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My Century

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The year I was born the atomic bomb went off.
Here I'd just begun, and someone
found the switch to turn off the world.

In the furnace-light, in the central solar fire
of that heat lamp, the future got very finite,
and it was possible to imagine time-travelers

failing to arrive, because there was no future.
Inside the great dark clock in the hall,
heavy brass cylinders descended.

Tick-tock, the chimes changed their tune
one phrase at a time. The bomb became
a film star, its glamorous globe of smoke

searing the faces of men in beach chairs.
Someone threw up every day at school.
No time to worry about collective death,

when life itself was permeated by ordeals.
And so we grew up, beneath an umbrella of acceptance.
In bio we learned there were particles

cruising through us like whales through archipelagoes,
and in civics that if Hitler had gotten the bomb
he'd have used it on the inferior races,

and all this time love was etching its scars
on our skins like maps. The heavens
remained pure, except for little white slits

on the perfect blue skin that planes cut
in the icy upper air, like needles sewing.
From one, a tiny seed might fall

that would make a sun on earth.
And so the century passed, with me still in it,
books waiting on the shelves to become cinders,

what we felt locked up inside, waiting to be read,
down the long corridor of time. I was born
the year the bomb exploded. Twice

whole cities were charred like cities in the Bible,
but we didn't look back. We went on thinking
we could go on, our shapes the same,

darkened now against a background lit by fire.
Forgive me for doubting you're there,
Citizens, on your holodecks with earth wallpaper—

a shadow-toned ancestor with poorly pressed pants,
protected like a child from knowing the future.

Source: Poetry

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This poem originally appeared in the November 2001 issue of Poetry magazine

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My Century

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  • Alan Feldman is the author of several collections of poetry, including  Immortality (2015), winner of the Four Lakes Prize; A Sail to Great Island (2004), winner of Pollak Prize for Poetry; and The Happy Genius (1978), winner of the annual George Elliston Book Award for the best collection published by a small, U.S. non-profit press. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and Kenyon Review, among many other magazines, and included in The Best American Poetry anthology in 2001 and 2011. Feldman's recent work appears in Hanging Loose, Cimarron Review, upstreet, Southern Review, Yale Review, Salamander, Southwest Review, Cincinnati Review, Catamaran, Worcester Review, and online in Boston Poetry Magazine and Cortland Review. His poem "A Man and A Woman" was featured in Tony Hoagland's 2013 article for Harper's, "Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America."

    Feldman was a professor and chair of English at Framingham State University, and for 22 years taught the advanced creative writing class at Harvard University's Radcliffe Seminars. He offers free, drop-in...

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