Each of the poems in this work has something of a story to it. ``The Passing of the Time of Man'' has more than just a story - it was a large part of my literary/poetic life for five to ten years. It was written starting in the early 80's (originally on a 64K motherboard IBM PC) long before the iron curtain came (predictably enough) crashing down. It reflects the overwhelming cynicism that affected the whole generation of kids (like me) who were brought up in the shadow of the thermonuclear fusion bomb.
A nuclear test occurred at the very hour of my birth, and it is difficult to communicate to children of today just how much the bomb dominated everyday life, with sirens and ``kiss your ass goodbye'' drills in the halls of the schools. Every day of my life from the day that I was born until very, very recently, there was a finite (and not particularly small) chance that some accident of fate or some insane act of malice would create a holocaust that would level civilization. Even the modern threat of terrorism, nuclear or otherwise, cannot compare to the threat of global annihilation that existed for the first thirty years of my life.
It used to bother me that if the prevailing nuclear winter, nuclear summer, or fallout everywhere theories were actually correct, nobody would be able to write about what was undoubtedly the most significant event to occur in mankind's short history as a supposedly civilized species. If the Trojan War was worth an epic poem, so was this. The only trouble was, it had to be written before the event. So I did.
This is a genuine, tormented epic poem, full of literary, political and technical allusion, of an event that never happened, and that I pray never will. Even now, though, the probability of a large scale nuclear exchange has not receded to zero, and the probability that some crazies out there will use a Bomb on Manhattan is waxing furiously. Indeed, even as I am revising this introduction for the lulu edition, the twin towers towers have fallen and we are in a quagmire in Iraq that was more or less predicted in the poem in this work entitled ``The Quiet Killing''.
As the threat of global thermonuclear war has diminished, the threat of local nuclear war in regional conflicts has been quietly growing. Unless wise men and women soften the hearts of those who are greedy for power, for land, for money, for religious control then sooner or later the nuclear bomb will rear its shaggy pillar of smoke in a war between India and Pakistan, between Iran and Israel, between North Korea and nearly everybody else. History isn't that difficult to predict - the bomb is too easy to make, too easy to deliver, and will kill far, far too many innocent people when it is finally used again in anger.
Each of the named subpoems in this long work has some special meaning. For example, the one entitled ``Folded Cranes'' is devoted to Sadako Sasaki, the little girl from Hiroshima who was dying from radiation poisoning shortly after the nuclear bomb that opened the age of nuclear war was dropped there. She asked her doctor (a kindly man) when she would be well, and able to run and play again. He answered the gentle truth - that she would be well after she had folded one thousand paper origami cranes.
She died long before they were finished. Yet, she lives on. Every year, visitors to Hiroshima from all over the world leave cranes that they have folded at a monument to her story, as a promise and a pledge to do all that they can to prevent nuclear bombs from ever again being used in an act of war! Her monument is covered with thousands and thousands of cranes. One day I hope to visit this monument (again, as I have been there, long ago) and leave my own cranes there - in the meantime this poem is a ``folded crane'' dedicated to her memory.
Many of the poems derive from philosophy or physics. Some of my favorites in the former category include ``In Defense of a Natural Religion'' and the Koans at the end. Relativity theory, in particular, has a beautiful and poetic interpretation in which the world as we know it is like a tapestry of interwoven world lines, solid and stationary in four dimensions, woven by the hand of God on looms unknown. This idea appears in several poems, e.g. - ``The Gods'', ``Sadness'', ``Deja Vu''.
Some of the poems are very much political. In particular, ``The Quiet Killing'' was inspired by a National Public Radio news show in which they interviewed a reporter who had personally investigated the Kurdish massacre orchestrated by the Iraqi government1. The poem is an essentially accurate description of the events he reported, including the eyewitness testimony of a young boy who escaped by crawling into a nearby ditch.
If I had to pick my own favorite poems, the list would include (in no particular order) ``Old Age'', ``Resurrection'', ``The Hill'' (which I read at my Father's funeral), ``Prayer for Mankind'', ``When Halley's Comet Came Too Soon'', ``Wisdom'' (written for my first son Patrick soon after his birth), ``Image'' and the two Koans at the end. I also like (of course) much of ``The Passing of the Time of Man''. However, I ``like'' something about all of the poems herein, or I would not have included them. It is my hope that some of them may sing to you as they sung to me when I wrote them. If you find yourself, one day in the future, with a tiny snatch of one of these poems flitting through your thoughts like an errant hummingbird, annoying you because you cannot remember where you read it but you really liked it, then I will be most pleased.
Feel free to let me know what you think of these poems. You can send me email at rgb at phy duke edu (regrettably obfuscated to try to foil spambots), or send me paper mail at:
Robert G. Brown
Duke University Physics Department
Durham, NC, 27708-0305