The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 had huge significance for Ukraine, the Soviet Union, and the wider world. It accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War order, and forced a profound, worldwide reconsideration of human beings’ relationship with nature. Few writers have explored the meaning of the disaster so consistently as Lina Kostenko. Poems like “A terrible kaleidoscope,” published the year after the disaster, are among the first and most powerful artistic responses to it; later poems, such as “On the banks of the Prypiat a devil is sleeping,” reflect on the lingering presence of the catastrophe in the uncannily serene landscapes of the Zone. While most of the world knows the disaster as a terrifying yet distant event whose significance lies in its general message for humanity and its geopolitical resonances, Kostenko, like many in Ukraine, knows the event and the places it affected intimately. It is her ability to work across these scales—to describe the plants and abandoned houses in the zone with eerie detail and yet also explore the wider meaning of the disaster for the human race—that makes her Chernobyl poems so remarkable.—Uilleam Blacker
On the banks of the Prypiat a devil is sleeping,
Pretending, the scoundrel, he’s a dried up willow.
On the banks of the Prypiat—the bank of—on
the river, that once was deep blue.
An atomic black candle is flickering for him.
For him villages in poverty and decline.
On the riverbank sands his hooked claws sink in
In his ears the wind whistles and whines.
His obscenities scrawled on the windows and walls,
Cracked icons and a wrecked respirator.
And now he feels that he’s due a good doze.
This his empire. And he is the emperor.
The reactor, all black—his hell and his throne.
In the sands he sleeps, curled up in flame.
In his circle of ravens he dreams all alone
of Ukraine, of the whole of Ukraine.
A terrible kaleidoscope:
In this moment somewhere someone dies.
In this moment. This very moment.
Each and every minute
A ship is wrecked.
The Galapagos burn.
And above the Dnipro
Sets the bitter wormwood star.
One aims. Another falls.
“Don’t shoot!” a third implores.
Scheherazade’s tales run dry.
Lorelei sings by the Rhine no more.
A child plays. A comet flies.
Faces bloom, not erased by dread.
Blessed is each moment we’re alive
On these worldwide fields of death.
Uilleam Blacker is a lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He has published widely on Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian literature and has translated the work of several contemporary Ukrainian writers.
© Lina Kostenko. Translation © 2016 by Uilleam Blacker. By arrangement with the translator.