Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624
“Atomic Pantoum” does not try to conceal its meaning. It might be possible to imagine Meinke, teeth clenched in anger, stabbing his words into paper with the point of his pen. However, meaning and significance accumulate from many contexts, connections that radiate outward from the poem like rings on water or, more appropriately, shock waves from an explosion.
The effects of the pantoum form become meaningful as they conspire with the subject. Like a chain reaction, repetition, as described earlier, is generative. Some pantoums emphasize circularity, but “Atomic Pantoum” gains complexity as it extends the meanings of the chain reaction. The first stanzas state the theme, while later iterations vary the theme, always focusing on it, until the poem ends in the slamming together of meanings that have been implicit in the images all along. Like the chain reaction itself, the form lets details split and release more energy and meaning. Also, the form establishes a kind of inevitability, the lines necessarily repeating and obligating the poet to devise applications for them, a process that continues as long as the poem requires. By writing a poem about the fission of nuclear weapons, Meinke has kept the pantoum alive, redefined it in relation to this subject, and shown that it can apply to what might seem to be a very unpoetic facet of the contemporary world.
The imagery of “Atomic Pantoum” draws on the poetry of others. The word “choirs,” for instance, recalls William Shakespeare’s “bare ruined choirs” in his famous sonnet (73) about aging and mortality. The phrase “fish catch on fire” might remind one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s famous sonnet that starts with the line “As kingfishers catch fire,” a poem about the immanence of Christ in all things. Meinke has declared an interest in the “formal problems of sounding contemporary in traditional forms,” and Night Watch on the Chesapeake contains many poems with some or all of the features of several traditional forms, particularly sonnets. Therefore, “Atomic Pantoum” might be regarded as part of a conversation between poets, centuries old, on subjects essential to the human experience; moreover, this poem seems to subsume some famous predecessors.
Finally, one can consider “Atomic Pantoum” in relation to Meinke’s other work, particularly selections grouped under the heading “Night Watch” in Night Watch on the Chesapeake. When one considers the horrible effects of nuclear weapons, devices that can quickly exceed human capacity to control them, one begins to understand the moral agenda behind “Atomic Pantoum.” Like the poem “Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz,” “Atomic Pantoum” is concerned with the fact that, for the poet and the scientist, “there is always another layer/ above, beyond, below/ the last answer.” As Meinke says in “Rage,” another poem from this part of the book, “rage, too, will never go away, never.” Some of the “Night Watch” poems, which tend to be darker than others in the book, refer to sites notorious for violence and atrocities. There is a sinister quality in his work as he deals, from an adult perspective, with matters such as the need for alertness and responsibility.
Meinke, however, is not a poet of despair. He does not dismiss humanity as hopeless. A single one of his poems can contain both delight and doom. “Atomic Pantoum” is an unusually outraged poem for Meinke, but one should not miss the inspired playfulness in his use of the pantoum form. As one reads more of his work, one may appreciate the pervasiveness not only of humor but also of a great and unwavering passion for people and for life. Rage, then, is part of something bigger and more diverse, something with moral legitimacy, part of the moral imperatives by which one tries to fashion a life.