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WHAT POETRY CAN DO FOR US                        Resurgence Review, 2004

Philip Gross hears the living voices of Chernobyl.

Heavy Water: a poem for Chernobyl                    Mario Petrucci, Enitharmon, London, 2004. £8.95.

Half Life: Poems for Chernobyl                                Mario Petrucci, Heaventree Press, Coventry. 2004. £5

Voices from Chernobyl                                              ed. Svetlana Alexievitch, Aurum Press, London 1999 (out of print)

In the eighteen years since the explosion at a reactor in Ukraine opened a glimpse into a particular abyss, the word Chernobyl has become shorthand for that danger and for our responses to it - responses so fraught with anxiety, anger, excuse or denial that you might wonder what poetry could add except righteous polemic. One answer is in Heavy Water - in what it reveals not just about Chernobyl but also about what poetry can do for us.

This is as close to that abyss, the experience of really being there as you are likely to get - the sense of danger that defies all human senses, the courage and hard labour, the official evasions and long aftermath. Many first hand witnesses - local people, soldiers, firemen, farmers, children, miners - perished, but not without trace. Their testimonies were collected, at great personal risk, by Svetlana Alexievich. Just to alert readers to her extraordinary book, Voices from Chernobyl, would have been valuable, but Mario Petrucci has done more. As a prize-winning poet, he is rare in his commitment to the collaborative role of poetry, working in and for communities, using his writer's skills to act as a resonator for other voices. It is a fine balance, for the voices to keep their own accents and attitudes, while gaining the precision and verbal richness and the memorable patterning and pace of verse.

'Did you not feel it? / As if someone had opened / a tap in your side and let / all the life run out.' Here, it is metaphor and simile that give us the reality of physical weakness more immediately than any medical diagnosis. The arresting image of 'The Man Buried With Chernobyl' - his irradiated bones still visible to X-rays - becomes an embodiment of all the strangeness and fear and the unanswered questions. When we see him 'step off the VDU // imagining himself the corpse at the end of the play / leaving behind the murdered outline in white carbon' a simple fact is transformed into an icon, touching and unsettling. These poems are strong in images like this, rich with complex associations, but without a moral being pointed. In the poem that introduces Half Life (a welcome pamphlet which preserves eighteen fine poems left out of the carefully-structured Heavy Water for reasons of space) a butterfly absurdly alights on the rim of the blazing reactor, and the narrator does not know whether to swear or to sing.

Poetry intensifies... sometimes by the simplest means. A woman is approached by a museum to donate her husband's medal. 'She stood - huge in that oak doorway / hurling currency. Here! Take back your // blood money. Take it! Keep the medals. / The certificate. Give me back my husband.' This moment has to be, simply, true and the power of the poem is in letting it be starkly that. Poetry seeks out the unexpected slant on things, the new perspective. Goluboy (pale blue) is Russian slang for homosexual, and a poem of that name gives us the paradoxes of one gay couple's experience: 'You know / - that reactor was worth it // almost. Now we can dance / down our street unmolested. / Now it is we who radiate // power. And then - then / the miracle. No. Not our / cells rejuvenated. But my // father. Out of the pale blue / my father. He met no eye. Said / no word. But stepped up just // the same. Out of that huddle / to shake my hand. To nod / goodbye.'

This is passionate writing, and not simply politics. Emotional but not emotive, it is informed by historical research and by the author's knowledge as a scientist. (The poem 'Chain of Decay' is a simple, chilling litany of elements and their half-lives.) The poems are open to the awe of the situation as much as the outrage. They leave us free to respond. Amid the stories of colossal self-sacrifice I keep my cautious scepticism about the way this trait has been used and abused by governments through every phase of Russian history. Good poetry enables us to think more widely and more specifically, from felt and shared experience. If we seem to have forgotten that, the poetry world itself is partially to blame. Good modern poets are still addressing the questions of life and value: take a look at Bloodaxe Books' heartening anthology Staying Alive. But start right here: written with grave intelligence, these poems of Mario Petrucci's look the almost unspeakable in the eye; they record, warn, caution, memorialise and also celebrate. They are a reminder of what poetry can do for all of us.

PHILIP GROSS is a poet, novelist and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan. His most recent collection of poetry is Mappa Mundi (Bloodaxe Books, 2003).



copyright philip gross / mario petrucci 2004