Kathleen Flenniken (née Dillon) ’83 writes about her children and vacuuming, about sex and death, about fame and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s husband (“Oh the beauty of his wretchedness.”). Her poems are tight and clear and smart and often very funny. While she was at Washington State University, she studied civil engineering.
A career in engineering that evolved toward poetry may not be typical, but it’s a fine match, says Flenniken. In engineering, “you can’t hide behind your language. You have to say what’s true, and if it’s not true, that’s a problem that needs to be fixed.” And with that, you are ready to read Flenniken’s poems:
In “A Middle Child Is Born,” the speaker contemplates “this tiny red soul” in her arms and weeps, “for the ruined life of her radiant firstborn.”
“The day was long,” she continues. “like any spent lolling in pajamas/ with a new companion short on talk/ and a little standoffish.”
“A Middle Child Is Born” took her nine years to write, Flenniken tells me, as the middle child plays in the next room with a friend. “I had a vision of what that day was like,” she says. “But it was polluted with all this extraneous stuff.” Finally she forgot enough, and she could write about it.
While she was writing the poems that would become Famous, published last fall by the University of Nebraska Press, both her parents died, within three months of each other, and one of her best friends committed suicide.
After her parents died, Flenniken felt a strong need to start over, and she and her family moved to the house they live in now, north of the University of Washington and just west of Lake Washington. As she got used to the new neighborhood and its new sounds, she sometimes would hear a train whistle, which was odd. There were no train tracks in the neighborhood. But it sounded so near.
Although she finally realized the train was across Lake Washington, its wail echoing against the hills above her house, it became a ghost train, carrying her mother and father through the living world. If she could find the tracks, she writes, she could wait for them at the boarding gate, as she did when she was a girl “hungry for stories/ of their holidays away.”
Flenniken loved writing even in college. But her father had always been so proud of how well she did in math. Wanting to honor him, she went into engineering. Also, she says, growing up in the Tri-Cities, there were scientists all around her. It was a very comfortable world.
After she graduated, Flenniken worked at Hanford for three years as a hydrogeologist and environmental engineer. Then she moved to Seattle, married, worked toward a master’s in engineering at the UW, then worked again as a civil engineer. But after her second child was born, she quit.
With two little boys and no job, her brain needed a little stimulation. She tried night classes and started reading poetry. Then she took a poetry class, and she fell in love. Famous, the result, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.
Still, the transition is a little difficult, she says. “When do you start calling yourself a poet?”
Richland Dock, 1956
Someone launched a boat into the current,
caught and delivered fish to the lab
and someone tested for beta and P-32.
Someone with flasks and test tubes tested
and re-tested to double check the rising values.
And someone drove to the public dock
with a clipboard and tallied species and weight.
Chatting with his neighbors, Which fish
are you keeping? How many do you eat?
And someone with a slide rule in a pool of light
figured and refigured the radionuclide
dose. Too high. Experimented frying up
hot whitefish. No. No. Then someone decided
all the numbers were wrong. Someone
from our town. Is that why we
were never told? While someone fishing—
that little boy; the teacher on Cedar Street—
caught his limit and never knew.
Well, I’d call her a poet. A refreshing one. The few poets I read anymore are generally at least a century old. Aside from exceptions such as Dana Gioia and Billy Collins, I find much of contemporary poetry insular, academic, and dull, kind of an inside joke. I have become one of those literary troglodytes who “just don’t get it,” confused as to what, for example, the language poets have against offering an insight, invoking a luscious metaphor, or telling a good story.
Maybe there isn’t any “it” to get, says Flenniken, who, much to my pleasure, tells a good story and contradicts my disillusion.
“One advantage of coming into poetry old,” she says, “I was set in my ways. I could say, I like that, I don’t like that, and not figure something was wrong with me because I don’t get it.”
But now she’s on to something new, combining her engineering training with the language of poetry, which actually has been her aim since the beginning, and has finished a manuscript about Hanford.