The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Gary Fincke

The Secret City

 

 

 

Ed Westcott was the 29th employee hired for the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge.

                He was the official government photographer there from 1942 to 1966.

 

Photo #1: The Perennials of Oak Ridge

 

The trellises are handmade, vines

And branches trained upward, beauty

And comfort compatible, though

Temporary and brief like each

 

Sad emphasis on hope no one

Speaks of until privacy returns.

Inside laboratories, riddles

Whispered, answers unsolvable

 

As the equation for heaven.

The stems climb their small increments

Of reassurance, leaves opening

To drink up the light like addicts.

 

Annuals have been abandoned

Like promises of surrender.

In this second summer, fast-climbing

Perennials. Possible, now, to

 

Believe in the sensuality

Of shadows cast by the rise of roses,

The ascension of morning glories,

Or, at least, the small contentment

 

Of latticework that amplifies

The spell of early evening before

Descending light diffuses into

The indifferent drift to darkness.

 

            Always, throughout the war, the flawless guards

            demand photo IDs, no exceptions.

 

Photo #2: Santa Claus Arrives at Oak Ridge

 

Santa’s made the trip by automobile.

He’s working day-shift, the reindeer pastured,

But his Chevrolet is stopped like a spy’s.

Although Santa ho-hos, the guards remain

In character, serious as war while

They rummage through two sacks, reminding him

The red flag of his baggy suit requires

A pat-down, including his shiny boots.

 

He’s scuffling now, stumbling like a hobo,

That sack unwieldy with stocking stuffers,

Footing uncertain on the unpaved street

As irregular as pieces of coal

Meant to terrify the worst brat polite.

By the time he’s surrounded by children

He’s a mess of mud splatter, gasping brief

White clouds like the ones the reindeer pant when

The sleigh is miraculously loaded.

 

Housewives on Saturdays, the mothers have

Made an hour among their chores. They’ve dressed

For Santa Claus, the secret work of war

Set aside like a long novel, the place

Bookmarked by a small child’s crayoned drawing—

The stick figures of family and pets,

An oval sun whose beams strafe house and yard.

 

Near Santa’s hardback throne, consequence lifts

Like tentative fog; the children form lines

From the left and right, loud but orderly. 

The mothers retreat.  Cameras taboo,

They memorize the scene like poetry:

The bright marathon of wishful thinking,

Footballs and bicycles, dolls and board games,

Roller skates and air-rifles and all those

Perfectly detailed model air force planes.

 

            Six beauty shops, two bakeries.  Never

            counted, tens of thousands of ashtrays.

 

Photo #3: The Midtown Fires, 1944

 

During the invasion

of January, the year begins

 

with the flickering firefights

of uncertain outcome.

 

Trailer flames, hutment blazes—

Every neighborhood in Oak Ridge

 

lights up the epidemic year,

nearly a thousand alarms

 

despite the trained caution

of every resident.

 

An hour or more, each night,

some lie awake like watchmen

 

for the burglary of fire.

Children are slapped, sometimes,

 

for carelessness. Out of love.

Out of inevitability.

 

Someone’s hands always shake

over kerosene, the fuel so

 

necessary, the inexperienced

are forced to defuse.

 

As if daily sacrifice was required

by the American version of God.

 

As if the trailers were set

on altars fashioned by faith,

 

the temporary triumph of flame

across a street or distant

 

as an accidental Passover,

the fortunate rising

 

to reignite before walking

to incomprehensible work

 

with discipline, resignation,

and yes, with joy.

 

            Without preference, the chapel serves all

            the Protestant sects, Catholics, and Jews.

 

Photo #4: Square Through in Oak Ridge

 

Each Saturday night, in Oak Ridge, Bill Pierce

Calls squares for workers out for a good time

At the Midtown Rec Hall.  Comfortable

Or clumsy, the couples keep following

His lead. How quickly the city women

Have learned from rural friends, but their men are

As reluctant as boys at a school dance.

Do-si-do, Bill calls, now four ladies chain.

Behind him the fiddler has time to slip

In a pinch of chew tobacco.  Later,

He has a sad solo when the dance turns

Slow and private, but now it’s the simple

Refrains, the sound of shuffling and laughter

As Pierce works old-timey into his calls:

Hey, all join hands and circle to the south,

And get a little moonshine in your mouth.

 

This night, Pierce switches to wartime patter:

Now allemande left with a soldier’s wife.

If we finish our work, we’ll save his life.

The fiddler tells Pierce he misread a gauge

Into red. Thankfully, correctible,

The danger brief and only to himself. 

Luck is singing with a fiddle and bow.

All move together now, and do-si-do.

Right now there’s time enough to celebrate

The unraveling of whatever’s feared,

A near-rhyme for urgency’s solitaire

With a single, mysterious lab task.

Pierce calls three familiar couplets to close,

And the fiddler holds the last note, then bows,

The necessity of the smallest share;

Any larger, impossible to bear.

 

            In all of the dorms of the Secret City,

            the ironing rooms were for women only.

 

Photo #5: Hutments Come to Oak Ridge

 

In Oak Ridge, races are separated

At the gate by the planned simplicity

Of expectations, the Negroes packed off

To hutments in Gamble Valley, their jobs

Requiring nothing more than dirty hands,

Heavy lifting, and huge humility.

Hutments, they learn, are sixteen by sixteen

Packing boxes, in each wall, one window

Without glass or screens, boards available

To shut out flies, mosquitoes, rain, and light.

What’s more, Negro husbands are not allowed

To live with wives, and though they visit each

Other like prisoners, in the evenings

The wives are widows, the night as formless

As Genesis.  So it’s no surprise that

More than half the Negroes refuse those cells,

Choose to commute daily from Knoxville, but

Always, like migrants, driven in by bus,

Rebroken like badly set, fractured bones,

Searched each morning for weapons, contraband,

The remnants of reasons not to obey.

Always, through the translucent, stained windows,

They watch the guards gather as if woken

By alarms set so low in frequency,

They seem to insist from within like pulse.

 

            Gaseous diffusion plant K25 was, during the war,

            the world’s largest building under one roof.

 

Photo #6: The Traveling Library in Oak Ridge, 1946

 

The children are eager for more pictures.

They scramble for warriors and princesses

Who will sometimes meet and love each other

Before or during or after battles.

 

Illustrated or not, none of the books

Mentions Oak Ridge, where those children’s parents

Have begun to learn how they ended war

With obedience, discipline, and care.

 

Because science is a workday subject,

Because research never ends, these children

Will remain, three years yet, before the gates

Will open, all of them with time to learn

 

The new definition of infinite.

One of the boys is returning a book

Of horses, its gold-bordered cover torn

Through two pintos whose faces his mother

 

Has taped while he sobbed out apology.

Now, before the librarian reshelves

Those horses into circulation, she

Inspects for the interior damage

 

Of marginal notes, things scribbled as code.

Satisfied, she runs her finger along

The tape before pressing it to the boy’s

Damp forehead as if she were knighting him.

 

            Cattle exposed to fallout from the A-Bomb test

            in Socorro were shipped to Oak Ridge for study.

 

Photo #7: The New Mexico Cattle, 1946

 

What’s striking, at first, is that every cow

inside this rough-hewn corral is facing

the camera, curious as just-found

political prisoners. Slatted fencing

reveals an open landscape unlike where

those cattle absorbed the consequences

of the first atomic bomb. Scientists

are listening to Inevitable’s

preliminary report. Everything

they observe and record is essential,

vital work, heavy with imperatives.

Not one of them has ever touched a cow,

but now they will keep them, especially

the yearling in the foreground who confirms

there is no limit to our emptiness.

 

            After the war. Oak Ridge watched its story

            At the Grove—“The Beginning or the End?”

 

Photo #8: The Girl Scouts Visit Oak Ridge, 1951

 

In full uniform, neckerchiefs and hats,

The Girl Scouts enter what’s billed as sacred,

But the roads are unpaved, and though it’s June,

They’re muddy from recent rain, the ruts filled

With standing water, the ridges gooey.

 

The story ends, they all know, the summer

Before they started school, the final year

August didn’t swirl toward apprehension.

Their leader, this morning, has related

How, during her junior year, the high school

Closed over Christmas vacation, saying,

“Just like that. No warning. Disappeared. Gone.”

 

Look, right now they are afraid for their shoes,

Or worse, the misery of sudden slip.

The tour is just beginning, and Miss Spatz

Would never excuse anyone, not when

They have traveled thirteen miles, not after

The careful arrangements for permission

To examine, first hand, where the world changed.

 

Half of the girls love Frank Sinatra; half

Have been raised on Hank Williams.  Four of them

Have televisions with snow-plagued channels

In their houses, and one has a father

Who tracks the frequency of A-bomb tests

In Nevada, the site remote as Mars.

 

Russians, he’s said, know the end-time secrets.

For Christmas, her mother gave her dancing

Lessons; for her birthday, she renewed them

Like a subscription.  When water covers

Her ankle, she leaps and squeals like science.

 

 

 

GARY FINCKE's latest collection of poetry is Brining Back the Bones: New and Selected Poems (Stephen F. Austin, 2016). His selected stories The Out-of-Sorts has just been published by West Virginia University, and his collection of personal essays The Darkness Call, which won the Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, will be published in February by Pleiades Press.

 

 

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