John Gery: On "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer"

Ai's "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer," with its conspicuous subtitle of "A Fiction," belongs in a series of dramatic monologues in Ai's collection Sin, where she speaks in the grim voices of those in extreme historical circumstances--John Kennedy after his assassination, Joseph McCarthy fantasizing about unlimited power, a leftist dying in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, an aging journalist remembering Vietnam in 1966, the Atlanta child killer in 1981--so Oppenheimer's "testimony" (presumably before a Senate Committee on atomic warfare in the 1950s) takes its place in the landscape of horrors that comprise for Ai our recent American legacy. Though portraying widely different characters in her monologues, Ai makes no attempt to vary their voices from poem to poem, and the speaker in "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer" makes his confession in the same frenzied tone of the other poems, as though recalling a nightmare. Still, Ai's characterization of Oppenheimer, the "father" of the atomic bomb, is not unlike other psycho-biographical accounts of him by those such as Brian Easlea and Lifton: Her poem opens with the physicist praising the bomb as evidence of modern "enlightenment." Yet because this is a confession, the speaker also acknowledges his guilt for having pursued truth too scientifically, a guilt he then tries to rationalize:

To me, the ideological high wire

is for fools to balance on with their illusions.

It is better to leap into the void.

Isn't that what we all want anyway?—

to eliminate all pretense

till like the oppressed who in the end

identifies with the oppressor,

we accept the worst in ourselves

and are set free.

As a scientist, Ai's Oppenheimer embodies the cultural urge to know beyond speculation. But in the second strophe, he equates this obsessive drive, this desire for "the big fall smooth as honey down a throat," with prenatal desire, as he sighs, "Anything that gets you closer/ to what you are./ Oh, to be born again and again/ from that dark, metal womb,/ the sweet, intoxicating smell of decay/ the imminent dead give off." As Spenser Weart has also observed about nuclear psychology, this poem insinuates that the drive for atomic wisdom reflects a desire to return to the womb. Yet in the last strophe, Oppenheimer confesses his ultimate frustration with the futility of pursuing a truth that "'is always changing,/ always shaped by the latest/ collective urge to destroy," and he feels trapped by his own "urge" to know, calling his soul "a wound that will not heal." He looks at the country around him, "our military in readiness,/ our private citizens/ in a constant frenzy of patriotism/ and jingoistic pride,/ our enemies endless,/ our need to defend infinite, " and mocks us that "we do not regret or mourn" but "like characters in the funny papers" just "march past the third eye of History." By the end of the poem, Ai portrays Oppenheimer not in order to imagine a nuclear holocaust but to question the popularly held assumption that history is progressive. Behind the veneer of Oppenheimer's guilt-ridden confession, she disrupts that notion, and she reconfigures nuclear annihilation not as a violent climax but as a slow spiritual decay:

We strip away the tattered fabric

of the universe

to the juicy, dark meat,

the nothing beyond time.

We tear ourselves down atom by atom,

till electron and positron,

we become our own transcendent annihilation.

As a dramatic monologue, with its obsessive tone, its focus on the past rather than the future, and its Browningesque psychoanalysis, Ai's poem distracts attention from the phenomenon of nuclear war, turning instead to the ideology behind that phenomenon, and, by implication, condemning that ideology.

From Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1996 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida.

 

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Criticism Overview
Title John Gery: On "The Testimony of J. Robert Oppenheimer" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Gery Criticism Target _ Ai
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 24 Nov 2013
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Ways of Nothingness: Nuclear Annihilation and Contemporary American Poetry
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