Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Hiroshima-Nagasaki Feature—Issue 56, August 2015)

Brandon Shimoda
from The Grave on the Wall

An old woman is pushing a small cart through a park in Nagasaki. The top of the cart is a glass box. Stacks of sugar cones lean against the glass. She leans the cart back on its legs, spoons rosewater ice cream out of the metal chest into a sugar cone, lifts the cart off its legs and goes on.

The sugar cone hovers in the air.

There is an enormous tree.

The woman sees mouths and hands, limbs threading needles through the leaves, the sky flat between, why can’t the sky be leaves?

The woman wants coolness and shade.

She feeds rosewater ice cream to the tree.

A streetcar pulses and then there are bells. The woman lies down beneath the tree and drapes a small towel over her eyes.

At 11:01 and 43 seconds on the morning of August 9, 1945, a United States Air Force B-29 bomber dropped a plutonium bomb on the city of Nagasaki on the southwestern island of Kyushu. The bomb, named Fat Man, exploded 1,539 feet above Urakami, the Catholic district, on the north end of the city, incinerating, in less than a second, 73,000 people.

Mayumi’s grandmother was working in a bank downtown. A bottle of red ink exploded on her desk. All the money disappeared. Customers and coworkers thought the red ink was blood. When she returned to her apartment, she found her cleaning lady, who had been preparing lunch when the bomb exploded. To shield against the flash, she grabbed a frying pan. Mayumi’s grandmother found the cleaning lady in the kitchen, dead, with her arm still raised, a frying pan above her head.

Cities selected as possible atomic bomb targets at the first meeting of the target committee, April 27, 1945: Tokyo Bay, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kure, Yahata, Kokura, Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Sasebo. May 10, the committee narrows the list to Kokura, Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Yokohama. At the third meeting, on May 28, Kokura and Yokohama are removed from the list; Niigita is added. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who visited Kyoto with his wife Mabel on their honeymoon (1926), has Kyoto removed from the list. On July 24, Nagasaki is put back on the list.

A short distance from where the old woman is napping stands a black pillar on a flattened mound of short grass. Around the mound radiate concentric circles in grass, brick, and stone. In front of the pillar are two rectangular stones, black, one larger than the other, the larger resembling a coffin, the smaller a prayer bench. The atomic bomb exploded directly above the pillar. The pillar is glossy. If you get close enough you can see yourself in the stone.

A girl with blond hair is walking around the pillar. She is holding ice cream in a sugar cone. She is with her father. Neither are speaking. A creek, ten feet wide and shallow, with ivy-covered stone banks and stone paths, runs the edge of the park. Green leaves and bubbles float over the white sky and ivy and trees up the sides of the stone banks. On one of the stone paths is the skin of a snake. A plaque reads: I crossed the half-destroyed Matsuyama Bridge over Shimonokawa. There were so many human corpses under it that they formed a dam in the stream! It was like a vision of the Apocalypse, a living hell on earth. Not a speck of cloud tainted the sky above, but the earth below was a panorama of carnage and destruction.

Up the street is the Peace Park. The park is crowded with monuments offered in peace and solidarity by nations around the world. Weatherworn, they need cleaning. Women, children, women holding children, children can fly, bodies in flight, bodies holding hands, hands holding birds, bells, figures contorted in dance, dancers from Poland, Holland, Italy, China, Portugal, Germany, Bulgaria, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Argentina, New Zealand, the Soviet Union: Monument of People’s Friendship, Relief of Friendship, Protection of Our Future, Monument of Peace, Statue of Peace, Maiden of Peace, Cloak of Peace, Sun Crane of Peace, Triumph of Peace over War, Flower of Love and Peace, Joy of Life, Hymn to Life, A Call, Constellation Earth, Infinity. Only Argentina included the word War. Sun Crane of Peace—faces stretched in unspeakable pain on a sun-shaped stone—is from Cuba. There is no monument from Great Britain. Seven human figures stretching naked holding each other’s hands and feet to form a sphere called Constellation Earth is from St. Paul, Minnesota. Otherwise, there is no monument from the United States.

By God, the figures in monuments never make a move and yet remain forever frozen in a faux pas … Such forceful monuments do exist; and then there are also those that embody the expression of a living thought or feeling: it is, however, the purpose of most ordinary monuments to conjure up a remembrance, or to grab hold of our attention and give a pious bent to our feelings, for this, it is assumed, is what we more or less need; and it is in this, their prime purpose, that monuments always fall short. They repel the very thing they are supposed to attract. (Robert Musil, Posthumous Papers of a Living Author)

Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking. Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead. So the belief that remembering is an ethical act is deep in our natures as humans, who know we are going to die, and who mourn those who in the normal course of things die before us—grandparents, parents, teachers, and older friends. Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together. But history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering in the much longer span of a collective history. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited. (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others)

The first monument was a gift from Nagasaki’s sister city, Porto, in Portugal. It was dedicated thirty-three years after the bombing, in 1978: Relief of Friendship. A condolence. Their condolences are public, dressed into the landscape. What is the problem? Do the monuments know? They are the product of competition, and in that each is a solution. The problem was not the outermost limit of war, the use of nuclear weapons, the decimation of cities, the murder of civilians, but how to design a monument that would be chosen to represent one’s country in memorializing the bombing of a foreign city.

Mayumi says many young people in Japan don’t know about the atomic bombing because they are not interested. Can young people be interested in something they do not know exists? Mayumi has never told her son (10) and daughter (12) the story of her mother finding the cleaning lady dead in her apartment, though she has had them memorize parts of the Heike Monogatari and Kenji Miyazawa’s poem, Ame ni mo makezu (Be Not Defeated by the Rain), which they recite at the dinner table, mechanically, without pause, and without lifting their eyes from their curry.

Late July. High school students are standing on aluminum bleachers getting their class picture taken. The boys are wearing loosely tucked, white button-down short-sleeve shirts with black pants and sneakers. The girls are wearing dark blue dresses to their knees over white button-down short-sleeve shirts. Their hair hangs to their shoulders or shorter. Ponytails. The boys’ hair is short. Their teacher is wearing a dark blue-painted woven straw hat with a wraparound brim, an off-white short-sleeve shirt and a dark blue skirt with tights.

Behind them half sitting, half standing, is a giant. The giant is shirtless and green. His right arm is raised, his index finger pointing into the sky. The sky, for the giant, is the nest of nuclear power. Do not take your eyes off the sky, he says. Did he take his eyes off the sky? The sky is where the atomic bomb was conceived, from where it fell. Like weather or an act of God. The atomic bomb fell from its nest.

Seibou Kitamura, the giant’s sculptor, was born in Nagasaki in 1884 and lived to the age of 102. Kitamura’s proposal ran counter to the convention of the proliferation of Japanese post-war memorial monuments to peace, love, and hope, which always depicted goddesses (Tomoe Otsuki, Reconstruction of ‘Christian City Nagasaki’ in Postwar Years). The green giant is crude, cretinous, seeming to have been rushed into existence. He does not have a neck. While his right finger points into the sky, his left is arm is outstretched, horizontal, in the direction of the park where the old woman is napping. He is not pointing; all his fingers are out. He is hailing where the bomb was dropped, or holding it back—is he conspiring subliminally with some form of insidious energy? His right leg is folded beneath him; his left is propped up. He has nowhere to go. His commemoration is of a failure to be anywhere. That is why dozens of the world’s nations have asserted their presence in the park, impressing the quality of their mourning upon the shrubs and birds and people moving slow and bewildered.

The giant has long hair, parted on the left. A piece of cloth is draped over his left bicep and is hanging over his left upper thigh. His right foot is resting on the cloth. His eyes are closed. Is he uncomfortable? Is his modesty being compromised? His face is wide and withdrawn. Frozen, stuck—is he asleep? His straight smile is not meditative, but vacuous—is he dreaming? What his gestures are meant to be indicating are half-dissolved in his obtuseness. But here he is—the color of money, petrified to the green trees and blue sky. His muscles are tight. His ribs are showing. His nipples are olympic. His hollowness is pornographic. Kitamura molded his flesh like dough, defining the giant’s body from the outside.

Much of the motivation for Kitamura’s piece was the product of his pride, ego, and professional ambition. During the war, he produced some statues of famous military figures, all of which were muscled, warlike, and immense When [he] saw his statue in Peace Park, he stated, “I have become immortal” … (Tomoe Otsuki).

The giant does not make me think of the victims of the atomic bomb, living and dead, nor the bomb; nor do I see the giant, eyes closed or open, as an injunction to remember the victims, the bomb, or to never forget, but as the stale indication that what is being remembered is the injunction itself: remember to remember—that in the giant’s clumsily balletic, disembodied, meaningless pose, we are much safer at the threshold of memory, just outside of it, where all of our feelings are the right feelings, because they have no particular object by which to clarify, to be made specific, to be made genuine, real.

Tourists from China and Italy and Korea and Brazil and Japan read inscriptions on the monuments while moving along the paths. It’s a day like any other. Then, in a second, less than a second, the day like any other transforms into a day sentenced never to end. Removed from time. Days end. Then another day fires up from within the ending of the day before. The first spark of this fire is known as a dream. The people in the park move as if bringing the day to an end. They move anonymous and free, but without purpose, unsure what to do. Haven’t we put the day to rest? Haven’t we delivered it back to the spark, into dream? No, the day has not ended. The giant looks over his monuments without looking at anything—not because his gaze is obtuse and his eyes unreal, but because he is selfish. The giant and his monuments want to partake of the dream. They consider themselves emissaries surrounding the spark between one day and the next. You can touch them and feel you are touching something that matters.

August 9 was a fine day. It was cool and pleasant, and the sky very clear. It was a beautiful day altogether; there were big clouds all around but over the harbor there wasn’t a speck in the sky. The bright sunlight made a peaceful scene. The boundless blue sky, the loud shrilling of cicadas, promised another day as hot and as sultry as the day before. I remember the cicadas chirping. The cicadas were making a lot of noise and I hadn’t had my lunch yet. Down at the school grounds I found a whole gang of kids chasing dragonflies (Sachiko Masaki, Tatsue Urata, Matsu Moriuchi, Tatsuichiro Akizuki, Kayano Nagai, Sadako Moriyama).

Two additional atomic bombs were scheduled to be dropped—on August 13 and August 16.

Children run through the Peace Museum. Some of the children, as they pass a photograph or melted object, make sounds of shock, but are running so quickly that by the time the sounds have left their mouths, what shocked them has passed, and only the sound remains.

The voices of the hibakusha are silenced when the lights are turned off. Mrs. Yamashita, hanging on a wall deep inside the museum, is talking about the delirium she experienced while wrapped in a mosquito net. She lifted her index finger into the air to signal for help, and her finger became infected. Her story can only be heard when the museum is open, the same story repeated endlessly. She is not allowed to move on with her life, if that is the point, and that’s not even Mrs. Yamashita, but an encapsulation, a specter, of a woman who has already died.

The museum ends in a hallway opening onto an atrium in which are displayed on moveable walls chronologies and bar charts and drawings made by children all over the world in one unified, nonspecific appeal for peace, but by the time anyone reaches this display, they are worn out, sated, however hungry to get back to their lives.

The Peace Museum and the War Museum are the same museum. They outline the lives of wars, ogle the effects of war by displaying in deadpan those objects—wristwatches, eyeglasses, shoes—that exhibit the power of each war’s weapon. To look at a glass bottle twisted and shrunken and to see in it the neck and upper torso of a dead animal is not to consider the life of the bottle, or what it was doing the moment before it was blasted, on which table or shelf it sat, and why, and who held it, and what it was filled with, but to look at the weapon that twisted and shrank it, and marvel over that weapon’s power, the craftsmanship that made an animal from an inanimate object.

Mayumi takes us to a bathhouse on a hill above Nagasaki. It is a large, lodge-like multistory wooden building. A sign on the front door says, No Tattoos. I ask Mayumi if I will be allowed in, and she says, It’s okay, you’re a foreigner. I have four tattoos: my father’s family crest (Japanese), my mother’s family badge (Scottish), a family insignia designed by my great-grandmother Kawaki Okamoto, and a bride with a hood covering her head.

Men and women separate. I ascend a stairway and enter the locker room, undress, then enter a large, open bath. Forty, fifty men, middle-aged to old, are soaking in steaming tiled baths, before an enormous window looking onto a terrace of smaller, individual baths, a rock garden, ferns, the northern neighborhoods of Nagasaki. Men in the steam: I see their faces, their heads, men on tiled ledges, small white towels around their necks, draped over their heads, men sitting on brightly-colored plastic stools shaving, scrubbing, showering with long-hosed showerheads before mirrors set low to the floor. In a smaller room, men sit on wooden risers watching television. There is an enormous wooden cask of white salt. I am the only westerner. I wonder if my nakedness is conspicuous, if my body is glaring. My lungs constrict. I am holding a small white washcloth. Outside, a long, rectangular bath, covered by a wooden arbor, set into a landscaping of rocks and ferns, faces into Nagasaki. The men’s asses are abbreviated, round, folded, double-folded, dimpled, though tight, tucked under, tan, saffron-white, light liver-colored, intimations of blue. Old men rise from the bath, water snaking down their leg hair. Men are in the water, resting on white plastic lounge chairs, wooden benches. No one speaks. Everyone is staring into Nagasaki: white and gray buildings contoured into the hills. The stimulus of naked old men on a ledge overhanging Nagasaki has brought together fragments of an ongoing dream. Ice cream, an enormous tree, a black pillar, a giant, the asses of old men. I rise from the small tub and join the men in the long, landscaped bath.

I see the green giant. He is small in the distance, though I can see his right arm in the sky. Standing at his feet, his poverty was bare. From the bathhouse on the hill, the giant is both forceful and yet still insignificant. That he is more than a human is a distraction. Where are the humans? It bothers me that a giant is needed to impress history upon the people, for the giant is mute and immobile and not human, and is, with his finger raised to the sky, the brainstem of the bomb, so I can’t help feeling that all memorials for the dead, memorials for peace, are monuments to the bomb. The giant’s outstretched left hand points to where the bomb was dropped. A willowy head of trees rises, and I think of the old woman taking a nap in the grass beneath an enormous tree, stacks of sugar cones leaning against the glass of her rosewater ice cream cart.

I am naked on a white plastic lounge chair on the terrace of the bathhouse on the hill, looking at a young tree in an enormous pot. The tree is thin and I am watching clouds pass. I see a young man, fully clothed, emerge onto the terrace from the enclosed bath. He approaches and says, You have to leave the bathhouse. He points to my tattoos. I try to explain it is okay, my friend said it was okay, we came together, I’m a foreigner, but to no avail. The attendant goes back inside, comes out again and says, Yes, You have to leave. Yes, my body is conspicuous, glaring. I walk across the wet tiles of the bath and am aware of my ass withdrawing into the steam. In the locker room, the young attendant approaches again, and asks where my friends are. They’re women, I say, they’re not in here. You better hide, he says. My arms, he means, and then leaves.