“To break the tension, Fermi began offering anyone listening a wager on “whether or not the (atomic) bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and if so, whether it would merely destroy New Mexico or destroy the world.” –The Manhattan Project, US Department of Energy, Office of History and Heritage Resources.
Before the harvesting and fermentation of barley and grape,
before the synthesis of amphetamines by Nazi chemists,
before the discovery of celestial mechanics,
dialectical materialism and female anatomy,
we discovered fire.
Led to it
not by scientific curiosity,
not malevolence or madness or even just stupidity
but the simple perilous vertigo of boredom.
Success was measured in terms of scale,
in terms of defying,
circumventing the laws of cause and effect,
how one tiny match could raise acres of crops to burning,
how it could set wind-bushes accelerating in flame
like herds of wild blind horses
being driven into the sea.
How many engines came shrieking
through the streets,
was marked in chalk
like ogham script,
like we were keeping score,
rolling bones or pitching coins
before we took to our heels
to where we could not be pursued,
to the space behind things.
On the other side of the planet,
they say if you see the flames of a bushfire
on the crest of the next valley,
it’s already too late to outrun it.
Guttersnipes we were,
street urchins, prometheans
of the glass-strewn alleys.
From blindspots in supermarkets,
we would liberate
aerosols, batteries, gas canisters
for the cause
and cherish them like weapons
stolen from god’s armoury
or provo silos,
until the time came to dispatch them
like offerings into the fire.
We would dive theatrically into ditches,
peering over the trench,
as the fire ticked and awaited
shattering of the eternal Sunday.
I lost my enthusiasm
when one day a friend sifted
the scorched, flayed wreckage
of a detonated tin canister
from the embers
and launched it, unheeded, in my direction.
It caught me in the eye
and whipped a Zoro slash
clean across my eyelid,
an atom’s blink from blindness.
His grandmother dabbing the blood away,
the heady carbolic gasp of TCP on cotton wool
and some story of falling, aye that’s it, he fell.
A couple of years later
one of our gang,
Pete, beat a man to death
outside a chip shop,
a man old enough to be his father,
who’d been on the blanket
in the H-blocks before he was even born,
over something, nothing,
and we never saw him again,
and I thought of that same boredom
still baiting us
that never goes away.
You wonder where you would have stopped,
when the burning outhouses became burning buildings,
when the decaying hangars of the docks,
the giant papier-mâché Gulliver that had been towed
down the river for some
festival or other and abandoned,
were not kindling enough.
And were it not for the rain,
for the low fronts advancing
on this sodden island
and the ocean on which it buoys and sways,
would we have just kept going?
The Lord Mayor of London
roused to witness the beginnings
of the Great Fire declared
“A woman could piss it out!”
and went back to bed.
Three centuries years later
a forgotten building site in Pennyburn,
between the bowling alley
and the barracks,
the shell of which would become
an outpatients for the clinically insane,
but until then belonged to us.
Drinking, gazing down into the deluge,
someone cursing the broken tape player
and a chewed cassette of Siamese Dream.
Scaffolding. Rooftops. Clouds.
Then the momentary silence broken,
“I think I’ve worked out why it rains…”