by Kathleen Flenniken
reviewed by Susan B. A. Somers-Willett
University of Washington Press, 2012. $24.95, 80 pages.
Review published in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion magazine
IN PLUME, her second book of poems, Kathleen Flenniken chronicles growing up during the Cold War in Richland, Washington—a small community nestled between the Columbia and Yakima rivers. Richland has traditionally been home to employees of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a plutonium production plant that fueled the nation’s atomic defense since the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. After many cases of radiation-related illness surfaced among employees and their families, the government declassified documents in the late 1980s revealing a decades-long history of contamination despite official assurances to residents that the area had always been safe. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the Hanford site is now home to the world’s largest environmental cleanup project.
Plume takes a first-person documentary approach to Hanford and its community, mixing testimony, official documents, painstaking research, and the author’s own recollection of growing up in Richland, where “every father you knew / disappeared to fuel the bomb.” Flenniken’s father worked at Hanford, and eventually so did she, serving as an engineer and hydrologist for the plant in the early 1980s. For Flenniken, Hanford is tied to (largely paternal) labor done in the service of national defense and pride. She recalls taking a whole-body radiation scan as part of her kindergarten class, “so proud to be / a girl America could count on.” In “Augean Suite,” an ambitious poetic series, she conjures her mother pushing a baby carriage on an August afternoon when it begins to “snow” radioactive waste. “Questions alarm / and weaken / our nation,” she states, invoking the imagined voice of governmental authority. “It is snowing. / Your men are at work / making snow. . . . Lie down, patriot.”
So it is remarkable and poignant when this blind trust in national authority eventually comes full circle, as in the poem “Deposition,” where Richland residents gathered in 2000 to discuss their health problems at the request of the Department of Energy, “every one of them ashamed for falling ill.” For them, accepting the fact of Hanford’s systematic contamination is a process barbed with self-doubt and guilt. As Flenniken admits: “I know somehow it’s my failure, my fault / that my own country betrayed me.” In her poem “Again I’m Asked if I Glow in the Dark,” she describes the difficulty of revisiting “the river, the trains, the dust” of childhood, “revising my past. Enlightened. / So yes.”
Although Plume depicts over fifty years of events and represents a wealth of historical research, the book itself is incredibly contemporary. Flenniken exercises a great deal of formal variety in these poems, including lyrical poems, concrete poems, and experiments in redaction of official statements. Through maps and bracketed warnings, even the contaminated landscape has a voice; these poems are pastoral even though the idealism of their landscape has been lost. Although some of Flenniken’s official or scientific language can sometimes read as clinical, the collection shines when the author’s recollections stand in contrast to this language, rendering a take on the Hanford contamination that acknowledges both its fact and its feeling. Plume is an excellent example of how documentary poetry can blend the personal impulse toward nostalgia with the journalistic imperative for objectivity, and the result is a stunningly multifaceted take on this public tragedy.