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July 11, 2013


Photo: Poet Kathleen Flenniken at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation
Poet Kathleen Flenniken at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation
Alexander Flenniken

Poetry From The Atomic City

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Poet Kathleen Flenniken grew up near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington state. At the height of the Cold War, people in her town believed they were helping protect America - and that they were safe, too.

But Flenniken says that when a family friend who worked at the site died from radiation exposure, she realized she had to reexamine her past. She tells host Dick Gordon her book of poetry "Plume" is an attempt to make sense of the pride and betrayal she feels when it comes to her childhood in the center of the atomic age.

Childhood and death converge in the following poem, Flow Chart, about a friend's father dying of radiation exposure from the nuclear plant.

Flow Chart





when Carolyn’s father died

I drew a box around his death


and an arrow referencing

my America my


protective box

erected in the mind


this is how he died

chromosomal mutation

boiling his blood and marrow

exposure to radiation

an arrow     a flush of arrows


and this was a circle of lamplight

and Carolyn’s grown voice on the phone


and the arrow circling back

to the box containing his death


containing a box

containing a box






Carolyn dumps out on her dining table

30 years of exposure documents


one man’s official lifetime dose

painstakingly recorded


pencil dosimeter readings

whole-body counts in cramped cursive


radiation reported in units

that keep changing


we study a yellowing questionnaire

with boxes her father filled in


how many fish do you catch and eat each week?

where?  what kind? do you hunt local game? local fowl?


yes    yes    too many    my god

pointing trigger fingers at our heads


charades for shoot me now





one box contains my childhood


the other contains his death


if one is true

how can the other be true?


I think at first I must choose

a box to believe in


but I’m all American


and lightning quick with the shell game




"Radar" by Hauschka (Michael Mayer Remix); "Cube" by Hauschka

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