Poem of the Week | February 03, 2014

This week we offer another poem from our new “Falling Man” winter issue, 36.4. Jennifer Atkinson is the author of four collections of poetry. The most recent, Canticle of the Night Path, won Free Verse’s New Measure Prize in 2012. Poems have appeared in journals including Field, Image, Witness, New American Writing, Poecology, Terrain, and Cincinnati Review. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at George Mason University.
Author’s note:

This poem, from my new “Reading By Riverlight” manuscript, is about the Exclusion Zone around the ruins of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant in the Ukraine, an area that has become an eco-reserve by default. After the disastrous meltdown in 1986 that forced the evacuation of all humans from the area, this fenced-off area has recovered in many ways despite the radiation still present in the soil and bones of its non-human inhabitants. Biodiversity, a marker of ecological health, has increased greatly. Populations of both flora and fauna, including moose, elk, wolves, boars, eagles, and storks have recovered and grown beyond pre-disaster levels. The reason is that the benefit of excluding humans from the contaminated ecosystem outweighs the negative effects of the radiation! So safe and rich is the exclusion zone, now that the power plant and the workers and the mono-crop agriculture is gone, that even endangered species like Przewalsi horses have been re-introduced and are thriving. The woodlands and drained-for-wheat fields, blighted by that ugly cloud of radiation in 1986, are now home to more wildflowers, rodents, birds and predators than before the land was cleared and the marshlands drained. Wolves den in the ramshackle houses of the evacuated workers. Tragic and miraculous at once, isn’t it?


At The Chernobyl Power Plant Eco-reserve

If ravens perch on the ferris wheel
outside of town, if owls
nest in the silos and swallows circle
the tipped watchtower, if catfish
bloat in the cooling pool and elk
graze on perennial beard grass,
if boars rake their tusks
among the roots, if black
storks claim the cloud-blighted
pines of Red Forest, if wire
succumbs to rust, if lichen,
if shingles unhinge in the snow,
if untrafficked lots cede land
to yarrow, if mirrors, if spoons
reflect the sky, if watches tick
in unopened drawers, if swollen,
if stiff-maned przewalski’s horses
foal, if wolves, if then, if then, if