The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Robert Parham

Father, Underground in D.C.


“Like stacks of batteries” it was,
as he traced the sinking target
in the weave of tube, the marked
line drawn to transcribe descent,
how a bomb might fall, how its
particles go blind with light rising.

“Mass spectrometer,” he pronounced,
precise to the syllable, to the vowel,
regardless of his Nashville-stained voice,
more like his precise box letters, numbers
as though his fingers could detect tiny
differences, record them in the atmosphere
of this cave, these tunnels underground.

Each morning his old car, (a model A?!)
driving in from the farm near Gaithersburg,
once a wheel that came loose, took
its own mind for two blocks, then found
a curb, bounced high, became harmless
and still. He laughed, told Paul, a physicist,
of the sight. “I had nightmares for weeks,”
Bradt said later, “always that wheel rolling,
leaping, never coming down, a bomb.”

“We were through early, by days,” Father smiled.
“Two turtles swimming in the aquarium, one
marked in big block letters—U-235—the other:
U-238. The Pentagon boys got no sense
of humor. We did it for them, always late.”

Holsteins in their black-and-white way
graze quietly, their milk flowing sweet
and steady on the farms, keeping The District
in solemn good health. Wisconsin cringing
in our dairy’d wake. Unborn, I’d lift hay,
toss and load and empty and feed, walk
the eternal fields, tend cows in the older barn.

In the attic two tiny thin-papered leaflets,
written for those who wrote them, let
not wisely from the lab into the trunk,
wherever posterity lives. “U-235. . .U-238.”

“We tested radioactive isotopes of potassium,”
Daddy says, eyes dreamy in his swim
through the past. “What for?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Just over
and over and over again, like marching.”

A girl, older like me, rode her friend’s
horse, teased me as she passed. Later,
she recalls her father, with a small
reactor in the trunk of his car, headed for a lab
in North Carolina. Simply driving, innocent
as an empty gun. Or not.
                                        The bearded goat
pushed through the wire of the fence, stretched
toward me. My first school day, first grade,
new home, let out at the house with the windmill.

“Not us,” the lady said, showing me her tiny
herd, whom she milked, offered me some.
Then she pointed to the far hill where I should
see the other spinning wheel, hear its creak.

Today we shall have Naming of Parts, a voice said.

His hand reaches, like Mother’s, for one
on the other side. “Her sister. I just know,”
Dad told me once. He reaches. I can’t tell
now who is there. I wonder sometimes
if that should be in my last requests,
for the final moments that really count.
And I wonder. . .wonder who it should be.




ROBERT PARHAM's past endeavors include being a farm kid, a public school teacher, a university professor and dean, along with those other odd brief forays we all make along the way. His work has been published widely, including recent poems in the Southern Review, and earlier work in varied places, such as Rolling Stone, Shenandoah, and many others. He edited the Southern Poetry Review for twelve years.


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