When it aims to, poetry can treat history in ways history books or photographs cannot: It drops us in our human skin into another time and place like no other medium.
Washington state Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniiken’s new book, “Plume,” does just that. A Cold War kid who grew up in Richard, Wash., near the Hanford nuclear reservation, and a former civil engineer and hydrologist who went on to become an award-winning poet, Flenniken has returned to the scenes of her childhood to make sense of it all, “where every father I knew disappeared to fuel the bomb.”
The results are memorable and chilling.
A sense of betrayal flows through her lines in this post-World War II “Country of fallen soldiers/who didn’t need to ask what America is,” a country with “Cancer in the air,/cancer everywhere.”
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that classified documents revealed years of environmental pollution and official deception at the plutonium-making facility.
Her childhood friend’s father died of the same chromosomal mutations recognized in Japanese atom-bomb survivors. As grownups, Flenniken’s friend tells her over dinner: “Just before dad died/he changed his mind about his life.” It is a piercing line: That certain of the gods of the “Greatest Generation” — faith in human progress, faith in official fair play — turned out to have feet of clay.
The book’s first poem sets the tone, as her childhood eyes take in John F. Kennedy’s visit to the Hanford reservation on Sept. 26, 1963: “The is the future./My dad holds me up to see it coming.” JFK had less than two months to live.
Certain lines resonate with the post-War conformity so eerily forecast in the airplane graveyard scene in the 1946 movie “The Best Years of Our Lives”: “Some nights workers return to their freshly built/identical houses, drop their boots, badges,/and change, don’t know they’re misplaced/until their next door neighbor’s wives/call them honey from another room.”
For all the feelings of betrayal, Flenniken has no time for self-righteous outsiders. She writes of those “ashamed for falling ill/the way the anti-nuke fanatics said we would…” “who’ve never understood us and never will.”
Flenniken’s style is clear and precise, as her mind registers the meaning of her memories. “Plume” is difficult to put down and difficult to forget.
Flenniken will read from “Plume” on Monday, April 2, 7 p.m., along with Martha Collins, author of “White Papers,” at The Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave.
“Plume,” by Kathleen Flenniken. 80 pages; hardcover, $24.95. University of Washington Press.