Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583

“Black Hills Survival Gathering, 1980” is part of a group of poems that resulted from the Black Hills Alliance International Survival Gathering, the event commemorated in the poem. The poems, first printed in Daughters, I Love You (1981), are dedicated to Sister Rosalie Bertell, M.D., who inspired the poet with...

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“Black Hills Survival Gathering, 1980” is part of a group of poems that resulted from the Black Hills Alliance International Survival Gathering, the event commemorated in the poem. The poems, first printed in Daughters, I Love You (1981), are dedicated to Sister Rosalie Bertell, M.D., who inspired the poet with the words quoted in the dedication to the book: “Everywhere I go, women are grieving the death of the species. You can either turn it around or help it to die.” The poem, like all the poems in the book, is a plea for life against death. The contrast between life and death, the image of life in the midst of death, permeates the description, imagery, and rhetoric of the poem. A secondary theme is the persistent memory, explicit in the description of the monks and the reference to Hiroshima, of the realization of the annihilating power of nuclear destruction. The poem calls for a moral awakening even as the process of awakening is documented in the description.

The life-and-death contrast begins with the description of the B52’s leaving “a cross on the ground” over the heads of men awakening on the hilltop. The cross is the cross-shaped shadow of an airplane passing over the grassy hillside. The figure is also an oblique allusion to the crosshairs on the bombardier’s sight, which will locate “ground zero,” where the participants of the encampment stand as they assemble in the morning light. Finally, the cross on the ground suggests the association with crucifixion: the sacrificial death of innocent victims.

Throughout the poem, the speaker contrasts the homely, ordinary events of living—bathing children, making coffee, combing hair—with the imminent destruction buried within the earth and flying overhead. The specifically nuclear nature of the threat is woven through the description, from the monks “on fire” against the morning horizon to the dusty roads transforming matter into energy (the energy of the resisters), the electric breeze and, finally, the “radiant” morning. The literal description of people waking up after a night’s sleep and beginning their day’s activities becomes, in the circumstances, a figure for the moral awakening they undergo with respect to the beauty and fragility of the earth and the necessity for preserving it against the wanton and savage destruction threatened by the missiles and bombers. The poem’s reiteration of “waking” constitutes a chorus on this idea: The men wake on the hillside, the speaker’s husband wakes, one daughter wakes, then the other, and finally, the entire encampment: “We are waking/ in the expanding light.”

Another thread of images links the people and their individual lives with common human life and finally with the life of the earth itself. The speaker reflects that her daughter, as she stands being bathed, contains “wind and fragile fire”—the breath in her lungs and warmth of her body—under her skin; the daughters find their union with the land through their ancestors, “blood and heart.” The speaker suggests another potential transformation, speculating that the daughter’s hair might become “a mane” in her identification with the plains and its horse culture; this image echoes later in the sight of the red horse, first drooping as if in sickness, but then “surging” toward the sky. Finally, the veins pulsing with life-carrying blood join with the singing and drumming of the monks and all the participants; the poem’s final word, “heartbeat,” then unites people, land, and inner soul in a single affirmation of life.

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