Newly appointed Washington State Poet Laureate, Kathleen Flenniken, recently released a second book called Plume, part of the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series of University of Washington Press. I will admit, as a reviewer I was fascinated by the idea of the book before I even read it, because Flenniken, like me, studied science before poetry; her father, like mine, worked at a nuclear site – hers at Hanford, mine at Oak Ridge National Labs; and her childhood, like mine, was spent in a small town supported almost solely by the dollars brought in by said nuclear site. Her language in this book, of dosimeters, Geiger counters, and unstable ions and their disturbing biological impact is heartbreakingly familiar to me. Her two degrees in engineering led her to work at Hanford as an adult, before she moved to Seattle.
What might be surprising to readers is how different this book is from Flenniken’ first book, Famous, a book of personal narratives about life in the domestic sphere – a quiet book almost modest in scope. If you enjoyed that book, you might not be really prepared for this second book, which is sweeping in terms of trying to capture a history, personal, political, and scientific. While the personal narrative poems still maintain a steady voice here, they are interwoven with lyric landscapes, fragments of historical documents and redacted government files turned into clever erasures, and meditations on the dangers of scientific hubris. The other difference is a palpable sense of threat, of lives at stake, of a dramatic story unfolding in the poet’s capable hands.
One of my favorite poems in the book is one in which she writes to the father of a childhood friend who died of a radiation-related disease, describing an event where her town had a televised event where she, as a small school child, dresses up to deliver the letters she and her classmates had been asked to write to President Nixon to prevent the closing of Hanford. “To Carolyn’s Father” illustrates how she makes the larger movements of the sixties – anti-nuclear sentiment, President Nixon’s soon-to-happen disgrace, and the treatment of children by schools as instruments of government propaganda – happen in the crystallized focus of a little girl nervous about appearing on television:
On the morning I got plucked out of third grade
by Principal Wellman because I’d written on command
an impassioned letter for the life of our nuclear plants
that the government threatened to shut down
and I put on my rabbit-trimmed green plaid coat…
at the same time inside your marrow
blood cells began to err…stunned by exposure to radiation…
In another poem of Flenniken’s childhood, she recounts how the children in her school were asked to lie in a whole-body radiation counter “and do a little for their country.” “Whole-Body Counter, Marcus Whitman Elementary” displays her (and by extension, all the people of the area around Hanford) chilling trust in the system: “I shut my eyes again and pledged/ to be still; so proud to be/ a girl America could count on.”
I was impressed by the variety of forms Flenniken used to capture different aspects of her story. Two lovely lyrics, “Plume” and “Green Run,” are concrete poems that reflect each of the environmental disasters that the poems refer to. A series, “Augean Suite,” referring to both the cleanup of the stables of mythology and to a statement of health physicist Herbert Parker’s to Congress about the ways to define the quantities of radioactive exposure, contains the piece, “IV: Augean Gray,” disturbing and beautiful at the same time in its vatic voice and the way the poem is broken over the page:
take off your
in the grass.
Lie down all of you
under the August sky,
and nobody ask.
…Lie down, patriot.
Though the book brings together a personal memoir combined with the history of Hanford in an evocative way, Flenniken maintains an almost neutral tone, avoiding inflammatory statements or direct political commentary. She even jokes a little about her history in her poem “Again I’m Asked If I Glow in the Dark.” She does highlight interesting historical notes, such as how different Presidents, from Obama to Nixon and Kennedy, appear naïve in their quotes in the book – at times, dangerously so – about the powers harnessed at Hanford nuclear site. In her lack of condemnation, there seems to still be condemnation in statements of fact, in stories of workers dead from various radiation-related ailments. Yet her tone remains sympathetic towards the men making decisions, her neighbors, her father, her friend’s fathers, aware of the financial and political pressures they were under as well as the limited science about radiation exposure available to them. The awakening of the poet’s skepticism is one of the many stories that unfolds within the book.
Recently, for research related to my own work, I was reading a memoir by a radiation health physicist, Karl Ziegler Morgan, who had worked at Oak Ridge during the Cold War period, and his descriptions of the experiments they conducted there, including taping radium to the wrists of some of the nurses, thinking they might endure nothing worse than a mild skin irritation. It reminded me of the innocent, almost playful attitude people had towards nuclear power in the early days of its development. Reading Plume is not only an education about Washington State and its role in the Nuclear Age but of an awakening in the American public as well as the poet herself to the peculiar dangers of invisible poisons and of trusting too much the authorities of science and government.