Kitty Oppenheimer Tends Louis Slotin
after an Accident in the Lab


Published in The Cinncinnati Review,
Volume 2, Number 2 (Winter 2005)
and Poetry Daily, January 11, 2006

[EUGENE WIGNER]


Published in Salamander,
10th Anniversary Issue,
Volume 9, Numbers 1 & 2 (Spring 2004).

[MAJOR JOHN DUDLEY]


Published in The Autumn House Anthology
of Contemporary American Poetry,
Autumn House Press, 2005


Extended selections of Critical Assembly poems can be read online in At Length Magazine and The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Kitty Oppenheimer Tends Louis Slotin
after an Accident in the Lab


I hadn't seen Hiroshima myself,
or Nagasaki, though I'd heard Bob Serber's
stories. They seemed like fairy tales or myths —
fables to frighten children, or at best
efforts to cast the inexplicable
in human terms. But then I tended Slotin
his last nine days and saw. Saw him vomit
till his stomach bled. Saw him try to grip
the white enamel bowl in the crotches of his thumbs,
his hands so swollen that his fingers wouldn't bend.
Saw him retch clear strands of spit, green flecks
of bile, too tired to wipe them from his lips.
He hiccuped for ten hours straight. At first
he almost laughed; later we strapped him down
to stop him clawing at his diaphragm.
Blisters grew like toadstools on his hands,
between his fingers, up his arms. The skin
peeled off his chest. His hair came out in clumps.
His liver failed. His kidneys. Bowels blocked.
Blood filled the bedpans. We gave him codeine.
Morphine. Nothing helped. Pain paced his body.
His fingers and his toes turned blue. His face
bloated, blistered, thick as a mask. A rind.
He seemed unconscious — so we had to think.
He might have been a thousand different men.
A hundred thousand. Only, when he died,
no cities burned. Friends grieved. His parents took
a lead-lined coffin back to Winnipeg.

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[EUGENE WIGNER]

We are all guests
here in this world.
As for the next?
Better, perhaps,
that we not wear
our earthly welcome out.
I learned to love
America in Madison.
Exiled from Budapest
because I wished
to be a physicist,
and from Berlin
by Hitler, then
from Princeton by the men
who coveted my job,
I settled in the midst
of wheat fields in
Wisconsin, fields
like those of Belcza-Puszta
where I learned to talk
when I was three
by walking with
my uncle, laughing at
his homespun jokes.
In Madison, I learned
another language
from Amelia. She
surprised me—not
her beauty but
her love. What curious
animals we are
to need romantic love.
But then I've never been
the quickest to intuit
nature's laws.
But when one stares me
in the face? That was
the first of many things
I learned from her.
A few months saw us
married. Then her heart,
which was, I thought,
the stronger, suddenly
went wrong. No one
could tell us why
or how. Nine months
I lived in her
sweet light. I learned
to read by it
my own heart's flickerings.
Then darkness fell,
and I went back to work.

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[MAJOR JOHN DUDLEY]

By then I'd had it up to here
with stuck-up, smart-ass scientists.
For months I'd asked to join the war
and been mananaed by the Corps
with lines a moron wouldn't buy:
"Your work here just might win the war."
So when Lebow turned my request
for transfer down again and said
instead I'd have to babysit
these prima donnas while they played
at building bombs, I really blew
my stack. "Six months," he promised me.
Alright, I thought, I'll give it that.
But three months nearly did me in.
They were children—smart as hell,
of course, with all their theories and
the laws of atoms and all that,
but when it came to common sense,
the Lord had clearly passed them by.
Somehow they couldn't understand
that requisitioning supplies
took time. They wanted everything
the day before they asked for it.
They didn't seem to understand
what safes were for. How many times
I found some classified report
left lying on a desk, the safe
wide open a few feet away?
And then they'd clam up when I asked
for stats to help me build a shed
to house their precious cyclotron.
Later, I'd find them in the bar
at the La Fonda, arguing
top secret information with
a dozen locals listening.
I've had some physics in my day
and chemistry: it doesn't take
an Einstein or an Edison
to figure out that something's up
when words like "fission," "nucleus,"
and "bomb" are thrown around for free.
I tried to tell them even I
was not supposed to know these things.
I couldn't get them to shut up.
Some days my biggest job was just
to keep their secrets from myself.





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