Making Poetry Happen


Isidor Isaac Rabi, Dorothy McKibbin, Robert Oppenheimer and Victor Weisskopf at Oppenheimer’s home in 1944. Photograph via Los Alamos National Laboratory.

by Kevin Hong

Critical Assembly: Poems of the Manhattan Project,
by John Canaday,
University of New Mexico Press, 203 pp.

Thirty-three years in the making, Critical Assembly details the thoughts and experiences of forty-six people involved in the creation of the atomic bomb. Through exhaustive research, Canaday has gained an intimate understanding of participants in the Manhattan Project and individuals on its periphery, reading diaries, conducting interviews, attending reunions, and consulting archives. The resulting anthology gives voice to the dead, some of whose names are etched into history, and some we have long forgotten; the poet shows how these figures saw each other and how they experienced the birth of the bomb. This remarkable album is both intimate in its address and operatic in its scope and structure. The ghosts within it recreate a historical drama that illuminates the tragedy its players precipitated and calls us to act on our present plight.

The book is organized into three acts: “U / Potential” depicts the figures critical to the initiation of the bomb project; “EK / Kinetic” takes us to Los Alamos, into the lives of scientists, military operatives, and locals; “ΔH / Heat” depicts the Trinity test from the perspectives of a number of witnesses. Throughout the collection, Canaday orchestrates his cast into smaller ensembles. We hear duets and quartets form as Canaday weaves a counterpoint of images and personalities. For example, in a poem in the voice of Lt. Colonel John Lansdale Jr., we get a description of Niels Bohr and his son under surveillance, “secure / as babes in arms”; the next poem, channeling Kitty Oppenheimer, begins, “Now morning sickness is the proof of love….” In another instance, Eugene Wigner’s eulogy for his wife—“Nine months / I lived in her / sweet light”—is followed immediately by Edith Warner’s sleeplessness: “Venus hangs low above the mountains.” These subtle moves tie the poems together and give us the sense of such voices dwelling together in a community.

In creating this diverse assembly, Canaday’s primary challenge is to successfully differentiate voice: the poet must believably serve as a medium for each individual speaker. He meets this challenge brilliantly by utilizing form: Critical Assembly is a master class in the use of metric and sonic structure to realize voice. The physicist Richard Feynman, for example, is conveyed through sestinas that are mimetic of his obsessive mathematical mind:

The blank, unassuming face of a blackboard
makes it easier to calculate the sun’s
mass, and gravity’s figures
speak louder than the handful of earth
in a man. Numbers don’t change
their minds, like people or angels.

The sestina intensifies meaning as it worms its way into Feynman’s personal life—the physicist’s relationship with his wife, Arline, and her death from tuberculosis. As the end-words permutate according to their traditional order, we hear Feynman’s mind and heart turn over and over:

…I’d been thinking of Arline
in the TB ward in Albuquerque. The doctors figured
she had a year. My heart was a blackboard
covered in odds….

In the second Feynman sestina, we learn that he and Arline sent each other coded messages to pass the time (and to bypass the censors at Los Alamos): “She won’t let me pity her TB / by pretending to be stumped.” Tuberculosis becomes a “bloodhound” that “broke the code / of Arline’s body….” Feynman’s diffusion work is all that’s left at the end of the poem, when Arline dies: “But mostly I hound / myself, as if perfecting the art / of killing might help me crack death’s code.” The voice that emerges from these sestinas is methodical, yet bewildered. Canaday reveals the sestina form to be both algorithm and cypher: simultaneously repetitive and enigmatic.

Other strong examples of Canaday’s attention to form are found in the terza rima poems from the perspective of Dorothy McKibben (sic), the manager of the Manhattan Project’s office in Santa Fe. Form links McKibben (and therefore the collection as a whole) to the hell of Dante’s Divine Comedy—fitting, as McKibben was nicknamed “Gatekeeper” by those who knew her. The poet casts her as Charon, ferrying scientists and their families into Los Alamos:

Through me the road unto a town of ghosts;
through me the way to join an endless war;
through me a path among the Lost Almosts:

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Here, form not only creates character, but also evokes atmosphere. The world of Los Alamos is articulated as an underworld: we see a parade of project affiliates make “the long descent, as the desert’s dusky hues send / purple shadows up the Pecos….” The Rio Grande becomes the Acheron, while the New Mexican landscape of “coral sand- / stone and old lava beds” conjures not the lower circles of hell, but rather a limbo, full of non-believers and the morally ambiguous. As McKibben says, “Fractured by war, which one of us knows whether // we’re doing right?”

Canaday is just as concerned with the breaking of lines as he is with the splitting of atoms. Whether consciously or not, fission becomes an analogy for the craft of poetry. Just as splitting the atom creates a massive release of energy, a line-break produces two smaller lines whose power exceeds the wholeness of a prose sentence. In an early poem from the perspective of Otto Frisch, Canaday writes:

The fragments fly, form new
duets. Atoms
breed like cells. I name
their splitting “fission,”
as if such parting could
be understood
as something less than death.

The analogy also works in the reverse; that is to say, Canaday is also concerned with communicating the poetry in science. There are two layers to this effort. Firstly, each poem attempts to uncover an aspect of the speaker’s humanity. In this way, the collection isn’t really about the bomb, but about the personal crises faced by the individuals who were around it. We learn of Edward Condon’s exasperation at the censorship and informational compartmentalization that made Los Alamos feel claustrophobic: “Los Alamos / is just a crate we’re packed and salted in.” On the other side of the equation, Major John Dudley attempts to enforce the project’s classified nature: “Some days / my biggest job was just to keep / their precious secrets from myself.” Secondly, Canaday shows how the making of the atomic bomb was, for the scientists involved, a creative endeavor. This theme comes to the fore in Louis Slotin’s poems, which describe the procedure of assembling the bomb’s core:

Yet in these moments, I feel life and death
so fully, so intensely, I am past
all fear. I hold a rough beast in my hands
and hear its infant prattle, half amazed
how mild it is and, till it recognizes
its own essential terror, beautiful.

The sublimity of Frankenstein’s monster is invoked here: it is the sublimity of creating life where there was none, of superseding nature. Canaday has a knack for drawing out the poetry in scientific jargon, too. In the final Slotin poem, he writes:

My focus narrowed to a walnut of
beryllium. I cupped it like a yolk
between two hemispheres of hollowed-out
plutonium, womb-shaped, as warm as flesh
from random fissions. Then the tamper’s curved
plum-colored calyx closed to form a bud.
I felt a world take shape between my hands.

These poems form an uncanny counterpoint with Kitty Oppenheimer’s description of her pregnancy. Slotin’s loving address of the “womb-shaped” plutonium contrasts with Oppenheimer’s frustration at her own situation: “I waddled like a penguin, body gone / all belly, certain I could never love / the slow explosion of these clotted cells….” Together, these poems capture the terrifying notion that we are not in control of, and yet responsible for, what we beget. In Oppenheimer’s words, “What we make consumes us.”

The poet’s aim is not to condemn the participants in the Manhattan Project, whose actions had ramifications far beyond the immediate circumstances of their cause. His collection, however, makes clear that there was little effort to consider the kind of impact the creation of the bomb would have on humanity. This lack of foresight—we might call it hubris, or just plain ignorance—manifests in Canaday’s work as an existential fallenness. Their curiosity is portrayed as a blessing and a curse: their ingenuity is apparent, their discoveries wondrous to behold, and yet they are complicit in the carnage that follows and the global anxiety that persists. Robert Serber confesses to their original sin when he says: “Please God, / we weren’t monsters. But we loved our work.” Canaday tenderly depicts the passion and urgency involved in this tragedy: the quest for godlike knowledge that culminated in disaster and the emergence of a new epoch.

At a recent reading, Canaday stated that he wrote Critical Assembly in reaction against Auden’s oft-quoted line, “poetry makes nothing happen”. I am reminded of a moment in the collection in which Serber, tasked with delivering a series of talks on his lab’s work, wonders, “Who would have thought mere words—so technical / and flat the workmen never blinked—could sketch / the pattern of a star to singe the earth?” We now know what these scientists’ “mere words” did once they were enacted. What Canaday’s words make us consider is how every human endeavor begins with a kind of linguistic reckoning—a consideration of the motivations, promises, and pitfalls that exist in what one wants to carry out. Just so, every discovery is fed by human emotion, every decision executed by a feeling being (though, as of this writing, computer algorithms are changing this). Critical Assembly does the work of tying science to its humanity. In it, we recognize, as Klaus Fuchs tells us, that too often the practice of science is “cut off from knowledge of the human cost”; we see that science is human, and by nature, fallible.

Today’s nuclear weapons are many times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and are essentially unstoppable. (A forum in this past December’s issue of Harper’s magazine lays out just how vulnerable the United States’ missile defense systems are. The most sensible option, one writer suggests, with regard to a possible nuclear attack originating from North Korea, for example, is to create a drone army that would fly over the Sea of Japan and intercept warheads closer to their launch points.) As Pyongyang and Washington tout their ballistics, climate change activists fret over the stark possibilities of nuclear winter and the Doomsday Clock edges toward midnight, Canaday’s work offers in warning the voices of the individuals who ushered us into our predicament. We should see in their sense of destiny and their niggling doubt an entreaty to slow down, to restore our sense of responsibility toward each other and the earth, and to direct our human creativity toward healing, not power. Canaday, voicing Niels Bohr, writes, “We are this bomb. Its best / ends. And its worst.” We need more of the best end—more critical, creative, thoughtful reckoning—before it is too late.


About the Author:

Kevin Hong lives and writes in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Artforum, The Arts Fuse, plain china, and The Harvard Advocate.