Even though I was expecting it, as the bullet train pulled into the platform it was still a shock to see the word ‘Hiroshima’ on the sign, in the same everyday font used for station names all over Japan.
I will never forget the things I saw in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, or the relief of stepping out into the bitter cold and poignant beauty of the Peace Memorial Park. But my overriding impression of Hiroshima was of a disconnect – between the normal everyday city, full of life and busyness, wonderful food, laughter and music – and the word ‘Hiroshima’, like an afterimage from the sign, superimposed on everything I saw.
(“Probably the oldest dedicated poetry magazine in the world today,” its former editors include Aldous Huxley, Siegfried Sassoon, W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice. It’s a beautifully produced journal – the current editors are doing a great job of continuing a distinguished tradition.)
After my visit I discovered everyone has a story about Hiroshima. One person couldn’t understand what possessed me to visit the scene of such a horrible event. Someone else got angry, saying it was “the worst crime ever committed”. Someone else said of course it was terrible, but think of all the lives that were saved when it brought the war to an end. And so on.
Looking back on the writing of the poem, I get the sense I was trying to get back to my actual experience of the city, to the real place behind all the stories. But of course, Hiroshima was a name and a story to me long before it was a place. There was no escaping the word.