Monday, February 4, 2013

Monday Muse: Kelly Cherry's 'Vectors'

The title of Kelly Cherry's ninth chapbook, Vectors (Parallel Press, 2012), and the cover image hint of magnitude and complexity. Indeed, in the person of J. Robert Oppenheimer — "father" of the atomic bomb — Cherry has chosen a figure of momentous scientific achievement, central to any history of the 20th Century, a man of enduring fascination about whom pointedly differing, even conflicting, fact and opinion exist. To write about a life already so well-documented is gutsy; to do so via poems that not only carry the substance of that life (the word "vector" is from the Latin vehere, meaning "to carry") but also illuminate it is a wonderful achievement.

The 29 elegant, insightful poems that comprise Vectors are, Cherry points out in a note preceding the contents page, Part One of a full-length book-in-progress, Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. They move the reader through Oppenheimer's early childhood and growing-up years to the time of his appointment as director of the Manhattan Project. While deep research of the physicist's life informs this collection, it does not make for dry history or stuffy biography in verse form. Not as conceived by Cherry, who displays a masterful use of just enough revealing detail to craft a necessarily multi-dimensional portrait. Cherry says she has "tried to be faithful to the figure as I see him" (my italics), those last three words a cautionary phrase that tells us that what Cherry has found in "numerous, often conflicting, biographies, letters, reports, and reminiscences" about her subject is here sorted, sifted, and refined to carry her particular perspective on Oppenheimer's formation, education, and influences. Remarkable clarity and consistency of emotion and intuitive understanding of character come through the controlled but empathic voice of these poems. 

What we get in Vectors is a biography of influences that shape and oppose, direct and confound; it begins with a picture of rarefied childhood, extends through troubled adolescence, and finds release in a position of transformational leadership. At the outset, we learn that Oppenheimer's background is one of privilege and wealth: He lives in a "redbrick apartment / on Riverside" that has ". . . a private gallery / for canvasses by Vuillard and Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, Derain, Renoir, and Maurice de Vlaminck. / There was a Rembrandt etching, a Cezanne drawing. / Gilt wallpaper shimmered in the shifting sun. . . ." ("Introduction to Art") Sundays are given over to chauffeured drives in the family's Packard; education is obtained "at the hallowed, whizbang High School of Ethical Culture." ("Sundays") But, we also discover, the air in Oppenheimer's home is "unbreathable" ("Sundays"), the atmosphere distinguished by a profound "sadness settled in" ("Thanksgiving") after the loss of a child, parents experiencing "mutual heartbreak [that] hushed / the apartment", leaving the young Oppenheimer feeling "unworthy of his parents' love" and "afraid to play" ("The Sadness in Him"). Even camp, where Oppenheimer gets tagged "[t]he daddy's boy who was too smart / for anybody's good", is hazed and left "an outcast boy" ("Outcast"), gives no solace. Little wonder, then, that "[a]t seventeen he retreated to his room", "wrote poems and read physics" for a year. ("Discovering New Mexico") Even as a trip to the American Southwest leaves him "invigorated" and enjoying "a freedom / wider-winged than ever he imagined" ("Discovering New Mexico"), Oppenheimer is plagued by a sense of being "thought strange". At Cambridge, his "head. . . full of unformed fantasies", he's "put on probation, shipped off to a Harley Street psychiatrist" ("The Poisoned Apple"), and subsequently reported for "worrisome behavior" ("Robert the Dog") that earns him a diagnosis of mental illness.

And in contrast to all this is the prodigious intellect, evident early on, and beautifully conveyed in Cherry's descriptions of the "intense" boy who "[a]t the age of twelve. . . gave a lecture on / geology to degreed geologists" ("At the New York Mineralogical Institute"), who "devoured whole genres of knowledge / before he arrived at Harvard, took ten classes / each semester, then earned his Ph.D. / from Gottingen at twenty-two" ("The Well-Stocked Mind"), who was so admired by his students that they "tried to be him." ("Assistant Professor of Physics, University of California, Berkeley")  

Yet for all his seeming distraction from the real world, his mind and spirit "bedeviled by demons of his own creation" ("Epiphany in Corsica"), Cherry's Oppenheimer also is attentive to the darkening of "lives of Jews in Europe, where, / window by window, lights were going out." ("Scientists Flee Germany") The poems in the last third of the book — "Oppenheimer, 1931", "Kristalnacht", "Hitler Redrawing the Map of Europe", and especially the exquisite "Aeneas and His Father" with its almost unbearable image of "Aeneas bear[ing] Anchises on / His back, the weight less than that of his own son" — movingly advance the narrative arc of Oppenheimer's story toward that fateful place where "young Robert moved among / eternal numbers kindled like the stars / with powers beyond the merely human", where instead of "drifting / untethered through a void, . . . / he could be of use." ("Director of the Manhattan Project")

The women in Oppenheimer's life also are vectors of a kind, the magnitude of their spheres of influence carried in the person Oppenheimer becomes, and so not to be ignored. Cherry draws marvelous portraits of them, too: of a mother, a painter who "may have been a bit distracted, / preoccupied with art" ("Introduction to Art"), who "masked her disfigured hand with a glove" ("Sundays"), and whose death from leukemia left the young Oppenheimer cognizant of "[t]he pain of not yet being / whole, completed, formed" ("The Wounded Warrior"); of "[t]he pessimistic Jean, intelligent / and sad", a Communist Party member who "turned his attention outward toward the world" ("The Affair with Jean Tatlock"); and of the "ambitious", "self-serving" Kitty who "saw in Robert ambition equal / to her own and a way to fulfill it", whom "I.I. Rabi, / a colleague, would one day flat out say was evil." ("Kitty")

Scattered throughout the collection are foreshadowings of the future, and of the role in it of the brilliant, brooding, acclamation-needy Oppenheimer:

. . . What fascinated
the curious child was light concealed inside,
the fugitive glint, the ticking heart of night.
~ "Grace note. His childhood mineral collection" 

The poet writing rides on a beam of light.
~ "Grace note. What Oppenheimer knew about composing poetry"

. . . The fact remains: he knew a lot and brought it
to bear on his understanding of the world. . . .
~ from "The Well-Stocked Mind"

. . .
He loved being admired,
being liked, being
at the center. As if
he was the mind who made
it all go, the motor

in the machine.
~ from "Assistant Professor of Physics, University of California, Berkeley"

. . .
He didn't know that he was stepping off
a plank into a sea of fire, wherein
one could drown or be burned beyond recognition.
~ from "Kitty"

What we know, retrospectively, is that Oppenheimer came to be a witness to destructive blinding light, light he was instrumental in creating and directing, and forever after existed in the shadows that light cast:

Lives would be changed. The atom would reveal
a power incommensurate with its size.
The skies would open their doors, the firmament shift.
A man would find and lose and find himself.
~ from "Director of the Manhattan Project"

Vectors displays so much of what makes Cherry's poems so compelling a read: deep curiosity about and passion for her subject, accessible language, lyricism, enjambment and form that shifts to carry the weight of meaning in a line or an entire poem, perfect turn-of-phrase, a practiced eye for details that correlate to and build on what precedes them. I look forward to publication of the full-length Quartet.

The award-winning Kelly Cherry, Poet Laureate Emerita of Virginia (see my 2011 profile here and my interview with Cherry here and here), is the author of at least 20 books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, nine chapbooks, and translations of two classical plays. Her collection The Life and Death of Poetry: Poems, recipient of the L.E. Phillabaum Poetry Award, is to be published in March by Louisiana State University Press. A resident of Virginia, Cherry is Eudora Welty Professor Emerita of English and Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Louise Gallagher said...

What a fascinating read your review is -- and what a fascinating write her chapbook sounds -- an autobiography of such a man and times through poetry -- wow!

Peggy Rosenthal said...

Thanks for bringing to our attention Cherry's ambitious project. Oppenheimer is indeed a figure who continues to fascinate, a complex person who merits Cherry's sustained probing.

Deborah Batterman said...

This sounds really wonderful, Maureen. I'm familiar with some of Kelly Cherry's work, and I'm 'Einsteinian' (no grandiosity intended) in my fascination with the connections between poetry and physics. Will definitely read this book. btw, whether or not you choose to pass along the 'very inspiring blogger' award, I would be very remiss in not tagging you.