Last Century

Wyatt Prunty

Last century we took a lot of shots
Of what we did, framing things for Look and Life
So we could see us and our lot Riveting the lattice of a skyline
Or walking the I beams of infinite rooms
Over Manhattan, Cleveland, Washington—
          Oh elevated light.
We were amassing works—bridges and dams,
Ike’s interstates, highrises; raising tons
Out of a continent unfolding by
Mountain and pit, plain and gradient river,
The convex sky bottling cirrus highs
And the steep cumuli of moody weather,
          Oh century of light.
Back then we were stout realists working out
All manner of the world as one-to-one,
The aerials that Margaret Bourke-White got
Of factories and bombed-out towns,
Also the gaunt subtractive stares by Evans,
Whose dust bowl poor became our luminous
          Internal weather.
And then at Buchenwald there were those faces
Of ourselves—fed guards, starved Poles and Jews,
The citizens of Weimar just trucked in
Bearing the stares of deformed children,
As now our lenses focused on the krill
And undertow of the swallowing real
          Weather of enlightenment.
Add in atomic white, the napalm blind . . .
An overbright disequilibrium
Had settled in, a kind of countermind,
Blind as those guards at Buchenwald, darkroom
And looking up, gashed faces wide with fear,
All interrogatives frozen where
          Someone holds a light
For focusing Margaret Bourke-White;
While the two guards, deserving or not, stripped
To bloody underwear, still looking up
In horror at what’s coming next, hear "Pop!"
Thanks to the flash, so everyone will see
Us taking our turn at victory,
          Oh century.
First published in Virginia Quarterly Review. Copyright © 2006 Wyatt Prunty. Used with permission of the author.

Poems by This Author

Mole by Wyatt Prunty
For weeks he’s tunneled his intricate need
Two Views by Wyatt Prunty
Into the laterals and faults of strata

Further Reading

Poems about America
by Emma Lazarus
A House Divided
by Kyle Dargan
Abraham Lincoln
by Abraham Lincoln
by Richard Blanco
by Herman Melville
by Claude McKay
by Walt Whitman
by Robert Creeley
America [Try saying wren]
by Joseph Lease
Black Laws
by Roger Reeves
C'est La Guerre
by Danniel Schoonebeek
Gate A-4
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Handshake Histories
by Jeff Hoffman
I am the People, the Mob
by Carl Sandburg
by Kamilah Aisha Moon
Like Any Good American
by Brynn Saito
Passing Through Albuquerque
by John Balaban
by Vanessa Place
The Blank of America
by Terese Svoboda
The House-top
by Herman Melville
Poems about the Past
Book Loaned to Tom Andrews
by Bobby C. Rogers
Evasive Action
by Charlie Smith
by Marilyn Buck
On Becoming a Poet in the 1950s
by Stephen Beal
The Ark Upon His Shoulders
by Forrest Gander
The Cold War [excerpt]
by Kathleen Ossip
The Hammock
by Li-Young Lee
The Past
by Michael Ryan
The Present Crisis
by James Russell Lowell
Wedding Album 1977
by Tess Taylor
When I Am in the Kitchen
by Jeanne Marie Beaumont