Re-visiting Chernobyl

1 May 2018

1. Liquidation1

The earth has always been so accommodating,
enfolding all kinds of calamities: the meteoric end
of dinosaurs, the Neanderthals and other botched experiments,
the debris of bronze and iron ages, modern battlegrounds . . .

And there is still so much space! For us to tuck away
these bull-dozed villages, lorries loaded with fallout,
electrically-charged farm animals (appropriately neutralised),
even a pine forest (gamma-rayed). Pat it all down.

Permit yourself to rest without a bothersome pop or tick.
(We have reinforced concrete for those more insistent sounds—
the kind that leach the pigment from eyes,
blister hearts as they are beating … )


2. Bio-Robots

What a piece of work is Man! A wise industrial sentiment—
and too often overlooked in newfangled forecasts of automation.
Lest we forget: that remote-controlled backhoe committed harakiri
from the clifftop of reactor 3, after reaching its emissions capacity
and look who saved the day! Triumphant as a plague,
crawling out the rabbit hole of history
in wave after wave, armoured in medieval scraps of lead
and muzzled for respiration. (Pig-faced, as the jesters said!)
They had 40 seconds to shovel contaminants (flung from reactor 4)
off the tower’s precipice. (We had plans for mass burial down below … )
Have faith, we said, there is nothing terrifying up there—2
but best to run like the dog, flee like the hare.
Scoop a spadeful or two of that hot stuff away and scram!
Before your bones and teeth are meaningless …
How they moved: like roof cats! It was only afterwards they stopped,
slumping together in the sheltered halls like litters of stillborn …
Mind you: some of them are still ticking!
(We had to ban embalming and open caskets … )
100 roubles is all it took—so many bought it.
Of course, we honoured their corps in cement, right at ground zero,
where the birds have returned, against all those glum forecasts.
Listen to them: chirruping away with the Geiger counters.


3. Dark Tourism3

Today we celebrate the half-life of caesium 137
with this sceptical offer: one-day tours only for US$!
Exchange phones for dosimeters and be mesmerised
as battery-powered crickets stridulate in a peace that is
truly ionising. Visitors are most welcome to observe
swans silvering in the cooling pond of radionuclides.
Drip-feed the gargantuan catfish (not recommend for eating.)
The retro excavator parked outside the sarcophagus
is a favourite haunt of the barn swallow, its pale throat
a world-first in partial albinism! Marvel at our mushrooms,
21.88 micro Sieverts’ worth and prized by bank voles
with cataracts—so rare! No need to fear our wolves;
they thrive on dogs left over from the original liquidators.
But best to update your shots: even rabies blossoms here!
How fortunate to have liberated the Earth of some people.
And thanks to the rich and varied lives of plutonium,
we are guaranteed to be more-or-less free of human habitation—
and open for business—for another 24,000 years.


4. The Red Forest4

Dress the wicker basket with cloth and sash.

Set it on the path still running through the woods.

Perhaps a bear, a boar, a raven, a bee . . .

The children have been sent from the village.

All the horses have been shot.

Wind fills the grass with its emptiness.

Once there was a hunter, a dwarf, a witch, a seamstress . . .

Who will sew up the tear in the fabric of our world?


5. What Was Invisible Now Becomes Visible5

Dew reconstructs
the spider’s pure and abstract
longing for itself.

The jaw of a waking fox
unlocks the silence
of teeth.

Lichen brushes the lips
of the stag burdened
by dreams of lightning.

Potatoes push up from
the earth like nubs
of bones.

The moon is the ghost
of a rock in
the broken sky of dawn.

The sun has
already discovered everything
including what we have done.

  1. The men sent in to deal with the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-power-plant accident in the Ukraine were called ‘liquidators’, a word derived from the Russian verb “likvidator” (ликвида́торы), which means ‘to eliminate’ or ‘to eliminate the consequences of an accident.’ Hundreds of thousands were deployed there.
  2. General Nicolai Tarakanov advised the reservists assembled beneath the roof of reactor three, which was littered with radioactive graphite and uranium rods from the explosion of reactor four: ‘Comrades, you should know … that I was up on the roof two days ago with an officer, and one thing for sure I can tell you is that there’s nothing terrifying.’
  3. Chernobyl is part of an international industry in dark tourism, or tourism to places associated with death and suffering. On its company website, Chornobyl Tour boasts ‘absolute radiation safety of the tourists, granted by our own studies’ and the ‘ultimate goal of … turning the zone into UNESCO world heritage site.’
  4. The Red Forest is so-named because the needles of the pine trees there turned red following exposure to radiation. The trees were subsequently bull-dozed and interred. The accident at Chernobyl is said to have contaminated the environment 20 times more than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
  5. In 2014 video footage, the biologist Timothy Mousseau, studying the effects of radiation on the flora and fauna of Chernobyl, sprays water onto an irregularly shaped spider web and declares: ‘What was invisible now becomes visible.’
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