Sediment & Veil by Kirsten Jorgenson
(Horse Less Press, 2014)
reviewed by Michael McLane
“No one in Utah ever died from radiation poisoning; it isn’t on the form.” This pithy and chilling remark, usually attributed to R. Billings Brown, a professor at the University of Utah medical school, cuts to core of why the legacy of nuclear tests remains the elephant in the room throughout the Southwest, and Utah in particular. It also suggests the reason that Kirsten Jorgenson’s first collection, Sediment & Veil, is such a welcome addition to the poetry world and to Western literature at large. Though many poets have contributed a poem or two on the subject, Jorgenson’s is the first poetry collection since Emma Lou Thayne’s 1983 How Much for the Earth to approach the subject with such depth and care.
These poems grapple with the acute disruption that nuclear testing—and its attendant skyrocketing rates of leukemias, thyroid cancers, female reproductive cancers, sterility, and congenital malformations—caused for thousands of families, including the poet’s, throughout Utah and Nevada, an area declared “a region of sacrifice” by both government and military officials owing largely to its low population densities and a widespread perception of the Great Basin as a wasteland. It was safer to risk clouds of fallout landing on small communities like Ely and St. George than for them to roll through large populations in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Likewise, the largely-Mormon population in the area, still eager to be perceived as patriots after a century of distrust from the nation at large, were rightly believed to be less likely to complain or to seek litigation or remuneration. These conflicting perceptions and legacies of landscape and faith come to bear heavily on Jorgenson’s poems and illustrate that the term Downwinders is not to be used in the past tense, but is instead an ongoing struggle, one that bears itself out in in the ephemeral world of memory as well and the much more tangible world of medicine.
From the opening page of Sediment & Veil, it is clear that the body, and many bodies, are the primary setting(s) for these poems, but the body it is not a boundary, a place clearly delineated; rather, it is a membrane which the joy and tragedy of memory transgresses perpetually and which unwittingly welcomes the legacy of the Nevada Test Site and the nuclear West:
a single line
say I border
Ghosts abound in this text, as do skeletons, bones, and souls; the corporeal and spiritual infrastructure of the individual are at stake throughout it pages. As the book’s title implies, there is a direct correlation between what settles to the ground and the losses felt upon that land.
On a half dozen or so occasions in the book, images accompany or even overlap the poems. In one instance, “a grid representing abnormal macular degeneration” in which one corner of the grid sways and bends, illustrates a patient’s blind spot. Overlapping the grid is the passage “memory is light / through flesh / honeybee / ghost / incinerator / a language / in bones / cells / a promised land.” Jorgenson packs an unbelievable amount of history and conflict into that combination of sixteen words and one image. It is one such moment in the book where the poignancy of loss, the governmental blind spot toward a population, the irony of the poisoning of a wide swatch of the Mormon Zion (represented by both the “honeybee” and “promised land,”) and the tragic connotations of light in this context, collide head-on in a succinct-but-chilling moment. Elsewhere, Jorgenson has essentially dissected what she labels a “contour map of a ‘Turf’ detonation in Area 10 of the Nevada Test Site,” placing single sections or layers from the map on top of, or adjacent to her text. Removed from their full context, these images are haunting, appearing as ultrasounds or small piles of dust strewn across the page, the latter creating a particularly devastating effect when accompanied by passages such as “written into darkness / a curtain / veil / to be pulled through or not.” Perhaps more importantly, the pieces of map are a reminder that when such tragedies are visited upon a landscape, neither maps nor the land itself can be trusted going forward.
Of the various themes addressed in her poems, the notion of faith pitted against citizenship is one of the most complex and overlooked aspects of Utah’s nuclear legacy. Despite overwhelming evidence that they were deliberately overlooked and lied to, there is an ongoing conflict between victims and descendants who are furious and seeking both admission of guilt and recompense from the federal government and those who continue to want to believe that their family members, farms, and animals died for the greater good and for a patriotic cause. Though Jorgenson offers no judgement or resolution of such conflict, it is key to her interaction with others throughout the poems, most poignantly in the writing of “This is the Place” on a makeshift sign for a family reunion (a clear gesture to the words ascribed to Brigham Young upon his entrance to the Salt Lake Valley) and the poem’s final line, “Your hair has ash in it,” a reference to the fact that many Downwinders at first perceived falling radioactive ash from tests to be freak snowstorms.
As much as it is an exploration of historical events, Sediment & Veil is also a poignant exploration of the function and dysfunction of memory of the period preceding, and immediately following, great personal loss. While the specifics of this loss are never overtly revealed, which often allows such scenes a timeless quality, it remains an axis on which the book turns and reprises. The passage quoted in full earlier in this review reappears on several occasions, its eight lines disintegrated and recombinant. Similarly, other media that appear in the poems, like the test site map presented in piecemeal, begin to undo themselves. A photograph in one poem offers a stark example of this tendency when Jorgenson writes:
call you ghost
you moved away
you left a smudge on the film
no face to identify your body
no body but spilled and congealed milk
Like memory, the body is a desolate setting here, whether it be the men a relative describes finding in Dachau, “so thin they were hanging by their genitals from piano wire,” or the “evening ghosts[…] / collapsing against horizon / the 6,000 head of sheep / blood atonement.” Such moments are reflected in the increasing expanse of the poem’s geography, as the southern portion of the Great Basin expands to include the Great Salt Lake and the salt flats of Utah’s west desert, places ostensibly barren but playing host to ecosystems as fragile as a body under attack from cancer. It is a psychic landscape as well, as references to the 1960s cult classic Carnival of Souls implies. Shot in and around the Great Salt Lake, including the former lakeside dance hall of Saltair, the film, like the book, is an exploration of attempting to make home in a place that poses a tangible threat. But where Mary Henry’s character is largely haunted by ghosts of the mind, the ghosts of the land itself play an equal counterpoint in Jorgenson’s poems.
Sixty-plus years on, the legacy of nuclear testing continues to be shaped simultaneously by ongoing tragedies for those families exposed to its byproducts and by an increasing desire from Downwinders, and the nation at large, for a more complex understanding of the events surrounding the tests. The numbers of scholarly studies and oral histories are increasing, giving voice to a group that achieved a day of remembrance only two years ago. Likewise, Jorgenson’s unflinching glimpse into ground zero’s “glass desert” provides a crucial lyric and fragmentary component to such work. Difficult history gains emotional and intellectual depth in the hands of a skilled poet. This is precisely what Sediment & Veil offers, to devastating effect. And yet, in spite of the sacrifices made, the steadfastness of the people these poems document shines through from time to time, as in the
two years of food in the pantry
enough to walk
through the burning world
locust and gull
locust and gull