I stand aghast and turn my back
On a bloody grotesque corpse-packed stack
Ghosts so grisly, grey and gaunt
In death’s still-life they groan in want
Of life in vain, their fate to haunt
A flash, and fiery furnaces flare afresh
Against forms that once were living flesh;
Amidst a mother’s bones a child enmeshed,
Blood blends with flames so bright and red
Thirst-parched each throat, towards water they head;
Burn-salving river may be their last bed
Panels poignant, pathos-pounding, pierce
The mind’s profoundest cage with fury fierce
Yet futile when faced with these cosmic spears
I wrote this poem in April 1958, after the shattering experience of visiting the exhibition of the Hiroshima Panels in the magnificent Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne.
I was almost 22 at the time, and it was the most powerful experience of being affected by art that I had known in my life. When the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, I was 9 years old, still in Shanghai, living under Japanese occupation. Since then I had heard and read about the impact of the bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and had seen photographic and newsreel images of the atomic explosions, but nothing had made me feel as strongly as the images created on these scores of panels on the walls of the huge gallery in the Exhibition Building. Not until then had I allowed myself to truly imagine the different sufferings of so many individuals, of those who were not immediately wiped out of existence… and to feel the horror, & the anger that humans could do such things to other humans… & to connect all that to my memory of my relief that the war was over & that the Japanese had finally capitulated… & to go on living with this knowledge… I’ve never published this poem before.
The panels were created by a pair of Japanese artists, Iri Maruki and Toshiko Maruki. I’ve found a portrait of them that was taken in November 1970.
On a site I googled I learned that the exhibition in Melbourne was one of the earliest exhibitions of contemporary Asian art to be held in Australia. (The pictures of the panels may be enlarged by clicking on them.)