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"John Canaday has given us a unified series of poems that may well stand among the greatest works of poetry in this twenty-first century."

—X.J. Kennedy, Author of Nude Descending a Staircase

Critical Assembly is collection of poems in the voices of the men and women involved in the Manhattan Project—including scientists, spouses, laborers, locals, and military personnel—beginning in the years leading up to the Manhattan Project, continuing through the design and construction of the first atomic bombs, and concluding with the Trinity test.

Poems from Critical Assembly have appeared in journals such as The New Republic, Raritan, The Southern Review, New England Review, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Hudson Review, and Slate, as well as in a variety of anthologies, including those published by Poetry Daily and the Hiroshima Peace Institute.

"Human frailty and genius, human work of horror and salvation, human foibles and superhuman forces: In Critical Assembly John Canaday deploys lyric poetry, with terrific formal intelligence, to tell anew the enduring, fate-ridden story of the Manhattan Project."

—Robert Pinsky, three-term US Poet Laureate

"Most of the men and women who invented the first atomic bombs are gone now, but the moral and mortal complexity of their work continues to challenge us. These moving, resonant poems revivify them even as they open that complexity to our understanding."

—Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award

"This is a story we may think we know. But reading Critical Assembly showed me how little I had understood from the inside the actual work and diversity of the community assembled at Los Alamos. Reading this book showed me how much I could empathize with the men and women given voices here. Canaday's poems took me to a world I will never forget."

—Carole Simmons Oles, author of A Selected History of Her Heart

"The Manhattan Project now has its Poet Laureate-Historian. Canaday's Critical Assembly is a tour de force of poetry and penetrating history that bores brilliantly into the Los Alamos experience to reveal the inner thoughts and lives of the Promethean community that altered humanity's fate during World War II."

—Martin Sherwin, author of American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

"John Canaday has created a remarkable book. Perverse, original, outstanding, and gut-wrenching."

—Errol Morris, director of The Fog of War and winner of the Academy Award

Critical Assembly is available from many venues, including:

University of New Mexico Press
The Harvard Bookstore
Powell's Books
Barnes & Noble

Louis Slotin Assembles the Plutonium
Implosion Core for the Trinity Test, July 1945

At first, the actual assembly was about
as riveting as watching someone bake
a birthday cake or write a book. I did
the whole thing sitting down. And yet
the smallest details of the scene
seem luminous in memory. The tabletop
was masked with long brown sheets of butcher paper
strewn with the gadget's odds and ends.
They gleamed like gold- and nickel-plated
grapefruit halves. It felt as though I moved
in thickened light. Each gesture slow, precise,
painstaking, and intense.
My focus narrowed to the metal parts
arrayed before me. One by one,
I moved them into place. A small sphere
of beryllium was first, cupped like an egg
between two hemispheres of hollowed-out
plutonium, womb-shaped, as warm as flesh
from random fissions. Then the curved leaves of
plum-colored tamper. Each part knew its place.
Between my hands, I felt a world take shape.
The Geiger counter clicked. My palms grew slick.
I felt my fingers slowly growing numb,
gripping the heavy chunks, more dense than gold.
I shifted my grip abruptly.
Everybody jumped. My back ached.
Were my fingers freezing or on fire?
I tried to blink away the sparks
from my exhausted retinas. I leaned
close to the sphere, but suddenly it shrank
to a speck far out of reach. Or had it swelled
to planet size? Huge, jagged mountains thrust
toward me, and yet so small it seemed
a single pinpoint stabbed my fingertips.
I felt myself begin to fall. I closed
my eyes. My stomach lurched.
The taste of rotten lemons stained my tongue.
Surely, somehow, the core went critical.
A blue glow filled the air: The radiation
ionized the aqueous humor of my eyes.
Now I would die.
                                 Then Serber spoke. "Louis,
are you all right?" He touched my shoulder. My eyes
were wet. I opened them. In my clenched hands
was the completed core. It seemed that I
was not among the ones about to die.

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

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Extended selections of these poems were published in At Length Magazine and The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.