The mushroom cloud dispersed rapidly. For a few seconds it took the intriguing shape of an aboriginal face silhouetted over Australia, then it eddied 1500ft high, and was blown away to the north-east... (Douglas Wilkie, the Courier-Mail, Brisbane, October 16, 1953)
Es atmet mich, it breathes me,
this cremated field,
whose pulmonary veins were fused
by atomic blasts.
It is breathing slowly
like a heart, or an animal dying
and in the periodicity of its own blood
is become sternklang,
the language of stars.
In the 1950s, Robert Menzies
surrendered this desert to men who look down
from flag-draped podiums
and parliamentary stairs.
They built bombing ranges that
from outer space resemble
Es atmet uns, it is not in the nature of demons
to refuse such invitations.
Low on the horizon
a greasy cloud makes whispering noises
as it advances
erasing the mulgas.
Sun glints from its surface
like something solid.
And its interior is the muscle
of a snake, coiling recoiling—
it dislocates its jaw
and spews blackened birds
into the desert,
with their eyes burned out.
Soldiers club them from air
with axe handles—
some of them are crying.
Do you remember?
These rivers, these mallee and paper daisies
We took it all away.
A summer of aeroplanes,
of air excited
by radios: public, private, and military.
Ten year old Yami Lester played on Emu Field,
that day when all birds vanished,
when nothing in that grassland breathed.
by instinct, stopping
he pressed knuckles into his eyes
a split second before the flash and double boom
roared toward him like a crashing road-train.
And traveling in that sound,
a blue-white diamond,
a second sun
passing through the bones of his hands,
left x-ray impressions
of blood and skin,
the intricate network of nerves,
and his eyes
It was black when the pressure wave hit
a feeling of being underwater,
and then the air sucked back,
billowing out his body like sheets on a line.
He didn’t see the rain
that smelled of chemicals and fell
in dense heavy drops
but he heard its tattoo
and distantly, from the direction of houses,
his mother screaming.
When they came to Juldil Kapi,
called Juldi, called Ooldea Soak,
the United Aborigines Mission,
in Jeeps and covered trucks
they looked like moon men.
the older ladies recalled.
Guns. We all cry, cry, cryin’.
Time enough to pack a dilly bag
of clothes, a framed photograph,
a child’s favorite toy,
before the trucks rolled out,
leaving mission buildings to heat
and swallowing dunes.
And she, between soldiers,
on those hard troopie seats,
secretly fingers a stone
held deep in the pockets of her skirt—
nulu stone, she thinks, last fragment
of the meteor.
Its dust colors her skin.
A hundred kilometers to the south
departing helicopters drop leafets
written in English
warning Aboriginal people
to not walk north.
But here on the savannah,
groups of figures separate in spinifex.
And later, when sky pressed toward them
like a wall, they laid their bodies
over their children
and rose again coated in tar.
Soldiers found them sleeping
in the Marcoo bomb crater.
They gave them showers
and scrubbed their fingernails.
But in the months that followed
their women gave birth
to dead babies, to babies
without lungs, babies without eyes,
and their men speared kangaroos
they couldn’t cook
because they were yellow inside.
A marquee stood on Emu Field
among fruit trees, with chairs and tables
for politicians and members of the press.
They served lemonade
and plates of sandwiches.
flitted in the eaves of a grandstand,
purpose-built for compelling views
of the mushroom cloud.
And after the last bus,
when the marquee was packed away
and only uniformed men flashed binoculars
on the grandstand,
they ordered their soldiers
on all fours through atomic fields.
Their bodies drag the dust.
On a clear day, you could see their backs lifting
though layers of mist
like elephants bathing in the Ganges.
And those who flew Lincolns into fallout
came back without throats—
coincidence, the English courts explained,
we all smoked back then . . .
But I want to know what happened to my grandfather—
dead before fifty from multiple cancers.
They gave peerages to nuclear scientists
and to soldiers, melanomas
and the chance to buy an unofficial medallion
for thirty dollars.
And I want to know what happened to my uncle—
dead before sixty from heart attack and stroke.
Cells transform into other cells,
like the songbirds of Emu field
whose calls were the silver
of shaken metal fragments.
I want to know if I’m going to live—
You’re young, the surgeon said, for this kind of cancer.
But he couldn’t tell me
how people become dust,
how sand becomes glass,
or how Menzies could send soldiers into atomic mist,
and still hold the word God in his mouth.
seventy-five identical graves
remember babies lost to the predation
of atomic clouds.
Their epitaphs are brief—
Michael Clarke Jones
died 24 August 1952,
aged eight and a half hours.
No one has been here for a long time.
A military vehicle passes,
heading east toward the rocket range.
In the west, Woomera township
is a grid of air force housing.
Land Cruisers fill neat driveways,
lawns are trimmed,
And no one ever steps out for milk,
no one walks a dog.
I photograph each headstone,
stooping sometimes to straighten a plastic posy,
a tilted ceramic bear.
Wind presses a faded greeting card
to the metal fence.
A matchbox car beside a small boy’s grave
There are nineteen stones without toys or flowers,
for stillborns named only “baby”—
Don’t look at me
from a soldier’s gunny bag
with your eyes too white, too open
like the eyes of poisoned fish
in the Pilbara’s poisoned surf
Was it night when they came?
those soldiers who emptied the graves?
A secret harvest
of twenty-two thousand children
whose bones were crushed
for Strontium-90 tests in the UK.
Their parents were never told.
The ground here is hard.
Centuries of heat-fueled wind
have baked clay to shale.
To open a grave you’d need
It would not be gentle.
I see them starlit,
shadow-striped by the wire fence,
they draw a baby boy from earth—
pale as a frog
and he wears my grandson’s face.
I don’t want to tell him
our bombs unleashed a serpent
older than names,
that hung over the neonatal ward,
above the cots of Woomera,
and the gaze of its lidless eye
returned them all to namelessness.
I don’t know what world will be left to you