:

The end is just a straw, a feather furling slowly down,  floating to light by chance, a breath  on the long-loaded scales. Posterity trembles like a leaf and we go on making heirs and heirlooms.

In this poem the spectre of nuclear annihilation has the contours of the emptiness in a self-enclosed relationship.

In "Trying to Talk with a Man," the title and language point not to the landscape of holocaust, as "Early Warning" does in its intentionally misleading way, but to the intimacy of a collapsing marriage. Yet like Turner, Rich juxtaposes the imagery of domestic life against the arid "condemned scenery" of a Nevada test site: the "underground river/ forcing its way between deformed cliffs," the "dull green succulents," the "silence of the place," "laceration, thirst." Instead of using familiar images to portray extreme horror, Rich uses extreme images to express the deadening effects of a painful breakup between a man and a woman:

Out here I feel more helpless  with you than without you You mention the danger and list the equipment we talk of people caring for each other  in emergencies--laceration, thirst— but you look at me like an emergency

Your dry heat feels like power your eyes are stars of a different magnitude  they reflect lights that spell out: EXIT  when you get up and pace the floor

talking of the danger as if it were not ourselves as if we were testing anything else.

In this poem, not only does our shared notion of a nuclear explosion (together with the expectation that weapons tested will inevitably be used) convey the despair of the poet, but in a fashion more subtle than in either "When" or "Early Warning," Rich's poem weaves a distinctly subjective yet broadly human experience into the very fabric of our conception of nuclear weapons, together with our impotence in containing them. The personal dread created by a failed relationship equals the deep cultural dread associated with annihilation. "Talking of the danger" of one reiterates exactly "'talking of the danger" of the other, because in both cases we are talking about ourselves and testing ourselves. As Turner and Rich both insinuate, only by acknowledging that it is we who are being tested will we begin to see our way through that danger.

By metaphorically integrating nuclear imagery and the fear of annihilation with more private dimensions of experience, apocalyptic lyric poets may not always express direct opposition to nuclearism, but, at their best, they broaden the figurative scope of both political poetry and the personal lyric in ways that reflect the age in which they are composed. "Trying to Talk with a Man" is finally neither solely about gender relations nor about nuclearism; it is about both. Once Rich's poem establishes its peculiar but intricate bond between these two critical concerns, our sense of both is irreversibly altered, as she speaks through the nuclear present. Whether or not the reconstruction of thought her poem embodies can lead to our survival is debatable, but without such a reconstruction we remain mired in our present inadequate modes of thinking.


From Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1996 by the Board of regents of the State of Florida.