Writing for a reaction
Just after 9/11, poet Judith Vollmer took a trip to the Yucca Mountain area of Nevada, the site of nuclear tests in the 1950s. Far from being off limits to the general public, the Nevada Test Site Museum encourages visitors to see Sedan Crater and other areas where the landscape resembles a scene from a science fiction movie.
For Vollmer, a native of Level Green who is the director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, the trip was both professional and personal. She wanted to see the facilities that are “part Star Wars, part West Virginia,” but also wanted to pay homage to her late father, who worked in the industry when nuclear power was new and being considered for a variety of uses.
“That was the cowboy days of the 1950s, when there were not only few safeguards when men went into contaminated areas, but there was also a sort of bravado about it,” Vollmer says. “There was a headiness about it in the post-World War II era when engineers thought, for example, if they wanted to build a new Panama Canal, they could use nuclear weapons to detonate the earth. Or if they wanted to build subdivisions, why not detonate the earth to get the job done fast. It was really a bizarre time.”
“Reactor,” Vollmer’s fourth collection of poetry, examines a variety of topics, including family and the natural world. She calls it a book about “non-reaction inside the social and political atmosphere of the country. And it’s also a book about the undead, a kind of wake-up call toward what is especially inside the natural landscape that appears and disappears inside this book.”
But Vollmer admits the themes in “Reactor” are not purposefully strung together, the poems having been written over a seven-year period.
“Things tend to show up,” she says, noting that, in her collection “Level Green,” chainsaws appeared in three poems. “Coffee shows up in this book, and in this book and my last (‘The Door Open to the Fire’) a lot of the poems happen at night. A lot of the poems in this book are set in winter. My mother kept saying to me, ‘Would you write a poem about snow?’ so there are a couple poems about snow.”
“Reactor” also includes poems that Vollmer calls imitations, or translations, of the works of the poets Valery Larbaud and Stephane Mallarme. There are poems dedicated to her influences, including Guy Rossetti, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir.
“I am paying tribute, and I’m also inviting their companionship in a way,” she says. “In a way, it’s a very lonely book. (There is an) I’m-not-unhappy-to-be-alone-but-I’m-aware-that-I-am-alone kind of motif in the book. So I invite those presences. … The invitations to, say, Camus or de Beauvoir, really feel like tributes and homages to writers I’ve admired and trusted since I was in high school.”
The collection is not limited to contemplative musings. Some poems celebrate the poet’s interests — wine, good food, film, coffee, idle entertainment and urban hiking — the ordinary accoutrements of daily life from which Vollmer takes pleasure. “The Dead Lucia” combines an elegy with the sensual aroma of plum pies baking. “Coffee Narrative” is a celebration of small moments and pleasures, of cats and reading and travel and “digging dirt from the kitchen tiles with my fingernail.”
“I love the stimulants and the sedatives both,” she says. “There’s kind of, I hope, something delicious about some of the poems, and (something) raucous about some of the poems, that balances out the elegies.”
Most of the poems can be seen in the context of family. “Yucca Mountain Sequence” is the book’s centerpiece, a combination of rugged details and family history that includes the public-relations spiel she heard while touring the facility in Nevada. The visit brought back memories of her father’s work refueling and repairing reactors in the U.S. and Italy.
During her tour, Vollmer left a copy of a letter from her father and her own note in a grotto deep within Yucca Mountain.
“I think the poems in the book, the sort of interior that’s about my father’s work, is really maybe closer to science than I’ve ever gone,” Vollmer says. “Or my version of science, because it’s not really science. And it’s also a requiem for my father.
“So the trip, the pilgrimage to the Yucca Mountains and the proposed national nuclear waste site in Nevada, became for me a way of burying my father a second time after the formal funeral in Pittsburgh. It was a way to honor him in another setting, which he would have loved.”
A writer’s life: Judith Vollmer
When she writes: “I used to write only from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. I’m not a morning person — I can teach in the morning — but for this book, I got up early before work a lot of days and worked from 6 to 8 in the morning. I hope I never have to do that again.”
Where she writes: In a room in her home in Regent Square, with some talismans around her. “From the age of 7, I’ve collected rocks and minerals from all over. I have a number of those around me, and some drawings and pieces of cloth I’ve collected.”
What she listens to: Nothing while she writes, but when she’s revising or editing, “rock music up to and through Pearl Jam. And I like opera and jazz.”
It was coming down hard so the teacher motioned the flute
then the piano quiet and the children sang
a capella, teacher’s voice was gone, they screaked and worked
their lungs & shoulders like gulls, they swooped and cranked
it up, it was wonderful being all alone,
they could hear pauses, one by two by one, then she
ran to the edge of the world, opened it and thrust the dark
sleeve of her dress out & down into the whirlpools
and when a flake landed crisp & unique on the black
wool she ran to every desk then back for more until
she showed every voice a new jewel, an alien, autotelic
shape. What would like to be, or who, or would you
go with the wind sweeping the parking lot & small bank of trees.
— From Judith Vollmer’s “Reactor”
Author: Judith Vollmer
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press, 71 pages