The college I attended was about 45 minutes away from Richland, home of the Hanford nuclear reactor. In a geology class I took I learned we'd built it over fault lines which had not yet been discovered at the time. Oops.
These poems are written by a woman who grew up in the 1960's in Richland. The poems convey the sense of community and unity of purpose that existed at the height of the cold war in a place where everyone is connected in some way to the secret government project.
The book actually starts with an interesting anecdote. When the author was young JFK visited the facility (just weeks prior to his assassination), the thanked them for the work they were doing. When candidate Obama visited Richland he was asked about the Superfund cleanup (as it turns out, nuclear reactors produce a lot of waste that's hard to get rid of) and he didn't really know anything about it (though he said that would change by the time he was back at the airport).
It's amazing how things change.
Many of the poems deal with the topic of the health of the workers. Both the author and her best friend had fathers who died of cancer caused by working at Hanford. She tells their stories, and the story of her best friend. But she also tells the stories of countless others, gleaned in part from various testimonies before Congress.
One of the reoccurring themes is the secrecy that the workers were asked to keep and their repeated betrayal by their government. From intentional releases of radiation (the reason is still classified but one theory is that they were hoping to track Soviet facilities by similar emissions) which they kept from the populace, to the buildup of dangerous carcinogens in the wildlife which the government knew the local population frequently hunted, fished, and then consumed, to spraying all kinds of chemicals to asking the poorest and most desperate to clean up radioactive materials with little protection again and again the government betrayed people.
One of the interesting things is the real sense that to even question any of this would have been considered disloyal and unpatriotic in a way that doesn't seem to exist today. People might point fingers and shout about patriotic duty or say there's no such thing as honorable dissent but mostly it just comes off as empty posturing.
My favorite poems were the Redactions. They're the only poems that are printed horizontally (you need to turn the book sideways to read them). They start with an actual quote from an official government source about how the government wants to be as open as possible (often in the name of science). The poem itself consists of what appears to be heavily redacted information with a few letters or small groups of letters left unredacted to form the poem itself.
It's all very well done.