I watched the menacing cloud—the most obstinate I’d ever seen. It lingered there year after year—never moving, never dissolving, never allowing a single ray of sunshine pierce its thick black glow.
It was several years since the “mini-nukes” exploded over California's West Coast. Most of my friends had been at the beach surfing that day. It was the one time I thanked God for having denied me any and all athleticism, or I would have been there too. Poetry was more my thing, especially pastoral poetry.
However, with a seemingly perennial yet strangely mild nuclear winter—more like a “nuclear autumn”—stalking most of California and the western states, there wasn’t much pastoral left to speak of. After the bomb, things were never quite the same.
I hadn’t seen the stars in years. Pure untainted sunlight felt like an alien concept. All I knew was the thick black oozing glow streaking the skies. That was my sun.
The US’s failed regime change operation in Russia did not turn out in their favor. After taking back Crimea from Russia, the White House seemed to have become too cocky. Fortune had moved on to new objects of affection.
The poetry I wrote no longer seemed to flow from some inspired source, like the blue meandering streams of Helicon or the precious drops of a Pierian spring—it flowed from that lingering cloud. Whether day or night, its ghoulish radiation was all I saw. The glow was bright enough to keep everything alive, but everything was off. It was a seasonless world.
Irradiated vacuum-sealed food was everywhere, but no one was really sure if it actually contained nutrition. Every time I ate it, it felt like I was ingesting a Hungry Man frozen dinner that had been defrosted, cooked, defrosted again, and then canned and marked with a 200 year shelf life.
The rains that fell from the sable cloud were without doubt radioactive, yet they were pretty like torrents of bright green emeralds falling. All of life seemed hostage to that cloud, which looked more like a hole in the sky, as if a rip in time had blighted the heavens.
However, time no longer felt like a relevant concept. As JFK said, in a post nuclear war world, “the living envy the dead.” No longer were there seconds, minutes, hours—it was all increments of suspended animation. One felt like the ghost of Hamlet’s father wandering the plains at Elsinore—trapped between two worlds—waiting for a reckoning that would never come.
All the more reason why I gravitated to poetry, which seemed like a timeless occupation to begin with. Time had ceased, so why not seek the timeless?
I would go for my daily walks through downtown New York where the wraith-like steam kept guard over each manhole and every passerby was stalked by the city fog.
Everything was sullen: the trees, the people, the birds. The squirrels were all dejected and retreated inwards. As their frail forms trotted the fallow earth, their faces seemed to belong to another world. I looked up, which I hadn’t done for a very long time. I remembered why: it was a starless sky.
After my afternoon wander, as I liked to call it, I returned home to join my brother and sister for supper. We were all capable of taking care of ourselves—my sister being 26, my brother 20, and myself 24. Since my parents decided to move to Argentina and work there for a few years, we lived in the house on our own and planned to do so until someone, somehow, found a way to chase away that ghoulish cloud.
“Hey Josh!” said my sister, “How is the poetry going? Found your ‘inspiration’ yet?”
“I have a great idea for you bro, I saw a fox today running across the football field, but it looked like its whole skeleton was exposed, like its entire body was made transparent by like X-rays or something, you know? Isn’t that crazy?”
That was my brother. “Yeah, that’s crazy Fred. Don’t know about that for a poem though.”
“Just trying to help.”
“Who’s hungry?” I asked.
We ate the alien matter and then we all did our own thing. My sister had her new boyfriend over and they enjoyed going out to those secret restaurants which still served real food—food that hadn’t gone through special irradiation treatment for the elimination of toxins. They called it “organic.” Fred went to his football practice.
I set to work on a new poem.
Like those perennial emerald rains, Or Elizabeth Taylor’s ring: All wore such rich green stains And shared a beautiful sting. If only I could buy a diamond, Or a crystal glass of water! To drink as the sun horizoned— Then could I gently saunter.
It felt like my brain had turned green—even if there was no way of knowing what that even meant, or if there was any truth to it. That’s what I felt, and that’s what I wrote about. But it wasn’t just me: in my literature classes at NYU, which I continued to take (about half the students remained in school after the disaster), everyone’s poetry seeped with the same green ooze, unctuously flowing from the pages of our bleached notebooks like some kind of universal anti-emotion. It was as if a new sentiment had burned itself inside our brains.
Everything I wrote just seemed to ooze out of me, as if Helicon’s streams had congealed into the thick muddy waters of an ancient bog. My friend Kelsey also recently wrote a poem, which she sent me yesterday:
Those green fields shining And sylvan fortresses; All who walk and are pining Walk these surfaces: Yes, green like the laurel, Or green like my teeth: But yours are more like coral— Their luster so brief.
She was very proud of it, but I knew that it wasn’t so much us—and it definitely wasn’t the muses—it was the cloud.
In school we were encouraged to seek out a more vital environment for inspiration—something far away from all the images of fallout and sullen birds croaking in the leafless trees. Whether green crab apples (the only kind of apple left) or green road signs on highways, everything seemed mutated green, including our thoughts.
I needed to acquaint my eyes with real sunlight again—with color—but I was hesitant for just that reason: my eyes had grown accustomed to the glow. My eyes had even taken on some of its green hue—everyone’s eyes did. A few of my friends had gone away for a while and hated it—they couldn’t stand the sunlight.
That night my mind was running so I went for a midnight walk to think things over. As I made my way down the stairs and across the living room, the stretching plasma TV was still on: late night news was playing and the host was talking about the beneficial effects of light for people from sun-starved regions like West Coast California. They talked about Europe and countries like Spain and Italy, which were considered great places for fallout victims to rehabilitate themselves after long exposure to the cloud.
They said there’s nothing like a bit of Spanish sun, or a Roman breeze.
I knew that I needed to take drastic action if I was to start seriously writing again. So I resolved to pack my bag and take my parents up on that scholarship for studying abroad. They had been worried about me for a while. They went on about how much better life was away from the cloud. However, the thought of the sun—its stinging light—kept me away for a long time. But I finally resolved to do something about it—things had to change. This would be my last attempt: I set out for Rome.
On the plane ride, I read Dante’s Commedia. The opening terza rime stayed with me the whole time:
“Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita,
Mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
Che la diritta via era smarrita.”
“In the midst of our life’s journey,
I found myself within a darkened forest,
For I had lost the path that does not stray.”
Rome was a sea-change. For the first few days I didn’t really go outside though. I just brushed up on my Italian and tried adapting my eyes to the light. I stayed in my dorm and let the sun shine through the little perturbation in my wall—my “finestrina.” It was magical: I felt like a mortal peeking into Paradise. Whether it was just a few inches or several feet wide, what I saw on the other side was still Paradise.
Mohammed had been given that opportunity on mount Jerusalem, and Dante by the grace of Beatrice—both had seen Paradise. Adam and Eve lived in one on Earth. Compared to things back home, gazing through my little “finestrina” felt like being privy to such a Paradise—something most people back home no longer thought about.
Since I hadn’t left my room for a while, I did have time to read the latest poems my friends sent. John sent me “Geronimo”:
Dear Josh, You’ll find enclosed a little opus dedicated to Geronimo, the legendary Indian chief and Apache warrior. The wind whispered through the trees, Geronimo whispered to his steeds; But only he danced, the horses dispersed, Then the glowing cloud the chieftain cursed. Why are you so ruthless, Cloud! My petals were once carnelian, But they’ve changed! They’ve become your chameleon. Could my tongue reach the angels, or my eyes breach your skies, You would not glow—you would rue those raindrop lies! Sincerely, John From Cloud 35B7
I didn’t want to end up like John, but I didn’t want to feel the burning sensation caused by the light either. Each ray of sunshine felt like a wasp bite. I had to walk the streets with sun glasses at all times—even at night. I kept my pale skin covered at all times.
Because of the stinging light, for the first weeks I only explored Rome at dusk. However, it was a breath of fresh air. After the first few weeks my eyes began getting used to receiving the sunlight. I saw the blue Italian sky and the gilded Roman clouds floating over the Coliseum. I saw the beautiful “Stone Pines,” which looked like giant bonsai trees that had contracted gigantism. Every step, every street, and every edifice radiated with history. Walking over the Tiber river into “Trastevere”, (“Tevere” meaning Tiber in Italian and “Tras” being over, thus: “Over the Tiber”), one only had to ask a stranger, “Dove va la gente per mangiare?” to taste the most delectable dishes the world had ever conceived.
Walking along the Tiber, I could picture Caesar nearly drowning in its waters as he and Brutus tried to swim against its currents as young men—something that exposed the worldly frailty of Caesar, and cost him so much later in life.
I visited the “Piazza di Spania” where the Spanish embassy was once found. The place was now known as the “Spanish Steps” where to my complete surprise, the Keats/Shelley memorial house stood. I had forgotten that both Keats and Shelley had died in Rome, and were buried in its cemeteries. I always think of Keats and his epitaph, “here lies one whose name was writ in water,” engraved on his tombstone for eternity.
The Italian air was vibrant. Its buildings echoed with antiquity; the Tiber seemed as old as time. Meanwhile, back home the streets were still occupied by fog and flooded by the cloud’s green glow.
To practice my Italian I read a canto from Dante’s Commedia every day and tried to memorize it. This greatly increased my capacity for language retention and my capacity for organic locution.
While I had toiled throughout most of the inferno, I did make it to the end, unlike my English teacher.
“Salimmo sù, el primo e io secondo, tanto ch’i’ vidi de le cose belle che porta ’l ciel, per un pertugio tondo. E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.”
“We climbed up, he first and I second, To behold those beautiful things, Wrought by the universe, through a small breach,
Where I exited and regained the stars.”
I finally had the courage to look up and see if the stars were there. The dark black cloud had vanished.
While I could have stayed in Rome forever, I had to go back home. My sojourn and finances had reached their end. Despite my long Roman rehabilitation, I did manage to write at least one thing that didn’t feel like it was completely contaminated by that damned cloud:
Forever eterne seem the stars to twinkle
And through the years shines the sky without a wrinkle.
While we grow old and life’s candle grows dimmer,
In a concert with the stars our cities shimmer.
But the stars seemed the brightest when seen in your eye
Where the depths of the heavens are spanned in a sigh.
For the world may dissolve in the blink of an eye,
But never seemed it so bright as when seen in your eye.
While returning home was painful and no one could ever really find themselves in a state of relishing the conditions back home, I told myself that the bravest are hopeful. While I couldn’t see the speckled skies and their innumerable little twinkles, I knew they were there. I finally found the stars, or maybe they found me. David B. Gosselin is a writer, researcher, translator and poet based in Montreal. He writes on Substack at Age of Muses.