Contributor’s Marginalia: David Moolten on “Dynamite: A Prelude“ by Shara Lessley
The sundry details Shara Lessley culls from the 1864 blast at the Nobel family chemical plant in Stockholm and its aftermath combine with a compelling narrative voice to make “Dynamite: a Prelude” a powerful “whole” from its shattered parts. Disparate associations are of the nature of poetry but here, on the topic of disjunction, avail added ironic significance. Take as example the trembling reanimation of the fish on ice as the butcher shop windows counterintuitively “implode” (due to external pressure) and the “identification” of the human casualties that follows. The fish, cold blooded, primitive, provide sustenance but also insinuate expendability and are juxtaposed against the five strangers joined by force and distinguished only by the stillness of death. The loss of Emil, Alfred’s brother, “the last,” damningly twins unlike things, the Nobel eponym of prized progress and intellect and peace and Nobel the mercenary inventor and arms dealer. The divergence of biography and legacy that follows is also fissile in nature.
In contrast to its volatile subject, the poem’s voice comes across as patient, even historical. The poem in this regard aligns itself with the “painting from the time” which creates a kind of ectopic heart at the center with its contrapuntal artifice of order at rest, the boy with his gunny sack, diverting the “gun” in “gunny” to dandelions with their wild yet fertile persistence. The painting and its idyllic moment will survive the Great War, whose be-all end-all status does not last, though nitro and “pulp” with its vivisected sound will at whatever cost assure the victory of good and right as subsumed in the word “allies” (which begs the question of what, of whom). “Jam tins crammed with sawdust, dynamite” again suggest sustenance but fabrication as well, life residue repurposed as lethal substrate while the “canvas’s air is clear though light appears to die” informs us creation can reach past such threats though creators may be “thrown to the floor.”
Thus the painting reassures us that art at least will endure, even the poem’s “painting” of destruction, though its materials only lightly cohere because while deliberate they remain highly entropic. But if the poem gives us the illusion of detritus haphazardly strewn, this rubble, unlike the real thing, hints at its former connections. One might almost imagine the jumbled pieces puzzled back together though any return to the former state is impossible. The enormous potential energy stored by nitroglycerin guarantees this. The reaction, as chemists say, is irreversible, goes to “completion,” reflecting the thermodynamic inevitability of explosions. There is no pushback towards balance, no ambivalence at the molecular level or otherwise. The poem as well pursues unidirectional motion but through the medium of time rather than space.
The title says prelude even as the poem ironically offers outcome. But the distinction is only of perspective since any event in a temporal sequence is both except for the first and last. The last is undefined, in the future. The first is the explosion itself, which precedes dynamite. It is plain nitroglycerin Nobel tinkers with in 1864. Three years later he would concoct dynamite, followed by gelignite (mixing nitroglycerine and gun cotton), more stable and powerful than dynamite, and in 1887 he would patent ballistite (a smokeless powder still used as a solid rocket propellant), a forerunner of cordite (which superseded gunpowder as a military propellant for use in rifles and larger weapons such as howitzers and naval artillery). Of course, it is a prelude to far more as Lessley’s stunning ending informs us, with reference to the sun’s “magnetic nuclei” and “quick-burning fuse,” and in fact cordite also saw use in the detonation system for the atomic bomb.
Her poem tells us Nobel’s victims “never felt time expire.” At last we’d created a mortality too fast-moving for temporal understanding—perhaps our most unique intellectual gift—the capacity to see the breadth of life and anticipate death. Such enterprise comes gratuitously in a “nation not at war,” an adroitly wry phrase when such a place can’t truly exist, not even in placid Sweden, since the central conflicts of ambition and moral direction between and within people are never quelled. The doll imagery at the close becomes an effigy not just of the terrorized children, but a soul symbol and a harbinger of other destructions (Little Boy, “the Super,” napalm) where the fusing and melting might include human flesh. The final image of “pooled” “green glass eyes” painfully, beautifully evokes not only the reengineering by force of the structured into the chaotic but the counter synthesis of some kind of monstrous vision.
David Moolten is a physician specializing in transfusion medicine. He writes and practices in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of Plums & Ashes, Especially Then, and most recently, Primitive Mood, which won the T.S. Eliot Prize from Truman State and was published in 2009.