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By Eleanor Wilner

To turn a stone

with its white squirming

underneath, to pry the disc

from the sun’s eclipse—white heat

coiling in the blinded eye: to these malign   

necessities we come

from the dim time of dinosaurs

who crawled like breathing lava

from the earth’s cracked crust, and swung   

their tiny heads above the lumbering tons   

of flesh, brains no bigger than a fist

clenched to resist the white flash

in the sky the day the sun-flares

pared them down to relics for museums,   

turned glaciers back, seared Sinai’s

meadows black—the ferns withered, the swamps   

were melted down to molten mud, the cells   

uncoupled, recombined, and madly

multiplied, huge trees toppled to the ground,   

the slow life there abandoned hope,

a caterpillar stiffened in the grass.

Two apes, caught in the act of coupling,   

made a mutant child

who woke to sunlight wondering, his mother   

torn by the huge new head

that forced the narrow birth canal.


As if compelled to repetition   

and to unearth again

white fire at the heart of matter—fire

we sought and fire we spoke,

our thoughts, however elegant, were fire

from first to last—like sentries set to watch   

at Argos for the signal fire

passed peak to peak from Troy

to Nagasaki, triumphant echo of the burning   

city walls and prologue to the murders   

yet to come—we scan the sky

for that bright flash,

our eyes stared white from watching   

for the signal fire that ends

the epic—a cursed line

with its caesura, a pause

to signal peace, or a rehearsal

for the silence.


Eleanor Wilner, “High Noon at Los Alamos” from Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1997 by Eleanor Wilner. Reprinted with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P. O. Box 271, Port Townsend, WA 98368-0271, www.coppercanyonpress.org.

Source: Reversing the Spell: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 1998)

Poet Bio

Poet, critic, and translator Eleanor Wilner was born in Ohio, and attended Goucher College and Johns Hopkins University. She was the editor of The American Poetry Review, and has taught at many universities, including Smith College and Warren Wilson College. In her poetry, she often writes of myth and memory, with what has been called a “mythical impulse.” She avoids confessional writing, choosing instead to invoke themes of mythology, and reinvigorate them in a modern context, especially with dense historical and contemporary allusions. Her poems reflect her wide-ranging intelligence and her commitment to peace and justice.

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