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.
when Carolyn’s father died
I drew a box around his death
and an arrow referencing
my America my
erected in the mind
this is how he died
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
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