A Sublime and Tragic Dance
Kendall Johnson and John Brantingham
Paintings by Kendall Johnson
Cholla Needles Press
J. Robert Oppenheimer was the physicist who headed up the Manhattan Project during WWII which was responsible for developing the atomic bomb before the Germans. Had the Germans got there first, it is thought, it might be them who won the war. He supposedly believed it would be used only on military targets, and was horrified to find out too late that it was intended all along for civilian targets, demolishing the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer had devoted himself to making the bomb, then following the war the rest of his life to attempting to outlaw it’s further development and proliferation.
Thirteen abstract and multimedia paintings by Kendall Johnson accompany poetry written in response to the collection by Johnson and John Brantingham. These works explore the fragile and layered relationship between the human world, the world of particles and electrons, and the world of mystery and the spirit.
We talked about the art and his impulses and soon enough our rambling conversation led us to Oppenheimer. We had both been thinking about the man for years. Ken had been painting visions out of the nightmare Oppie had created. I said something about how complex the man was. Ken responded with how he’d changed the world. I said the man had certainly shaped my childhood, my adulthood, the way I saw everything. We talked about evil and the limitation to the concept of evil. I found myself writing poems in conversation with Ken’s paintings. That was a little one sided, so Ken answered me with his poems. What we ended up with is this collection.
Poet Laureate at Sequoia and
King’s Canyon National Park
Coming to Sense
He finally found himself free on horseback
alone or with a friend on dusty high New Mexico trails,
hot or cold. Riding for days with bedroll and basics
living on trout and whiskey sleeping under stars or rain.
No place for upper East Side privileged boy.
Returning wet, cold, dirty, bruised, or when he had to;
definitely what he wanted. Finding his sense
and rhythm, he learned to see.
Deep in mountain night
star swathed white pine sentinels
bear moves through darkness.
Everybody is all a-tweet about new game: Nuketown.
Unlike many Whack-a-zombie games this one’s
sort of based on historical precedent. Bleaching
under normal sun, the original lies 60 miles north
of the shadow of sin town Vegas where the odds
are high that the grit in your teeth isn’t just sand.
Mid-century modern stucco homes still in pastel tones
Painted on lawns and period piece cars test nuke blast radius,
shock and concussion damage to resident mannequins.
The Nevada test site hosted 928 detonations, so
How many houses can one bomb break
if a bomb breaks bomb bomb bomb?
While current computer search for Nuketown yields only
Call of Duty electronic games, the Federal Cancer Compensation
rates for Atomic Energy Workers are pretty well spelled out:
Nevada Test Site $400,000
Atomic Veterans $75,000
Uranium Workers $150,000*
* per 12/31/17
Oppenheimer’s atom splitting: maximally disruptive. Not just messing with our business as usual, invalidating our normal use of language, or disqualifying theory as a legitimate use of time. Not about academics at all. He pulled the atomic carpet right under our feet and left us with a stark, dark world. Empty space. Those particles themselves, the bits of energy, the electrical charges, provide the substance we count on, walk on, not even empty particles but invisible tensions between them. Not only that but we— not magic or colossal forces of nature— could break them in two, or three, or more vacuous bits. We break up our world, the common sense world shown to be a sham. Whatever geopolitical threats were let loose upon us, something perhaps worse mushroomed that morning in New Mexico. We discovered our sofas and refrigerators and hopes and dreams to be little more than fiery dance.
16 JULY 1945
Monstrous bundle of switches and wires,
fears it wouldn’t work, or if it would perhaps
aberrant, unknown blast force multipliers . . .
Thunderstorms cleared around 5 a.m.
Then suddenly the end of time.
A quality of light, transcendent
so bright it leaves bright behind
a blistering radiant light.
Unearthly, stellar heat
rendering air incandescent
vaporizing fleshy matter.
A blistering radiant light.
Darkening, like sound breaking it’s own barrier,
the blast wave rolled outward, a multi-hued searing vaporizing bloom.
Frozen in time, this illuminating silvered clarity
the wideness of the light, it’s piercing vastness
the ending of that time.
Sand fused by intensity of heat into Trinitite
Later that year a thousand miles away, radioactive dust from that blast
Exposed unopened x-ray film.
Dust had gotten into stream water, manufactured
into in the paper cover of the film.
X-ray film mottled dark.
Fields of craters fill Yucca Flat test site over one
thousand square miles of moonscaped empty desert
honeycombed with hidden subterrane treasure.
Forty one years of subsurface tests vaporized rock
into radioactive lava puddles cooling at the bottom of
empty cavities into which the desert collapsed.
Hundreds and hundreds of radioactive rubble-filled
chambers still leaching isotopes into groundwater aquifer.
Intergenerational gifts that keep on giving.
Sun comes up again.
Underground lake deep below
moving toward the sea.
Not much changed on 9/11. The World Domination Center fell, and with it our illusion of invulnerability. Terrified, we then hijacked ourselves, killed 50 thousand people we thought looked like terrorists, took away our own liberties, and gave away our power to those already wealthy. This we did to ourselves, and it’s turned perpetual. Demagogue Trump is just the current symptom.
Now we are rebuilding even more grandiose towers. Yet no such erections are going to satisfy anyone, and they will certainly not buy back moral high ground never held. No tea bag psychosis will regrass this field. No bank accounts or Exhibitions in the driveway are going to scratch the underlying itch that drives us insane. The problem isn’t the drama in the White House. The problem is us. We’re not separated into light angels and dark; we are a people divided within our own hearts stumbling down a long path trying to find home.