Literary arts

Atomic connections

Poet Radha Marcum explores her family ties to the Manhattan Project


In her first collection of poems, Radha Marcum explores the legacy of her grandfather’s work building the first atomic bombs as part of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during World War II. Her poems from “Bloodline” sink into the surrounding landscape of Northern New Mexico’s canyons and mountains, while meditating on the far-reaching implications of the story she tells. With great skill and craft Marcum’s poems mark out the territory that has shaped her family, and links it to the wider world.

Marcum will read from “Bloodline” Saturday (Oct. 7), 6 p.m., at SOMOS, 108 Civic Plaza Drive. Admission to the reading is free.

While she grew up in California, Marcum said she often visited her grandparents in Los Alamos where they lived for the better part of their lives. “I had a really deep connection to them,” she recalled. “Los Alamos was the locus of our family and my relationship to the world.”

It wasn’t until Marcum’s husband asked her, “Why aren’t you telling this story?,” that Marcum began to consider using her creative writing skills to reflect on her family’s legacy and connection to the atomic bomb.

Marcum’s grandfather, Donald Mueller was born in Cincinnati in 1907, studied physics at Cornell University and then Princeton University and took a job at Hartford-Empire where he worked on a project to make unbreakable glass. In 1943, he went to work on the Manhattan Project, the top secret United States effort to research, design and test the world’s first nuclear weapons during World War II.

“He was recruited. We don’t know which scientist recruited him. There’s no record of who or what was responsible for bringing him onto the project,” Marcum noted. “He got pulled into the team that was working on the implosion model.”

Marcum recalled that her grandfather was a private man, and never talked about his work which was classified.

As part of her research for “Bloodline,” Marcum spoke with family members, drew on her own memories, and reviewed the fragmentary pieces of documentation that her family had collected over the years related to her grandfather’s work. These included old paystubs from the lab, and a few photographs her grandfather had kept which looked to be the results of experiments. In addition, Marcum relied on declassified information about the Manhattan Project that is now available online.

Marcum earned an MFA from the University of Washington where she was awarded the Klepser Fellowship in Poetry. She now lives in Colorado where she has worked as a journalist and editor. Marcum has taught creative writing and literature and her poems have been published by FIELD, West Branch, Pleiades, Gulf Coast, Chelsea, The Bellingham Review, Poetry Northwest, and Taos Journal of International Poetry and Art.

Asked why she chose to write about her family’s legacy through poems, rather than memoir, Marcum said she found many memoirs and thick history books written on the history of the atomic bomb and the history of the bombing of Hiroshima, but she found two things were missing. First, was a larger context of landscape and cultural perspective on these events. Second, was the emotional aspect of how people relate to what happened, Marcum said.

“Of course, being so close to it, I can’t help but have a really strong response to the moral implications of those technological advances and the moral implications of the decision to use that technology. And, what we see now, is that that issue – we like to pretend it went away with the Cold War – but it hasn’t gone away, so how do we take those realities into a personal relationship with them. Poetry is good at that, poetry is good at encapsulating that connection.”

Marcum said her family’s response to the poems in “Bloodline” has been positive.

“Largely it was as if everybody really needed this. I did have some trepidation as to how they would respond to the more moral aspects, but it’s not heavy-handed in that way, and it’s really rooted in the personal. I think they feel like they’re emboldened and allowed to have their own personal relationship to it, that isn’t just a glossed over, ‘Oh, isn’t it great that Grandpa achieved this’ story, so it can be more complicated … I think they really appreciate how much emphasis I placed on my grandmother and her story – grandma was the heart of the family.”

Marcum said that she used more narrative in the poems in “Bloodline” than she has in writing previous poems. She also said that the poems in this collection are longer than others she has written.

“In the section, 'Bloodline,' there are some longer pieces that really unpack and are slow to reveal themselves. In the past, I was much more concise, much more driven by a particular vibrant set of images,” said Marcum.

Throughout her poems, Marcum roots her writing in a sense of place. She reflected on her connection with place, and how it shows up in her poetry. “It has something to do with the fact that I didn’t grow up with a very strong religious background although my parents were certainly extremely interested in spiritual ways of relating to the world … I think the landscape filled that piece for me, and I think it does for a lot of people even if they have that religion. It serves that purpose of providing a deep connection and a deep sense of responsibility that arrives with that sense of awe.”

The cover of “Bloodline” is a NASA satellite image of the Valles Caldera.

“It’s a literal rendering of the landscape addressed in the poems … and the rivers are the life-blood of the West, the rivers are what gave rise to the different cultures, and visually it looks like bloodlines.”

For more information about Saturday’s reading, call SOMOS at (575) 758-0081.