The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Atomic Pantoum” angrily reflects on the human fascination with destruction, specifically the terrible power of nuclear weapons. The first two stanzas describe the chain reaction that generates the energy for such a weapon: The force of individual neutrons splitting splits the centers of others, releasing energy to split still more in a rapidly enlarging progression impossible to stop. By the third and fourth stanzas, the factual, even colloquial, language (“start this all over”) of the opening turns strongly emotional. Let the process continue, Peter Meinke warns, and destruction will expand as wildly as the splitting of the atoms. Churches will collapse and people and creatures of the sea will incinerate in the terrific, irresistible inferno. Meinke thus extends the term “chain reaction” to the uncontrollably expanding effects of the colossal weapon.

The fifth and sixth stanzas involve and implicate human beings. Whereas in the first two stanzas Meinke limits his description to a physical process, he now reminds readers that humanity is responsible for this process. The model of the sun’s energy, also generated by nuclear fission, has imprinted itself in people’s minds, he suggests. By using the word “blazed,” he implies that the imprinting is a sort of blinding. The sixth stanza clarifies the connection: The sun has provided the model for the “plutonium trigger,” a small initial explosion that supplies the energy to detonate the...

(The entire section is 449 words.)