Saturday, June 24, 2023

Book Review - Proving Grounds by Jean-Paul L. Garnier

Proving Grounds by Jean-Paul L. Garnier
Reviewed by Susan Rukeyser

Proving Grounds, by science fiction writer and publisher, Jean-Paul L. Garnier, is a short and intense collection of anti-nuclear weapons protest poetry. It is a fierce reckoning with these terrible weapons, as well as our Cold War childhood fears that changed but never went away. This book demonstrates how powerfully poetry can become activism: returning our focus to a vital issue, reckoning with denial and apathy, and, finally, offering hope.

Pocket-sized, with spare, clean text, this book fits in your hand like a private missive from deep within the resistance – a critical call to action. The glossy front cover, designed by the author and Dain Luscombe, is a photographic collage of many different nuclear explosions. It lends a sense of urgency that sets the tone for the collection. Each page spread features a poem on the right, and, on the left, another photograph of another nuclear explosion. The repetition of these horrifying images, the sheer number of them, becomes part of the experience, always in the reader’s peripheral vision.

The exception to this pattern in the two-page poem, “13,890 Nuclear Warheads,” which ends with a shocking fact:

 and you have seen the image of the cloud

but not as many times
as they have detonated
two thousand and fifty-six


Immediately following this is the poem, “12 Missing Nuclear Bombs” which includes the line, “accidents every seventy-five days."

In “War Criminals,” Garnier references Operation Paperclip, which secretly brought Nazi scientists to this country, following World War II, to work for the US Government – another lesser-known fact that reminds the reader of the inherent immorality of these weapons:


what did the Jewish scientists of the
Manhattan Project
feel, as the Paperclip arrived
bombs away to space

 Details like these serve to jar the complacent reader into renewed attention on the nuclear threat. Garnier acknowledges, in “Remember”:


easy to forget, many wars since
drugs, terror, disease
enemies we cannot nuke

 The relatable, shared trauma of classroom “duck and cover” drills haunts this collection, perhaps most poignantly in “Under My Desk”:


under my desk

counting on little fingers

waiting for the Russian bomb

no one said why


Outrage for what that vulnerable child was put through, what we were all put through, burns through this collection.

Proving Grounds holds a pointed, seething contempt for former President Ronald Reagan, who fills the back cover with a photo from his movie star days, gun drawn and jaw set, as Deputy Marshall from the 1953 Western, “Law & Order.” Behind him is a fiery explosion.

From “Reagan Baby”:

 Reagan, you’re my birth rite

leader of a world

where everything is owned

and I’ll kneel under my desk
in your honor.


But Reagan is just one part of the larger military industrial complex. Garnier laments the devastation caused by “Lockheed, Boeing/ and all you engineers of death” in “Do What You’re Good At”:

 they could give us the stars

instead brought micro-suns
burned even the bones of the people
dusted every breath with cancer


Underlying this book’s fierce tone is heartbreak over squandered opportunities for peace. Hurt and anger are vented through vulgarity, used effectively at points throughout the collection, connecting us more directly with the strong emotional response that is appropriate when remembering how rich war mongers played with our lives and our planet. From “Shield Yourself”:

 I picture an impotent slob: suit, phallic tie

drunk on all the riches of life

wavering over the button

like an orgasm

one wants to hold


This book also takes aim at those who should have known better but were complicit. In “Feynman’s Arrogance,” Garnier writes:


play the game, all smiles
you play to mess with authority, with
as you open up nature to destruction

And then, with the final poem, “We Can Do Something,” there is a shift, an offering of hope through resistance.

The back of the book has a list of anti-nuke websites; QR codes to help readers find their Congressional representatives; and four pre-written form letters to tear out and mail to them and the President.

In the Afterword, Garnier explains what compelled him to write and collect these poems and how delving into such disturbing subject matter resulted in cognitive dissonance: “it is simply too great a horror for the mind to accept. … This inability to grasp the destructive powers, and their scale, causes us to feel powerless in the face of the bomb. But it is not divine forces we are up against; it is mere men … We can achieve total nuclear disarmament, it is possible”. 

Proving Grounds reminds us that it is necessary. - Susan Rukeyser


Proving Grounds is available locally at
 Space Cowboy Books
61871 Twenty-nine Palms Hwy.
Joshua Tree, CA

Click here to purchase Proving Grounds on-line ($5.25)
proceeds donated to International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)
Click here to purchase the musical audiobook


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