Synopses & Reviews
Washington State Poet Laureate, 2012-2014
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 Nuclear Reservation, where "every father I knew disappeared to fuel the bomb," and worked at Hanford herself as a civil engineer and hydrologist. 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 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.
"Moving deftly between haunting lyric and disturbing documentary, Kathleen Flenniken packages recent history in a wide variety of poetic forms and styles. 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. . . . Plume is an enormously important and moving work of art." -Sharon Bryan, author of Sharp Stars
"Many of the poems wrestle with the bomb factory's legacy of environmental contamination, illness and even death from exposure to radiation. But she also wrote them to honor the people she grew up with." -Mary Ann Gwinn, The Seattle Times, April 2012
"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. . . . Plume is difficult to put down and difficult to forget." -Mike Dillon, City Living, April 2012
"Washington state's new Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken gives an elegantly rendered example of another of [John] Morgan's dicta that 'poetry gives form to our feelings and helps us come to terms with them.'" -Barbara Lloyd McMichael, The Bellingham Herald, March 2012
"Not only an education about Washington State and its role in the Nuclear Age but of an awakening in the American public as well as the poet herself to the peculiar dangers of invisible poisons and of trusting too much the authorities . . ." -Jeannine Hall Gailey, The Rumpus, May 2012
"Plume is an excellent example of how documentary poetry can blend the personal impulse toward nostalgia with the journalistic imperative for objectivity, and the result is a stunning multifaceted take on this public tragedy." -Susan B. A. Somes-Willett, Orion
". . .quiet but damning poems on the history of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation . . ." -John Bradley, Rain Taxi