The Cloud That Contained the Lightning

Poems by Cynthia Lowen
Selected by Nikky Finney

Poems about the enduring and yet-to-be reconciled legacy of nuclear weapons, from the cofilmaker of the widely acclaimed documentary Bully


“In The Cloud That Contained the Lightning the unstable walls of the human heart meet the intimate walls of atomic energy. There is decay. There is bloom. Cynthia Lowen skillfully and fiercely tunnels into the world and mind of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, observes, magically imagines, and then maps forward a critical American life. The historical dust of what intimately did and did not happen in 1945 settles alphabetically on us all. With sensual probing and stark probability Lowen and The Cloud That Contained the Lightning resurrect the questions that human beings will forever face and only clear lovely poetry can answer: What can we see from where we stand? Whose fingers clutch the ropes that could always drop the curtain? We need this graceful work.”
—Nikky Finney, author of Head Off & Split

“Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was a pivotal and tragic figure in twentieth-century American life. No biographer in six hundred pages has come closer to understanding him—and the bomb—than does Cynthia Lowen in these subtle, resonant poems.”
—Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb

“Tough minded, mordant, and oracular, many poems in this book speak through the persona of J. Robert Oppenheimer—but as if he were a revenant and had come back to haunt our contemporary world. His comments on our social and political and spiritual arrangements make up a kind of shadow autobiography fraught with dread, nuclear threat, and a sense of the absurd. Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito has found his American counterpart.”
—Tom Sleigh, author of Army Cats

"In this captivating, almost haunting, collection, Lowen leaves us wondering if humanity is 'circuitously destroyed' by its own creations."
—Amy Russell, South China Morning Post (4 stars)

"Lowen’s poems are expertly crafted and chiseled to a brittle, often stinging essence. . . . Reading this book against the contemporary backdrop of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster and worries about weapons of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands gives the poems a deep resonance."
Publishers Weekly

"What The Cloud That Contained the Lightning becomes – through its somewhat fragmented and compelling five-act structure (with the wonderfully compelling section titles: “Fission”, “Trinity”, “Match in One Hand”, “The Art of Surrender” and “Clean Hands”) – is a collection of mostly declarative poems that take the invention of the bomb and uses it as a way to talk about what happens to any of us when we depart the precincts of our more rational, empathetic consciousness; when we are driven (by who or what, no one seems to know), to have a family, to have love, and still somehow also be responsible for creating something that can end to human life on an apocalyptic scale."
—Michael Klein, The Rumpus

More / Hide


Using the character of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” as a jumping-off point, The Cloud That Contained the Lightning explores the kinds of ethical choices we face as individuals and as a society with respect to the innovations and inventions we pursue. How are our fears, obsessions, prejudices, and cultures manifested in the ways we apply new technologies, such as the splitting of the atom? What were the attitudes that resulted in such a destructive invention? What prompted it to be used on a nation suspected to already be defeated?

By weaving together the voices of Oppenheimer, his wife and brother, hibakusha (Japanese for “explosion-affected people”), and the mythological figures of Cronos and his children, Lowen creates a dialogue out of a vacuum of communication and imagines the kind of exchanges that might have led to a different outcome than the tragedies at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And in an exploration of our tendency for selective amnesia, this collection asks a critical question: How quickly will the forgotten lessons of the past allow us to repeat the tragic chapters of our history?

The National Poetry Series

Page count: 80 pp.
Trim size: 5.5 X 8.5


List price: $19.95

buy button
View Shopping Cart

Cynthia Lowen has an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She was selected for inclusion in Best New Poets 2008 and is a recipient of the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize and a winner of the “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Contest. She served as a screenwriter and producer of the 2011 documentary Bully.