Who could have invented such a thing as the atomic bomb, and why? Now that it’s been used once, how could its meaning ever make any sense as a deterrent to it being used again? What kind of idea is this? Building something without adequately addressing the moral implications of its application?
Cynthia Lowen’s first book of poems, The Cloud That Contained the Lightning (a 2013 National Poetry Series winner chosen by Nikki Finney), is a book that considers the quality of rough thinking behind how our own destruction became fully realized at a particular time in American history. In a more personal way, however – and this is the revelation of the book – Lowen’s poems are the result of an ongoing family research project. Although she never met him, Lowen’s grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project and was later kicked off the team for leaking the information to the government (in an effort to get Eleanor Roosevelt to support the project’s scientists). He was then – with typically famous American hysteria – suspected of being a communist and died at the early age of 38, of causes mostly unknown.
In an interview that was included with the press kit that came with her book, Lowen revealed that the early drafts of these poems were attempts to get at the truth of her grandfather’s life and work. But through her research – and because she is the kind of poet who thinks in a radical and 360 kind of way – she found her true vehicle for writing the poems which would become her book in J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb”. By using Oppenheimer as a persona, Lowen could better take on the large and abstract theory of violence and apply it on a more personal level – speaking to how we take lessons from the past and create – or destroy – the future.
What The Cloud That Contained the Lightning becomes – through its somewhat fragmented and compelling five-act structure (with the wonderfully compelling section titles: “Fission”, “Trinity”, “Match in One Hand”, “The Art of Surrender” and “Clean Hands”) – is a collection of mostly declarative poems that take the invention of the bomb and uses it as a way to talk about what happens to any of us when we depart the precincts of our more rational, empathetic consciousness; when we are driven (by who or what, no one seems to know), to have a family, to have love, and still somehow also be responsible for creating something that can end to human life on an apocalyptic scale.
“Atom”, the first poem in the book takes something huge and brings it up close and personal:
The way violence makes an atom behave
like a drop of water,
the self casts a shadow of the self
moving in opposite directions.
Breakdown: passage from one state
to another. Water: neither ice nor cloud.
Indivisible, as in the smell of cut grass or single German words
that encompass entire moods. Schadenfreude:
the enjoyment we take from others’ troubles.
Doppelganger: shadow self, harbinger of bad luck,
The dichotomy of self when it intersects with science is the human dilemma the book will then take up as its leitmotif and many of the poems read almost exclusively as lyrical statements about the ego alternately sure and unsure of itself; when the mind can imagine the destructive aspect of the atom which isn’t really an aspect at all, but the only the atom reveals its true nature. Over and over again, Oppenheimer questions his thinking which he confuses with feeling – informed, in part, by his own resistance to making personal contact with his own outline of the abyss:
Magnolia is under attack,
but I couldn’t imagine that place
or why I should feel offended.
Someone traced a shape with my finger, saying, Home,
and so, being positive of one thing only,
I lined it with my armies.
(Think of the whole board as yours.)
I was given little plastic artillery.
I was supposed to attack.
The player to my right blew his nose
The player to the left tapped his pen.
How long do you think you can wait?
Someone put the dice in my palm
and forced me to roll.
“Oppenheimer Plays Risk Wearing a Blindfold”
While Oppenheimer ruminates on the conundrum of scientific progress and preciousness of human life, he never completely dissociates himself from his skewed, self appointed omniscience:
… The spirit breaks
with the knowledge
of the choice—
that the monuments
paving the infinite dirt road
match in one hand
prayer in the other.
from “Notes from the Target Committee”
The conflict between awareness and what to do with it forges its way through Lowen’s mostly straight-forward language until the book reaches its last poem and Oppenheimer is reduced to a thug who doesn’t make excuses for his critical lack of empathy:
For fuckssake, I’ve got house plants lived longer than some folks,
and you expect me to feel
Like rivers, my friend. People. Drain out one place.
Pick up in another.
“After the Clouds Pass; or, Meditation on the Banks of the Lethe”
This is also the most casual poem in the book – broken off, in a sense, by the almost cavalier point of view, as though, Oppenheimer were no longer willing to consider the moral ineptitude of his doomsday mind, expressed again and again in this book and no more empathically clear than in the earlier, appropriately titled “Parable of the Children”:
The story of the father is never the story of the ingenious
inventions by which the father hopes
to be fondly
but the one where, in spite of all precaution,
man is circuitously destroyed
by his own
How do we love each other, with dangerous minds? is the question the book importantly raises. It is also the question the book, thankfully, never answers.