Santa Fe poet Matt Donovan’s nonfiction debut, “A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape, Meditations on Ruin and Redemption,” is a literary, wide-ranging, time-traveling fusion of the essay and memoir forms, of the themes of death and life, of destruction and rebirth.
The cloud reference in the title comes from a letter written by Pliny the Younger, who survived the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
The eruption produced clouds of molten rock, dust and fumes killing 16,000 Pompeii residents. The thermal energy it released was reportedly 100,000 times greater than that of the Hiroshima blast.
Five of the 14 essay-memoirs are about the art (frescoes, mosaics etc.) that survived the eruption. Another, “Garden of the Fugitives,” is about a group of Pompeii children and adults who died in an orchard; plaster casts were made of their skeletons.
But Donovan’s collection opens with a more recent, and no less memorable event, the man-made mushroom cloud caused by the first atomic bomb test in July 1945. The opening essay, “Leaving Trinity,” contains Donovan’s observations of New Mexico’s Trinity Site, ground zero of the explosion, and recollections of who and what he saw there as a visitor.
The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Donovan said in an email that he began the book with the Trinity essay “because I wanted a dialogue between those clouds that were linked to places of ruin to begin from the outset.”
“Both the Trinity piece and the Pompeii sequence serve as meditations on apocalypse, and to the speaker’s relationship to the destruction,” he said.
Donovan divides the Trinity essay-memoir into “Ten Ground Zero Swerves.”
His examples of the wide-ranging subjects of swerves include random scenes of souvenir mushroom cloud T-shirts, guides to New Mexico hikes, a sheet allowing visitors to add up their annual radiation exposure; black-and-white photographs “of churning light” attached to a fence.
Donovan compares the photos to (Georgia) “O’Keeffe’s undulant calla lilies or one of (Edward) Hopper’s desolate sunbeams … images … so frequently reproduced they’ve lost their singularity”; the road trip that the two plutonium halves of the test bomb made from Los Alamos to the master bedroom of the empty McDonald Ranch House; J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project’s scientific director, figured he may have had John Donne’s Holy Sonnet in mind in naming the site Trinity; stunned Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi was unable to drive immediately after the Trinity test.
Donovan is a prize-winning poet and co-chairman of the creative writing and literature department of Santa Fe University of Art and Design.