Remembering the War in “To My Mother” and “After the Bomb Tests”
World War II was a time of great emotional upheaval and change. Because men were drafted to fight in the war, women became more involved in industry and created the image of Rosie the Riveter to represent strong women in the workplace. Both “To My Mother” by George Barker and “After the Bomb Tests” by Jane Cooper utilize this new image of women to exemplify the impact of the war on individuals and on humanity as a whole.
“To My Mother” emphasizes the strength of women in wartime through the image painted of the mother. When the poet describes her as “sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,” it gives off the impression of a woman who is larger than life (Barker 3). Not only could it be read that she is physically large, but certainly she has a big personality. Her son clearly feels immense love and respect for his mother, especially in regard to her resilience. She comes across as unmovable and something to behold, a mountain in a storm. The line “She will not glance up at the bomber,” shows that she has become desensitized to the violence that surrounds her (Barker 9). She has been so strong for so long that the Germans bombing her city hardly affects her and does not even trigger significant fear. Her strength is admirable because in the face of continual destruction and hardship, she still maintains her ability to persevere. This is not to say she is unfeeling; as seen in the line “she will move from mourning to morning,” she clearly cares deeply about the loss of her friends and countrymen (Barker 14). She shows that the propensity to care for others does not make a woman weak. Because this connection is often made, especially in the case of mothers, it is important that this mother can be portrayed as both strong and hurt. It rounds out her character and emphasizes that emotions are a natural and expected aspect of war. Her mourning highlights that she cares about what is happening but will not let it take away from her exuberant personality. She is strong enough to make it through this period of tragedy.
“After the Bomb Tests” also exemplifies the strength of women when it personifies the sea as a woman by giving it feminine pronouns. The poet writes, “She kills a tired ship left in her lap,” emphasizing the sheer force of this feminized sea (Cooper 10). The woman is painted as big and strong, a true force to be reckoned with. Additionally, describing the ship as “tired” and in her “lap” invokes the image of a sleepy child sitting with its mother, protected and safe. The contrast of “kills” with this image is unsettling, stressing the disturbing nature of children dying in war. This poem also describes this female sea as “an animal in sleep,” which can connote some more negative images of power (Cooper 12). Because animals can be wild and dangerous, this could reference the fight women are involved with at home during the war, as their contributions to industry at home had a huge impact on the men on the front lines. The connection grows deeper when one considers the fierce protectiveness animals usually have for their young and the passion with which they defend their children, as it relates to the mothers whose sons are fighting in the war. Furthermore, describing the sea as “galvanized” is reminiscent of a call to action (Cooper 9). Women’s work during the war was motivated by a love for their families and country. They were called upon in a time of need and successfully supported the war effort. But even though the poet seems to appreciate the role of women in the war, the war itself is seen as bigger than the individual.
In contrast, “To My Mother” places enormous emphasis upon the individual in war. When the poet writes “she will not glance up at the bomber” the fact that bomber is singular makes the war seem personal, individuals against individuals (Barker 9). This is particularly interesting, because wars are often seen as country against country, inciting a large amount of national pride. The tone of this poem is crafted to emphasize the impact on families and individuals, rather than the impact on larger institutions. By accentuating the impact on the individual, the war itself becomes more personal. Especially when viewed retrospectively, this creates an interesting perspective of the war. It shifts from a global tragedy to a much more personal loss. When the poet writes, “so I send / O all my faith, and all my love,” he is emphasizing the mother-son relationship (Barker 12-13). This relationship is a very relevant one during the war, especially considering the sheer number of sons that were lost fighting. World War II had a tendency to split up families, whether it was in concentration camps, the physical fighting of the war, or the rise of the Berlin Wall at the end of the war. By hinting at the desperation mothers feel when they cannot know if their children are safe, the poem illuminates the personal impact of the war, particularly for the readers that did not live through it. Because there are so few survivors of World War II today, this poem allows readers to see the war as more than a global catastrophe or an accumulation of treaties. Focusing on a woman who is not written about in history books gives the opportunity to feel what it was like to be alive at this time. The line “she will not… condescend to drop her gin,” highlights the emotional turmoil she is suffering through (Barker 9-10). Because gin is said twice, it is surely significant and may hint at alcohol being her coping mechanism. This further underscores the emotional effect this war has on her. By making this poem so focused on the impact war has on an individual level, readers are able to glean how it would feel to live through such a tragic time.
“After the Bomb Tests,” in contrast, does not mention the individual at all. There is an abundance of religious imagery, including “ecclesiastical curves” (Cooper 3). Describing a bomb explosion with positive religious terms is unusual, which makes this instance stand out. In using this phrase, the poet seems to be implying that the explosion of a nuclear bomb is like an act from God. While catastrophes are often attributed to God, the fact that this bomb was constructed by human scientists to do the maximum amount of damage possible makes it feel less holy. When the poet writes “This is the old Hebraic-featured fear,” she brings up the idea that humanity is too small to be making decisions that have this big of an impact (Cooper 5). Because of fear, humans have created a weapon of God-like power that had the ability to kill tens of thousands of people in an instant. This is the largest-scale harmful weapon ever invented. Pushing technology this far can be seen as taking on the role of God, or at least inching into his territory. Then, when the poet chooses the word “humility,” it elicits the theme of humans having a God complex (Cooper 6). This idea of humans committing hubris with the creation of the atomic bomb is a popular thought, but this poem points out just how much this creation affected humanity’s relationship with God. If humans take on the powers of God, they must also take on the responsibility of God. While the Bible does tell stories of God killing many people, there is always a moral or a lesson. Humans, on the other hand, committed this atrocity upon God’s other children because they were on the opposing side of the war. There is no moral or lesson, just tens of thousands of people dying in the name of war. This poem explores the way in which this action changed the way humanity interacted as a whole and expresses the opinion that the bomb has negative implications for our status as humans.
While both poems are heavily concerned with the lasting effects of the war on humanity, each poem focuses on a different level. Because “To My Mother” emphasizes the mother and the familial relationship, it gives a close, personal account of the effects of war. “After the Bomb Tests” discusses the larger picture and what the lasting implications of wartime actions mean for humanity. Between these two perspectives, readers are better able to understand an event that most will only learn about in history books. By making these poems personal and discussing the frightening ways in which humans treat each other, the poets immortalize the pain people felt and allow for meditation on what it means to be human. The implications of acts of war are not forgotten after the war and these reminiscent poems emphasize how these feelings stay with us, even many years afterwards.
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