from Radioactive Wolves: A Retelling
I Chernobyl Zone, 1986-
Do not believe me. I was not
there. I was pulping rotten quinces.
I did not know. Just as those who were there
did not know.
It was a sacred lie,
the lightning rod. The radioactive shock
forgotten before it happened.
(Moscow hospital, May 1986)
Sit Sit. No touching in here.
My husband buckles against the iron frame.
Someone comes in to measure the heat.
Because he clocked in three minutes too soon.
Because we fooled till dawn, then stayed awake
to let each other’s salts dry and dress us for the day.
There are sicknesses that can’t be cured.
You have to sit and watch them.
This one blooms like black petunia
in a commercial garden: mouth-size tarns
swell to fullness without a hint of sun.
In his mouth, on cheeks, tongue,
they bloom. Black petunias, black
to smell, black to touch. At night,
petals hover below the bulb
like miniature kites, speckled with blood.
They are of flesh, these flowers
that channel poison away from the heart.
I cool him off with a bouquet of parsley
dipped in moonshine.
For a night you can’t tell
the angels have been chocking
on celestial gas.
Tonight his body’s a landfill—
Tonight I undo the life in my belly
for the guards, so I may enter
for the guards I invent
two children, in fulfillment
of the regime’s requirement
I kiss him through the gauze
like a late bride, eager & slightly rueful.
My man, a growling landfill.
How I gather him in my arms.
(Chornobylnik = mugwort)
Chernobyl, the house of mugwort.
Once or twice pinnately lobed, lanceted,
gloss doubled by a cottony down,
it shadows streambanks and country ditches,
dishevels front steps.
In one dream, my right foot misses it;
the fossilized berry
explodes seconds before my sole means to crush it.
At one time, pilgrims rubbed sandals
with mugwort oil to make the journey light,
held the weed in esteem: it added a kick to beer,
warded off the mischief of mushrooms.
Mixed with honey, it takes away blackness after falls.
Rolled into pellets, ignited directly on the skin, it flames, uncontainable. .
Its seed was said to cure quotidians,
sooth hysterics, de-obstruct the spleen.
Boiled in lard, it quelled swellings of tonsils and quinsy.
Here now, in mugwort land, it has lost all powers but the abortive.
Women wait till roots are dry and brittle, snapping when bent.
One after another, they let themselves let go
for there’s no way to tell if what they carry resembles a human.
Note: The poem uses some material from Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (translated by Keith Gessen, Picador, 1997)
“Radioactive Wolves: A Retelling” is from Immigrant Model (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015).