Nuclear Syntax: Atkinson & Chernobyl


First published in Missouri Review, then reprinted both in Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology and the collection The Thinking Eye, Jennifer H. Atkinsons’s poem “At the Chernobyl Power Plant Eco-Reserve” represents a new kind of apocalyptic lyric. Concerned with the latent, invisible violence of an environmental disaster, it exists in a moment of uncertainty, one so familiar to us readers living in the Anthropocene.


Syntactically, “At the Chernobyl Power Plant Eco-Reserve” works as a series of “if” statements, beginning with “If ravens perch on the ferris wheel / outside of town, if owls / nest in the silos and swallows circle / the tipped watchtower.” In each of these lines, the animal kingdom is reclaiming the realm of humans: a Ferris wheel, a silo, a watchtower. The implication is that these structures have been abandoned since the Chernobyl disaster when radiation levels became too high for humans to survive. Like the situation at Chernobyl, the syntax Atkinson employs here destabilizes the poem: we are in the present but nothing is certain besides the volatility of the environment. Because no such nuclear disaster has happened before, there are continuous possibilities for the future outcome of this place.


About the poem, Atkinson explains how the Exclusion Zone around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has become an eco-reserve by default. The 1986 meltdown forced all humans to evacuate, the land itself has recovered despite the radiation still present. She notes that biodiversity 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?” –from The Missouri Review


In this poem, Atkinson acts as a witness, not making any inferences but rather showing us what she sees: “if black / storks claim the cloud-blighted / pines of Red Forest, if wire / succumbs to rush, if lichen.” She carefully leaves herself out of the poem: we are never aware of the speaker as a corporeal being or as part of this scene, though she’s also sure to always include some human-made elements: wire, shingles, even spoons which “reflect the sky,” implying they’re strewn about the landscape rather than tucked away in drawers. The poem continues in this way for seventeen lines, creating tension as we readers wait eagerly for the “then” to resolve the “if.” However, there is no resolution: “if wolves, if then, if then, if.” Rather, the “then” just becomes another possibility; there may not even be a future for this place. Atkinson repeats the word “then” twice, as if making a second attempt to stabilize the potential for a future before giving up and closing the poem with the word “if,” accentuating the precariousness of this landscape in the wake of nuclear meltdown.


Atkinson is entering a lineage of women writers concerned with various kinds of nuclear disaster. Reading “At the Chernobyl Power Plant Eco-Reserve,” I think of Adrienne Rich’s famed nuclear disaster conscious poem “Trying to Talk with a Man.” Whereas Rich’s poem is concerned with a future explosion, Atkinson’s poem takes place in the aftermath, establishing its readers a sense of fear that is not bound to a timeline but rather ongoing. The disaster at Chernobyl has already happened and so our speaker is bearing witness to what comes next: a surprising recovery. Subtler in its investigation of nuclear danger than “Trying to Talk with a Man,” Atkinson’s poem, however, doesn’t use the pronoun “I,” rendering human presence as invisible as the violence at the heart of this poem. Rather, it steadies its focus on the invisible, latent damage and opportunities for healing that are so difficult to represent in literature.


Atkinson leans on a quiet lyricism, allowing diction, enjambment, and anaphora to carry the dramatic weight of the poem. Though the repeated “if” builds tension, Atkinson also leans on her verb choice to infer the ominous nature of the scene. Words like “swollen,” “bloat,” and “tipped” all disclose the death and destruction that lies beneath the seemingly innocuous scene. The tension is also exemplified in the way this poem moves down the page, using enjambment to break lines in a way that pulls the reader through at a pace that feels simultaneously too quick and too slow for the subject matter at hand. Atkinson refuses punctuation at the end of the poem, insinuating the ceaseless continuation of this violence. Even as witness, she is unable to articulate any sort of closure, neither for her speaker nor for us readers.


Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at