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The unprecedented destruction caused by World War II is inarguably one of the worst points in the history of mankind. It saw the debut of the atomic bomb into modern warfare, which changed the world’s course of history forever. In “Welcome to Hiroshima,” Mary Jo Salter explores how the city has attempted to recover in the aftermath of it being the first target of nuclear weapons while also remembering the victims and the tragedy through memorials. The poem provokes readers to consider the functions intended for memorials of tragic events, and the true effects they possess.
Through Salter’s use of juxtaposing imagery, war-specific diction and shifts in tone, she demonstrates the struggle between honoring the victims and capturing the true horror that war memorials seek to resolve. It conveys how memorials serve as a vehicle for the country to move ahead and as a warning against the repetition of history, yet at the same time, by failing to fulfill its purpose, the memorial may very well be dishonoring the dead.
Mary Jo Salter’s selection of diction weaves references of the atomic bomb into her modern setting. By personifying modern American items like the food to have “mutations,” it also serves as a reference to the effects the bomb had on the city, illustrating that not only did it physically damage citizens, but the impact of Western culture had since been imploded (Salter 16). This is seen when she mentions “Toshiba Electric” (4) and “a pizza someone tops / with a maraschino cherry” (17-18).
Although her diction doesn’t paint this Westernization in a negative light, it shows how it manifested itself in Japanese society even years after the war. She describes her surroundings with descriptions that also parallel to the aftermath of the war, showing that despite the many years passing the tragedy and Hiroshima’s recovery, the effects of war are still left in society. Salter ends up portraying this development in the images of the bombing, eventually using the same diction to describe the physical displays in the memorial, seen when she depicts the mannequins as “served, as on a dish / of blistered grass,” (23-24). Her choice of diction displays the struggle to create a memorial that can commemorate the lost lives of a war in a respectful manner but also serve as a reminder to prevent such a tragedy in the future.
The contrasting imagery of Hiroshima in the present day and past contribute to the speaker’s skeptical attitude toward the memorial’s ability to completely capture the horrors of the historical event. The speaker’s present experience with Hiroshima is characterized by a clear and bright illusion of contentment and tranquility in the “Peace Park’s floral hypocenter,” (18) yet the subsequent more gruesome images undermine the false utopia-like atmosphere. First, in lines 5-7, “those flickering re-runs of a cloud / that brims its risen columnful like beer, / and, spilling over, hangs its foamy head.” clearly foreshadows a looming, unsettling feeling that the speaker has about present-day Hiroshima and the memorial. In the actual museum, Salter shows violent and disturbing images, such as “ strings of flesh hang[ing] from their fingertips” (24-25) and “a shard the bomb slammed in a woman’s arm” (41-42), in order to serve as a reminder to the speaker that while the city has more or less moved on and progressed since the bombing, the stain of the bloodshed will forever hover over the new buildings and its inhabitants. In the last line, the image of the past “work[ing] its filthy way out like a tongue” emphasizes the speaker’s belief in the futility, and even the disrespect, of the memorial. Furthermore, while the museum does display select examples of the horrific outcome in an attempt to forever imprint upon the viewers’ minds the tragedy of the bombing, there is a sense of dissatisfaction through the negative way the speaker presents these images, which contributes to an overall pessimistic attitude towards the memorial’s function as an example of history that should not be repeated.
Salter displays changing attitudes towards the memorial to depict her conflicting feelings. She first describes her awe when she sees that Japan has “countless sunny coffee shops” with “mutations of cuisine” in them (13,15). She is surprised as she glances at the surroundings of the modernized and Americanized Japan especially when she sees an English billboard built “by Toshiba Electric”(3). She realizes that Japan has moved on as it incorporates Western culture into its meals like the “pancake sandwich”(16). All these pleasant appearances which contrast with her initial thoughts about Hiroshima as a devastated battleground push her on a quest for more knowledge about the past as she describes it as “a thirst for history” (8). But she becomes bitter when she enters the memorial as she mocks how the memorial bravely “erased its own erasure” (20). She appears deeply saddened by the fact that even though the memorial tries to build the trauma using the “three mannequins” she feels that the memorial does not really show a profound reverence for the victims or represent the catastrophic incident where “all commemoration’s swallowed up” (23,28). Even though she appreciates some aspects of the memorial with the glass shard and the wristwatch through her use of repetition of eight-fifteen, she still feels unsatisfied with the memorial’s effort of reminding the future about avoiding the same mistakes and tragic events from the past. Salter shows that Japan while it has advanced and healed from the horrific event, its effort in reminding that the memorial is unsuccessful and as a result, serves as a dishonor to its victims.
Salter presents the inevitable issue with all memorials through her poem: While they are necessary for progression and teaching lessons, it is almost impossible to totally encapsulate all of the tragedy without oversimplifying or downplaying it. As time progresses, it is only natural that humans will begin to remember less and less, and the events of the past will progressively become more out of touch with the population. which is a testament to the uselessness of memorials in the long run. In the grand scheme of things, m
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