Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Widening Gyre

by Helen Caldicott
Poetry has been an integral part of my psyche ever since my school days in Melbourne, Australia, when I began to memorize verse after verse. Hilaire Belloc I learned from my elocution teacher, gazing down her throat at her tonsils as she mechanically formulated the words: "Matilda told such Dreadful Lies,/It made one Gasp and Stretch one's Eyes." The wonderful hymns we sang inspired my altruistic fervor: "Ring out, ye crystal spheres!/Once bless our human ears / (If ye have power to touch our sense so)." And: "Let your silver chime / Move in melodious time," by John Milton. We belted out those verses in our morning assembly, presided over by Margaret Cunningham, our short, buxom, incredibly independent, and inspirational headmistress who set us on our special courses in life.

I always had some sense of "destiny," and my course was set when reading Nevil Shute's novel On the Beach when I was seventeen years old in first-year medical school. This book described a nuclear war that occurred by accident. Everybody in the world died except the population of Melbourne, because the fallout took the longest to reach us. Eventually, though, everyone in Melbourne died as well — and hideously, of acute radiation illness, signaling the end of the human race. I was converted immediately to the cause of nuclear disarmament, and determined to commit my life as a physician to teaching people about the medical consequences of nuclear war and nuclear power.

These days, stanzas still sometimes appear in my brain from nowhere and repeat themselves, giving me comfort in a world that often makes no sense at all. Poems written years ago can be extraordinarily prescient in their intense despair, and their ability to reflect our current insane international situation. Though most people indulge in psychic numbing or manic denial, the planet is in gross  jeopardy from the trilogy of unrestrained global warming, the medical consequences of nuclear power, and the ever-present threat of a full-scale nuclear war. Perhaps it is a Yeats poem written almost a century ago that best captures the state of the world in 2007:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
— From The Second Coming

I practiced medicine for years but gradually became involved in educating and recruiting doctors globally to teach about the medical effects of nuclear war. I was founder and president of a group called Physicians for Social Responsibility, a group of twenty-three thousand physicians whose educational efforts helped catalyze the end of the Cold War. My audiences these days vary — doctors, students, church people, and lay people, all of whom can be psychologically devastated by hearing the gruesome medical effects of nuclear war, with all laid waste as people expire from acute radiation sickness and burns.

In the face of such atrocity, it might seem strange to turn to poetry; as Shakespeare asked, "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea;/Whose action is no stronger than a flower?" Yet, as such lines prove, poetry is an art form uniquely suited to encompass both the horror and the splendor of existence, and often in the same breath. Moreover, it can conjure the essence of pure love and joy that is available to us all, but which, in the light of such terrible evidence about the state of our world, can seem so difficult to believe in. And so, when my audiences become overwhelmed, it is Shakespeare's greatest love sonnet that I invoke: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate." For surely such love for each other, and for humankind, exists —even in times of the worst global crisis, even today.
Originally Published: November 18, 2007


On March 26, 2009 at 4:00am Joan Jawahir wrote:
I have been looking for ages for a copy

of the poem in which the words began:

"Matilda told such dreadful lies, it made

on gasp and scratch one eye---

Her aunt who from her earliest youth---


I can't seem to find it, but my search

tonight revealed someone

remembering this poem too--

would you be kind enough to email me

a copy.

A little about me:

I was school in the island of Grenade

WI under a British educational system

in the 70,'s.

I love poetry. It to me was the original

rap and the origin of songs


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This prose originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2007


Helen Caldicott is an Australian physician, anti-nuclear activist, and founder of Women's Action for New Directions. She is the author of several books, including Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer to Global Warming or Anything Else (Melbourne University Press, 2006). Last year, she was awarded the inaugural Australian Peace Prize.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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