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Sample Poems by George Drew

Wild Beasts in the Ruined Cornfields

September 1915

Dear Bohr,
                   It’s happened. Moseley’s dead at Gallipoli.
I have it from good sources he died bravely, even,
as much as such a thing is possible in the very bowels
of Hell, contented, having willed his meagre assets,
all of them, to Science. You recall, don’t you,
how Spartan he was in his days with me,
living on cheese and fruit? And he was just
as Spartan in his friendliness. God,
how he rankled! So aloof. So stuffy, upper-class.
And even here in Manchester he disliked foreigners,
their smell. The Hindu. Burmese. Jap. Vile Indians.
But in a war in which the smell of new-mown hay
and blossoming lilac sends the soldiers running
for their lives, that he died at the hands
of foreigners should not surprise. Awful, yes.
But mathematical, exact—there in the heat
of those ruined cornfields, with the knives
and stones leaping from human hands;
the bodies of the Turks two-deep, four-deep,
six-deep. Of course we weep—especially you,
whose nay-sayers he nailed to the cross
of their own doubt, the spectral lines he spent
a beastly summer labouring to count his nails.
But he liked action, able, as you know, to work
for fifteen hours at a stretch, and after weeks
on that horrible beach with nothing but centipedes
and flies, chlorodyne for the bowels, and jam
from home for the soul, even death must have lost
its sting. So let us weep, for he is gone.
But, as he knew, the destination never was
in doubt—the universe, the ultimate nucleus,
ad infinitum. And him the neutron lodging deep.
As are we all, dear Bohr. As are we all.

 Clara’s Calling

Autumn 1915

My Dearest Fritz,
                             What is it Rutherford says about atoms?
Like flies in a cathedral? Flies in a morgue, I’d say.
A morgue so full of corpses there’s no room for more.
I see them clearly: bodies red and cracked,
eyes swollen shut, hands clutching at throats,
mouths open in a soundless scream, the tongues
twisted in agony and hanging out like snakes. This,
Herr Haber, is your gift to Germany, all these
young soldiers who did not have time to learn
the danger in the smell of new-mown hay
and in the lilac bushes blossoming in the Belgian
countryside; who were the first victims
of your handiwork—those gases multiplying, changing
shape, diversifying like Darwin’s finches, hovering
in the deadly fields of Belgium, France…. My God!
Why can’t I make you see? Yes, you! The one
with whom, since childhood, I was going to bring
about a new world founded on a science serving love,
the kind of love I’ve given to you since we first met
on a dance floor. Do you remember? Dance we did,
bodies close, souls, minds. Oh Fritz, tell me,
what happened to the dance? I’ve given you a child,
I gave you me, a home, a life, a love—and all
for what? This supervision of a death. That awful gas.
My own husband, the Judas of his craft—our craft,
the chemistry that was to fashion our new world.
And what, the silver pieces clinking in your pocket,
do you say?—two bodies now will save four later.
Poor, poor Fritz. You see nothing but what you see.
Two bodies now? My husband, that’s the mathematics
of the mad. This haunts me, haunts me even in my sleep,
what little I can manage; haunts me like a cloud,
a fog, of your concoctions seeping through my dreams,
the way your mustard gas does clothing, flesh,
the organs, cells…. I’ve argued, fought, demanded,
even begged that you recall the world we knew would,
by our work, one day be grander by a factor far
past reckoning. But you’ve gone now, storming out
into the night, asserting that your country owns you
during war, that the world is nothing. Nothing,
dearest, is all I’ve left to give. It’s my calling,
and I give it now to you, just as you’ve given it
to all those fine young men. Goodbye, my husband.

 The Icehouse

Camp Koenig
Summer 1918

It was spooky—those blocks of ice stacked
on every side, like dice no one could throw,
that awful yellow light the single bulb
gave off, our faces jaundiced in its glare,
and every breath a vicious little ghost
we’d called back from the other side
especially for him. Don’t get me wrong,
I’m not so proud of what we did
that night in the camp’s icehouse. Hell,
he couldn’t help the way he looked: so thin
and dark and baby-faced. He was a Jew.
That wasn’t the problem. And anyway,
we didn’t say too much of anything
to him all summer long, except for how
we weren’t so sure he was a boy. And that
was true—until we stripped him down
that night. The problem was his folks,
just plain bad luck for him, I guess.
We weren’t exactly what you’d call
the best of friends, he and I, but we
shared bunks—him on the bottom, naturally.
And so we talked. He told me once
the problem was, for all of his 14 years
they wouldn’t let him meet the world
and its hard facts head-on, and how
he couldn’t be the bastard that the world
required. They quarantined him like a germ.
And then, whenever he’d break free,
they’d come on the run at the least
sign of trouble. Next he knew,
he’d have all hell to pay, the way
he did that night in the icehouse.
What he’d done is written them and said
he’d learned some of the harder things
about life from us. So here they came,
running to the director of the camp,
who put his size-ten foot down
on our dirty jokes, and us. Well,
that was that. “Oppenheimer,” we said,
“you’re dead.” He ended up that night
buck-naked in the icehouse, no way to run,
with twelve angry boys circling him.
We wanted him to beg, or at least cry,
for mercy. I’ll never forget how he
just stood there, lips gone blue
from the cold, and stared straight back
at us, his eyes as bright and hard
as all the rocks he’d gathered on the hikes
he liked to take—alone of course.
It drove us nuts, the way he always said
“no thanks” to raising hell with us,
but now his were in our hands. God knows,
we hadn’t meant him any pain. But he laughed,
he actually laughed! He stood there,
naked as the day his mother gave him life,
and laughed—at us! That did it. Fists
came at his body, pounding hard and fast,
his stomach, ribs, his head, until he sank
to the floor sweating fiercely, cold or not.
And then, as God’s my witness, what we did
was paint his ass and privates green,
gathered up his clothes, and left him there,
bloodied and dripping paint. But you know,
he never said a word, and worst of all,
he didn’t fight. That really got to us,
I guess, his taking our abuse, and all
the time that look in his eyes that said
oh it’s all right, I understand….
I’m not proud, but I’m not ashamed of it.
He brought it on himself. And he was lucky.
In one short night he learned to be a bastard.

The Night That Nature Spoke

Winter 1927

It was March, but my quick stride excited me
the way heat will an atom, and the night
became as balmy as a night in early spring
as I walked past the great beech trees
behind Bohr’s institute onto the football field.
Above me even the stars, fixed little chunks
stuck to the heavens, argued Bohr’s conviction
that all matter was granular. Then,
across the sky due north I saw one streak,
a wave of brilliance summarizing everything.
Which would it be? Particle or wave?
Who was correct? Bohr or Schrödinger?
It was a cosmic football match, the ball
whizzing back and forth, two perfect teams,
no winners and no losers. It was the kind
of beauty that murders little minds.
Was I going mad? In that moment I was
inside the atom, neutrons coming at me hard
and fast, battering me into eternal dark.
I was Schrödinger’s cat, there in the box
if someone lifted the lid, and not there
if the lid stayed shut. And it was then,
in the emptiness of that most total night,
that darkness lifted like a heavy fog.
Suddenly nature spoke to me. And I saw
there was another beauty, one that blurred
the divine right of our senses, particles
the democrats par excellence of everything.
And certain of all uncertainty I went in
and slept for the first time in months.