Critical Assembly: Poems of the Manhattan Project by John Canaday
University of New Mexico Press, 2017, 203 pages, $19.95
Meticulously researched and crafted, the poems in John Canaday’s Critical Assembly: Poems of the Manhattan Project present a nuanced view of the figures and issues involved in making the first atomic bomb. The use of persona poems and the chronological organization of the book from the first inklings of the power of nuclear fission to Trinity test at allow readers to experience the ethical reservations well as the excitement of those involved in this world altering event.
The initial section, “Potential,” plays out against the rise of Nazism and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. Immediately, we see the physicists involved, many of them exiled Jews, both exhilarated and terrified by the power their discoveries might unleash, weighing that fear against the destructive power of the Third Reich. Physicist Eugene Wigner asks:
Why should I hesitate
to bend my skills to fight?
Yes, even kill.
My Princeton colleagues
wince. I challenge them
to say which wrong
they disapprove of more:
the braying Nazi donkeys,
or this sometime Jew
who has the questionable taste
to corner them.
Like Wigner, Einstein understands the importance of getting the bomb before the Germans but he also understands the danger of not being able to control that knowledge. He knows Nature “…does not whisper in our ears alone. /Once having learned her secrets we will live/in fear of what she’ll teach our enemies.” His fear, however, is also balanced by the thrill of discovery:
. . . Nothing can
eclipse the wonder or joy I feel
to read a scientific article
that lifts the veil of nature with a hand
of subtlety and penetration both.
Canaday’s genius is to embody these tensions in the life-sized characters not only of the actual scientists but also through the skeptical voices of military commanders, secretaries, nurses, ranchers, women who run the tea rooms the Los Alamos staff frequents. We see the conflict and competition among the scientists and the frequent disdain of the military for these “lab boys,” as they refer to the physicists. As Major John Dudley puts it, “By then I’d had it up to here/with stuck up, smart-ass scientists.” Far from being static, the voices in these poems intensify as the narrative progresses. As the project nears fruition, the frustration caused by the necessary secrecy surrounding it is palpable. In Robert Serber’s account of a pivotal moment, Robert Oppenheimer suggests:
…”A demonstration. Let
the bomb speak for us.” It seemed obvious.
And left us even less time to discuss
the moral ins and outs of weapons work.
The poem ends poignantly with Serber’s saying “. . . Please God, / we weren’t monsters. But we loved our work.”
Wisely, Canaday lets some of the more peripheral characters most succinctly voice and take responsibility for the outcome of this project. Rose Bethe, head of the Los Alamos Housing Office and wife of physicist Hans Bethe, has this to say:
The Nazis forced us here, Gentiles and Jews,
Americans and Russians, Germans, Dutch.
They made us all commit our lives
to evil. Which, with a will, we did.
Grant, this once, there is a God,
so God may grant we choose the lesser sin.
Canaday’s skill as a poet makes each of these voices distinct. He crafts a consistent form for each speaker that reflects their character and situation and recurs each time they speak. The long lines, leisurely pace and carefully observed description of Edith Warner’s monologues, for example, reflect her devotion to the landscape where she came to recover from tuberculosis. Her voice contrasts sharply with, say, the quatrains and shorter sentences of Edward Teller’s plain spoken monologues. In addition, the poems are enlivened by metaphor and imagery. Lt. Colonel John Lansdale Jr. says of his scientific charges as they heedlessly cross a street against traffic, “they wander/in imagination’s forest.” Physicist Edward Condon describes the situation at Los Alamos: “As if we weren’t already cursed by halves, /like apples split for pickling, or boiled eggs/divided by a hair. Los Alamos/is just a crate we’re packed and salted in.” The book, then, is driven not only by the dramatic tension of this momentous event but by characters carefully drawn and developed and by richly textured language and form.
Critical Assembly reminds us of poetry’s many functions and that the best poetry is not only a container for lyrical and formal invention but is flexible and generous enough to make us reconsider key moments in our shared history whose implications reverberate still.