John M. Anderson teaches at Boston College. Featured in both Poetry Daily and Verse Daily, he has new poems in Poetry Northwest, Spillway, Tuesday: An Art Project, and Crazyhorse —plus a canyonland chapbook, Dictionary Quilt (Pudding House, 2007). His manuscript Alamos: A Chain Reaction is a ghost story in verse about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the landscape of the American Southwest.
Weeks before His Own Death, Oppenheimer Learns of the Fire on Apollo 1
January 27, 1967
Three astronauts in an Apollo capsule die
burning at the top of a laddered gantry that leans silver against the simple
blue of the Florida sky. I'm growing sentimental,
but it seems a medieval
crucifixion master's rendering of the Trinity tower.
The gadget was our cratered goal, our planetarium model we
hung like a clumsy portent from the highest bough.
Wilson said we should fly
a few Japanese witnesses out to see the test-and never
need to use the thing in anger. What if it was a dud? I said.
“Then we could kill them all.”
He was appalled by his own answer. We all were.
Congressman Davy Crockett's Spirit Handles a Closed-Door Session
My friends, it was Nothing. Nothing. Like riding a nag
across the Death
Valley of the evening sky. Like church forever. And after
an Eternity of that
I came across the one bitty pillar of smoke a lonely campfire sends
to God. Just thin
as that. Gemini Christmas, ladies! Man weighed
115 is all. Spindliest
scientist I do believe I ever saw and the whole entire blue
sky a cathedral
bigtop tent depending on him where he stood there,
And this was before he even died! I had not been
among the dead long
when I decided to go see how the end of everything
and all was coming.
It was in good hands is all I can say. Seems he'd squeezed
the universe into a ball
size of a grapefruit of Plutonium and meant it
smaller still. Eyeball.
I did one of those falling star things down through what
the hell'd Oppenheimer
call it? Gloaming? Not that. Daemmerung! Swung to his feet like that.
Woke him up.
Now see I can't recall, my fellow Congressmen, what all—
anything like all—
we said to one another in the conversation that followed his
record high jump.
Conversation protected under hero-demiurge confidentiality.
He swore an oath,
did he. Did Oppie. Swore and swore an oath and smoldered,
mesquite fire alone.
All night right there,
American. And not many of the stars in the night sky can say that.
Toni Oppenheimer Teaches the Ghosts American Sig
Standing in the Sea-Foam, St. John, Low Tide
They're smart. So smart. Two old men in their leather
pants, packing weapons, fingers to their unshaven
jaws. They know where I'm going before I do.
But they're slow. They cannot make their see-through
fingers do what they want them to. Stand there
mute. They know their way around Cajun, know
curses in German, can manage to trade or fight in one or two
American Indian tongues. They're patient as a withdrawing
sea, as night. But the powdering chalk can't write
on the fresh-washed board. Their eloquent, old-fashioned eyes
look, look at my gestures. Gadget, mesa, hold, grapefruit.
They know. They see the moon beginning to rise behind me,
its light stains orange their ungainly pelt hats, their
powderhorns. Scabbard, my hands say, flint. They nod
encouragement. Half-life, megaton. Tinian, Donne.
Nod, a sign. Grin understanding.
Toni's Ghost, Lovely,
as ever, rocks before a beach shack fronting the Crab nebula
My father in the desert stood,
spindle of Los Alamos's
the one element still
in that perfect
chaos of purposeful
hurry. The sun
rose and set and the wheel
spun. He was
the needle, north-pointing,
fulfilling her destiny pricked
her finger on.
And everyone sleeps.
at attention in the front gate
and snores. The couples
making hay between
all-night sessions in
drowse forever in one another's
unstrung arms. Fuchs
and Hall the traitors slept,
smearing their reports
to the Kremlin with infant
slobber. General Groves
slumbered, and only his honor,
always alert, paced
the compound vigilant. It was December
7. It was 1944 for
a hundred years. My father was
the needle's almost
infinitely sharp point-angels danced
at the focus burning
in the high desert air. I don't remember
our time there. It was all Intimations
Ode to me, “trailing
clouds of glory,” “a sleep and a forgetting.”
I came to
myself later in the shadow of the white-
Monument. I was the reflecting pool, lying
like a shadow
beneath it. Peter walked away, I
could not. I winter
here. I summer in the Horsehead nebula.
It's summer there
a long time, cool as a rose
marble dawn on St. John.
I like it best just before the first blood-
gold insight of something like sunlight.