Poems of the Manhattan Project

By Bulletin Staff | September 30, 2014

Trinity_Test_-_Oppenheimer_and_Groves_at_Ground_Zero_002.jpgJ. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos Laboratory where the atomic bomb was designed, and Manhattan Project director Leslie Groves at ground zero of the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, known as the Trinity Test.

John Canaday is a Massachusetts-based poet whose work has been published in The New Republic, Slate, The Southern Review, Raritan, The Hudson Review, Poetry Daily, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other journals and anthologies (including a volume sponsored by the Hiroshima Peace Institute). His volume of poetry set in the country of Jordan, The Invisible World, won the Academy of American Poets Walt Whitman Award in 2001. He has researched nuclear issues for many years; his study of the relationship between physics and literature in the context of the Manhattan Project, The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs, was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2000.

The poems appended here (that is, as expert commentary, which they most certainly are) come from Canaday's latest collection, Critical Assembly, which looks at nuclear weapons, in the poet's own words, "from the perspectives of the men and women who occupied positions of privileged intimacy with respect to their development: the scientists, spouses, laborers, locals, and military personnel involved in the Manhattan Project. The efforts of these individuals to 'make sense' of their experiences shaped the ways in which nuclear weapons have been inscribed into our culture and our psyches, a process that is surely among the most crucial transformations in human history."

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A LETTER HOME, AFTER TRINITY, By John Canaday, David Nicodemus, physicist,

Dear Mami,

I am not the same who wrote

you yesterday. The storm has passed. The sun

beats fists against the canvas of my tent

and shakes dust in my eyes with every blow.

I saw a thing last night. I cannot say—

or having said, can’t send. You won’t know what

a while. But even were I there and free

to talk—I have no words. Or only words.

I don’t know what I saw. Frisch said, “A red

hot elephant upended on its trunk.”

The other fellows laughed.

My rhythm’s off.

I saw our village ashed, the men’s school burn

again, remembered how the gusting winds

spread pinwheel sparks. The great bass temple bell

on Mukoyama woke us. Cook helped pack

my wicker case. You wedged me in a second

sweater, hid us in the bamboo grove.

We watched while father fought the flames, filling

our honey buckets at the shallow well,

not fast enough. Smoke smudged his preacher’s skin

a devil dark—his face a Hannya mask—

as though some jealousy had conjured up

the flames that swallowed almost all he loved.


“Heathens,” he might have said, but never did.

He proffered a Trinity, but they preferred

the human godhead of a young marine

biologist. Warlike and practical

and proud, they always had too little faith

in higher powers. Even father’s aide,

old Murayama-san, socked all his cash

in dentures, buying gold teeth one by one.

Old samurai, he had the kids pretend

Hirose-gawa was a castle moat

and taught us how to swim with just our feet,

imaginary swords held overhead,

his leather shako leading and, bone-dry,

its draggled plume. But father thought he knew

God’s will. He spread the Word: “And he rebuked

the winds, and walked upon the waves dry-shod”—

that Christ might be a light to heal blind eyes.


I thought so, too, but planned on getting proof.

A pal and I spent all day laying cable,

sweating our sins away in blazing sun.

Come dusk, we found an empty base camp hut

and stowed our stuff before the storm began.

The roof was tight enough; the instruments

stayed mostly dry. But then brass bullied in.

We packed and grumbled till some G.I. perched

like a sacred lion on the next hut’s steps

shushed us: “The General needs his shut eye.” But

we couldn’t help the engine being cold.

We gunned it till the crankcase glowed, then beat

a tactical retreat to watch God’s will

from a hillside twenty clicks away.

Our friends

were there already, and we sat together

waiting in a deep obscurity

of darkness, like ghosts on a river’s brink,

shivering on the damp earth, fearing, longing

to hear the boatman’s cry.

And suddenly

there came a golden heat of sunlight down

and a purple and a royal light shining,

and I knew that God had blessed and damned us,

granting everything that we had wished.

THE REVELATION, By John Canaday, Robert Oppenheimer, physicist and director of the Los Alamos Laboratory,

After the first flash, white as scalding milk,

blanched eyes dim in their sockets & grope toward

mortal sight, mere fire roiling in charred air.

Wind fists & lifts a cloak of desert dust

in billows & folds shrugged over scarlet

shoulders of flame. A botched shape slowly stands


& roars. Its breath reeks of burnt sand. Sage

ignites. Birds fall in flames. This is the Song

of God.

Brow shadows thicken. The figure

rises into thinner air & darkens

& chokes. Its last strangled growlings fatten

an uneasy silence. Some people laugh.


Some cry. I say, “It worked.” My tongue is black

with ash. These men have been my many arms.


Vishnu tries to teach the Prince his duty.

Again he bellows: I am become

Death, destroyer of worlds.


we all think that,

                            one way or another.

THE KILN, By John Canaday, Antonio Martinez, machinist,

Crisp, starched khaki          boxes my shoulders’

arch. Anglo          women stare.

“He’s beautiful.”          Anita glares.

I wink and laugh          to reassure her.

“It’s just the uniform.”          More honestly:

she pays a price          for my army pay.

Such honesty’s          unwelcome now.

Her jealousy’s          gesture signals

love. Her worry          isn’t really real.

She thinks I’m used          to playing manikin

equally in boots          or moccasins.

Certainly, I dress          the soldier’s part,

defend the white          man’s world as if

it were my own,          allow my wife

to dream white          women envy her.

But when I wear          headdress and war

paint for a festival,          when tourists crowd

the pueblo crowing          in delight, in which

world do my eagle          feathers pinion me?

Anita readily          admits Los Alamos

is ugly, but she likes          our hutment’s ice

box. She extols          the fresh linoleum.

In San Ildefonso,          Mother favors

her mud oven’s          vagaries above

the evenness          of an electric stove.

She will not buy          her clay. She stacks

old license plates          and army mess trays

around an iron grill          to make a kiln.

Under her hands          time sits still.

Up on the Hill          Hans Bethe hopes

to stretch the RaLa          sitting time

to milliseconds.          I hammer sheets

of copper for          the pit mockup.

Oppie stops in          to observe. His eyes

pace like a skittish          filly before

he gallops off          to check Omega.

Some days I feel          his restlessness.

Then, when Anita          and Hans can spare me,

I ride north along          the Rio Grande

to Santa Clara          where I gather

the volcanic ash          for flux that Mother

calls “blue sand.”          Back home, we sit

outside her door          and mix clay slips

or cut kajepes          if the gourds are dry.

When I ask her why          she signs her name

“Marie,” she says,          “That’s how the Anglos

know me: now         ‘Maria’ sounds

like someone else.”         “Poveka” is lovelier,

though habit turns         all things to English,

and “Pond Lily”’s         not her, either.

She understands          we serve a larger

thing: something          that makes us

strong—or, if we          fight it, breaks us.

It might be called          community.

But which is mine:          the pueblo or

Los Alamos? The mother          I’ve been given

or the wife I chose?          How can I bear

a Spanish name          and speak in English

yet keep my Tewa         soul? I need

the red fox, luck.          Patient, clever.

I hammer copper,          grind new bearings

for the Van de Graaff.          In October

I return to dance          the harvest festival,

help Mother dig         and sieve her clay.

She offers cornmeal          for the earth’s blessing;

we fill a dozen          flour sacks to last

the year. Her pots          are always waiting,

some signed Marie          and others Poh’ve’ka,

Marie/Popovi,          or Maria Poveka.

I stack the logs,          pour kerosene,

and layer dung         chips at the edges.

After they bake,          I smother the pile

with ash and fine,          dry horse manure

and let it smoke          an hour. As Mother

pulls the kiln          apart, I look

to see which names          survived the fire.

THE ACCORDIONIST, By John Canaday, Willy Higinbotham, Electronics Group leader,

Lightning snaps at the windows. The sky snarls.

Monstrous, magnificent Karloff snarls likewise,

only louder.

A doctor gloats. A little girl will die, will die.

Like us. But sooner. The crowd hunkers, thrilled, thralled,

a blood-hungry crowd.


Fritz carries a torch for his dear doctor,

and waves it.

He’d light the way, jealous of genius

or deformity. These days, no telling them apart.

I try, I try. For the life of me, I—

Science should be an art.


Brittle film stock stutters

on Army surplus sprockets          snaps

like Fritz’s neck. Another corpse to count.

The masses rumble, restless, threaten thunder,

demand I man my Stomach Steinway.

I wheeze. I moan. They stomp and clap.


Spliced, we proceed. Strickfaden’s Tesla coils

arc and sputter like first love. Still aglow,

I magicked a bootstrap generator’s sawtooth pulse.

Now Oppie sutures me as new group head.

I play along, though in the end I know

a monster burns.

THE BABYSITTER, By John Canaday, Donald Hornig, physicist,

The cradle rocks

ten stories up: a corrugated metal shed

bolted to a surplus Forest Service tower.

Lopsided, swaddled in wire,

a bomb’s blunt muzzle snuffles

the electric air.


Kisty called me when the mock-up

failed and Oppie flared.

A dummy weapon with a real

spare spark gap switch

I never should have volunteered.

But it was gorgeous work,

and I was proud: the long shanks

of its axial electrodes

sealed in glass—a flower

only meant to open

once. Then everyone

thronged round with cameras,

timing circuits, tampering

and testing till it failed.

All faulted me.


That cloud hung overhead for days.

No sleep. Not even after Oppie

called his hot shots in: the muckety

muckiest group I’ve ever seen.

They wouldn’t let me touch

the botched X unit—cracked

it open like a corpse

and found it had been fired

three hundred times and more

before it funked. No fault of mine,

they might have said.


The wet wind wails and sucks

air from my lungs.

The steel-lipped doorway

mouths a black sky stitched

with white-hot tungsten sutures.

My heart ticks faintly

counting down.


There’s me—and then there’s Oppie.

I say: when a thundercloud sweeps overhead

the shadow of 100 million volts

will crawl across the desert after it;

let’s build a ladder for the lightning

with a bomb on top. Madness.

So I thought he ought to think. Instead

he nods, says it’s a go. Of course

it goes. And I go up one hundred

rain-slick rungs, his Isaac,

sacrifice to sleep-starved fantasies

of sabotage. The desert’s underwater,

roads are muck, trucks

mired in gullies, swamped and ditched.

Our patchwork Armageddon’s safe—

from tampering, at least.

The real threats, I can’t stall:

where our own error strikes

or massed electrons fall.


Lightning smacks the ground,

scars earth, pocks rock, cauterizes

like a fallen star. I count the miles

by fifths, too few, until I hear

untold, untellable atoms

bully back into the vacuum

panic left. Seared sagebrush

spices air. Creosote and cinders.

Beside me, our beast slumbers

fitfully, its heart

a metal fist. Half mine,

its brain revolves in vacuum,

a glass capsule cupping nothing

but expectation of a swift

electric surge.

I play the odds

of pleasing Oppie off against

my death. Or do I give devotion

to this bud of my ambition

that will bloom in thunder soon?

Either way, I call it love.

THE DIRECTOR’S WIFE, By John Canaday, Kitty Oppenheimer, biologist,

Now morning sickness is the proof of love—

I’m sick to half past death of proving it.

I should have swiped his badge, not let him in,

but I’d go mad not knowing if he sees

the beauty he once said he saw in me.

Or am I what they say: an aging bitch

who’s gotten knocked-up one too many times?

At least he saves his better entrances

for me, arriving late at parties, arms

too full of flowers. Their scents intensify

the pale blue iris of his eyes. He thrusts

them in my arms, as if it were a loss

our laughter at this joke repaired to say

he knows I was deflowered years ago.


All day, I dress myself in memories;

they cut my circulation like a girdle,

and when I talk, a numbness haunts my lips.

THE BABY BOOM, By John Canaday, James Nolan, captain, US Army, and Los Alamos obstetrician,

Petey didn’t pity whores. “Son of a….”

Pitched low like that, her voice dissolved in growls.

“Peckerhead.” She had Groves pegged. His S.O.

P. bypassed morals, even common sense.

Prostitution? If his precious bachelor

physicists pushed hard enough. And how they

pushed! They made WAVs wash up at my clinic,

posed shyly with eyes raised heavenward, feet

propped in steel stirrups, complaining of a

pain “down there,” a hellish stench. I calmed them,

plumbed and cultured hurt vaginas, wiped

puffy lips that wept raw umber butter.

Penicillin bought me names. I brought them

post haste to the base C.O., whose sworn “I’ll

pin those bastards to the wall like bugs” proved

premature. Groves pondered the facts, the girls’

persuasive tears, the young men’s equally

passionate appeal, and then our General

pandered to the young folks’ “basic needs,” though

previously, his stout Victorian

politics taxed Petey’s knack for nicknames:

“Pecksniff.” “Gigi.” “Prissy prima donna.”

Pained by the base’s birthrate data, he’d

prohibited “all these unauthorized

pregnancies.” The wives were livid, or laughed.

Privately, I wished Groves’ foolish fiat

possible. The hospital nursery

pilfered beds from other wards; left injured

patients waiting; shunted doctors to new

posts; deferred research; defied the mortal

purpose of a weapons lab. Instead, while

parents dandled puckered newborns, colleagues

proved blast estimates in nearby canyons.

Percussive shockwaves echoing across

Pajarito Plateau shook iron roofs,

preaching the ethics of war, its excess

productions. Reproduction, sex, love, all

perversions, surplus, excrescences. Yet

piled in bassinets, cribs, bureaus, babies

poured from our assembly line, swaddled in

patinas of grease, bleating like lambs, limbs

plump, sprouting the finest, buttery fleece.

THE CURATOR, By John Canaday, Peer de Silva, Head of G-2, Los Alamos,

Tigers roam the globe.

Take Hitler’s smarter brother, Joe.

His swagger beggars better men’s

belief, angers the best.

While Nazis swallow countries whole,

he spews chewed pablum glib

whiz kid atom crackers suckle

like a treacly tit. It devours

their minds until they think

clinking cocktail glasses

mimic worker’s hammers

and they wink like bats

at non-aggression pacts.

Their only undivided’s

science; they seek no higher

good, believe God speaks

in cyphers only they can read,

as if they’re wiser than us

grunts. Naive. Or liars.

Oppenheimer’s childlike trust’s

the worst. Milk and honey

from some egghead’s Eden

where bleeding-hearted

fellow travelers think trust

is “only decent.” Blind

faith’s poison, even

smacks of treason. Gimcrack,

geegaw sentiment at best:

cheap beads he’s set

to trade Manhattan for.

Ideology is war.

His “overwhelming

judgment’s” based on hope,

not character. Only dupes

would let him stack his staff

with apparatchiks—

all the Reds and pinkos

of a communist rainbow—

less covenant than

Russian coven. What’s

most vital to these 48

United States? Not

further freedoms

conjured up for comrades

who would feed our secrets

to the Soviets. We need

blunt patriots

with guts and clout

to rule whose voice in future

will or will not count.

THE GULF, By John Canaday, Klaus Fuchs, physicist and Soviet spy,

                                 Hitler disliked my politics. He blamed

                                 the Reichstag burning on my comrades.

                                    Only Kristel and I escaped the flames

                    of der Fuhrer’s fury. And both of us went mad.

Capital killed democracy. It built

too powerful an engine. Now an engineer

applies the brakes or puts on steam according

to needs of the machine and not its passengers.


words are ships


by dead souls

                             their holed hulls

sieves for living


their only freight

                                     the breath

that shifts

                               slack shrouds

                                         I controlled my schizophrenia, but

                                     Kristel, diagnosed, officially, bipolar,

                                       swallowed rubber crumbs from bits

                                    orderlies wedged between her molars.


Science is of two minds: man and nature

shut in separate hemispheres. One side

lies dormant while its twin sets loose brute forces,

cut off from knowledge of the human cost.

                     I controlled my schizophrenia, but

                           In my dreams, Elisabeth still climbs the arc

                     of the Friedenstrasse bridge, crosses the tracks,

                 almost, then stops. Cornered by Gestapo sharks,

                      she jumps. A train rolls by. My vision blacks.


Colonies and taxes, wars and debts,

wherever nations copulate with capital

all their bloated offspring celebrate

Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

                     to sound such depths

                                                         unmans me

                       My brother asked for agitprop not cigarettes.

                                         Its jail-yard Tauschwert nearly nil,

                Gerhardt shared it, gratis, with the other “guests.”

                 They couldn’t help but live his communist ideals.

Men are not pawns. History owns

no riches, fights no wars. It never in-

vents anything. So how can history

know when to keep or give away a secret?

                     I bridge

                                                    two headlands


                                                                 by fog


                                                    to one another

                     though each

                                                      rocky footing

                     holds up

                                                           half of me

                     and underneath

                                                         the water’s

                     whispered secrets

                                                     set the echoes

                     swinging like

                                                        a pendulum

                     from shore

                                                              to shore

                               Father found life too easy as a Lutheran.

                           “Being popular never fostered moral fiber.”

                         He scattered aphorisms. “Even a Quaker can

                            value Roman grit.” Except along the Tiber.

Though the laws of nature are immutable,

history glimpses their naked forms in different

poses. The wise man knows philosophy

is masturbation, physics rich as sexual love.

                     our pasts

                                                    are patchwork



                     out of need

                                                             and guilt

             When Hans Staub bullied Kristel, mother bullied me

          until I fought him. As she knew he would, Hans won.

                    Her way was never easy—only once, when she

                    gave up and jumped, declared her job was done.

Dead generations weigh like nightmare

on the living brain. The only God, Marx

said, is doubt. It never leaves you, never

cons you into loving it.

                     what can I do

                                                        but whisper

                     what I know

                                                        into the gulf

THE BUS TO TRINITY, By John Canaday, Edward Teller, physicist,

Our drab green school bus shudders, shimmies

like an angry rattlesnake

racing south, toward a desert laced

with dangers and mistakes.


I nudge a dozing Serber, risk

his wrath to ask (he knows

the desert) how to treat snake bite.

He snaps, “A fifth of whiskey.”


It’s late. I ought to let him sleep.

But I persist, “And if

our bomb ignites the atmosphere?”

He turns his back. “Two fifths.”

THE COWBOY, By John Canaday, Louis Slotin, physicist,

I’ve been called a cowboy by some timid souls

who do their work as though it were a job.

They say I take unnecessary risks.

I say the bantam champion of King’s

can be his own best judge of when to duck.

I come from savvy stock. My father proved

our fitness when the Czar’s Okhrana forged

their Protocols: he bobbed and weaved and fled

the pogroms in Белая Русь and bought

a house on Manitoba’s Inkster Street.

I learned from my Oтец never to let

a bunch of regulations collar me.

The leash is always held by someone else.


In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the army built

the largest closed-roof building in the world

to filter handfuls of uranium

235, a rarish isotope,

from its abundant cousin, 38.

Off in a corner of that commonwealth

Wigner ran a prototype reactor

in a fifty-seven hundred gallon tank,

testing techniques to breed plutonium.

One Friday, after weeks of work, we’d reached

the final trial of an assembly

designed to gauge free neutron density,

but counters at the bottom of the tank

required realigning. Morgan planned

to drain and then refill the whole damn thing

for fifteen minutes’ tinkering. I said

he must be crazy, but he clung

to the procedures he’d been taught,

though they’d delay the run, and Wigner hoped

to have the weekend to decode the data.

I didn’t see the sense in waiting, so

when Morgan went to lunch, I stayed and stripped

to my BVDs. I will admit it was

tricky working underwater, but

I had those counters humming like a top

when he got back. But did he thank me? No.

He blew his stack and damned me for a fool,

although the radiation never topped

acceptable parameters. Call it

chutzpah or dumb bravado if you like,

I saw a job and did it. Period.

To hell with fear and excess caution, if

it interferes with what I know is right.

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