The characters who speak through the poems in Critical Assembly are all based on real people—some well-known historical figures, others obscure private citizens. In crafting verse voices for these individuals, I have tried to remain faithful to the historical record and, whenever possible, to their own writings and pronouncements, both published and unpublished. Indeed, in a few instances (the Norris Bradbury, Thomas Farrell, and David McDonald poems, along with the final J. Robert Oppenheimer), I have reworked existing sources; in other cases, I have invented voices based on only scraps and hints. At both poles, and in the latitudes between, for the past thirty- three years I have carefully surveyed the territory, visiting Manhattan Project sites, delving into archives, attending reunions of both military and scientific personnel, and interviewing and corresponding with project participants. In undertaking this work, my intent has been to offer the reader representations of historical truth.

And yet, though I have looked to these individuals to identify the events and actions that mattered most to them, to reveal their perspectives and insights as well as the phrases, images, and metaphors with which they responded to their experiences, the historical record contains both too little information and too much. For each voice I have had to choose which details to highlight and which to omit; I have interpreted, filled in gaps, and found analogues; arranged and juxtaposed; matched spoken to poetic rhythms; concentrated extensive webs of thought and feeling into moments of crisis; implied personality through syntax, lineation, and structure. And so the voices in these poems are indeed “characters” and not those people they are emblems of. This is, I hope, not a flaw but a feature, for there is also the truth of fiction.

To convey both kinds of “truth,” I have turned to verse, hoping, through the juxtapositions of rhyme, the stutter step of enjambment, the metrical shadings of thought and feeling—all the time-tested techniques by which poetry voices a multiplicity of human meanings in every line—to capture something of the complex attitudes and beliefs these people clove to or betrayed; to tease apart the ways in which their proximity to nuclear weapons inspired revision of their personal narratives and metaphorical armatures; to understand how they normalized the unthinkable, how pacifists created weapons of mass destruction, how scientists left their ivory towers to work for the military, and how their attitudes and actions thrust us all, willy-nilly, into the nuclear age.

Why go to such lengths to produce mere poems? Something at the core of these people—something that made their participation in the Manhattan Project both possible and ultimately productive—is crucially important to the rest of us, not only because it enabled them to transform our world but because it inhabits us as well. Our future, as they framed and we enact it, depends on our understanding of that something, and poetry is particularly suited to the task, for, over the millennia, it has developed as a peculiar but effective medium through which to explore and extend the resources of language as a means of expressing, and shaping, the inner life of the individual. Poetry has evolved both to convey and to challenge convention, to engage ambiguity and to nurture nuance, to make music and to meditate on meaning, to hand down history and to reconceive the self. If we hope to move beyond propaganda, sound bites, and received wisdom, poetry is surely one of our best bets.

Not least among poetry’s virtues is its difficulty. It requires that we wrestle with language, ideas, perceptions, experiences—our own and other people’s—much as the individuals who inspired these poems did. Poetry resists simple conclusions; it undercuts static understanding; it engages individual effort. The result is, I hope, that each of us will ultimately develop our own conceptions of the individuals portrayed here and, in the process, a deeper understanding of the ways in which our own attitudes continue to echo patterns laid down by the Manhattan Project pioneers.

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