In the opening poem of her collection Bloodline, Radha Marcum poses a question: “Is it wrong / to wrest beauty from devastation?” That seems to be the central project of her intriguing collection. Rightly or wrongly (or perhaps more accurately, reserving judgment either way), these 28 poems excavate our most treacherous places—the massive destruction wrought by nuclear weapons, the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, the parched landscape of the New Mexico desert—in search of beauty.
In this quest, Bloodline makes use of multiple vocabularies. The poems are packed with the distinct language of nuclear weapons work; especially in the first (and longest) section, Marcum speaks of fission and half-lives, of Project Y and Technical Area 10, uranium and barium, Geiger counters, nuclei, of Teller, Frisch, and Meitner. There is talk of experiments and unstable elements, relativity and results. At the same time, the work draws heavily on the language of the natural world. We hear of piñon-wind, yucca, kivas and cottonwood; equisetum and grama, canyons and mesas and boulders. Sometimes these worlds are spliced together in arresting ways, as with “mossy isotopes of joy” or “Celandine light, half-/ life.” Haunting phrases like these could only exist in a book like this one, sitting, as it does, at its particular intersection of science, humanity, and nature.
Marcum is the granddaughter of a Los Alamos physicist, and she has taken him as the initial subject of her work. Indeed, in a set of notes following the poems, she provides some biographical background, as well as useful explanations for some the references she makes to particular people and events associated with the Manhattan Project. It is clear, if only from the title alone, that Marcum views this difficult subject as part of her legacy, and she begins with herself: the collection’s opening words are “My inherited skin.” But she does not confine her exploration to her own role. “Project Y” works in the register of religion, of history. “Letter, 1954” speaks in the imagined voice of Oppenheimer himself, in a later period after his loyalty had been publicly questioned. In “Wife of Classified, 1956,” Marcum probes the loneliness classified information generates, describing her grandmother as “a beggar / at the gate of fiercer experiments / shut even to her, behind / his mind’s guarded perimeter.” In one of the collection’s most haunting pieces, “Elegy in Reverse,” a scientist imagines rewinding important moments in his life, some personal, some on a different scale entirely. It is here that she puts a finger right on the tenderest place in this field: “the twisted hood-ornaments / of pride and regret.”
And then, the nuclear world fades; a short section, “Far Fire,” turns away from any explicit mention of physics or historical events, toward the natural world. It maintains an echo of the indelible human imprint, a non-specific specter of destruction, but without the literal. These poems are difficult, in places painfully abstract. The human violence of the first section is still here—something unknown was “severed from us” and we see “bent cities;” there are plants “that wouldn’t know / the war of elements they are, come close– / or the losses / that fill us, once and hence.” But there is precious little to hang onto.
Then, as though emerging from a tunnel, we enter “Rumors of Water,” the collection’s final section. We have more fully separated, here, from the literal subject matter of the initial section; we are still in New Mexico, but now mostly in the landscapes rather than the labs. Marcum seems concerned with the relationship between people and their natural world; one narrator stands on a trail watching “where the sun-flaring cars / drive straight, accelerating,” and a few pages later, people travel “in our sturdy and useful / vehicle”—in, but insulated from, the natural world. In “One Wilderness,” there is a fascination with windows—a quintessential way to be both with and apart from the outdoors—but also a “creek-concealed body,” and the pronouncement that “We’re pilgrims. / As storms of flesh, we arrive.” The relationship she posits between human beings and the natural world is a complicated one.
On first reading, these poems might feel unconnected from the nuclear preoccupation of earlier, but they never completely escape its shadow. In “West to East,” we’re told “so often, it’s an eye / for all that the eye can see.” There is nature here, yes—there are bulbs, there is a garden—but are we not also in the Cold War? “Field in Drought” finds us standing in a literal field—shrubs, pine cones, lichens—but then a memory takes over, “of Auschwitz, beyond the bombed crematories.” “Winter Fire” describes a literal burning, but it also asks a question we can’t help but tie to Los Alamos: “What illicit kindling / set this blaze?” And even as the collection draws to a close in “Caddis,” the past intrudes: a river fly’s life cycle unfolds “Over and over, / light congealed in atom-strands of water.” Thus, even when she is ostensibly writing about something else, Marcum is heir to this discomfort.
There is always a question, when two seemingly separate topics are addressed in a single work: Why is this one book, and not two? What do these pieces have to say to one another? In calling the collection “Bloodline,”—explicitly invoking her ancestry, and using the title of the Los Alamos section as the title of the whole book—Marcum has signaled that at the end of the day, this is her primary subject. But the book would undeniably be something lesser without the turn toward nature. The two, after all, are not separable; Los Alamos was chosen as a site for this work because it was remote and desolate.
Though in occasional moments straying, perhaps, into the unnecessarily opaque, the book on the whole provides a moving and musical look at a piece of our human history—and Marcum’s family history—that we can never quite look at head-on, that we will never quite understand. The legacy of Los Alamos is a rich and challenging subject; by setting it opposite a meditation on desert landscapes, on people in those spaces, Marcum has opened a new window into intractable questions about who we are and what we have done.
Amy Knight is the fiction editor at Terrain.org and the author of the novel Lost, Almost, which chronicles the life of a family dominated by a nuclear physicist at Los Alamos. She lives in Tucson. Visit her on the web at www.amypknight.com.