Plume Cover high resolution

Kathleen Flenniken’s second collection of poems, Plume, was selected by Linda Bierds for the Pacific Northwest Poetry Series, and published by University of Washington Press in 2012. It won the Washington State Book Award and was a finalist for the Pacific Northwest Book Awards and the William Carlos Williams Award for the Poetry Society of America. Plume also won a Poetry and Literature Design Award from the Association of University Presses for book designer Ashley Saleeba. The collection is in its third printing.

The poems in Plume are nuclear-age songs of innocence and experience set in the “empty” desert west. Award-winning poet Kathleen Flenniken grew up in Richland, Washington, at the height of the Cold War, next door to the Hanford Site where “every father I knew disappeared to fuel the bomb” and worked at Hanford herself for three years as an engineer. By the late 1980s, declassified documents revealed decades of environmental contamination and deception at the plutonium production facility, contradicting a lifetime of official assurances to workers and their families that their community was and always had been safe. At the same time, her childhood friend Carolyn’s own father was dying of radiation-induced illness: “blood cells began to err one moment efficient the next / a few gone wrong stunned by exposure to radiation / as [he] milled uranium into slugs or swabbed down / train cars or reported to B Reactor for a quick run-in / run-out…” Plume, written twenty years later, traces this American betrayal, and explores the human capacity to hold truth at bay when it threatens one’s fundamental identity. Flenniken observes her own resistance to facts: “one box contains my childhood / the other contains his death / if one is true / how can the other be true?” –>

The book’s personal story and its historical one converge gradually and subtly with enriching interplay and wide technical variety, introducing characters that range from Carolyn and her father to Italian physicist Enrico Fermi and Manhattan Project health physicist Herbert Parker. As a child of “Atomic City,” Kathleen Flenniken brings to this tragedy the knowing perspective of an insider coupled with the art of a precise, unflinching, gifted poet.

Kathleen Flenniken came to poetry late, after working as a civil engineer and hydrologist at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. Her first book FAMOUS won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association, and was a Washington State Book Award finalist. She teaches poetry and is a co-editor and president of Floating Bridge Press. She lives in Seattle, Washington.

“Moving deftly between haunting lyric and disturbing documentary, Kathleen Flenniken packages recent history in a wide variety of poetic forms and styles. Set at the Hanford plutonium production site, where the poet grew up and about which she has done impressive research, Flenniken’s Plume raises the bar for documentary poetry, moving us with its timely and important subject matter as well as the meticulous craft of its poems.” –Martha Collins, Author of Blue Front and White Papers

The beautifully wrought poems in Plume are as well-tuned morally as they are musically. And their lamentations are epic: hubris and its disastrous consequences, love and betrayal, human folly, human fragility. The voices that wind like smoke through the book range from smug to harrowing, but at the center of them all is the voice of a child who simply believed what she was told (as did most of the adults), intertwining with the questioning voice of the adult she has become. The child was “so proud to be a girl America could count on”; the adult says, with irony, “We called it the arms race/ and there were two sides.// It was simple.” The adult sees that a fisherman “caught his limit”—of radiation as well as fish—“and never knew.” The story behind these songs centers on the Hanford nuclear reactor in Richland, Washington—Atomic City. The town looks like any other suburb of the time, but here the residents are “sugared by these winds,” and milk trucks collect bottles of urine from porches. The questions raised and emotions stirred resonate far beyond their starting point. Plume is an enormously important and moving work of art. –Sharon Bryan



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Links to Resources

Michele Stenhjem Gerber’s environmental history of Hanford: On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site

Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West by John M. Findlay and Bruce Hevly, a social history of the Tri-Cities and the Hanford Site

A Note on Herbert Parker

The Declassified Document Retrieval System portal is no longer active. (This is disturbing. Please see this article for more about disappearing websites.)