In Inger Christensen’s long poem Alphabet, first published in Danish in 1981, the poet cooks potatoes. And atom bombs exist. While she stands in the kitchen peeling potatoes under the tap, atom bombs exist. While she turns a potato under the running water, atom bombs exist. The poet recites the dates and numbers, there in the kitchen:
140,000 dead and
wounded in Hiroshima
some 60,000 dead and
wounded in Nagasaki
Children are playing out in the yard, but the sound of the tap almost drowns out the sound of the children, the sound of the children almost drowns out the sound of birds, and the sound of the birds almost drowns out the sound of leaves, whispering in the wind. It’s a moment in which the poet notices—as one does, sometimes—that everything is connected, all the way from a kitchen tap in Denmark to Hiroshima. But in this particular moment, the poet also recognizes that connectedness contains competition and fight. In this universe, we drown one another out. Sometimes we obliterate one another. Atom bombs exist.
I once read Alphabet with a classroom of American undergraduates. They talked about how Christensen expresses the leap of faith involved in thinking about a horror that is happening now but not here. The poet believes in the existence of the atom bomb and believes in the existence of experiments intended to make mass destruction possible, yet nothing in her immediate world offers evidence of these facts. In her immediate world, she sees leaves, birds and children. For the American students, the present-day equivalent was the war in Afghanistan, which was taking place as we talked. America was at war, yet nothing in their sunny Midwestern lives offered evidence of it.
Of course, for all their perceptiveness, these undergraduates were wrong. The 21st-century equivalent of the atom bomb is not the war in Afghanistan—it is the atom bomb.
The atom bomb still exists.
For one full year of my 21st-century life, I wrote poems about the atom bomb in collaboration with another poet, S J Fowler. Most weeks, lines of poetry arrived to me by email and I batted lines back. I wrote Fowler’s lines out in longhand to convince myself they were mine. I trawled the internet for inspiration. I took to museums, art galleries, and libraries, always with the bomb in mind. I read and reread Christensen’s Alphabet until its rapturous, explosive form entered my dreams.
Writing collaborative poems wasn’t all I was doing that year, but it was the gold thread that ran through everything else. Fowler was familiar with collaboration. When our collection of poems is published this spring, it will join at least eight other books Fowler has written with other people. Most of these collaborations have grown out of his “Enemies Project,” for which he selects two poets to write and perform collaborative poems. He has paired off more than 500 poets in this way, and it’s a large part of the reason collaboration has become a fact of life for British poetry. What poet, these days, hasn’t collaborated? But for me, it was new. For me it was strange, to spend a year writing tiny collaborative bombs by email.
The theme we chose for our collaboration, the atom bomb—or, to be precise, our ordinary lives lived in the shadow of the increasingly banal fact of the continued existence of nuclear weaponry—came out of fears I had after my son was born, two years earlier (on the anniversary, incidentally, of the bombing of Hiroshima). After his birth I found myself thinking frequently (obsessively?) about catastrophe. With time stretched by sleeplessness, I had hours and hours to worry about the adult life my son would lead if the world tumbled into chaos. I read in the newspaper that climate change had reached a tipping point, a fact that can’t be extricated from the existence of the atom bomb. A warming world is a world that will contain war, and probably more war.
The form Fowler and I chose for our collaboration was a series of short poems, four quatrains each. Why four quatrains? I no longer remember. I think there is an obvious reference to the ballad form, but the poems are contained in themselves—nothing at all like a ballad, then—more like rooms. The rooms of the house I felt trapped in by motherhood, perhaps; or the rooms of the bunker in which I might crouch with my son, while the world fell apart around us.
The constraint and claustrophobia of the form can be read partly, I think, as a response to Christensen’s Alphabet—though, as I write this, I realize that I have no idea if Fowler has ever read Christensen’s work—which is a book-length poem whose form crosses the alphabet with the Fibonacci sequence. Each section takes a letter of the alphabet, but Fibonacci decides the number of lines in each section. The poem’s shape grows explosively. Growth and repetition make Alphabet lyrical: it insists upon the existence of all the things of the world in a repetitive, rapturous, accumulating catalogue. Its form raises possibilities, sets off associations. There’s the way the form feeds on itself, each number the sum of the two previous numbers, each section of the poem generating the next section, endlessly and uselessly—just as weaponry and violence proliferates.
But if the form generates endlessly, it also contains a necessary endpoint: the alphabet will end. We will end. There’s the fact that, after a certain point, the poem’s formal expansion becomes irrelevant to our experience of the poem. We would have to count the lines to make sure it was still following the Fibonacci sequence—we can no longer feel the expansion happening. The experience of the poem mirrors our experience of the world, which gradually reveals itself as complex beyond our measure. There is a sense of prayerfulness produced by the form’s repetition:
…and deepest in the heart,
otherwise as ever only deepest in the heart,
the roots of the hazel, the hazel that stands
on the hillslope of the heart, tough and hardy,
an accumulated weekday of Angelic orders;
high-speed, hyacinthic in its decay, life,
on earth as it is in heaven
There is an intimation that the form can “know” something that the poet doesn’t know—can find, in the alphabet and the Fibonnacci sequence and the world, something beyond the individual’s ken. The poem itself remarks on this possibility, describing bracken (which, like the poem, proliferates according to the Fibonacci sequence) as storing time to be recalled—“gathering time and / binding it.”
All of this makes Christensen’s poem a powerful account of living an ordinary life under the shadow of the atom bomb. But the poem’s lyrical, accumulating form also makes it oddly redemptive. On the back of my copy of Alphabet—Susanna Nied’s English translation, published in 2001—is a quote from the German critic Michael Braun: “Inger Christensen is no apologist for blind, rapturous singing, but probably the most form-conscious and reflective writer of poetry in Europe today.” I always wonder if the reverse isn’t also true. Maybe Braun wrote “Inger Christensen is no apologist for blind, rapturous singing” because he suspects that is exactly what she is. Alphabet is blind, rapturous singing. The poem notices itself singing and singing despite the bomb; it hears itself drowning out the sound of silence. Its form carries it to a crescendo of rapture. We come away from it humming, thinking not of what’s lost but of all that exists.
My first contribution to our collaboration was a set of lines written from an imaginary bunker. The bunker I always imagine, when I imagine a bunker, is the house where we were living when my son was born. When I think about catastrophe—the catastrophe of an atom bomb, or of climate change, or of anything at all—I tend to confuse that catastrophe with the isolation I felt in the weeks after my son’s birth. Those postpartum weeks are the closest I’ve felt to disaster.
How to explain what made those weeks so dark, when they must have looked—to anyone scrolling through our photos on social media—filled with light?
My son had trouble breastfeeding. Even after he began to feed, he wouldn’t sleep. He refused to be put down. I wasn’t well, and even when he slept, I didn’t. My husband and I failed to understand obvious things. We had no family for thousands of miles, no mothers to tell us what we were doing wrong. The people we had, we pushed away. Our home—we rented the top half of a house, in a Midwestern town—had gone into lockdown. Frightened by the state of me and it, I vehemently discouraged visitors. It was night-time as often as it was day. We had a red light which was supposed to help the baby go back to sleep, and that red suffused everything, made everything seem sick and dangerous. Those weeks felt more intense than anything in my life. But they mean nothing to anyone. So I wrote:
There’s no one else to forget for you
the poppy juice, the rooms sweet with milk
where milk could not be
and the sucking bee at its grig those quick weeks.
The “poppy juice” is the baby’s first shit, which is called meconium, a word derived from the Greek for poppy. One theory for this etymology is that the baby’s first tarry, greenish-black excrement resembles opium preparations. But I like the other theory: that the first shit is associated with opium because, having done it, the baby can finally go to sleep.
My son’s quick features were the one light point in that time. He was oblivious of darkness. When I looked at him I thought of Ariel’s song:
Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip’s bell I lie;
There I couch when owls do cry;
On the bat’s back I do fly
After summer merrily.
Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bow.
Later, when I sat down to write about surviving in a bunker, I put The Tempest in our poem. It’s a play about people surviving a shipwreck, washed up in a strange world after a disaster. Sometimes I was unsure if I took the tempest as a metaphor for nuclear disaster, or if the disaster I always had in mind—the “bomb”—was really birth, full stop. Was I frightened all this might end, or that it had begun?
What was startling, of course, was what Fowler did to my thoughts when I sent them to him. He bundled them up in new words and sent them back. But he hadn’t been there, in the bunker. Like any reader, he hardly half-understood what I was trying to say. I had thought my words were clear; they were not. This was disconcerting, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. The words I send out are, to my mind, clear as a bell. I’ve worked hard to make them so—to make them precise, to make them right. At the other end, the reader receives them as riddles. More disconcerting still, Fowler wrote words, in response, that I didn’t understand. I puzzled for a long time over his lines:
ailingr, however, no winter could be arrived at that would
be a greed upon by
both the parties, the nations of you writing
& I writing, & you mothering, there is no romance of the onion
it is the base of fruit, the Big of vegetable impressions pressed into glass
when there has been antinatalism over intoning others
lives, there will be proper room for misanthropomorphism
Samuel’s contempt, unhidden, for those stupider than he
the box cracked upen, a way forward when all is dead black.
Was it okay that Fowler had put a Samuel in my poem and I couldn’t work out who Samuel was meant to be? Why was my name misspelt as “ailingr”—or was that my name? Why was a/greed slashed in two and “open” misspelt? Koestenbaum writes that collaborative texts “make the reader vulnerable to heterogeneity and indeterminacy, and, by obscuring who wrote what, they prevent the reader from limiting the text’s sense.” But was it okay for me, the poet, to be vulnerable to such heterogeneity and indeterminacy in my own poem?
By now I had moved with my family to Germany, where my husband would carry out postdoctoral research in mathematics for two years. We rented a flat in the suburbs of Münster, a city which has been completely rebuilt since it was bombed to rubble in World War II. Some of the buildings bear images of a phoenix, rising from the flames. Fowler and I exchanged a flurry of emails about nuclear tests and weaponry, as we tried to decide where our poems would go next. I began to read Daniel Swift’s Bomber County, which retraces the last movements of Swift’s grandfather, lost during a bombing of Münster, but also contemplates the absence of adequate poetry from that war, and the absence of a full record of bombings and bombers.
“In the safety of peace,” Swift quotes Max Hastings: “the bombers’ part in the war was one that many politicians and civilians would prefer to forget.” In his book, Swift touches upon the problem of a war poetry that is always distant from the action: bomber poets were always miles away from the cities they bombed. I thought about my own distance from the conflicts unfolding across the globe.
Unlike civilians in World War II, my food supply is never affected. I never hear planes overhead. I lead an almost perfectly comfortable life; I grow fat on variety and entertainment. The bunker that protects me and my son is the most comfortable and elaborately-wrought bunker yet.
But reading about the bomb, even from inside that bunker, it’s reasonable to grow frightened. I read of the low morale among American soldiers guarding the bombs, the enormously high rates of alcoholism and depression. I read a piece about working in an atomic weapons depot in which the author, Mike Kirby, begged to be taken off the job because he was starting to obsess about how easy it would be to detonate one of the bombs. I read that when the Americans introduced security codes on their bombs, to make sure a pilot couldn’t detonate one on a whim, the Air Force took offence and retaliated by setting the same security code on every bomb: 00000000.
One day Fowler took our emails, in which we had been exchanging anecdotes and links, chopped them up, and put them in the poems. Just like that. “I like the idea of you using your own found text against your new words,” he wrote. I felt bewildered when I tried to write in response to my own words masquerading as his words, words I had never intended as poetry:
It’s a video of the plutonium test, Ailbhe,
but the test takes place inside the metal canister,
& we’re watching from outside, holding on
watching Schrodinger’s cat clean, one step at a time
It’s very odd to encounter it in this context,
why didn’t they do this five years back?
I gather there are bunkers pocketing the landscape
all over though of course I can’t tell where they are.
Sometimes, writing with Fowler felt like running an obstacle course. Poet Jen Hofer writes that “collaborative processes create conflicts, frictions, difficulties, and discomforts that wouldn’t exist if I were working alone. Moving through those challenges is as crucial an element of the work as whatever legible “products” the work produces.” Was that what was happening to me? But why should friction be a crucial element of writing poetry? Would collaboration make me a better poet somehow? Or a better person?
In the same blog post, Trisha Low wrote: “collaboration is really just a scapegoat that incarnates a communitarian burden of guilt about individual action and cleanses the community through it very expulsion via production, which is to say sometimes these things we call “collaborations” are not interesting and maybe even bland.” I worried that this was the truer interpretation. I worried that writing collaboratively was just a way to make me feel like I was an okay person, despite being self-involved, self-indulged and pointless. A poet, an owner of stuff, a mother in the 21st century.
I cycled to the Stadtmuseum in the centre of Münster. There they had a WW2 bomb shelter kitted out with paraphernalia from the time: volksgasmasken (gas masks “for the people”), eine kleine Luftschutz-Apotheke (a “little wartime medicine cabinet”) and gasjäckchen (little jackets for children, each with a gas mask incorporated.) The museum had one entire room devoted to the Jewish Germans taken from Münster by the Nazis, though relatively few had been taken here, compared to other cities. The Jewish population had already been run out of Münster during the Black Death, when they were blamed for a particularly plague-ridden winter.
When I wrote to Fowler about visiting the museum, he wrote back from the British Museum, where he was working. He was sitting, he said, “in gallery 63, the mummies gallery. There must be over 500 people in this room, that i am ignoring to think about our poems and write to you.” I was beginning to like the effect our collaboration was having on time and space. Through it, my light-filled flat in Northern Germany was linked with the Mummies Gallery. One small city museum was linked with the most famous museum in the world. One bombing was confused, in my mind, with at least one other. That made me think, in turn, of the Resnais film I’d seen as an undergraduate: Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which flips back and forth between Hiroshima and a wartime town in France. So much magical thinking was folded into our project. Poetry—like film—allows analogies to be made that might be considered inadequate or offensive in prose. It allows the mind to cut from thing to thing by association, with a lightness which is a different kind of thought.
When I was stuck for what to write next, I went walking. Not far from our flat, the countryside began. There were fields, and then there was a war cemetery, with ordered lines of tombstones. The dead had been prisoners at a POW camp at nearby Haus Spital, at one stage the largest camp in North-west Germany. Tens of thousands of prisoners—French, Russian, English—were brought here during the First World War, to be catalogued before being sent off to work camps. Some seven hundred died at Haus Spital. The cemetery is sunny in October, with benches in pools of light. It adjoins a riding school. I sat there and watched the girls on horses, trotting round and round and round. “The war cemeteries are memorials to quantity,” writes Swift: “they mourn in numbers, offer a consolation of scale, and this is how they resist the chaotic particularities of war death.”
If you turn left before the war cemetery and take a bridge over the motorway, you find yourself at the home of Annette von Droste-Hulshoff, the 19th-century German poetess. (In German, there’s still that distinction in the language, between a poet and a poetess.) In 1820, Droste planned to spend a year writing poems: one poem for each Sunday and one poem for each Catholic feast day. The cycle was supposed to impress her grandmother. But when Droste had completed twenty-five poems she realized they were too personal and too filled with doubt, so she put the project away and moved on to something else. She wrote poems, instead, about the natural beauty of surrounding Westphalia, and novels, including a murder mystery to which there is no solution. Those twenty-five doubtful poems about God weren’t published until after her death.
The house where Droste lived and wrote for many years is made strangely peaceful by the hum of the busy road nearby. It’s surrounded by a formal garden, in which one can walk and think, so I did.
Cyclists came whizzing in, seeking directions to here or there. Iridescent dragonflies hung over the garden pond. I thought about the options I had. I could choose a pleasant life, relying on my husband for a modest income and sending out dispatches to the world. Though we talk about risk and challenge, taking on poetry collaborations with friendly poets—however experimental, however apparently challenging to my thoughts about poetry—would never really change much about me.
When people ask me about writing poetry in collaboration, I tell them that writing collaboratively is a way to shake up your creative process, to make it new. Is this is true? I don’t feel any freer than I ever did, when I sit down to write. The most startling moment in my collaboration with Fowler came late, when we were revising the manuscript. We had gone through several rounds of revisions, rearrangements, and edits, tinkering with the manuscript. Suddenly, Fowler wrote to ask if he could attack the text and revise it radically—“be rampant,” in his words. Without a second thought, I said yes: this sounded wonderful.
When Fowler’s revision arrived in my inbox, I was both horrified and embarrassed by my own horror. I couldn’t fathom what he had done. It looked at first as though he had changed everything, and as though every change had buried something: a glimmer of clarity, a touch of humour, a reference to a text or an insight into something personal and true: all buried. Why would he do this? He said in an email: “i think the thing that id responded to in the work wasnt necessarily our differences but just the occasional trace of something in the vocabulary of both of our work that i found too, difficult to find the right word, but sweet perhaps.”
The fault was with me then, I thought, though he was too kind to say it: the fault was my sentimentality. And in another email: “each change had a reason that isn’t about initial intentions but a new phase where the original material we generated becomes collaborative through an overwriting process”. This overwriting process, I couldn’t help thinking, was a hiding process: it hid traces of our performing as lyric poets, of our speaking to anyone but ourselves, or even to each other, it hid our joint missteps and misapprehensions, it hid what it had been like to write the poems, blindly feeling our way along, sometimes sentimentally or stupidly. But then I thought, confusedly: that’s what revision is supposed to do.
I changed some things back and left some of the changes he’d made in the text. I do think, now, that his being “rampant” made our work better; by which I mean, I suppose, more collaborative.
I showed Fowler an earlier version of this essay, in which I went on like this at this leisurely pace, expending, indeed, all the leisure of a Montaigne in his tower, about new motherhood, quite as though catastrophe weren’t looming: about how the dark times after my son’s birth made me think of being huddled in a bunker; about how my peaceable, privileged life strikes me as the most elaborately-wrought bunker of all; about how even within the bunker, it’s reasonable to grow frightened about the bomb; about how I walked the streets of a city in Northern Germany where we lived that year, a city which had been bombed and rebuilt, and confused one bombing with another. About sending my thoughts to Fowler. About how startled I was by what Fowler did to my thoughts when I sent them to him. About how he bundled them up in new words and sent them back, and how the new words seemed like the wrong words. About how I hovered over Fowler’s contributions to our collaboration, over misspellings and slashed words and allusions I couldn’t follow, over found texts and faux found texts and my own words taken and repurposed, and fretted that I was writing a poem I didn’t understand.
He had reservations, and said so. In trying to set down my experience of writing collaborative poetry about the bomb, I had produced misapprehensions. Somehow, in my characterization of my writing and Fowler’s writing, I had reinscribed a division to which I don’t subscribe between the lyrical and the experimental. More seriously, by writing in the singular about an experience of writing collaboratively, I had made it seem as though collaboration was something I had done alone. In my essay, Fowler was reduced to a sort of provocative ghost, a video-game poltergeist shooting obstacles for my own poetry to gobble up or leap over on its trot to the boss.
I don’t know how else to write about the experience of collaboration, except to write the solipsism and blindness of what feels like to be writing, to be feeling about for something to write, to be leaping over the obstacles that come at me. I wrote with Fowler without Fowler, as I always do, word by word. I was a person in a place.
Writing collaboratively was no different from writing alone: I didn’t feel rescued from isolation or subjectivity, I didn’t feel broken open, open-ended.
From what I understand, Fowler thinks of our collaboration as already a kind of marginalia for each other’s poetry—what we did, for a year, was scribble in the margins of each other’s texts—and therefore he sees further commentary (this essay) as superfluous. I almost agree with him, as he’s saying this to me, or something like this, over the phone one evening. As he’s talking, I’m facing the kitchen window, it’s evening, and the hedge outside is an apt black scribble.
But then I think: why would such scribbling not invite further commentary—and commentary on that commentary? Why should poetry be the last word, as though sacred, as though gospel? Are some forms of writing too fragile to be written about?
These questions come off as rhetorical flourishes, as though I think I know the answer, as though I think I’ve won an argument. Question marks that are secretly full stops. But I mean them as real questions about poetry, or I believe I do, albeit questions that I might be keen to muddle or evade.
So what you’re reading now might be doodles on a redacted commentary on the commentary on the marginalia that makes up a poetry collaboration.
What you’re reading now might be the latest in an extended series of evasions, each evasion allowing me to inch a little further away from writing about the bomb.
Ailbhe Darcy is lecturer in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. Subcritical Tests, in collaboration with S.J. Fowler, is forthcoming from Gorse Editions.