Poetry Sunday: “Did My Father Work on Bombs?”
by Jacqueline Berger

Did My Father Work on Bombs?

We cheered, he told me,
when they were dropped
because it meant the war was over.
Home on a G.I. Bill, a Jewish boy
with a brain for math,
the field offered stable, secure,
professional employment.
Every year, an Einstein wall calendar,
physicist on a bicycle,
World War IV will be fought
with sticks and stones,
the torment of genius
my father understood.

If he were still alive,
would I ask again?
He already told us he would never.
Where he drew the line,
the century buckling around him.

Business trips to Oak Ridge,
Hanford. Plutonium
could not be smelled or tasted,
seen or heard or felt,
back when we still believed
its clean science
would keep us safe.

Concrete lined in steel,
fully contained casks
to withstand—but the century
is over, and Eisenhower’s
Atoms for Peace long gone.
My father wanted
his body turned to ash.
Briefly I held the sealed
box in my hands
before we buried it in earth.


From The Day You Miss Your Exit (Broadstone Books 2018), reprinted here with permission of the press. The book is available for order here.

Links to interviews with the author and reviews of her work are here and here.

Jacqueline Berger’s fourth book of poetry, The Day You Miss Your Exit, was published by Broadstone Books in 2018. Previous books include: The Gift That Arrives Broken, winner of the 2010 Autumn House Poetry Prize; Things That Burn, selected by Mark Strand as the 2004 winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize; and The Mythologies of Danger, winner of the 1998 Bluestem Award and the Northern California Book Award. Her poems have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac as well as in numerous anthologies and journals, including The Iowa Review, Old Dominion Review, Rhino, River Styx, and Nimrod. She teaches writing at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, and lives in San Francisco.


Poet’s Note

I wrote “Did My Father Work on Bombs?” in response to an argument I got into with a man at a party who insisted that my father must have been involved in the military aspect of the nuclear industry, or, more precisely, that there was no separation between the military and energy-development components of the industry. My father, at this point dead seven years, had always insisted that he would never work on bombs. This was central to his, and our family’s, ethos. That he devoted his professional life to what has turned out to be an untenable form of energy saddens me, as it must have saddened him, though this was one of many topics never discussed. My father was wounded and wonderful, maybe in equal measure. To his credit, he took an early retirement and became a teacher. The poem is my ongoing questioning of who my father was and, on another level, how the whole meaning and influence of family changes once parents are no longer alive.

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