First, J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote his paper on dwarf stars—“What happens to a massive star that burns out?” he asked. His calculations suggested that instead of collapsing it would contract indefinitely, under the force of its own gravity. The bright star would disappear but it would still be there, where there had been brilliance there would be a blank. Soon after, workers built Oak Ridge, the accumulation of Cemesto hutments not placed on any map. They built a church, a school, a bowling alley. From all over, families drove through the muddy ruts. The ground swelled about the ruts like flesh stitched by sutures. My father, a child, watched the loads on the tops of their cars tip. Gates let everyone in and out with a pass. Forbidden to tell anyone they were there, my father’s family moved in, quietly, behind the chain-link fence. Niels Bohr said, “This bomb might be our great hope.” My father watched his parents eat breakfast: his father opened his newspaper across the plate of bacon and eggs, his mother smoked Camel straights, the ash from her cigarette cometing across the back of the obituaries. They spoke little. Increasingly the mother drank Wild Turkey with her women friends from the bowling league. Generators from the y-12 plant droned their ambition. There were no birds. General Leslie Groves marched the boardwalks, yelled, his boots pressed the slates and the mud bubbled up like viscera. My father watched his father enter the plant. My shy father went to the library, which was a trailer with a circus tent painted on the side. There he read the definition of “uranium” which was worn to a blur. My father read one Hardy Boys mystery after another. It was August 1945. The librarian smiled sympathetically at the 12-year-old boy. “Time to go home,” the librarian said. They named the bomb Little Boy. It weighed 9,700 pounds. It was the size of a go-kart. On the battle cruiser Augusta, President Truman said, “This is the greatest thing in history.” That evening, my father’s parents mentioned Japanese cities. Everyone was quiet. It was the quiet of the exhausted and the innocent. The quietness inside my father was building and would come to define him. I was wrong to judge it. Speak, Father, and I will listen. And if you do not wish to speak, then I will listen to that.
Source: Poetry (July/August 2011).
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This poem originally appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Poetry magazine