Breaking Through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

“Unprotected Russian Soldiers Disturbed Radioactive Dust in Chernobyl’s ‘Red Forest’, Workers Say,” Reuters, March 29, 2022

No glowing eyes, no fifth limb,
but the gray wolves of Chernobyl,
free for a time of humanity, nip and kill,
lope and roam—thrive, their numbers swelling seven times
their normal size, and maybe there will be time
for the pines to rally back,
though when the liquidators spotted them spitting
up rust-red leaves, fuel for radioactive fires,
they bulldozed them back.
Earth to earth, ash trees to ashes.
Dead, they could go on forever;
all these years with fewer fungi and insects,
they’ve hardly decayed.

                        Child, it’s too late
for butterflies and rebirth, but here’s
another cracked planet, another cracked bell jar.
Can you set the story straight?
Can you remember how in the fairy tales,
even the darkest ones, when the soldiers
stationed in the enchanted forest discovered a curse
had settled into their cells, it had a name
other than collateral damage, and ashes to ashes,
dust to dust inflected an elemental goodbye?

                        Once upon a time—
but how to tell this story?
                        How to stake out lyrical territories
for nuclear fallout
                                   and wolves our most fatal creations cannot contain?
Once upon a time, dust meant dust
            and rain meant rain,
and the ravens, once loyal to wolves,
                        flew every which way, forgetting the landscape
had been magicked into a vault.
            And all the birds in the Exclusion Zone,
                        smaller brained, dwindled,
                                    particularly females, overstrained by reproduction.

Lonely, all the males sing
           and sing, awful,
                                     awful in their doubled volume.


Sarah Giragosian is the author of the poetry collection Queer Fish, a winner of the American Poetry Journal Book Prize (Dream Horse Press, 2017) and The Death Spiral (Black Lawrence Press, 2020). The craft anthology, Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems, which is co-edited by Sarah and Virginia Konchan, is forthcoming from The University of Akron Press. Sarah’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Pleiades, Orion, Ecotone, Tin House, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She teaches at the University at Albany-SUNY.


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