Nuanced Poetry Addresses Nuclear Issues

Logan Buckley, Staff Writer

Washington State Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken hosted a reading on Tuesday in Wilder 101 of her latest collection of poems, Plume, published last year.

The poems in Plume, which Flenniken said started as “a few poems about growing up” that she couldn’t stop writing, center thematically on the Hanford Nuclear Site. Hanford is the site of the first full-scale plutonium reactor in the world and is also where the plutonium was manufactured for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Lyric and expressive, Flenniken’s poems explore the new moral dilemmas and failures of the atomic age and the human and environmental costs of the nuclear program.

Flenniken is well-suited to take on these themes. She grew up in Richland, WA, a town close to the Hanford site. Her earliest memory, chronicled in a poem from Plume, is of going to see President John F. Kennedy dedicate the nuclear power plant at Hanford on Sept. 26, 1963. In another poem, she recalls lining up during kindergarten to go through a “whole body counter,” testing for radiation.

In the 1980s, declassified documents revealed that for years the plant emitted pollution into both the air and the water of the Columbia River. Many of the people from Flenniken’s childhood developed health problems stemming from radiation released by the plant. Some — including the father of one of her friends — died of cancer caused by radiation poisoning.

Yet Flenniken’s poetry does not entirely condemn the Hanford site. She worked there — first during a summer job after high school and then for three years as an engineer after college — and remembers the “tribal Hanford mentality” held by plant workers. They were protective of the economic, scientific and military benefits of their power plant and skeptical of outsiders who they felt did not understand them.

This duality of perspective, insider-supporter and outsider-witness, lends Flenniken’s work a sensitive, elegiac quality; her poems despair at the irreparable damage done by the misguided and secretive scientists at Hanford, but strive to understand rather than simply condemn. Flenniken treads a careful path through the complicated morality of the nuclear age, communicating an air of lost innocence without becoming world-weary, the lines imbued with an understanding of the horrors that science has wrought without descending into outright condemnation. Plume’s works are typified by a measured mix of apprehension, acceptance and understanding; as the poem remembering Kennedy’s dedication of the Hanford Nuclear Plant reads at its end, “This is the future. / My dad holds me up to see it coming.”