The Poetry of Cynthia Lowen

Winner 2008

Corpus I: Uranium

Uranium has the highest atomic weight of the naturally occurring elements.

The inevitability of pushing

when you tempt Don’t

over the cliff you sniff at

like some senseless animal

whose instincts defy the supposedly universal

instinct to survive.

Eyes red as the cape

the white man on the white horse

paraded through Canyon de Chelly—

portent of the shift

the rock waits for

to slide. Afterwards

you will say I’m sorry

and I will say I’m sorry

wondering was it the straw

or some inherent weakness in the camel’s back

that made it break?

Oppenheimer Explains Fission

Try bashing

your two fists

against your own head

until your ears ring

and you have given yourself

enough punishment because this is not about destruction

      but generation through methods

      associated with destruction.

For a moment you will exist

in the space cleaved

between the loathed

self and the self filled

with loathing out of which you will straighten your tie

      and resume the work

      with your four hands.

Oppenheimer on the Couch

First meaning possession.

Now, we have on our hands

this porcupine.

I chase it under the bed and dream

I’m a passenger on a doomed

cruise. The subconscious

has not been warned

about the use of cliché

sinking ship it says.

Sometimes I want to steal

but my understanding of loss prevents me.

Rock between two hard places.

We drowned in our teacups

and woke

on a bed of quills.

First meaning option

not to use

only wield.



was the one game

the missionaries brought

for some higher


evincing the little coffin

-shaped can

and the church key

with which they exhumed

the neat rows of bodies

lined up fin

to fin

as if a whole school

had neatly

and with perfect order

swam in there

of their own


We counted to 100

while the boy we all loved most

was designated It,

sent off to find a coffin

we could join him in

and we arrived

one by one

a whole school of us.

Oppenheimer Admires the Prints of Hokusai

Always a great wave overcoming

the miniature people. Each face bears the same


Mount Fuji will wait forever

for the seekers of high ground—

they meet the waves in boats, assuming

Mount Fuji will drown.

The wave you intended broods above

the blue wave. Sometimes, the sign for warning

escapes us.

Each lie contains two types of secrets:

the first is kept from others.

The second is kept from oneself.

Both waves will break

over the miniature people.

Corpus II: Atom

Greek for átomos. Meaning “the smallest indivisible particle of matter.”

The way violence makes an atom behave

like a drop of water

the self casts a shadow of the self

moving in opposite directions.

Breakdown: passage from one state

to another. Water: neither ice nor cloud.

Indivisible, as in, the smell of cut grass or single German words

that encompass entire ideas. Schadenfreude

(the enjoyment we take from others’ troubles).

Doppelganger (shadowself, harbinger of bad luck

and schizm). Is the shadow ice or is the shadow cloud?

The atom is the self that is both.

Bedding Down with Oppie

Sometimes, when we are lying here

I have the urge to pull my hand

from your breast, ball it into a fist

and smash your near-unconscious

face. It is like the fear

of calling out

in a silent theatre

during the most important

part of the play.

The audience turns in their seats,

the actors on stage pause

and I am dragged away.

I wanted to see the show

as much as I wanted to lie here

whispering love.


In late May of 1945, I finally joined my brother at Los Alamos.

        —Frank Oppenheimer

Dear Frank,

I’m riding toward a place called Coyote, despite the fact

I hate the damn animals. Understand the name

Coyote as either warning or a way to keep paradise private,

in other words, irresistible, and besides, I’m bored

with everything else. Have I told you how the natives

look at me with dog eyes? Meaning they smell me coming

from a long way off. The shamans blow smoke in my direction

and chant what must be a funeral song when the wind blows it

back at them. All this by way of an invitation, brother, to come,

preferably with a carton of cigarettes. —Robert

Theories of Relativity

I prayed for a brother. Then I made up a language

to exclude him.

The reason for the heart's two chambers:

deceit as proof

of the heart's allegiance

to itself.

His idiotic faith in my goodness

made me good. I hid in the cupboard of his belief

with my porkpie hat and my pipe

while the heart typed out its two-tongued correspondence.

I did not want a brother. I wanted to prove

there was a God. It was an experiment

I could never replicate.

Morning after Trinity or Oppenheimer Wakes and Remembers the Woman of His Dreams

All ass: two hemispheres of flesh

which were also, in the way of that world, scoops of ice cream

that would melt when I reached out my spoon.

This morning my wife is not my wife

and I shave with a sense of naughtiness

while the birds sing cheat-cheat cheat-cheat.

Both worlds being equal, I fear the alchemy of my razor

and the poached eggs set before me

with their little scarlet specks of potential.

Corpus III: Nucleus

        Uranium-238 is an α emitter, decaying through the natural decay series into lead-206.


the rings orbiting

a planet located

just beneath the swath

the seatbelt cuts

across the chest.

One little red suitcase

embedded in each layer

the unstable heart


sock by unpaired


until they call you

something else,


by loss

except for how the feeling

of loss


like a full eclipse

behind which

you are forced

to empty every single


and become your last

resurrection. Until

they call you lead.

Oppenheimer Studies the Art of Surrender

      Her skin was dangling all over and she was naked. She was muttering,

      Mother, water, mother, water.

      —Kinue Tomoyasu

Aphrodisiac, they say, oysters, the way we crack

their lids off while alive, unzip all at once

the salty sea and pulp, tip nacre to lip, and slurp

it up quick and whole almost missing that life

as it glides over tongue. I thought muscle might hold

the hinge shut. I suffered a lack

of imagination, or rather the unlikely hope

some pearl, some tough kernel

might keep the mouth from completing its advantage.

Such bad foresight, nature, failing to anticipate

the fisherman’s prying fingers and the shucking knife wedged

between the shell that becomes a comb

and the shell that will be a button.


Not corn but husk, our bed. I slip between

the paper sheets. The hair on my skin like cornsilk.

The hair that was hers. That I peeled back from the kernel

of her face every morning and kissed. Her body

of little seeds, bursting between my teeth.

Tore off the husk and said this is the best thing

about summer. Roasted on coals, steamed from inside.

And the cornsilk burned black as our hair. We said

this is the best thing about losing our bodies. We were big

as the cloud of smoke, finally as big as we felt.

If you have ever left the body, you know you didn’t want to

return. We burned our fingers picking ears from the fire.

Every summer I said this is the best crop. Until it was.

We chose the right day to go down to the field and harvest.

She said the rows made a prison. I said, a cradle.

Once she had left the body I knew she wouldn’t return.

Hot high summer. Sweet kernels. Picked just in time.

Oppenheimer Maps His Coordinates

After so much time in the desert

I’m always finding myself at water.

The blue and bloated little men

point to the back of my head and warn,

you have no friends on that shore.

I collect them in a net

and probe them, my little cadavers.

Little brains, little hearts.

Mine and cute like the jarred fetal pig in biology class.

I made these.

They call me father.

Corpus IV: Proton

        The number of protons in the nucleus determines the chemical properties of the atom and which chemical element it is.

The owls are not owls but modes

of defense, decoys on which the crows will enact

their particular hatred for raptors.

Inside, it’s winter, inviolate. Your own personal

snow-day, snow-week, goddamn blizzard

of ’92. Say down. Say chemical. Again

the goddamn sun. Again contradiction.

Let the field inside freeze. Defend it

with that which resembles the owl

but isn’t. For the dormant seeds

let the crows scratch. It’s winter inside, immune.

Say snow. Listen to the radio

list off cancellations. Take the crows’ beaks

in your hard plastic mouth. Let them peck

at the frozen clods of dirt. Be cancelled

by the crows’ expectations. Say polymer. Patient

as the face on a coin. Not wheat or fieldmice:

crows want nothing more

than a sense of dominance

over another’s nature—

they just don’t know yours yet.

Outlast. Say plastic. Say chemical. Wait for spring.

Calculate the distance thereto

as the crow flies.

Oppenheimer Gets Caught in a Blizzard

The tree does not look for mercy,

each needle tipped with stars of cold.

Back home we kissed beneath the mistletoe: parasite

which will eventually kill the tree.

We are at odds with the tree,

at odds with snow.

I used to believe

in a kind of relationship.

If I asked to be saved

I would be.

I said, I love you.

(Fear of the loss of the body.)

Fear of not being received thereafter.

When I thought the sky was listening

I asked not to be held


I watched the cloud that contained the lightning

unable to choose its target.

A dust-devil picked sagebrush like a lice-comb

and the dirt smelled so good I licked it

off the back of my hand—

The horizon is a lever hoisting the line

we have crossed. The horizon

has crushed its own fulcrum.

Each six-pointed star is different

and perfect. To say otherwise

is a sin.

(Oppenheimer Gets Caught in a Blizzard-Cont.)

It takes many stars to fill the valley

and the valley is brimming.

When I thought the sky was listening

I asked to be held.
Tea Ceremony

It isn’t that I don’t feel bad; it is that I don’t feel worse tonight than I did last night.

        —J. Robert Oppenheimer, upon his first visit to Japan

At least we can communicate in bows.

At least we have clean cups, clean tea,

clean hands.

My server’s cheeks remind me of a saddle—

plains of skin stretched

over pommel,

over horn. Or a figure

eight, sign for

infinity. In the body

I must be mindful of how I take each sip,

I must contemplate the silence of falling water.

Ichi-go ichi-e they say.

For this time only, never again, one chance

in a lifetime.

I cannot hear the silence of falling water.

I do not want the other life

in this life.

My server bows to me.

I have brought that life to her.


However, the war was not over in my body.

        —Michiko Fujioka

I never knew how to become what you loved.

I loved that dress and now I wear it on my skin

forever. I had forgotten the war.

(There was no word for victim.)

Though I was still wearing the dress

I wore to school that day. I planted a bulb

beneath the dress I couldn’t take off.

I forgot the war. I licked rice from my fingers

and watched koi kiss the surface of the pond. I seeded

a garden. I was not a victim. The garden pushed up

against my dress. My dress was filled with wildflowers

I thought. I forgot where I’d planted the bulb

until it bloomed. My flower was named

that which marks a day. Also, disgrace.

Wearing the dress I wore to school that day,

I buried my flower by the koi pond.

We were not victims. I forgot the war.

Oppenheimer Finds a Lover or Afternoon at the Shore

I take the canoe in rough water.

I go when the black afternoon

storms come in, as they do, most days.

I lower myself in the prow, lie down

with the woman whose body will never be found.

That one looks like an umbrella,

and this one, look, a bell. She gives the same cloud

many names. Out of consideration

she never says mushroom.

I try to give her reasons but the ocean

interrupts. It makes excuses for me.

Oh but really, how could I blame you?


Hibakusha, which is the title to several poems in the sequence, is a Japanese word translating literally to "explosion-affected people," and is the term widely used in Japan referring to victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Hokusai, appearing in the title of the poem on page 5, is considered one of the outstanding figures of Japanese woodblock printing. He is best known as author of the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1831), which includes the iconic and internationally-recognized print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Trinity, appearing in the title of the poem on page 10, was the name given to the first test of a nuclear weapon, on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico.