Last century we took a lot of shots Of what we did, framing things for Look and Life So we could see us and our lot Riveting the lattice of a skyline Or walking the I beams of infinite rooms Over Manhattan, Cleveland, Washington— Oh elevated light. We were amassing works—bridges and dams, Ike’s interstates, highrises; raising tons Out of a continent unfolding by Mountain and pit, plain and gradient river, The convex sky bottling cirrus highs And the steep cumuli of moody weather, Oh century of light. Back then we were stout realists working out All manner of the world as one-to-one, The aerials that Margaret Bourke-White got Of factories and bombed-out towns, Also the gaunt subtractive stares by Evans, Whose dust bowl poor became our luminous Internal weather. And then at Buchenwald there were those faces Of ourselves—fed guards, starved Poles and Jews, The citizens of Weimar just trucked in Bearing the stares of deformed children, As now our lenses focused on the krill And undertow of the swallowing real Weather of enlightenment. Add in atomic white, the napalm blind . . . An overbright disequilibrium Had settled in, a kind of countermind, Blind as those guards at Buchenwald, darkroom And looking up, gashed faces wide with fear, All interrogatives frozen where Someone holds a light For focusing Margaret Bourke-White; While the two guards, deserving or not, stripped To bloody underwear, still looking up In horror at what’s coming next, hear "Pop!" Thanks to the flash, so everyone will see Us taking our turn at victory, Oh century.
First published in Virginia Quarterly Review. Copyright © 2006 Wyatt Prunty. Used with permission of the author.