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

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Today’s poem is narrative in mode, in free verse (unmetered and unrhymed), with thirty-five lines arranged into four variable-length stanzas. Lines are short throughout, creating a column whose shape is, perhaps, reminiscent of the rods in a nuclear power plant. Grammar and syntax are regular, and diction is plainspoken, making this an accessible poem. Accessible, but not simplistic, it raises the subtle and difficult issue of how our perceptions and memories of loved ones are molded and changed by the passage of time after we outlive them.

From the poem emerges a portrait of a father remembered half a century after the speaker knew him, as a young scientist who could have, but apparently did not, directly work on development of the atom bomb. He was in the right place (“in the field”) at the right time (“[h]ome on a G.I. Bill” after WWII) and had the qualifications (“a brain for math” and ability to understand “the torment of genius”). As the speaker recalls it, though, her father held himself apart from militaristic applications of his science, telling his family “he would never” and exactly where “he drew the line.” Still, he did “cheer” when the bomb was dropped, for it meant the end of the war, and he did continue afterward to work in the field of atomic energy, going, for example, on those “Business trips to Oak Ridge, / Hanford.” Even if he did not help engineer the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he did work in Nuclear Energy, a now-discredited field once hailed as the solution to our country’s growing energy needs. The speaker seems troubled by this, even as she hastens to provide an excuse—her father’s work occurred before the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disasters, “back when we still believed / its clean science / would keep us safe.”

That science failed utterly to keep us safe is something acknowledged in the last stanza: “[c]oncrete lined in steel, / fully contained casks / to withstand—but the century.” Note how that em-dash cuts off the speaker in the middle of her own utterance here, and how the word “century” provides a clue about where her thinking is going. The last time she used it was in line 18’s “the century buckling around him.” Those formidable storage casks were built to “withstand,” but alas, they did not withstand. We know now that they are “buckling,” just like the last century and its illusions about the safety of nuclear power. In this context, and of course in the context of recent history, the next line’s reference to Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program resonates with heavy irony.

“Did My Father Work on Bombs?” is among three poems this month whose subject is father/daughter relationships, in recognition of Father’s Day. I like the poem’s treatment of the difficult issue of how our memory of loved ones changes—sometimes uncomfortably—with time. We see our parents as gods while we are young, and then the years of outliving them give us a new lens and new ways to see them. Sometimes it’s with increased empathy—for example, being a mother has given me a wholly new perspective on what I once thought were ridiculous curfew rules in my childhood home. Sometimes, though, our adult perspectives can make us question our most precious visions of our parents. We see them less as gods and more as flawed human beings who helped shape the world—for better and oftentimes for worse—before we arrived.

This poem stops short of blame and criticism, but we can sense the speaker’s discomfort and doubt, in the end expressed as metaphor. We feel her love for her father throughout the poem and especially in that tender portrait of him as an idealistic young scientist hanging Einstein calendars on the wall, but the poem’s last image is of the speaker holding a box of her father’s ashes. A “sealed box” held briefly in her hands, the way her life once held his life. A box about to be interred, just like those now-leaking casks were once interred and, like them, containing something that for the speaker has become—radioactive.

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