If hibakusha are turned away, isn't
the past lost to us? And the present, what is
the present then but a child's forgetfulness?
-- From "Hibakusha" (atomic bomb survivors) by J. David Cummings
It was 1995, and David Cummings, a former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory physicist, was mad as hell. He had just learned that the Smithsonian Institution had caved in to pressure by military veterans and some U.S. lawmakers, and canceled an exhibit to memorialize the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that hastened the war's end.
"The Smithsonian backed down; I got pissed off," recalls Mr. Cummings, a resident of the Willows neighborhood of Menlo Park.
Because he had turned to writing regularly after leaving his career in science, Mr. Cummings did what came naturally: He directed his anger toward a blank page, and wrote a poem.
"It was a real polemic," he recalls during a recent interview over coffee at Cafe Borrone. Although members of his writing group "loved it" when he introduced it during a meeting, he began having second thoughts about it.
Although that poem, written relatively quickly with fiery passion, was returned to the drawer, it served as the springboard for what turned out to be a nearly two decades-long project: a collection of poetry focused on the devastation of two densely populated Japanese cities bombed by U.S. forces, and on the subsequent efforts to heal and ensure a future of peace. The collection in late 2013 won the Richard Snyder Poetry Prize, leading to its publication by the Ashland Poetry Press late last year.
Mr. Cummings will read from the collection, "Tancho," during a poetry event in the Menlo Park City Council Chambers at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 8 -- the week of the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The free event will also feature four other poets, including Charlotte Muse of Menlo Park and Leah Lubin of Woodside.
From physics to poetry
Mr. Cummings worked as a theoretical physicist at Lawrence Livermore for about 11 years, resigning in the early 1970s. Although he was still deeply interested in physics, he was troubled by the nuclear development work his efforts would contribute to. "I was never really comfortable with it," he says. "There was a moral issue involved. I just finally had enough of it and left."
Also, he adds, he wanted to write, and from the mid-1970s until retiring he worked as a technical writer and instructor.
But how does technical writing align with the impulse to pen poetry? "I was always interested in poetry," but not as a career, he explains. "In high school, I was miserable, like all high-schoolers. Then someone showed me poetry."
Some of his early favorites were classics from prior centuries, such as Tennyson's "In Memoriam" and Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." But they hooked him. "I was stunned by what words could do," he says. "I found that there was this other thing besides math that fascinated me."
When he first "very gingerly began writing poetry," he says, "I was very insecure about it." A chance meeting with former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, a Bay Area resident, at a poetry reading in the 1980s led to a suggestion by the acclaimed poet for him to apply for a spot at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He did, and was accepted.
"My informal training really began there," he says. "That's where I crossed into the land of poetry." The experience also was a huge challenge, "a crucible," he recalls. But, he adds, it gave him the confidence to know "I could run with the bulls."
He has returned to Squaw Valley numerous times, and has also been a frequent workshop participant in the Napa Valley Writers Conference and the New York State Summer Writing Institute.
Journey to Japan
One of his work assignments allowed him to travel to Japan in the early 1990s, and once there, he took a train to Hiroshima. It was then that he took in the somber beauty of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, created in 1954 on a site cleared by an exploding bomb.
Later, when Mr. Cummings embarked on his multi-poem project of reflections on the atomic bombings, he sought out books and other literature. He found "Nagasaki Journey: The Photographs of Yosuke Yamahata" at a local bookstore; the book collected photos taken by the Japanese man the day after the Aug. 9 bombing of Nagasaki.
"I opened that book, then put it back and walked out," Mr. Cummings recalls. "It was harrowing." But three months later, he went back to the store and bought the book, which served as the focal point of the first section of "Tancho."
From those harrowing pictures, Mr. Cummings conjures with words mental images that quietly evoke the horrors of the bombs' effects, but do not compel the reader to turn away. In "The Corpse of a Very Young Child," he meditates on the photographed image of a boy, whose body he compares to "a stone cherub blown from its pedestal/ and violently tumbled ..."
In "Were He a Boy, Sleeping," the poet focuses on a photo of a dead boy of 10 or 11. "He seems to be sleeping,/ and the light dapples him." The poem ends with a haiku:
There are butterflies
warming in broken sunlight --
wake up, child, wake up.
Hopes of peace
Much of the collection's second section reflects Mr. Cummings' memories of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where among other features stands the statue of Sadako Sasaki, who survived the bombing as an infant but who died of leukemia at age 12. It was this child who popularized among other cultures the making of origami cranes: During her illness she strove to make 1,000 cranes, in accordance with the Japanese legend that doing so would allow her to be granted a wish, or health and long life. Visitors from all over the world leave folded paper cranes at the site.
In the poem "Sadako-san," Mr. Cummings describes a photo of the girl with "her small round face that haunts me. How serious/ she is, those dark eyes looking out at me forever/ from that place of forever, something passing through the veil,/ something of what winter's beauty is. ..."
Mr. Cummings has practiced origami crane-making over the years, including during the period he worked on "Tancho" -- the Japanese word for red-crowned crane. He recalls working hours on end, when he would "write, then fold a crane, then write, then fold a crane..."
He designed the book's cover, which uses an image he photo-shopped combining one of Mr. Yamahata's photos of a torii -- a gateway structure -- surrounded by rubble with an image of a red origami crane he made. The cover won a Benjamin Franklin Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association.
Remember, or forget?
In his searching poem "The Gift of Memory and Forgetting," Mr. Cummings asks the question: "--Why remember grief,/ what can it redeem?"
Struggling with that question, the poet writes, "I came to believe in a fierce remembering," thinking that if the scarred survivors of the bomb, the "hibakusha," were remembered every day, "every obscenity of war/ would come flooding in and for a day,/ that day, war would die."
But ultimately, he writes, "I want for some other way of memory,/ one that holds a bit of forgetting, a bit of hope."
Mr. Cummings says that when he was writing the poems, he wrestled with the question: "What is a way to remember (the bombings' toll) that is not destructive? That is healing?"
"Tancho," in the end, "is a book about asking -- no answers, just asking."
A Gathering of Poets
Mr. Cummings will join four other poets for a library-sponsored event in the Menlo Park City Council Chambers at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 8.
In addition to Mr. Cummings, participants will be Charlotte Muse of Menlo Park, Leah Lubin of Woodside, Kalamu Chache of East Palo Alto, and Camincha Benvenutto of Pacifica.
Go to the Menlo Park Library website or email John Weaver at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the event.