Katherine Anderson Howell

Two Poems


Argonne National Laboratory. 1946.
Chlorinated solvents from atomic experiments taint the water.

1999. Nine hundred poplars are planted
in plastic lined pits forcing the roots
into the dirty water, thirty feet deep.

The trees here work.

When used for hydraulic control
poplars become solar powered
pump and treat operations.

When he stepped into the fresh
air of the overworld,
Cerberus on his shoulder,
Hercules wore a crown
of poplar leaves,
white on the inside, from his sweat.
Black on the outside, from smoke.

Aberdeen Proving Ground. 1940s-1970s.
Used for disposal and burning of warfare chemicals.

1996 – A stand of one hundred eighty three poplars planted.
Groundwater tests show
the poplars keep
the contaminant plume
from spreading.

2026 – the site is expected
to be eighty-five percent clean.

Hybrid poplar branches stretch
ten to fifteen feet a year;
roots that chase deep water.

Phaethon’s sisters wept themselves
into poplar trees,
all seven daughters of the sun,
amber tears gathered around
their brother’s body,
aflame in the river.

Fort Lewis, Washington. 1985.
Trichloroethylene detected in shallow aquifer.

1994 – A stand of hybrid poplars
is expected to pump
forty three thousand
gallons of water a day.
A stand of hybrid poplars
is expected to clean
ninety-seven percent of
trichloroethylene from the water.

The poplars seep metal,
pesticide, oil, explosives,
out through leaves, let
sunlight render them harmless.

The poplars retain no
residue, can be chopped down,
mulched to make space
for oaks, which drink
only a fraction
of what the poplars do.



This happened:
A hospitality tent
outside the sarcophagus
a safe(ish )distance from
the work site.

People in suits,
some in camouflage
eat shrimp and paté,
wear virtual reality
goggles, and enjoy

Novak’s new sarcophagus,
designed to last at least
the next hundred years,
the biggest structure man
has ever moved across the earth.

This newest wonder
took thirty years to build,
replaces the wonder
of radiation cooking
a thousand people.

The fourth reactor failed
routine stress tests.
Its fire licked the sky
for nine days. Steel and
concrete collapsed. Floors dissolved.
Graphite combusted.
The air became poison when
fission became exposed.

The first liquidators were
local firemen, called to Chernobyl
to work five minutes at a time
with no idea what burned.
They were sick.
They died.
They blistered inside.

The roof was unstable,
built by beams dropped by
helicopters, left unsecured.
The inside lethal,
beyond lethal,
suitable for robots and lead.

The first sarcophagus took
two hundred and six
days to build, a terror of
concrete and metal and
contaminated clothes.
Coal miners dug under
melted floors, basements
full of burning fuel.
Pumped in liquid nitrogen
to cool stop freeze kill.

Clean up, a flimsy barrier.
The second sarcophagus,
a technological tomb.


Note on “Sarcophagus”: Inspired by “A vast new tomb for the most dangerous waste in the world” by Christian Borys, BBC.com Future.



Katherine Anderson Howell is the editor of Fandom in the Classroom: A Teaching Guide (University of Iowa Press, 2018). Her poems have appeared in Sweet Tree Review, Juke Joint Mag, and Stillwater Review. She writes and parents in Washington, DC.