Aerial Photograph Before the Atomic Bomb

Toi Derricotte

‘Aerial Photograph Before the Atomic Bomb’ by Toi Derricotte reflects on the impact of witnessing the devastating events of Hiroshima through a photograph. 

Toi Derricotte

Nationality: American

Toi Derricotte is an American poet who was born in 1941.

She is best known for her poetry books, including The Empress of the Death House and Captivity.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Violence is not the answer

Themes: Death, Dreams, War

Speaker: Likely the poet

Emotions Evoked: Anger, Hope, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

This is a beautiful and emotional poem that explores the bombing of Hiroshima through a historic photo.

This WWII-inspired poem explores the fascination and horror evoked by the image of destruction and the profound questions it raises. No matter one’s opinion on the events of World War II and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s impossible to dismiss the emotion felt within the lines of this modern poem. 


‘Aerial Photograph Before the Atomic Bomb’ by Toi Derricotte is a stunning modern depiction of the bombing of Hiroshima using various examples of figurative language and imagery

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker describes studying a photograph in Life magazine that captures the moment before the atomic bomb’s detonation. They are intrigued by the central image of a spinning wheel resembling a Ferris wheel, with its lights burning like eyes. The spinning atom symbolizes the destructive force about to be unleashed upon the unsuspecting planet below.

As the speaker contemplates the photograph, they reflect on the town lying beneath the bomb, drawing a chilling parallel between the town and a child sleeping under the watchful gaze of a rapist. The poem concludes with a contemplation of alternate outcomes. They wonder if the destructive force could be sucked back into its lead container, preventing the cataclysmic aftermath.

Hiroshima two months after the bombing
Hiroshima two months after the bombing

Structure and Form 

‘Aerial Photograph Before the Atomic Bomb’ by Toi Derricotte is a thirty-seven-line poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poet chose not to use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are all close to the same length, though, creating a sort of visual unity that makes each part of the poem feel as though they fit together. 

Literary Devices 

In this poem, the poet makes use of a few different literary devices. For example: 

  • Allusion: throughout this poem, the poet alludes to the events of WWII and the suffering of the Japanese people after the bombing of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki). 
  • Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of text. For example, “Catch my eye? After Hiroshima,”
  • Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as three and four. 
  • Metaphor: can be seen when the poet compares two things without using “like” or “as.” For example, the poet compares the image of Hiroshima before the bombing to a wheel “in the middle of the air” and how it “turned.” 

Detailed Analysis 

Lines 1-12

Why did such terrible events

catch my eye? After Hiroshima,

I turned the picture in Life around

in circles, trying to figure out this huge

wheel in the middle of the air, how it turned,

like a ferris wheel, its lights

burning like eyes.

The atom spinning

on course over the sleeping

vulnerable planet. I turned it the way one might

turn a kaleidoscope or prism. Even then I

knew about the town lying under,

In the first lines of this poem, the speaker reflects on their initial reaction to witnessing the terrible events of Hiroshima and engages with a photograph depicting the aftermath of the atomic bomb.

The poem begins with a rhetorical question, “Why did such terrible events / catch my eye?” This indicates the speaker’s curiosity and the paradoxical nature of being drawn to events of destruction and suffering.

The speaker mentions in the next lines what happened during their encounter with a photograph in Life magazine that captured the aftermath of Hiroshima. They describe physically moving the picture by turning it around in circles, therefore attempting to comprehend the enormity of the situation.

In the next few lines, the poet describes the “atom,” the source of all the destructive power, spinning above the “vulnerable” and “sleeping” planet. This evokes a sense of ever-present danger. 

Lines 13-25

like a child sleeping under the

watchful gaze of a rapist, before the spasm of


predictable as machinery- an antique clock.

In the following lines, the poet uses a simile, comparing the atom spinning above the earth to a “child sleeping under the / watchful gaze of a rapist.” Here, the reader will necessarily connect the child to the innocent people in the town of Hiroshima and the rapist to the bomb and/or the United States. 

This comparison is shocking and evokes a sense of violation and vulnerability. It suggests that the impending destruction is not only catastrophic but also morally reprehensible. 

The imagery continues with the mention of a spasm of stopped breath and the closure at the scream of the throat. These phrases depict the abrupt cessation of life and the resulting silence in the face of overwhelming destruction. The poet chooses to use physical and sensory details throughout this poem, such as the scream of the throat. This helps create an intense impact on the reader.

In the next lines, the poem describes the awakening of the body along its shocked spine to bursting light. This imagery suggests the sudden and violent awakening of the body as it is consumed by the intense heat and light of the explosion. 

The subsequent mention of the closing legs and arms likened to a chilled flower, adds to the imagery of vulnerability and powerlessness in the face of destruction. It’s also quite easy to continue relating these images to the overarching image of the child and rapist. 

The speaker then connects the poem, in some ways, to an experience they had in the past. They recall a heat they felt before in their house on Norwood. This is possibly alluding to a traumatic event or a metaphorical representation of personal struggles.

Lines 26-37

This was the instant

before destruction,


of contained passion?

In the final lines of the poem, the poet turns back to the bomb-related imagery. The speaker reflects on the moment right before the destruction caused by the atomic bomb, considering the possibility of reversing or preventing the catastrophic event. 

The section begins with the declaration that this was the instant before destruction, highlighting the pivotal moment that precedes the devastating consequences of the bomb. The speaker describes the fiery atom as being stuck, as if under the control of the artist. 

This image suggests a sense of suspended animation or the possibility of halting the destructive process. The use of the term “artist” adds a layer of irony, as an artist typically creates beauty and harmony.

The concluding lines of the poem introduce the idea that the men involved in the creation and use of the bomb could have taken a different path. Instead of going on to suicide and madness, the speaker envisions them becoming lovers, priests, Buddhist smilers, scholars, or gardeners in the small plots of contained passion. 

Their passion and interests would’ve stayed contained, like plants in a garden, and not spilled out into the immense death and terror that they did.


What is the tone of this poem?

The tone of this poem is a combination of fascination, horror, reflection, and contemplation. The speaker struggles to understand the devastating events depicted in the photograph and also considers how things might’ve been different. 

What is the context of this poem? 

The context of this poem is the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It engages with the historical event and its profound impact on humanity. The poem explores the speaker’s response to witnessing the destructive power of the bomb through a photograph.

Why did the poet write ‘Aerial Photograph Before the Atomic Bomb?’

The poet likely wrote this piece to delve into the complexities and consequences of the atomic bomb’s deployment. It serves as a means of contending with the horror of such a catastrophic event.

What is the mood of ‘Aerial Photograph Before the Atomic Bomb?’

The mood of ‘Aerial Photograph Before the Atomic Bomb’ is a mixture of awe, dread, sorrow, and a glimmer of hope. It will likely make readers feel a sense of both despair and longing for a different outcome.

Similar Poetry 

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other related poems. For example: 

  • Let Us Be Midwivesby Sadako Kurihara  – is a powerful wartime poem that describes a few moments of despair and a few of hope in the aftermath of the atomic bombing.
  • Novemberby William Stafford –  a heart-wrenching and important poem that was inspired by the WWII bombing of Hiroshima. 
  • Epicby Patrick Kavanagh compares a shouting match over land in Ireland to the outbreak of World War II and the Trojan War.

Poetry+ Review Corner

Aerial Photograph Before the Atomic Bomb

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Toi Derricotte (poems)

Toi Derricotte

Toi Derricotte's poetry offers a unique and personal perspective on various subjects, including those explored in 'Aerial Photograph Before the Atomic Bomb.' Her poetry often delves into the complexities of human experiences and confronts challenging themes. In this particular poem, Derricotte engages with the horrors of war and the destructive power of violence. This is a great example of her verse.
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20th Century

As a representative of 20th century poetry, Derricotte's work contributes to the broader literary landscape of the time. Despite this, her poem about the bombing of Hiroshima is not extremely well-known. She adds her voice to the diverse range of poets who responded to the turbulent events and societal changes that characterized the 20th century.
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American poetry is represented by Toi Derricotte's contribution to the literary tradition. The poem reflects on an event that deeply impacted America, both in terms of its involvement in World War II and its role in the development and use of the atomic bomb, but this is not a very well-known American poem.
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Death is a prominent theme in this poem. The piece grapples with the mass destruction caused by the atomic bomb and the loss of countless lives. It confronts the inevitability of death and the fragility of human existence, emphasizing the tragic consequences of war and violence.
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Dreams are not explicitly mentioned in the poem, but the poet does suggest that in a version of reality, the events she describes would not have happened. The beauty of an imagined better world only emphasizes the devastating impact of war and violence in reality.
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War is a central theme in the poem, specifically referencing World War II and the atomic bomb. The poem reflects on the profound consequences of war, highlighting the immense suffering, destruction, and loss that accompany it. It explores the moral complexities and devastating effects of war on both a personal and global scale.
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Anger is indirectly evoked in the poem through the speaker's contemplation of the destructive power of the atomic bomb. The poem raises questions about the motivations and decisions that lead to such acts of violence and destruction. It hints at the anger the world could feel at reading this poem.
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Hope, while not noted directly, surfaces in the poem through the speaker's contemplation of alternative outcomes. The imagined possibility of redirecting the destructive energy towards more positive pursuits suggests a longing for a better world, a glimmer of hope amidst the despair.
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Sadness permeates the poem as it confronts the devastating impact of the atomic bomb and the loss of innocent lives. The imagery and language used evoke a sense of sorrow and despair, emphasizing the immense tragedy and emotional weight of the subject matter.
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Fighting is an implicit theme in the poem, reflecting on the destructive power of warfare. It highlights the futility and devastating consequences of engaging in violent conflict. The poem invites reflection on the human capacity for violence and the urgent need for peaceful resolutions.
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Suffering is a pervasive theme throughout the poem. It captures the immense pain, trauma, and loss experienced by individuals and communities affected by war and violence. The poem invites readers to confront the human capacity for inflicting suffering on one another and to empathize with those who endure its devastating consequences.
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Violence is a central focus of the poem. The poem addresses the destructive power of war, particularly through the way that weapons, like the atomic bomb, can be deployed. The poem notes the horrors and devastation caused by this kind of violence.
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World War Two (WWII)

World War II serves as the historical backdrop and context for the poem. It symbolizes one of the darkest chapters in human history, marked by immense suffering, mass violence, and the use of devastating weapons like the atomic bomb.
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Free Verse

Free verse poetry is the chosen form for 'Aerial Photograph Before the Atomic Bomb.' The absence of a strict rhyme or meter allows for a more natural and fluid expression of ideas and emotions. It gives the poem a sense of immediacy and authenticity.
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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