April Poetry Pick: Plume by Kathleen Flenniken

I have a poetry prompt that I often give my creative writing students.  I ask them to write a poem (this works well for creative nonfiction, also) about the first historical event they remember.  Sometimes, I put the question another way: When was the first time you realized that you were part of a bigger picture?

I then use myself as an example.  In 1979, I was a little girl worried about spending a whole dollar on penny candy and wondering how I could get my tangled ponytails into Princess Leia buns.  Then, one evening, I walked into our family room and saw my parents staring at strange bloated buildings on the television screen and heard the ever favorite Walter Cronkite talking and I knew from their expressions that something was just not right with my world.   I’m speaking of the accident at Three Mile Island, which is located about three hours from my home.  Of course, I didn’t realize the full importance of the event.  I just knew that my parents were anxious and that something important had happened.  It was years later before I understood what.

It’s no secret that my generation grew up with what I can “nuclear anxiety” and of course, a simple blog post can not detail all the reasons why.  But a recent book, Plume by Kathleen Flenniken, illustrates part of this picture.  Flenniken grew up next door to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state and worked at Hanford for three years as a civil engineer and hydrologist.  Plume is a collection of poems that explore both the poet’s place in this world, as well as Hanford’s role in a larger part of America’s nuclear history.

Flenniken starts her story by addressing John F. Kennedy.  In “My Earliest Memory Preserved on Film” she explains her place in the start of Hanford Nuclear Reservation’s history, “I’m sitting on my father’s shoulders/as you dedicate our new reactor and praise us//for shaping history.”  She later says, “A half century later, I click play again and again/for proof you approve–/but the nuclear age is complicated.”

And complicated it is.  We have poems that explore the everyday lives of those who live in the region.  Some poems are more lyrical like “Afternoon’s Wide Horizon” which states, “The atomic age had been a fond friend/where I lived in Atomic City”.  Some poems mourn loss such as “Rattlesnake Mountain” where the ground was a “radioactive burial ground” that the poet also explains is both “sacred” but “ruined”.  Other poems explore the deception of the facility. As the front flap of the book explains, the 1980s brought declassified documents that revealed that the environment had become contaminated and that essentially, the safety promised to the families living in the area was a lie.  And at the same time, the poet’s childhood friend, Carolyn is losing her father to cancer: “Your marrow/blood cells began to err one moment efficient the next/a few gone wrong stunned by exposure to radiation.”

 But this collection also includes other snippets of nuclear history.  In these poems we hear about Physicist John Archibald Wheeler who worked at the Hanford Site and Manhattan Project health physicist Herbert Parker.  But, my favorite poem is “Atomic Man,” a poem about Harold McCluskey who is a “medical miracle” because during an accident he became the most radioactively contaminated human ever to survive.  As McCluskey says in a poet’s persona voice, “If I have a superpower/it might be clearing a room in seconds/or living 10,000 years, fading little by little.”

Plume’s book is a wonderful poetic investigation of what we have done to our world in our pursuit of nuclear power.  It’s a fine addition to my library which does house other books exploring the nuclear age.  More specifically, Christina Pacosz’s Notes from the Red Zone was published as part of Seven Kitchens Press Rebound series.  You can take a look at Dave Bonta’s review of this chapbook here.   Two anthologies, Atomic Ghosts (poetry) and Learning to Glow (prose) both edited by John Bradley, also take a look at our nuclear age.

3 Comments »

  1. Excellent prompt for students…my first thought was the fire at the MGM Grand in Las Vega, which was on all the news and made an impact b/c our neighbor’s were there and their children were staying with us while they were on vacation. I remember the tense time waiting for the phone call from them saying they were okay (waaaaayyyyyy before cell phones, my dears!). And now I have material for a poem myself!

  2. kweyant Said:

    Hi Sandy — Most of my students say 9/11 — which makes sense because of their age. But because of the range of students in my class (literally 16 – 75) I get a big history lesson!

  3. […]  Plume by Kathleen Flenniken (University of Washington)  Flenniken grew up next door to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state and worked at Hanford for three years as a civil engineer and hydrologist. Plume is a collection of poems that explore both the poet’s place in this world, as well as Hanford’s role in a larger part of America’s nuclear history.  See my review here. […]


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