Yesterday these images of mutant daises from around the area of the Fukushima disaster made the rounds on the internet. Almost instantly, sites popped up to say the mutation, called “fasciation” is “totally normal” and “happens all the time.” Sure. Maybe it happens all the time. Or maybe these mutations are signs of the damage we’ve caused through radioactive pollution. Because as soon as I saw that picture, I thought of a poem I’d written about a story my father had told me twenty years ago – about a janitor who grew a garden on the grounds of the Fernald Superfund site in Ohio, a garden with flowers mysteriously displaying this same kind of mutation. The janitor died of radiation poisoning soon after telling my father this story.
Elbow-deep in the guts of tomatoes,
I hunted genes, pulling strand from strand.
DNA patterns bloomed like frost.
Ordering chaos was my father’s talisman;
he hated imprecision, how in language
the word is never exactly the thing itself.
He told us about the garden of the janitor
at the Fernald Superfund site, where mutations
burgeoned in the soil like fractal branchings.
The dahlias and tomatoes he showed to my father,
doubling and tripling in size and variety,
magentas, pinks and reds so bright they blinded,
churning offspring gigantic and marvelous
from that ground sick with uranium.
The janitor smiled proudly. My father nodded,
unable to translate for him the meaning
of all this unnatural beauty.
In his mind he watched the man’s DNA
unraveling, patching itself together again
with wobbling sentry enzymes.
When my father brought this story home,
he never mentioned the janitor’s
slow death from radiation poisoning,
only those roses, those tomatoes.
I also thought of the role flowers have played in nuclear cleanup – for instance, sunflowers were grown in both the Chernobyl and Fukushima sites, as it is known that sunflowers can draw radioactive cesium from the ground. However, the flowers, of course, themselves become dangerously contaminated.
Two poems about the Fukushima sunflowers:
drink the cesium from the grounds
of the temple where they burn lanterns
made from the names of the dead.
This invisible snow, says the temple’s monk, brings us a long winter. A village woman mourns the loss of her blueberries.
In Chernobyl they grew amaranthus,
field mustard, sunflowers. But how to dispose of poisoned flowers in spring? We build lanterns. We plant seeds. We set things alight.
A field of sunflowers grow where rice
should stand, to draw cesium from the ground. The water lilies bloom after years of lying dormant. Something here about the resilience
of earth, about renewal; something hopeful
in the faces of those yellow sunflowers,
turning towards the last beams of light. Children hesitate before tasting plum jam, before sipping tea: how can they know
what is offered? And everyone says safe.
Metal faces of new radiation detection signs appear next to the crumpled worn idols of stone. Sunflowers planted in hope, in the names of the dead fail to purify the earth,
say scientists in September. Still, they are tended. They stand guard with origami cranes left on the beaches, to be carried away with the tide. As winter approaches, many roofs
carry the crushed bodies of cars as people
try to repair, rebuild. Children’s thyroids
tested and scanned. Strontium, cesium, iodine in the soil. In the fish, the fowl, the fruit –
in the flowers burning in the fields, aglow against the late setting sun.
Another mutant story out of Fukushima was about mutant butterflies. This story made it into the show “Vice” on HBO when they did a special on Fukushima. Some butterflies were fed exclusively plants from Fukushima, and their offspring showed significant negative mutative changes.
I try not to be an alarmist, but from studying ecology, environmental toxicology and environmental law while getting my biology degree at UC, plus helping my dad edit countless papers about radiological pollution and its harms, I would say with certainty 1. We don’t know the extent of the damage we cause with radioactive pollution and 2. we have no safe ways to contain radioactive waste. Concrete caps crack over time, and leak (as we’ve seen at Hanford and other sites, such as Fernald.) Don’t be too quick to discount the dangers, don’t brush them off, but don’t despair. We still can vote, we can make our voices known. We can maybe make a difference in the state of the world we hand over to future generations. But I know this; ignoring or brushing off this news will not make it better. Keeping secrets, like the ones I grew up with in “America’ Secret City,” is harmful.
“Fukushima Mutant Butterflies Spark Fear”
—Title taken from a news headline
Blue grass butterflies born eyeless
wings misshapen, legs hapless,
bring doubts, invite speculation.
They whisper: cancer, mutation, third generation—
like a butterfly wing’s path on the skin
each unraveling molecule
blossoms into its own miraculous monster.
Don’t wait for the poisonous wind
or the downstream effects. Under the ground
our monsters sleep and form poisons inside us,
curling our fingers, graying our hair,
forming tumors quietly in the night.
Summertime can be a tough time to get motivated to do anything – write, submit, apply for grants – and this is particularly the case when you, like me, might be more susceptible to the blues, ironically, when it is brightest outside. That’s right, I don’t get wintertime SAD, but I do get a kind of summer SAD. My circadian rhythms are off, so I’m not sleeping well. I have to avoid bright direct sunlight and heat (tough lately with our 90-s dry streak) since I break out in hives in either. As Lana Del Rey sings, although she makes it sexier, I’ve got that summertime sadness.
This last weekend I was up past midnight every night performing at the PNWA conference, plus an hour drive home from the airport each night (drag.) Then, Monday, I had some more fun dental work sans novocaine, plus an allergic reaction after I got home; the next day, the biggest blood draw that particular phlebotomist had ever done for immune-system tests. So, it hasn’t been the most uplifting of weeks so far. We decided to postpone listing our house for yet another week, so it still feels like we are living in limbo.
On top of the physical stuff, and the bad news on television constantly and the family health crises I’m trying to manage remotely, I’m in kind of a lull in book sales here at month five of the release of The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, plus I’ve been getting a ton – a ton – of rejections in the last month. It’s like, places that have had my work for nine or ten months suddenly decide, during the month zero lit mags are taking submissions, that they want to reject my work RIGHT THEN. That can discourage even sun-lovers, I’d imagine.
It rained a little bit yesterday, so even though I was drained – literally of blood, and also of energy – I loved the cooler temps, the cleaner air when I took a little walk after. We’re supposed to get more rain this weekend. Maybe I’ll write!
I’m off to physical therapy, which should help the post-dental TMJ pain. Then when I get home, I’ll take some steps to address this poetry-blues – it’s hard to re-encourage and re-motivate yourself in the dead-zone of lit mags and contests that is July, but I’m going to try. I’m making an effort to read more books I enjoy (instead of reading books I feel I should read or that I read for book reviews) and I’m going to practice saying no a little more, especially for non-paying work, the rest of the summer. Maybe I’ll go see that Trainwreck movie with Amy Shumer. I’m going to the Barenaked Ladies/Violent Femmes concert (a weird 90’s/80’s nostalgia mashup, don’t you think? Violent Femmes was the music of my eighth grade soccer team…) this Sunday, which is, I think, the kind of thing you’re supposed to do in the summer – outdoor concerts in the park, embracing life, doing carefree fun stuff?
Does anyone else experience a summertime slump like this? I’d be interested to hear how others cope!
Thanks to Jessica Goodfellow for this thoughtful interview with me about my new book, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, up on her blog. I talk about growing up in Oak Ridge, cramming scientific language in poetry, and more. Jessica’s new book, Mendeleev’s Mandala, just came out from Mayapple Press, and you should check it out.
I’m off to give my talk on “PR for Poets” at my last appearance at the PNWA conference today at 2 PM. The first night I gave a reading but managed to get in a fender bender at the airport exit ramp right before, the second day’s autograph party was pretty low stress, like a mini-version of the AWP Bookfair (though a doctor’s visit beforehand revealed my partially collapsed lung hasn’t recovered very much over the last few weeks, which was sad news), and hopefully I can get through today with no major mishaps! It’s been interesting to attend this conference for the first time. It’s mostly a genre-writing-themed get-together with a little side of poetry but it’s been nice to get together with writers and talk about books. The first night’s reading went to 11 and we didn’t get home til after midnight; the second night ended a little after ten and we got home at 11, so you can imagine tonight I am ready to sleep, sleep, sleep!
Where I’ll be at PNWA Thursday, Friday, Saturday and poems up at Kentucky Review and Villainess Press
Thanks to The Kentucky Review and Villainess Press’ The Plot for posting poems of mine this week:
So, starting tomorrow, I’ll be all over the place at this weekend’s PNWA Conference at The Hilton Airport Conference Center:
Thursday: Reading at the Writer’s Cafe at the Bards and Beverages reading 9 PM (post the keynote) with Kelly Davio, Bill Carty, and Carolyne Wright.
Friday: At the autograph party starting at 8:30.
Saturday: My talk on “PR for Poets” starts at 2 PM. (Also catch Kelly Davio’s talk, “What can Prose Writers Learn from Poets” at 10 AM)
If you were thinking about seeing Seattle Asian Art Museum’s Chiho Aoshima show, go see it. It was truly fabulous. The real knockout is a huge screen projecting an animation of a long cityscape, seascape, and island scape. On one side, a cityscape grows and changes, and pollutes the air, alien spaceships abduct cars and trucks from the roads—then a tsunami comes and destroys everything. On the other, an island dominated by a quiet volcano changes when it erupts, spilling angry red sky across the screen. These continuous repetitions and rebuildings, are apocalyptic, but the post-destruction scene ends with a giant rainbow that spans the entire screen, complete with butterflies and dragonflies zipping across. Did I mention the buildings in the cityscape all have girls’ faces, and occasionally sprout feet and walk around? Here’s “Strawberry Fields,” a painting from the exhibition, a slightly blurry depiction of the animated volcano, and Glenn and I in front of the Black Sun sculpture outside the museum. Down below you’ll see that the museum walls were also illustrated with details from Chiho Aoshima’s work, as opposed to the usual white blank walls, so it was more of a continual experience. If every museum exhibit was like this, more people would go to museums. People sat entranced before the giant screen watching the animation series over and over again.
These last few days have been all about stepping away from the laptop and smart phone and going out and interacting with the world. On our anniversary we took a day trip where we visited a lavender farm, had cocktails outdoors with live music playing, ate a delicious duck dinner with fig and cherry sauce, visited a spa with an outdoor hot tub and a bookstore – basically all my favorite things! Then yesterday we got together with my little brother to go downtown and visit the Chiho Aoshima exhibit (Mike was very valuable in pointing out things like Shinto and Buddhist symbols embedded in Chiho’s work, since he’s been to Japan many times and minored in Japanese) and celebrated Glenn’s birthday a day early. It reminded me how much better life seems when you’re not sitting in front of a computer all day, our need to unplug and venture out. I think especially for writers, it’s easy to get trapped in your own head, especially when you’re not in an especially good place, and those are the times to go out and walk in the rain (yay, rain yesterday!), eat cupcakes, and gawk at art and nature and all the things that make you happy.