The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

“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.

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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 main weapon. Humans have learned to create nuclear weapons from the sun’s model, and, he adds, punning grimly, “we are dying to use it.” That is, humans are both eager to exert their immense power and destined to be the victims.

The next two stanzas complete the meaning implicit throughout the poem. Humans control the trigger. Describing the trigger as “curled and tightened” may be intended to evoke the more familiar image of the trigger finger (an analogy that would be visually misleading). The word “torching” in the seventh stanza reveals the sheer sadistic delight of striking out in hatred. The phrase “blind to the end” in the eighth stanza makes explicit the irrationality of such hatred, and this is followed by a heartbreaking self-delusion—the human inclination to dedicate even warfare to the greatness of a god. The ninth and final stanza adds no new lines but makes the central analogy of the poem explicit. The concept of a “chain reaction” characterizes both the process by which nuclear weapons generate force and the situation in which humans find themselves, having devised ways to use nuclear fission in weapons. Blinded by a fascination with the potential to destroy their enemies, humans are “split up like nuclei,” and even their worship is part of—and consumed in—the chain reaction.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

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 seventh stanza, applies to the plutonium trigger, the small explosion that starts the chain reaction. Repeated, however, the phrase describes the human psyche in its irrationality. The return of the poem’s first and third lines to shape the final stanza imparts finality and completeness. Like previous repetons, the reused lines are themselves affected. In fact, Meinke alters “split other nuclei” to read “split up like nuclei” as he likens humanity to—and implicates it in—the process of chain reaction. In regard to the final line, “in a chain reaction,” it is worth noting that its earlier recurrence—in stanzas 4 and 5, where it helpfully reminds readers of the poem’s focus—is not obligatory and may in fact diminish the line’s impact at the end of the poem.

Another device is the lack of punctuation. Far from unique in modern poetry, this device nonetheless contributes an appropriate sense of inconstancy or randomness. One is tempted to entertain alternative ways to connect the parts of a sentence. For example, the phrase “eyes burned to ashes” in the third stanza may characterize victims of nuclear holocaust or suggest the fallibility of the perpetrators of the destruction, or both.

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Themes