Carolyn Forché initially published “The Garden Shukkei-en” in Provincetown Arts in 1988 and included it in her third collection, The Angel of History (1994). The poem was also shown in conjunction with Danz Macabre photographic art exhibit at the School of Art, Arizona State University at Tempe and is included in the portfolio of show photographs, So to Speak. Forché takes the title and epigraph of The Angel of History from Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In haunting disembodied voices, the poems in the collection detail the atrocities of various twentieth-century horrors such as the Holocaust, the bombing of Hiroshima, and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. In “The Garden Shukkei-en,” which appears towards the end of the collection, a Japanese woman who survived the bombing recounts the horrors of that time and how it has come to shape the ways in which she remembers the past and interacts with the world. Known as a strolling garden, Shukkei-en is dotted with islets of various sizes and surrounded by a range of hillocks on its north shore. The name “Shukkei-en” means “the Garden of Condensed Scenic Beauty.” It was heavily damaged when the Enola Gay, an American Boeing B-29 bomber, dropped an atomic bomb dubbed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima at 8:15 on the morning of August 6, 1945. The survivor in the poem remembers the death and destruction she witnessed during the bombing. Primarily a descriptive poem, “The Garden Shukkei-en” uses two voices, the Japanese sur- vivor’s and a woman who accompanies her, to structure the poem.
With its haunting simile, the opening lines of “The Garden Shukkei-en” create the tone for the poem. The speaker compares crossing a river “by way of a vanished bridge” to the way “a cloud of lifted snow would ascend a mountain.” This imagery evokes an otherworldly place, where the details of the present are barely visible. The “she” of the third line refers to the speaker’s companion, a Japanese survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima.
In these lines, the speaker is reporting on the memories of her companion, who is haunted by images of the past. The people “crying for help” are victims of the atomic bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima. The bomb destroyed the city and killed more than half of its 400,000 residents. The shock of the bombing was such that neither “tears nor lamentation” made any difference to the burnt corpses that filled the river Ota or to the thousands crying for help.
A “matsu” is a type of pine tree. The speaker juxtaposes the image of the tree with the image of “barbed wire” to shock the reader and to evoke a sense of both beauty and horror. Lines 9–16 are spoken in the voice of the Japanese survivor, who is remembering what used to be in the garden and comparing it to what she sees now. She is so consumed with the past that she hallucinates a teahouse that is no longer in the garden and in it the victims of the bombing. The Ota is a river that runs through Hiroshima. When the speaker says that the weeping willow “etches its memory of their faces into the water,” she is figuratively saying that the tree’s branches form shadows on the water that resemble the Japanese character for heart.
In these lines, the companion speaks, and then the Japanese woman speaks. The “burnt trunk wrapped in straw” is a memorial to those who died in Hiroshima, and touching it reminds the survivor of the physical effect the bomb had on her. The heat from the radiation was so intense that it literally melted the skin of people close to the blast. Her question, “Do you think for a moment we were human beings to them?” is rhetorical, which means that she obviously does not think that the Americans thought the Japanese were human beings. The woman’s confusion of the angel and the woman further underscores her inability to live in the present and shows the powerful hold that her memories have on her. The image of clapping hands to call the fish to the surface evokes the way that memory often responds to sensory stimuli. Line 24 echoes line 19. The woman does not believe the Americans think of the Hiroshima survivors. This line also suggests that the survivor’s companion is an American.
The survivor tells her companion that “nothing I say will be enough,” meaning that words cannot adequately represent the anguish of her experience. The image of dressing (that is, treating) radiation burns with vegetable oil illustrates the desperation of the survivors to ease their pain. The speaker compares the survivor’s mind to “the white froth of rice rising up kettlesides” to highlight her emotional and mental instability.
Forché links a common Japanese greeting to the Hiroshima bombing. The hibakusha refer to survivors of the Hiroshima bombing. By referring to Hiroshima as a “child’s city,” Forché links the past to the present and shows how the effects of the bomb, dropped more than fifty years ago, continue today in the emotional torment of the survivors. The graphic image of the crushed brain shows the persistence of memory and how the survivor cannot escape the past.
The survivor wonders if she is adequately expressing her experience to the companion, but ironically she worries that her words are “too precise” rather than too vague, a more common problem with communication, especially cross-cultural communication.
In these last lines, the survivor shifts to a more abstract, less detailed language in her attempt to represent her experience since the bombing. She tells her companion that, regardless of circumstances, she and other hibakusha have managed to live their lives with some degree of normalcy, though always carrying with them the memory of the war and the bombing. The final image suggests a kind of moral awakening for the human race as to the potentially world-ending capacity of atomic warfare.