Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Apocalypse in Poems

I've had Kathleen Flenniken's collection of poems, Plume, on my shelf for several months now.  But it was reading Kristen Iversen's Full Body Burden:  Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flatsthat finally compelled me to read Plume.  Having spent time with Iversen at the Rocky Flats site, I moved to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation with Flenniken.  Both books were powerful.  Flenniken's made me weep.

Maybe it was just the cumulative effect of reading so many apocalyptic narratives in one month, or maybe it was the heartbreak contained in Flenniken's poems.  I started reading in my office on a sleepy July afternoon.  When I got to the suite of poems, "Flow Chart," that present the impact of the death of her best friend's father, I broke down.  Part of my mood was caused by knowledge of so much loss in the atomic age.  Part of it was the cumulative impact of this year that seems to be tinged with so much loss on a personal level (death and lay offs at work, to name a few).  Part of it was the exhaustion of so many extreme weather events in such a short time that make me exhausted for the planet.  However much of the emotional impact on me as a reader came from the power of Flenniken's poetry.

In her review of the book, Jeannine Hall Gailey says, "What might be surprising to readers is how different this book is from Flenniken’ first book, Famous, a book of personal narratives about life in the domestic sphere – a quiet book almost modest in scope. If you enjoyed that book, you might not be really prepared for this second book, which is sweeping in terms of trying to capture a history, personal, political, and scientific. While the personal narrative poems still maintain a steady voice here, they are interwoven with lyric landscapes, fragments of historical documents and redacted government files turned into clever erasures, and meditations on the dangers of scientific hubris. The other difference is a palpable sense of threat, of lives at stake, of a dramatic story unfolding in the poet’s capable hands."

I was surprised by how skillfully Flenniken wove all these fragments together.  Some of the poems are taken from government testimony, while others talk about cancers in heartbreaking new ways.  Many of the poems utilize imagery from the landscape in poems that seem fresh.  Flenniken gives us many an interesting historical fact, while transforming the facts into the poetic.  I'll be haunted by the poem, "Atomic Man," about Harold McCluskey's ordeal when he was exposed to so much radiation during an explosion that he "is considered the most radioactively contaminated human ever to survive" (note on page 66).  She provides several pages of notes, which give interesting background both historical and in terms of how she composed the poems.

Flenniken makes clear the sacrifice demanded by our nuclear obsessions.  Hers is just the latest in a long list of books that make me question the cost and revisit the past.  I'm sure it won't be the last.

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