Plume, a new collection of poems by Kathleen Flenniken, is a personal journey of narrative and meditation through some of the history of the Hanford nuclear plant in Richland, Wash. Flenniken, recently named poet laureate of Washington state for 2012-2014, grew up during the Cold War in the desert community that was originally built to house Hanford workers and their families.
Her father, along with “every father I knew,” she says in one of her poems, worked at the plant when she was a child. In “Bedroom Community,” she writes of the dark mornings when
…our fathers rose, dressed, and boarded
blue buses that pulled away, and men
in milk trucks came collecting bottled urine
from our doorsteps. Beyond the shelter belt
of Russian olive trees, cargo trains shuffled past
at 8:00 and 8:00, and the wide
Columbia rolled by, silent with walleye
Tests for radiation exposure seemed as everyday as morning, as milk, as the flow of the Columbia. But despite precautions, the region was vulnerable to poisons such as the radiation plume of the title poem. Many workers and area residents developed cancer, and years later the father of Flenniken’s childhood friend Carolyn died of the disease.
The most compelling parts of the book, besides the poet's exploration of the perils her neighbors faced in working with radioactive substances, are such startling practices at Hanford as the Green Run, a 1949 experiment evoked in her poem by the same name. Radioactivity was secretly released — like a long-limbed young runner, Flenniken says — into the atmosphere so that scientists could test their ability to track airborne radiation. The poet also shows how scientists and officials betrayed the public trust by deluding themselves about radiation's risks, concealing known threats from the local population, or minimizing them when testifying to Congress.
The moral vacuum behind such betrayals is captured in a remarkable passage Flenniken reprints from an internal report written by Hanford radiologist Herbert Parker in 1954: “One can picture the entire population of Richland lying unclothed on the ground for one day. There would be about 25 identifiable particles in contact with skin…,” which would (according to Parker's “best guess”) burn only one spot equivalent to “plunging a lighted match head to the skin.”
Later in Plume the ever-cheerful, imaginative Parker explains to Congress “the principle of acceptable risk in radiation exposure” in terms of what he calls the “fashionable color terminology” of the times. The dangers of different levels of exposure aren't black and white, he tells the assembled Representatives, but a range of grays. At one end of the risk spectrum you have the “pure and clean” or relatively mild “Arcadian gray,” and at the other end is the dark “Augean gray containing a reference to the well-known stables of history.” The middle range of risk, he says, is “Achillean gray,” because Achilles “was pretty sound but he had a couple of weak spots.”
Curiously, when we add the unique voice of these prose quotations to Flenniken’s poem about Parker’s fondness for dancing to pop music, we gain a more complex and complete sense of this man as a person than of any other character in Plume, including its author. This is a problem. Readers lacking a confident sense of her may find it hard to empathize with her private griefs about her country — the thematic core of her book.
Flenniken implies that she and Carolyn are alike. She writes that the layouts of their homes in Hanford’s worker community of identical houses mirrored each other, and that the girls walked home from school together. But we learn little about Carolyn as a person. The poet's friend, and the quality of her thoughts about that friend, are remote from the reader.
Nor does the connection between Flenniken and Carolyn as adults, after the poet moved away from Richland, seem very strong. In one poem Carolyn shows the poet the “exposure documents” detailing her father’s lifetime of dosimeter readings, and the women marvel together at the exposures recorded: “yes yes too many my god / pointing trigger fingers at our heads // charades for shoot me now” (“Flow Chart II”). In another poem the women reminisce over dinner at a Richland restaurant.
So when Flenniken says she was devastated as an adult by Carolyn’s father's death, a trauma that must be walled off lest it infect the truth of the poet's entire childhood (“Flow Chart III”), the sentiment comes across as youthful hyperbole at best.
Still, youthful hyperbole suits Flennikan's theme, the betrayal of her childhood love of America. Her country had been a place of “lawns so green and lush …/ a whole country of lawns” (“Whole-Body Counter, Marcus Whitman Elementary”). She had maintained as long as possible a “sheeplike devotion” to her “country of heroes” and “Country of Lincoln” that “betrayed me,” declaring, “Oh Beautiful, / I will not stop. / I’ll cling to any shred of America remaining” (“Museum of a Lost America”). Yet even these exclamations lack music. The book's dominant form is prose sentences broken into prosaic lines, as if the poet's embrace of exposition and argument had muted her poetry.
Also missing from the collection's intriguing historical facts and fervent laments is a grasp of the complicity the poet shares with the rest of us as citizens living amid public choices made in our name. Flenniken presents villains and victims, blaming people in power (Kennedy, Obama, Congress, scientists, plant managers) for their ignorance, and for damage done to the natural world and to people like herself. Now and then the poet hints that she and others should have confronted painful truths: e.g., “If only the villagers had asked,” or “I know somehow it’s my failure, my fault / that my own country betrayed me.” But the phrase “If only” sounds merely helpless, and the writer's “somehow” gives her a childlike sort of moral wiggle room.
One way of thickening the moral texture of the book might have been for Flenniken to explore why, given her critique of Hanford, she worked there as an adult (three years as a civil engineer and hydrologist). But she writes only about her terror when watching the employee orientation video about potential reactor meltdowns.
Another way into the ethical tangle of Hanford's history might have opened via recollections of Hitler and the Nazis in their competition to make the first atom bomb. There are thought-provoking complexities, too, in the benefits Richland received from the energy produced by Hanford’s N reactor until it was decommissioned — just as Americans benefit from the nuclear industry today despite its dangers.
In any case, a writer will have a hard time doing justice to a subject like Hanford without at least implicitly acknowledging that human beings (meaning we our stupid selves, right along with ethically challenged public officials) rarely shrink from jeopardizing the future when moved by present self-interest, and that it's not just the powerful who bend the truth for the sake of a cause held dear.
If you go: Kathleen Flennikan reads from Plume, together with Martha Collins reading from White Papers, at Elliott Bay Books, Monday, April 2, 2012, 7 p.m.