Sunday, September 25, 2016

Tancho - J. David Cummings (The Ashland Poetry Press)

Today's book of poetry:
Tancho.  J. David Cummings.  The Ashland Poetry Press.  Ashland, Ohio.  2014.


Today's book of poetry agrees with Elizabeth Biller Chapman when she evokes Yeats "terrible beauty" in describing these hauntingly beautiful poems by J. David Cummings.  

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are sometimes fading memories from the consciousness of the contemporary world.  Cummings brings our very recent past to the forefront by putting us there.  Cummings puts us at ground zero in 1945 Japan in order that we may better understand, remember.

Were He a Boy, Sleeping

At first you don't see him,
and you don't see the slender trees outside,
the close-in-brush, the overturned wood crates
buried in the wide rectangle of afternoon light--
too bright a brilliance, sharpened
in the black frame of house timbers,
all of it defining a passage not there before.

But gradually your eye adjusts, the glare softens,
and you begin to make out interior shapes:
intact cedar beams, the remnants
of a sliding door, a slight clutter of debris...
you see him last.

                                  He lies flat
on his stomach, head turned from the light,
the side of his face resting on the floor,
left arm bent just in front, and his bare legs
stretched out straight, feet in extension,
the tops of his toes touching wood, pointed
perfectly, like one diving into water. He seems
a youth of ten or eleven. He seems to be sleeping,
and the light dapples him.

                      There are butterflies
                   warming in broken sunlight--
                         wake up, child, wake up.


Canadian Saint Al of Purdy tackled some of this same murky water with his arresting Hiroshima Poems (The Crossing Press, 1972).  John Hershey's Hiroshima (Alfred a. Knopf, Inc., 1946) tells the stories of several survivors in both harrowing and haunting terms.  J. David Cummings Tancho
bravely enters the same horrible and sacred ground.  Tancho shows compassion and respect as he makes his ghostly traverse.

These poems are a damnation of, and a treatise on, our infinite human capacity to inflict pain on our brothers and sisters.

The Gift of Memory and Forgetting

Looking back all these years later, how easy
to remember the gift: the children of the park,
playing at their invented games, the bounty
of paper cranes, those colors indeed a music,
and the bell's deep sounding that led me
from station to station, as if I were
once more in the church of my childhood,
and too the savvy pigeons, chased and lifting,
just out of reach of the smallest ones
still a bit unsteady as they run,
and their parents gathering them in
for picture taking, smoothing those bright energies
for that moment of stilled time, then
letting them go again.

                                      --Why remember grief,
what can it redeem?


I came to believe in a fierce remembering,
thinking that if hibakusha were invited
into the mind each day and seen as they are--
             scar and anguished soul and us--
then, I thought, every obscenity of war,
would come flooding in and for a day,
             that day, war would die.

In time, I perceived the error: to live
so deep in the past, August sixth cast
across the waking hours, hibakusha dreams
defining the night, our children bent
to those sorrows,
              the present, the future stolen--
there's no healing there, no safety


Year after year, word by word
Hiroshima evaporated into the silence.
People got on with their lives, children dreamed,
and I thought, This is how it happens.
All the words of remorse and remembrance,
the screams that lies beneath,
will have no suasion.

I want for some other way of memory,
one that holds a bit of forgetting, a bit of hope.

I suppose the Park is a good remembering, the bell is,
               each year the offered poem--
never enough, Koji-san, never...


                    The bell stands silent--
                 in the grass crickets quiet--
                     summer evening, late.


Today's book of poetry believes that J. David Cummings believes in redemption through remembrance.  It is essential not to forget our victories or the costs, the moral failures history disguises as war.  Tancho serves to remind us of how easily we forget, Tancho is a tender epitaph to the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

There are no small lives in J. David Cummings poetry and no small deaths, you can feel their weight, the heft of every lost soul.

Grus japonensis

In Japan she is called tancho,
a word that means red crown and crane.
Her crown is more skull cap than crown,
but in the north sea island winter
dull red brightens at mating time,
and then she's the most graceful mistress
of the pas de deux. And she is
neither solitary nor many,
though time was she lived everywhere
among them, even as they warred.
Whatever struggle had been their lives,
they had always believed in her;
but then they lost their faith, and she
was hunted for her flesh and feathers.
The eating made them no less fierce;
the lavish feathers no more artful.
What had changed in them that they should
exchange the dream of peace for gain,
these malign one hundred years since?


Today's book of poetry thought Tancho crawled overs some dark territory with much grace. Cummings reminds us of the terrible costs of imagining we are Gods and reigning/raining fire on the world.  We need reminding of the horror lest we repeat it.

J. David Cummings
J. David Cummings

J. David Cummings was employed as a theoretical physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for more than ten years. He resigned his position in 1973 out of the conviction that he could no longer work in nuclear weapons development, and never returned to defense work or physics research. In the early 90s he traveled to Japan, which afforded him the opportunity to visit the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. Later, meditating on his experience at the Park, and in response to the controversy over a planned Smithsonian Institution exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he began the nearly two-decade project of writing the poems that culminated in his book, TANCHO (Ashland Poetry Press, 2014).

Tancho is a book that needed to be written and needs to be read. Its account of terrible beauty is itself beautiful, speaking of "hope and despair, the promise of each to other." Nagasaki, Hiroshima, "ruined human beings," a peace park, a sounding bell, a thousand paper cranes. Does the arc of history bend toward hope? One of the many haunting poems in this book describes the body of a boy in one of Yamahata-san's photographs of Nagasaki after the bomb, and concludes with a haiku:

There are butterflies
warming in broken sunlight
wake up, child, wake up.

Perhaps we all humanity are that child.
—Alicia Ostriker, final judge of the Richard Snyder Publication Prize

Perhaps we can never take adequate spiritual and moral measure of the first use of atomic weapons at the end of World War II, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying. J. David Cummings' TANCHO is a book of what he calls 'fierce remembering,' and I would add that these poems are also a fierce imagining of that world-historical event and its long aftermath. A former nuclear scientist himself, Cummings journeys to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in both Japanese and English poetic forms, he takes us with him in a sustained meditation on the most bewildering of human sufferings. Like Sadako-san's colorful, folded paper cranes, these poems present us with a deeply moving and much-needed prayer for peace.
—Fred Marchant

"This impressive and moving collection rings with the 'terrible beauty' Yeats wrote about. David CummingsTancho is a work of conscience whose language, like the red-crown crane of the title, flies through the darkest night, with the wind of grace at its back."
—Elizabeth Biller Chapman, author of Light Thickens(Ashland Poetry Press)

"These are careful poems, full of care. These poems remind us how (and why) we must observe devastations from which we might otherwise turn away. These are graceful poems, full of grace. I am grateful for the scope of their vision."
—Camille Dungy, author of Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press)



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