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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nuclear Poetry

Air Date: Week of

Debra Greger, a poet raised in the atomic energy boom town of Hanford, Washington, reads from her work and talks with Steve about growing up in the shadow of the atom.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Nuclear energy was once seen as the hope of humanity's future. In the 1950s the atom promised an endless supply of power and possibly world peace. Perhaps nowhere was that promise so bright as in the boom towns built around the United States nuclear program. Places like Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford in Washington State. Debora Gregor is a poet who grew up next door to Hanford. She attended Catholic schools there while her father worked at the nuclear processing plant. Her latest collection of poetry is called Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters, and it reflects the experiences of her youth.

GREGOR: Hanford is the name of the plant and is the name of the ghost town that the plant is named for. Richland was the town where most of the workers and their families lived. It was a small town at the edge of the world, the last frontier town in a way I think of it.

CURWOOD: A fun place? An easy place to live?

GREGOR: Oh, exceedingly. A very safe place, too. You didn't have to lock your car. You didn't have to lock your house. You didn't even really have to lock your bike. And so innocent, now. I mean part of that was the temper of the times. Part of that was the secrecy, perhaps. Part of that was childhood. I was a Bomber.

CURWOOD: A Bomber?

GREGOR: Yes. The high school team was the Richland Bombers. The cheerleaders had a little 4-foot bomb painted in the school colors, which they would take out at halftime and prance around. The high school seal has the mushroom cloud going up the middle of it, so the high school --

CURWOOD: A mushroom cloud?

GREGOR: -- the high school ring has the mushroom cloud on it. What does your high school ring have on it? (Both laugh) I mean, I'm going to win this contest. I have never lost this contest.

CURWOOD: I think there's a little lamp...

GREGOR: Mere racism just doesn't compete with total annihilation. But we thought nothing of it, except that we were a company town and that was the product.

CURWOOD: Could you read for us the poem "The Desert Father?"

GREGOR: Yes. This is called "The Desert Fathers" and has a subtitle, "The flagpole sitter." That was a big moment in a small town in the 50s, and I hope the poem explains that:

Forty days and forty nights. Down at the used car lot at the edge of town a man had vowed to sit on top of a flagpole, renouncing fleshly pleasures in the name of sales. And from the radio stations there came men in search of wisdom to pass onto their followers. A hermit chained to this pillar in the desert. The salesman broke his silence then. But who remembers what he said? He was as a field mouse clinging to a reed shaken in the wind. He missed his Elvis. The nuns said Elvis moved like sin, like Kruschev, who pounded on the table with his shoe. A man who sat in quiet, the old desert father said, and heard the reeds in the wind, had not the same quiet in his heart. Down to earth, the customers came by twos to test the great finned arcs lined up. Noah the owner breathed on a rear view mirror, then rubbed out the desert with his sleeve. And if a pillar of cloud rose out there, invisible, from the reactor and drifted overhead, it was top secret or accident or both. We didn't need a seer to tell us that. We wouldn't be told. Across the road, cow and steer would nuzzle the barbed wire, chewing their contaminated cud. Eyeing the river swollen in spring flood.

CURWOOD: In another poem you write, "The air was thick with isotopes we knew nothing about." Were you aware of the secrecy that surrounded what your dad worked on, or did you just kind of take it for granted?

GREGOR: Well, I'm not sure. I mean, I knew where he worked. I knew he wore a badge. I realize now that that badge had a dosimeter on it. His first position at the plant, I now realize, was radiation monitor entry level. What I knew then was that once a month he came home from work with a black case, which had two glass bottles in it. And those were to be filled up with urine and then the case was left on the front porch. And again you thought nothing of this, because everybody else's dad was doing it, too. I don't know when all the pieces came together. Until I left the state in 1972 to go to graduate school, I didn't know that anybody opposed nuclear power. In those days the whole state was so dependent on defense contracts, and of course the Vietnam War was a very prosperous time, as was the Cold War.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, when you discovered that your father had been working on these weapons of mass destruction, how did that change your view of him or of the world?

GREGOR: Well, I -- I don't know how exactly to answer that. He and I don't sit down and discuss it except from an historical standpoint. He remains proud of what he did, I think.

CURWOOD: Do you?

GREGOR: Well, I'm -- I don't know. If he hadn't been opposed to the Vietnam War I might feel differently, and it's interesting to think about men in his line of work who were able to separate those things.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could read for us now the poem "The Age of Reason."

GREGOR: (reads) Oh, eternity. Oh, Sunday afternoon. Just as the nuns had said, it stretched forth, even more endless than I could imagine. I was seven. The age of reason, Aquinas said, who reasoned how many angels exactly could crowd on the head of a pin. In a dress unreasonably white I made my first Communion. The host, tasting neither of body nor bread, just library paste, stuck to the roof of the mouth. Old enough to know better, my father said, but still that eternal Sunday supper I played with my food. I even sat still, watching the fat on the platter congeal like a miracle. The last of the Sunday beef tongue lolled, silenced by the knife's sharp word. Outside, a leaf took its time to fall, bad angel, down through the well-scrubbed floor of heaven, down to the dirty unreasonable desert. Out there somewhere, uranium broke down into its no more stable daughters. Oh half life, oh eternity. Sometimes we had to crouch under our desks at school as if to pray even harder. But we would be saved, if only from the Russians. And did you drink the milk as a child, the doctor will ask, the voice of reason. Milk from the dairy downwind.

CURWOOD: So much of the power of your poetry comes when you equate the mysteries of religion and the mysteries of these nuclear programs. How did all that secrecy feel to you when you were a child?

GREGOR: Well, on the one hand it was a given, and on the other hand it was pretty tantalizing.

CURWOOD: Tantalizing?

GREGOR: The assumption of a child is that there are things grownups don't know -- (Laughs) Isn't Freud great? There are things grownups know that children aren't grown up enough to know, and religion trades on this and in a way Hanford traded on it as well.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could read for us now the poem "Ship Burial."

GREGOR: Oh right, yes, yes. Well, that is Hanford's modern day function, isn't it?

CURWOOD: Uh huh.

GREGOR: From the very beginning it was a nuclear waste dump, and among the other things buried out there are reactor cores from nuclear submarines. And they are barged up the Columbia River and then trucked out into the desert, and these tombs are built out there. So this poem "Ship Burial" begins with a quote from Beowulf:

"Take these treasure, Earth, now that no one living can enjoy them." On great stone wings a hawk hovered in the great dusty hull of the sky. Below, in the shade of a lowly sagebrush, a rabbit dug its own grave. An official sang out from time to time, sharply, almost dreamily, to a bulldozer pushing back the earth, back where it came from, as if to plunge a great ship deeper into the dirt. That the dead might make the voyage from this world to the next more easily, the ship bore bread and candles, irradiated fuel rods, the half-lives of mother and daughter isotopes. Stout leather shoes. Like gold leaf the dust scattered. Over the ships set adrift, the wind hurried the waves of sand, the hill dead ahead. Coffee was poured from its flask, the dregs flung upon the ground. So in the desert they buried the heart of the nuclear submarine.

CURWOOD: What do you feel like today when you go back to Hanford?

GREGOR: As if I don't belong there any more. There's less and less trace in town of it being an atomic town, though the uptown movie theater still does have a neon atom spinning at the top of its sign. But it's odd, deeply familiar and deeply foreign is how it seems at this point.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

GREGOR: Well, thank you so much.

CURWOOD: Poet Debora Gregor teaches at the University of Florida. Her latest collection is called Desert Fathers, Uranium Daughters.



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