Hibakusha

by Christine Potter
The Waters
First Place, May 2015
Judged by Lesley Wheeler


In Japanese, Hibakusha means “bomb-affected people.”
It is the term used for survivors of the atomic attacks
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

If we carry everything that ever happened to us, words
must be the buckets we use to contain it all. That was

the first thing I thought when I opened my eyes to the day
gathering itself into one bird and then many, into harmless

light that grew until I got up to join familiar trees and
a road crew listening to talk radio out the open windows

of their truck. They were laughing as I opened the door
to pick up the newspaper in its blue plastic bag and I

thought how the Hibakusha I’d gone to hear last night
had laughed, too: at snotty noses they’d had the winter

after the A-bomb, at the translator interrupting their
Japanese with English too soon, or not soon enough.

I understand no Japanese and so it all sounded like rain
to me, but I do understand rain. Then the grandmother–

her three-legged cane leaning on the lectern–cried.
It was her twelve-year-old best friend in 1945 again,

dying of radiation burns, said the translator, dead fish
suddenly floating in the river, how her mother said they

were poison and made her put them all back, the black
rain. At the end of the evening, someone bowed to me

and gave me a lapel pin with a pink flower that said 70
years, and a packet of shrimp crackers from Hiroshima.

So today, I have no words. How can we plan these things
in the light of morning? How can we mock the sun and

actually teach it as history? Someone said Yes, go do this.
Someone named the bomber after his mother. And then

someone else looked up at the sky, saw the glint of
the approaching plane and thought, Oh, how pretty!


This spare and lovely meditation grounds its unanswerable question—how can we make sense of atrocity?—in poignant details. I admire the poem’s odd, memorable turns of phrase, especially “the day/ gathering itself into one bird” and “I do understand rain.” --Lesley Wheeler

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