Ernest Lawrence

John Canaday

Director of the Radiation Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley, 1945

To peddle a better beater. Broader
shouldered and wasp waisted, its cradled
double floats in struck-up loops set snug
in frame limb, driven by a winged shaft
clinched in perforated pinions. A dream
of stamped sheet metal’s easy action. Skill
and scope and spirit of the art. A simple
hawk to farmers’ wives caressed
by high plains winds, disheveled,
creased. A cinch to demonstrate.

Bouquet of sweet transformer oil. Crisp
hum of current, surge and cackle.
Blossom of sparks from shorted coils. Calamity
and revelation. A dozen minds upended
on a table strewn with hand-cut relay boxes,
tonsured vacuum tubes, and cracked wax
gaskets. To ride invention’s swells each day,
to dodge a hoist hook’s fickle pendulum.
Each night to tune the bedside radio
and drift upon an oscillator’s static surf
as light bulbs flicker in my boys’ bare hands.

Our biggest bang a bomb? Fudge. Rather
to nudge five million million million
millionths of a gram. To do such things
a bore of theorists would take a tedious,
pig-headed while to penetrate (or else
a single man named Niels). To stay
out front. Stockpile. Expand. To rest
less than the wicked, prosper more.
To leverage, grapple, calibrate
until our little talents render unto Caesar
instruments, titanic and precise, as might
measure God’s least fingerprints.

No way to demonstrate. Our bay
much like the one on which an emperor
looks out, too vast and undulating.
Enough to swallow Little Boy and all
his brothers, as mere flies in a cathedral.
Yet how much more that other boy-
hood prairie where whole ox trains
vanished, hoof and snout, their drivers
dreaming of a life in sod, earthed and
conductive, the world for them no less
than us a wide place, wild and begging
cultivation, colter to keel, and then
spring-tooth, drag, or spike, a harrowing.

John Canaday is the author of Critical Assembly, is a collection of poems in the voices of the men and women involved in the Manhattan Project. His first book, The Invisible World, won a Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. He is also the author of a critical study, The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs.
Originally published:
April 1, 2019


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