Kelly Cherry’s ‘Quartet for Robert Oppenheimer’

by Sean Whiteford

Kelly Cherry’s newest book of poetry, Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Poem is a rare treat for a book of poetry, one whose focus is entirely biographical. Cherry performs a masterstroke by interlacing adroit pathos and believable portrayal with the hard, and often inscrutable, facts of Oppenheimer, whose life could only be encompassed in epic poetry and awesome storyline.

Cherry’s careful, deft style belies the energy heightening the language. She can balance conversational and linguistic richness, hinge a whole line on a word, transmute the biographical into the universal, and the relational into “actual philosophy,” identifying that Fate is made out of small moments and that our distant heroes are sympathetic.

Divided into four sections, Quartet follows a roughly chronological order, mapping the life of Oppenheimer. But the structure is not obsessed with the natural order of biology, that of birth, aging, and death. Like the veritable in media res, Cherry introduces us to Oppenheimer contextualized within the large motion of historical and familial events. Poems about Oppenheimer’s time present the driving forces in which he found himself an actor. Just as the story doesn’t begin at his inclusion, we now live in a world defined by his contributions.

Cherry deliberately and carefully uses the epic as a structural component and to capture Oppenheimer’s life. The veins of the Aeneid, the hints of the Homeric and the religious undergirded by the urgency and ethereal beauty of science, and the uncertainty and terror of war, are all fused in a book that recognizes Oppenheimer as more than a distant character in a larger story. What strikes me is how well-fitted Oppenheimer’s life is to the enduring, heroic literary tradition.

Quartet reads like an epic, an ur-tale filtered through the complicating lens of a real person. Cherry’s writing makes me feel as if she has uncovered a template for and an exegesis of Fate. From the heroic (in the classical sense of the word) Oppenheimer, Cherry has excavated lessons that ring with religious depth while not scouring the patina and dulling the edge of real life. Repetition of lines between poems, starting from the first poem “Invocation” and throughout the whole book, parallels the invocations of the ancient Greek poets with their repeated phrases. But also the book presents invocation as ritual and seemingly endless failure, as striving through a problem whose solution revolves back to the same obsessions. Invocations as earnestness run aground on banality and lesser people.

As Cherry so aptly put it in “War,” we, readers and humans, do not know more than Oppenheimer did, but we must still “learn to live without assurances.” Things could have been different, a different choice or a slight variation in events. It was the great crush of people who felt that inevitability dictated their actions that led to great and tragic fortune, whether it was Oppenheimer or Lewis Strauss or Kitty, until the decisions could not be walked back. Cherry provides the reader the components that, once set in motion, collide in a chain reaction. But she does it with such patience that the energy is entirely personal. I am never taken out of small, important parts of life.

Cherry handles Oppenheimer as individual entire, flawed and someone with an unfillable privacy and a reservoir of storming intentions. There is no helpful legend here, no guide rails to the tracks of fortune. It is in the unenviable clutter and iconic decisions that the fate of the world rests on.

In “The Lacework of Coherence” we have an encapsulation of Oppenheimer, his hopes and his fears, and the poetry of physics. What we know of the universe, of actions’ effects, what we know of an individual is defined by the available points of information and the limits of our knowledge. The limits of our knowledge have both tragedy and wonder.

While reading, I had a sense of his mind working alone while seeking connections that transcend the barriers of space and time. I also had a sense of a man whose role never matched his intentions, whose passions could never crystallize into a reflection of his preferred world. It could be called Fate, but those “interfering gods” that peep up at times throughout the book never seem more than the pettiness, misunderstanding, and misuse of others, and the mistakes and misinterpretations his earnestness could never solve. Hope and despair are factors too irreducible to calculate. Oppenheimer’s dilemma was that no discovery is born in a vacuum, and a person caught in the tides of history cannot conclude their own purpose.

Perhaps Cherry presented Oppenheimer’s dilemma best in “Tongues of Flame,” “after the conquering future / became the uncorrectable past / Who shall be saved?” His hopes became a haunting past. Or perhaps the interstices in the poem “Experimental Syllogisms” articulate best the decisions that we cannot see: a tragic hero often has little space for joy in any tale and what joy there is, is relegated to the cracks that we cannot probe. But life is mortared by these interstices, constructed by the pains and joys that fit between the large events cataloged in history books. We cannot know what Oppenheimer felt the totality of his life to be. A book of poetry presents a theme in parallax, the different poems working to study a thought, a moment, and a contradiction. To build a collection of examinations that will captivate the reader and realize a coherent design from data points, Cherry presents us the interstices of Oppenheimer as any one of us would have felt them: the moments and decisions that are lived, and which thrive on the wonder, horror, and fatigue that being someone monumental, of suffering a heroic fate, irrevocably means.

As with every one of Kelly Cherry’s collections, there are simply too many ways to read this for such a short gathering of observations as a book review allows.