Kathleen Flenniken, Plume. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2013. ISBN 9780295993904.
You can observe from here
that certain thoughts are eliminated
at the source. A dichotomy results,
permitting complex scientific research
and acceptance of delivered truth. (24)
These poems are about delivered truth and the language of deceit. Kathleen Flenniken, who is Poet Laureate of Washington State, writes from her experiences as the second generation in her family to work as a scientist at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
Hanford Nuclear Reservation is on the Columbia River in Washington State (the top northwest corner of the continental United States). It was set up in 1943 to manufacture plutonium for bombs. It has since become—and continues to be—a dumping ground for colossal amounts of toxic waste, the largest in the western hemisphere. It has an equally long continuing history of (meaningless) government assurances of safety, both towards workers and their families and towards the physical environment, now and in the future. This combination is not unique to Hanford (see Chernobyl, Sellafield, Fukushima, for starters), but Flenniken’s special combination of scientific and poetic skills gives us a powerful and readable illustration of an ongoing disaster and official attempts to pretend nothing untoward is going on.
The poems are grounded in the author’s memories of the high desert landscape and of her family as members of a unique community. Here is the past, seen from “Rattlesnake Mountain”:
Our families all came from elsewhere,
and regarded the desert as empty,
and ugly …
I left the mountain half my life ago
to live among trees,
and now – an exile – I understand
what beautiful ghost rises up in the distance
in my dreams. Now I know
this ruined place is sacred. (5)
The poems are in a wonderful variety of styles: prose poems, concrete poems, lyrics and reminiscences. Some of them, like “Bedroom community”, are in the language of childhood and best friends:
… We pulled up our covers
while our overburdened fathers
dragged home to fix a drink,
and some of them grew sick –
Carolyn, your father’s marrow
testified. … (9)
“Document control” is witness to the secrecy such installations require and make normal. “We don’t know what the documents contain. … We are all dependent on what each of us knows.” (10) In “Song of the secretary, hot lab”, “… I learned/ to stare windows into my typing as my Selectric/ raced along at 74 words per minute.” (50)
“Green run” is not about the Columbia River and its salmon run, not about the sticky leaves of spring: it’s about an enormous deliberate release of radioactive iodine and xenon isotopes … to see what would happen. Sixty years on, the results are still classified and may yet come frighteningly out of the night in the manner of tumbleweeds on a dark highway.
Governmental language is turned back on itself in “Redactions I–III”. In these poems, quotations from the Atomic Energy Act, Robert Oppenheimer, and the Atomic Energy Commission are blacked out to reveal a different story entirely. Redaction III edits an AEC reassurance to read “A trial and no peers”. We hesitate over the slightly unfamiliar “redaction” and don’t realise until too late that one entire meaning been thoroughly edited out.
Flenniken balances her own words against words from official documents. The former deal with everyday life, often a bright child’s observations of her surroundings and how very special it was to belong to a community of very special people doing their best for their country—even to the extent of full-body scans for every child in Marcus Whitman Elementary School:
Just once I peeked
and the machine had taken me in
like a spaceship and I moved
slow as the sun through the chamber’s
smooth steel sky.
I shut my eyes again and pledged
to be still; so proud to be
a girl America could count on. (16)
The six-part “Augean Suite” gives us the variety of voices Flenniken uses throughout her book. “II. Augean gray, 1954” is a matter-of-fact description of the awful:
… the click of my mother’s heels
as she pushed one baby in a carriage
and pulled another by the hand
through the nearby village in August –
as it snowed radioruthenium.
If only the villagers had asked
why 17,000 signs were erected
all over the desert to
Keep Off the Grass. (33)
In “VI. Herbert Parker’s statement to Congress, 1962” we are given the exact words of the Hanford site manager’s congressional testimony, a performance in which he uses clunky and supposedly erudite language to hide levels of radiation exposure behind “fashionable color terminology” (his phrase):
If we accept the principle of acceptable risk in radiation exposure … we have only infinite gradation of gray … I classify Arcadian gray as pure and clean for the relevant purpose, and Augean gray containing a reference to the well-known stables of history, and the middle range, if I may clarify that, as I recall Achilles, he was pretty sound but he had a couple of weak spots, one on each heel. (37)
The wording here converts the toxic into the heroic crossed with a lesson in interior decorating. A lethal radiation dose (which he avoids calling a shitstorm, though he means exactly that) is reduced to a colour chip you’ll find on any sample chart for your sitting-room walls—so relax, girls, it’s no big deal what we’re talking about here. (The “gray”, named in 1972 after a British scientist, is also an SI unit of measurement of absorbed radiation.)
All these word games—whose side is the language on? Everyone’s, of course, but who slants the words depends on who gets in first—as ad agencies know very well. Euphemisms have been around forever in peaceful and military contexts, and we can’t legislate them out of existence or even ignore them entirely. My own observation (after many years as a tech editor) is that whenever possible the defence industry opts for cosy domestic terminology. Missiles are stored in silos, just like corn; radiation comes like cod-liver oil in doses (not bursts or shots), not much fun to get down but good for you in the long run. Until about 70 years ago, drones always meant bees. Plumes are worn by knights in shining armour or colonial governors; now they are invasive releases of radiation into whatever fluid is around at the time. The title poem is shaped like a plume:
Words which are legitimate choices in terms of the English language of science are, as well, loaded and blur the boundary between safe and unsafe worlds. Hearing comfortable and familiar words encourages us to accept whatever these words stand for in a new usage, and this acceptance helps us postpone the need to ask uncomfortable questions. We can never find out what names have been given with malice aforethought, but we can stay aware of the double layers.
Flenniken shows us how classical myth, which we accept and honour as part of our cultural world, is also used to support a new myth of unacceptable and immoral destruction. In “I. The fifth labor of Hercules” we start out with gods and heroes but end up somewhere else entirely, in a place the gods and heroes have ignored:
The stench hung over the valley,
waded into the fouled stable
This gave Hercules his idea
to divert two rivers,
the Alpheus and the Peneus,
and sluice the filth away,
which he finished in a single day.
Then he slew King Augeus
No more mention
of the two gangrenous rivers,
the women downstream washing clothes
or their children bathing. (32)
This book vividly shows us how language varies as it is pulled back and forth for political ends, many poems playing off the difference between official and day-to-day language. Nuclear waste is a huge topic. So is what we do with words and what we let words do to us. Being honest with words is one of the jobs we can do as poets—not just figuring out what’s really being said but speaking out about it.
Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on New Zealand’s Kapiti coast. She is a former natural history editor and as a poet has published in Australia, NZ, the US, the UK and Canada. Her newest book, Fish Stories, will come out in 2015.