There we are in New Mexico in the middle of July. See how our neighbors have hung glass lanterns in the olive trees? See how small the flames look from the roof where we have become slow with tequila and lean against the dark hot slant, propped up on elbows, murmuring how the fires in Los Alamos make the sunset hazy, pink, almost sweet, like frosting? Over there, you say, pointing vaguely at the horizon, is where the atomic bomb was born—and I look in the wrong direction, imagining a crowd in the desert, awed by the magnitude of desolation, applause simmering in the heat. We’ve eaten too much and hold our glasses carelessly. We lift ice cubes from the liquor to our mouths or drop them on the roof and call it hail. Out in the dunes behind the house is an arroyo with no wet to dampen down its grit. Not memory’s riverbed but the arid pathway of neurons from a forgotten exchange. Water’s ghost. Oppenheimer named the site Trinity, inspired, he said, by the poetry of John Donne. Along the arroyo’s imprecise border are hopeful succulents dried to their roots. Out further, salt-brush grows wild, fissuring the landscape yellow, too far away to see its intricacies. The first explosion evaporated a tower, melted the surrounding sand into a green glass they named trinitite. Then a shockwave pounded through the air, knocking down observers twenty miles away. Oppenheimer said of Trinity, Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind, then quoted a poem that only further confused his meaning. Here’s where we are in time: after the bomb, but before I travel to Hiroshima, before you move to California and I move to New York, before the twin towers fall, before the war begins, before the years in which I try to forget you. I don’t mean to compare us to the bomb and its radiating ruin. If anything, we were atoms inside a wave too large to see. What is love against that scale? What is history if it keeps moving through us? What I mean is none of us are innocent. Dust coats everything. Even from this distance the air smells charred. You lie down on the roof, balance an empty cup at the center of your chest, say you miss fireflies, wonder why they don’t live in the desert. I say I miss water. You say you’ll climb down the ladder to get me a glass, but already your lids are shutting out the imperceptible spin of stars, the dark sand-fields where ants still drag up small beads of trinitite. I lay down thirsty beside you, let my fingers find yours. Somewhere in the landscape a lonely dog keens to be let back in.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
1. Chernobyl & Pripyat, Ukraine, 1986
I don’t want to remember the first atoms emitting in the air
when you turned to me in the square—that light-shockwave
that would glow through us the rest of our lives, but dimmer
each year, moving beneath the concrete of the streets we
once walked in awe, barely able to contain the electric field
of our shared language, our bodies humming, our fingers
skimming the blue water. Where did our lives go? Weeds
grow up through the seams in the sidewalks. Each spring,
the buildings flood with melted snow. The Ferris Wheel
now rusted still—we once rode to the top of it, remember?
That spin up into the summer night, where you promised to
kiss the grief from my eyes, already the fallout blinding us?
2. Neversink & Bittersweet, New York, 1953
We are hardly the first pair to find ourselves underwater.
The drowned towns of the world accumulate, will keep
accumulating in the downpour. The troposphere churns
with clouds. Our mouths fill, like reservoirs, with silence.
I hardly know what to say to you now that our house is
clean: the streams and tributaries having flooded away
the bright strangeness of our start. We stay because we
must. Who else would tend to the currents in the kitchen?
Who else would watch the wallpaper disintegrating into
tiny flakes the fish swim in to eat? Bottom-feeders suckle
the murk at our toes, everything softly transforming into
pond—a dark stillness where we once rushed together
3. Salton Sea Resort, California, 1980
You told me we were built for joy, and I knew it the first
moment we touched—vines curling up from sand, bloom
of sudden laughter, glasses full of bright nectar sweating
on white tables, the cool turn of the veranda’s fans as we
stared at what we knew wouldn’t last. What did we have
to fear but a little sunburn or conversation running dry?
It’s hard to see us there now—hard to see anything but
dust, the sun-bleached bones of fish, the shallow bowl
of arsenic we once swam in. We are the skeleton beams
stinking of sulfur, walls torn open by drifters and vermin.
Worn and humiliated, but unable to move, I let myself
flake apart in the wind, your arms, hoping only to forget
4. Centralia, Pennsylvania, 1962
Why live in a burning town? the voyeurs of our fire keep
asking, as if they weren’t, too, drawn to the heat between
us. Your eyes are coal-black, lustrous and rare—the kind
miners spend a lifetime excavating, and I have been at it
for decades, whittling down my body, exploding over and
over, trying to get to the end of us. I don’t care for other
places, stories, lives. I no longer have the capacity to care.
I could bury myself in the holes I’ve dug, or die breathing
in their toxic steam. The highway out is split and smoking.
Sinkholes open into our every exchange. Our neighbors
have fled, but I am not yet satisfied. You are my struck
match. I am still here—still waiting for you to ignite me.
5. Chaohu, Anhui province, China, 2011
What started as a bonfire ended in bureaucracy. Our signs
linked, wandering across the pages that dissolved our
union. See our names curving together? If they had hands
they might clasp them as we once did, instead of this
civil handshake. What is retained of our time and what
is parceled out to other lives? That night we went out
to lay on the shore, to talk, touch, roll toward the water
until the green wet drenched our clothes, our tongues—
who will enjoy that now? What about the sigh of wind
through the loosestrife, or when you said for always. Our
home, its inhabitants and infrastructure, is redistributed.
The wail of the loons on the lake will no longer wake us.
6. Serjilla, Syria, 514
Not every end begins in disaster. There was no flood, no
drought, no fire. Our lives were modest and we left them
as we might have a neighbor’s back door—a quiet wave
at the end of a visit. Light curled in the spring leaves of
our vines, shifted in our fields of wheat. Our children
were passionate, as all children are, believing that love
only ends in betrayal. They went off to other cities that
flashed brighter. They started wars and fought in them.
We stayed to tend the olive groves, to preserve a sense
of home, until they no longer returned. The trade routes
shifted. We aged. We drank our wine, speaking softly of
what we knew: that love ends as all things do, with time.
Danielle Cadena Deulen is a professor, host of the literary podcast "Lit from the Basement,” and the author of four books and a chapbook. Her most recent poetry collection, Desire Museum, is forthcoming from BOA Editions on October 10, 2023. Her previous publications include Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us, which won the Barrow Street Book Contest, American Libretto, which won the Sow’s Ear Chapbook Contest; The Riots, which won the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction and the GLCA New Writers Award; and Lovely Asunder, which won the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize and the Utah Book Award. She served as a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has been the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, an Oregon Literary Fellowship, and an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award. She was born and raised in the Northwest, but now makes her home in Atlanta where she teaches for the graduate creative writing program at Georgia State University. Find her at danielledeulen.net.