By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published in Ginosko Literary Journal 13 (2013): 96-100. Web.
“They were burying Vitya Kibenok and Volodya Pravik . . . Our families were friends. There’s a photo of us all in the building the day before the explosion. Our husbands are so handsome! And happy! It was the last day of that life. We were all so happy!”
- Lyudmilla Ignatenko,wife of deceased fireman Vasily Ignatenko,
Voices from Chernobyl
Now that half-open windows of unoccupied flats
exhibit their vacant expressions, and workers
fold this town into the earth
like a body, I am the visitor
of a life I mistook for my own:
the sugared berries my wife jarred
and brought to the park in wicker creels,
the flowered Artemisia that scented our sleep
there. The leap of elk over wormwood
suspended the stunned afternoon,
and clustered tomatoes throbbed
on sprinkled vines, underscoring
the incidental treasure of a birthplace
whose beauty is a symptom
of memory now.
Soldiers in surgical masks
sweep stoops of women who
crouch to close a prayer in their hands.
A nurse wheels my bed
toward this room’s only window.
Bouquets of fireworks curl across
the May Day sky in Moscow
and permit, for a moment,
the abandonment of terror
to the calculated maneuvers
of ceremony, the unexceptional diversions
that approximate the details of an ordinary life.
Maybe madness interprets
these glittering whorls as faces
of friends who labored in a toxic swelter
that leavened their bones,
hears these pyrotechnics
as the stomp of workers wheeling
molten graphite across the roof for a medal
and a hundred rubles. Maybe my wife is not afraid of me,
maybe my death will not be horrible.
Is it true that radish leaves in Belarus
are the size of beet greens now?
That radiation doesn’t threaten our lives
so much as the fear of it?
What does a nurse fear
when a tumor the size of a melon
keeps a boy’s kidneys like a secret
as he awaits his bath at noon? When
rain rinsed chunks of strontium from the trees
before the cops we called could come
and see, how could we tell them
it wasn’t anything especially memorable
we had to fear, but rather that everything remained
the same, that the tomatoes they told us not to eat were beautiful,
that nothing glistened awkwardly in the dark?
When they told us the yellow puddles the rain made
were colored by the dust of flowers,
we needed to believe it.
Now the room winds like a wheel and fades
to the night I saw front lawns cluttered
with fragments of cesium that melted
under the rain of a new weather
no one thought to question,
my new wife’s pleated skirt
between my fingers as I lifted it up
her thigh in the lamplight of our only room
the night before.
Boys squint over imaginary guns
they aim and fire through open windows
of trains that freight them
into the rest of their lives,
laughing at the cow a farmer clothed in cellophane.
The needles of pine trees have turned tangerine.
Here where I watch wind contort
the shapes that fireworks left behind
into a calligraphy of smoke I almost decipher,
and the sheet-thin walls of this room
arrange and hold their boundaries,
the bed sheet whose knots leave wounds
in my arms as my wife lifts it
is not enough to persuade her I’m no longer
her husband, rather the thing a nurse describes
as “a radioactive object.”
The fist of hair she pinned behind her head
fans open across my face, and I’m cushioned
against the constant attraction to a past
I neither asked for nor wish to
preserve, where the probable meanings of history
perform their crude theater,
and I cradle a rifle through houses where
no one I know lives,
kneeling behind an unhinged door
to await the panicked flash of cats
I have to kill before they wander out of “the zone.”
If the cans of vodka we found
and drank there left an aftertaste of
cesium in our mouths, it helped us
forget just the same as planes approached
the reactor’s smoking crater,
convincing even the few
who knew what they meant
of an unpublicized urgency,
a challenge to the assumed
permanence of a town
whose streets continue
to station our lives.