Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Tyler Mills’s two visual poems from her “Afterimage” series appear in the September 2017 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
When I made the visual poems that are part of my Afterimage series, I never imagined that the world would be bracing itself for the possibility of a nuclear strike, with Guam residents being told to “take cover” and not to look at the fireball. Wash your hair with shampoo but not conditioner, as the chemicals will bind radioactive material to your hair.
Guam, caught in the crosshairs of the nuclear missile crisis between the U.S. and North Korea, is just about the same distance from the Marshall Islands as New York is from California.
In a little over ten years, between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. detonated 67 nuclear devices in the Marshall Islands, poisoning residents and literally wiping the island of Elugelab off the face of the earth. And now, once again, Micronesia is facing a nuclear threat—this time, one that all of the detonations were supposed to be preparing “us” (i.e., the continental U.S.) for.
Before I moved to New Mexico, a key player in the history and development of atomic weapons, I began collecting computer punch cards from the Los Alamos Laboratory. I’d order them online, and they’d arrive in my mailbox in Chicago. The thickly packed, standard-sized envelopes with “Los Alamos” as the return address would be taped up at the flap. What IS that? a friend would ask, seeing them on my desk and eyeing the return address.
I had fallen into an obsession with nuclear testing, which began with a fragmented family story. Before his death, my grandfather claimed involvement in the Nagasaki mission and gave my mother a photograph of the atomic cloud in an album. I had been writing poems as a way of working through this mystery and had fallen headfirst into researching the thousand nuclear tests the U.S. conducted in Micronesia, in space, and on its own soil.
As I viewed one declassified nuclear test film after the other, I felt sick with horror each time an atomic cloud blossomed above the glassy Pacific waves of the Marshall Islands, throwing them into chaos, or glowed into a fireball above the pink desert of the Nevada Test Site where military personnel would often stand, back to the camera, and watch.
I’d scrawl transcripts of these test films into the sketchbooks where I had been drafting poems, pausing the video so I could copy the voice word-for-word in my own looped handwriting. I’d order scientific reports of bird migrations through the Nevada Test Site from Interlibrary Loan and read them cover-to-cover, copying out information about bird movement through the regions where fire would still be burning in the brush after a detonation.
Was I like a magpie as I foraged for data, collecting fragments that were becoming too cumbersome for the nest I was building? As I revised the poems that would become my second collection of poems, Hawk Parable, I had to let go of the silver hooks that had caught me and had come with me. Or, at least, I continued to collect this information, but for something else, a new nest, a new project.
As for the computer punch cards, some of which had been punctured with holes and some of which had remained unrecorded? Even as I was working on Hawk Parable, I didn’t know what to do with them. But these paper rectangles seemed somehow emblematic of my encounters with information tied to the Manhattan Project and all of its mysteries. A program had once marked some of the cards with data important to the individuals who worked at the Los Alamos labs (like the hours they worked and how much they would be paid) and to the history of human-made radioactive material (like isotope and enrichment numbers). But now I could hold the cards up to the light and look through the perforations. Through the gaps, I could see the tree outside my window unfurling with new leaves. As my fingers touched the holes in the cards, I thought about how removed this information was from anything I could access. The cards had become artifacts.
And what about the smooth cards that hadn’t been punched? What potential for meaning existed there?
Shortly before I had ordered the computer punch cards, I had altered a forty-foot player piano roll for “The Piano Roll Project” co-curated by Gail Skudera (my mother) and Kristin Malin and installed in a former textile mill in Maine. The looms in the former textile mill had once been programmed with punched cards, I realized. And the player piano rolls themselves had once been programmed for songs that a piano would play without human touch. The player piano paper itself is fragile, I discovered. It twists and even rips when you stretch it out in ten-feet increments, as I had to as I unrolled it in stretches over the floor of my Chicago apartment.
My Gondola installation in “The Piano Roll Project,” Bates Mill Complex, Lewiston, Maine. (All photographs courtesy of Tyler Mills, reproduced with permission.)
As I worked on My Gondola (my piano roll for the installation) and stitched the holes with embroidery floss, outlined them in red pencil, glued lace over the words printed up the sides, I noticed that the paper was not only fragile with age but also with the language that it holds. The holes that marked it rendered the object tenuous—even more tenuous than my project itself had become in my mind. I am not a trained artist and had returned to feeling like I did as a child when I drew for hours and hours next to my artist mother while she sat at her loom and worked.
I thought a lot about those holes in the paper, which were meant to program the hammers inside the piano to strike the strings that would, in the right order and at the right time, emit a melody.
I felt such nostalgia for them, as though each hole stood in for something to say that was now forever lost.
Once I moved to New Mexico, I would slide the computer punch cards I had ordered from their envelopes and fan them out on my desk in the high desert. I began to slowly paint over a few of the cards in watercolor stains, washing the “isotopes” column and the “enrich (%)” column with color. I washed the “employee number,” “hours” and “money” columns. I washed “net change.” I would let these few cards dry and put them back in their envelopes with the other cards.
It wasn’t until I was at an artist residency at Yaddo that I was able to conceive of how the punch cards I had been collecting might tie into the research I had also been collecting for my poems, yet would grow into an entirely new project.
In Saratoga Springs, where Yaddo is located, I had brought photocopies of the 8x10s that a friendly archivist had given me on a snowy January day when I went to the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives in Santa Fe that winter. The 8x10s were prints of the very first photographs taken of a nuclear explosion: the Trinity Test detonated near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. These images had been deeply troubling me with their boiling, almost incomprehensible shadows.
The backs of the photos I had examined at the Photo Archives had been scrawled in graphite pencil with the f-stop number of the camera lens used to take the picture. Someone had also labeled them with the number of seconds after the blast that the image recorded. At one point I had written this information down, but I lost it—and lost myself in the popcorn ball clouds. Cotton candy swirls of them that began to appear once, at my studio at Yaddo, I began saturating them with color.
The two visual poems in Poetry, "Afterimage (II)" and "Afterimage (V)," are part of a twelve-work visual sequence that I made there. I worked with pieces and scraps, unsure of how I would reassemble them. Yet all the while, my driving question was this: How could I invite a viewer to think about the visual impression of something so terrible, so deeply imprinted into our collective consciousness that we don’t want to see it?
The computer punch cards helped me through this problem, as did my forest studio in upstate New York that summer. The studio had windows on three sides that glowed green with ferns and trees. After living in the high desert of northern New Mexico, I had become acclimated to a palette of browns and pinks, and the green that shimmered in the windows was startling. I could hear rain in the leaves when I opened the windows. The forest floor seemed to move like water tilting green toward the light.
Works in progress, Yaddo, July 2016
My very first day of the residency, I knew I wanted to wash gestural watercolor lines over the surface of some of the computer punch cards I had brought with me—evoking landscapes. I made greenscapes and bluescapes. "Afterimage (V)" contains two of these bluescapes. I wanted to imprint the artifacts that had been implicated in the storage of nuclear materials with nature. Later, I also begin incorporating browns and reds.
Some of the works would include collages of workers digging the earth for nuclear labs in Los Alamos. The workers in hard hats and cowboy hats seem like they could be from any time period, the mid-twentieth century vehicles still surprisingly common in New Mexico where the sun bakes the rain away before they have a chance to rust.
I worked on the individual pieces of the collages for almost four weeks before assembling them into the twelve-work series. I’d look at the clouds, at the punch cards, and I’d lay one over the other to see what visual effect it could have without committing to gluing anything down. I’d play the violin I rented from a shop in Saratoga Springs and look at the materials spread out on the cot in the corner of the studio and spread out over the piano bench near the window. I opened my older notebooks that I had brought with me—pages covered with my obsessive notes about what was said before particular nuclear explosions. My writing began to look like abstract pen and ink drawings to me.
And as I saturated the atomic clouds with color, which began as a way for me to engage my hand and my brain with the shapes inside those boiling, terrible images, the blooms would soak into the notebook paper I had placed underneath to protect the drafting table. When I lifted the page I had been soaking, I saw a kind of afterimage—another kind of reproduction.
Afterimage materials laid out on the bed in my studio (image used with permission)
The Dada photomontages of Hannah Höch, many of which I saw at the Neue Galerie in New York at the “Berlin Metropolis: 1918–1933” exhibition, inspired me. Fascinated once again with her works—as I’ve always been drawn to Höch’s political assemblages—my mind opened up to what I could do with the computer punch cards I had been collecting. Collage, for me, seemed to be the best way that I could think of to draw a viewer in to the highly familiar nuclear blast shapes that have saturated pop culture and apocryphal websites.
At Yaddo, as I prepared and assembled Afterimage, I struggled with this tension: How could I use reproductions of a very familiar shape tied to culturally shared fear, yet at the same time present them with enough newness to invite a reader/viewer to engage fully with the works that contain them?
In addressing this question, I am indebted to the visual artist Doron Langberg (whose work you can explore here). One afternoon, he stopped by my studio for a visit, which was an honor for me, as I was there as a writer and not a visual artist. He asked me open-ended questions about my goals for the images of the nuclear clouds—as representations of a single moment in time. Visually, the stem loads the clouds with the symbolism of the A-bomb. We talked about how, without the stem, they looked like blooms, like jellyfish, like smoke in water.
Depending on the color of the ink—yellow, fuchsia, green, navy—the swirling shapes within the clouds come alive in different ways.
In some places, like the notes that are part of "Afterimage (II)," my handwriting is fairly legible, and the placement of the images around it doesn’t obscure the sentences too much from what one could guess about their original context. If you choose to, you can find that “specimens and plant debris falling into the cloth were also placed into the bag containing the stems and leaves” for example. However, the notes in "Afterimage (V)" tend to be more fragmented, which makes reading them more difficult, perhaps even frustrating. I wanted this interplay between revealed and obscured information to be instrumental to the works across the series.
For example, in "Afterimage (V)," on the left side, you can see a partial transcript of one of the declassified nuclear test films I watched over and over and used in a few of the poems in Hawk Parable. This language comes from a film depicting the explosion and aftermath of “Ivy Mike,” a massive hydrogen bomb test—the first thermonuclear device ever detonated—the U.S. exploded in the Marshall Islands in 1952. On the right side, you’ll see a page from my notebook where I made notes of information from Birds of the Nevada Test Site published in the Brigham Young University Science Bulletin’s Biological Series 3.1 in June 1963.
What the viewer can glimpse is information about the house sparrow and meadowlark as the species migrated through the regions near where the U.S. detonated nuclear devices in the sixties. In this visual work, the green atomic cloud swirls in the center, water-like. I was reminded of the color of algae blooms photographed from space. On the page, this cloud kind of looks like a hole to me, something that could suck everything around it inside. The punch cards underneath the atomic cloud are meant to evoke water. As I painted them, I wanted to emphasize the gestural potential of the line and for it to interact with the punch cards underneath—cards meant to record employee hours. Perhaps in articulating a seascape in this context, I could invite a meditation on the labor that went into the nuclear material and device that exploded the “Ivy Mike” bomb. And perhaps my engagement with these disparate materials could invite a reader to look deeply at them, to think about them, and also to let the eye move over the page. It was important for me for these works to be visually pleasing inasmuch as they communicated information. My goal for Afterimage was to create spaces of tension even while the individual works explored visual properties like balance and harmony.
To me, this series is a visual expression of my own journey through archival materials, through data made inaccessible—as the Fortran cards are to me, when I touch the punched holes and wonder at how to read them. These works also represent my journey through my notes about traces of the human touch involved with these tests—such the voices of scientists before the bombs decimated communities in the Marshall Islands and the notes recorded about the wildlife affected by the bombs blasted in the desert. I wanted to capture the destruction and invite a viewer or reader to look and think about this legacy, and in particular, the damage done by the U.S.
How is it possible to begin to comprehend the seemingly infinite (to human scale) lives of the materials we created at the expense of the total human and ecological life it claims? How can I articulate the horrifying spectacle of the “experiment” you can witness when you watch declassified nuclear test films and see the sweat gleaming off the cheeks and foreheads of the military commanders and scientists standing at the rails of aircraft carrier decks? How can I even begin speaking about the visual spectacle that summoned total light and total darkness uncontrolled and rolling off the earth? And how does this image function now, in our imagination, as we find ourselves faced once again with the threat of nuclear disaster? As the residents of Micronesia once again stand on watch?
These works are called Afterimage because I wanted to speak to the after-effect of these tests, the visual echo left in our collective consciousness. As we face many crises—of clean water, of global warming caused by corporate greed, of racism and xenophobia, of nuclear war—my hope is that Afterimage invites an engagement with the past that encourages looking inward and then outward again rather than looking away.