in the wild regions...

from my anthology of must read (a)merican poems

Rita Dove

Primer for the Nuclear Age

At the edge of the mariner’s
map is written: “Beyond
this point lie monsters.”

Someone left the light on
in the pantry—there’s
a skull in there on the shelf

that talks. Blue eyes
in the air, blue as
an idiot’s. Any fear, any

memory will do; and if you’ve
got a heart at all, someday
it will kill you.


This is a poem that is wholly written in the voice of Rita Dove, but is in some ways atypical of her work. Because of the forceful imagery and language, “Primer for the Nuclear Age” is sheer terror in its reality. “Any fear, any memory” stirs the notion that there is no place to hide. The end is clear. The monsters are out there. The foreboding tone of the poem is actualized in the final line: “it will kill you”. That closing stanza is wonderful – “if you’ve / got a heart at all”. To begin the journey is to realize the end.

Dove, with the opening lines, gives the reader an ocean map, and a warning written –not printed, but added a later time – along the map’s edge. The light in the pantry is on – revealing all the goods we store against disaster, seen and unseen. A skull that talks – though Dove never gives the specifics of any particular speaking – could be, like the heart at the end of the poem, wholly connected to each of us. My pantry, my skull, my blue eyes. This appears to present civilization, or at least some part of civilization, as an intrusion. The eyes are raised – searching, yes, but with a sense of smugness, reinforced by the phrase “blue as / an idiot’s”. The fears are mine. The heart is mine.

An interesting point, if I follow my reading of the poem ... the map doesn’t belong to the reader – the you of the poem. Someone – a wanderer, for good or ill – has already charted the course, and has left a grim warning. In stanza two, the “Someone” who turns out the light is never identified. Maybe the answer – if there is in fact a question at the center of the poem – is in “memory.” There is a part of us – that something inside – that reaches out … that needs the quest, that needs absolution, destruction, learning.

This work is a guide, a primer, for the wild regions beyond the comfort zone of what we know.


LKD said...

I haven’t attempted to respond to a literary work with an analytical approach since graduating a few years ago, so forgive me if this mountain of words amounts to a hill of beans. Here goes nothing:

After my initial reading of the poem, the first element that stuck with me, that struck me as being a so-called red flag, was the color of the eyes, and their description. Blue. “Blue as any idiot’s.” Whoa. Did I just catch a whiff of post-colonial rage or what? I guess my subsequent re-readings of the text were therefore colored, so to speak, by my reaction to the eye color. Pushing the word “primer” against the phrase “nuclear age” set off bells and whistles. Primer, before I trotted off to the dictionary confirm my understanding of the word, conveys an antiquated textbook. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the word uttered out loud. One doesn’t send one’s children off to school in this day and age only to have them come home with their backpacks weighed down with primers, if you know what I mean. So, juxtaposing a word that conjures images of one-room schoolhouses (for me, at least), and dare I say, a colonial era with the modernity of a phrase that illustrates the reality of you’re here and now, that potential mushroom cloud looming over us, those missiles all asleep and dreaming in their silos, communicates loud and clear a span of history. Primer is actually a loaded word, an example of how diction, the exacting word choices a poet makes when constructing a poem can blow a poem wide open. This is what I found when I looked up the word primer online:

“The New England Primer contained moral themed rhymes associated with colonial American puritan culture. Primer is an old English word for the book of hours, a book of prayers that harkens back to the 14th century. Primer is also a small charge that initiates the main detonation In molecular biology, a primer a nucleic acid strand that serves as a starting point for DNA replication.”

Getting past the title and diving into the poem, the first stanza proves to be as combustible as the poem’s title. At the map’s edge, a message has been scribbled, “Beyond this point lie monsters,” which means that what is unmapped, those uncharted waters of the future—think again about the diction here, about how antiquated the word mariner and the idea of a mariner’s map is—are dangerous. What you can’t see CAN hurt you. Ignorance is NOT bliss.

The shift from the mariner’s map and the monsters out there to the pantry is almost jarring. A mariner’s map is alien to most of us, a document few of us have ever laid eyes on or held in our hands, but we’ve all peered into a pantry, reached for a can of soup, or stocked that pantry with non-perishable goods for unforeseen emergencies (storms, floods, blackouts, nuclear bombs). That “someone left the light on” to illuminate the talking skull communicates, for me, the ominous futility that seems to be this poem’s message. History will teach us nothing is what this poem is saying. This talking skull, a blatant memento mori, an “alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him” is never given a voice because it has no voice. This talking skull could be screaming and we wouldn’t bother to listen to what it had to say.

The “blue eyes in the air, blue as any idiot’s” disturb me more than any other element in the poem. Maybe because the blue eyes remind me of Hitler’s Aryan blonde-haired, blue-eyed white-skinned ideal. Maybe because the blue eyes coupled with the mariner’s map conjured, for me, images of slave ships. Maybe because I have blue eyes and have only ever experienced the world through blue eyes.

The last stanza hammers the nail, futility of history’s lessons, home. That “any fear, any memory will do” seems to suggest that regardless of the how personal or universal our memories or fears are, they ultimately never change, and never change how human beings move through time. Our new fears are our old fears, our own memories are our ancestors memories. WE are the monsters. You want proof? I give you a single word, the word that the whole poem, in my opinion is hinged upon: IF. “If you have heart at all,” the poem ends, “someday, it will kill you.” What a death knell of a last line. Even if you’re half-human, even if you’ve got a heart and know how to love and hope, you’re still screwed. None of us survive history. We live in it. We live through it. Few of us change it. Or try to. Certainly, none of us learn from it. That’s some primer Dove gives us here. And one hell of a poem.

Thanks for bearing with me, Sam. The old analytical writing skills—hell, the writing skills period—are rusty, to say the least. Still, this poem set my mind spinning and I felt I had to at least try to stop the spin, or slow it down. Thanks for posting the poem; and for tolerating my blathering.

Sam of the ten thousand things said...

Dead on reading. I like your approach to the poem. Wonderful.

Collin said...

This is one of those poems that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. It's so simple and spare, yet packs a mighty wallop. Thanks for posting it.