The Poem

“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.)

Forms and Devices

The repetition of lines is perhaps the poem’s most important device. When repeated, a phrase may accrue additional meanings or assume entirely new ones. Repetition is a type of rhythm, and it also establishes predictability or a sense of expectancy. Because the final stanza includes two lines from the first stanza, the poem seems rounded off or circular. The form Meinke employs is the pantoum, in which the second and fourth lines of each four-line stanza (or quatrain), moving as a pair, become the first and third lines of the next stanza. These repeated lines are sometimes called repetons. In the final stanza, the first and third lines of the opening stanza appear, in inverted order, as the second and fourth lines; thus, the poem opens and closes with the same line. Conventionally, the quatrains rhyme abab.

Meinke employs all these devices except the rhyming. After becoming familiar with the sense of the poem, one should linger over individual stanzas to appreciate the effects. In the second stanza, the repeton “blow open some others” states the effect of the released neutrons during the chain reaction. However, in the third stanza, Meinke turns “blow” into an imperative as the chain of cause and effect becomes destructive. Similarly, in the third stanza the phrase “with eyes burned to ashes” pertains to humanity, but when the line recurs it refers to the destroyed fish. Finally, “curled and tightened,” which appears first in...

(The entire section is 439 words.)