Chernobyl by John Wall Barger

Annie Edson Taylor, Queen of the Mist, After Her Trip Over the Horseshoe Falls
Photo by M.H. Zahner
Image courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library

Annie Edson Taylor
first to survive Niagara Falls in a barrel
she is our heroine.
The Zone glitters like a mirage
an abandoned city
à la Tarkovsky’s Stalker
fizzing with radiation.
Taylor—praise her—sleepwalks
on the lawn of the soporific
hospital.  She blinks,
eyes yellow, shadowed
by the central chimney.
Is it a lighthouse in the desert?
The Zone wears her dream
like a gown.  The hospital
wears the rubble like a gown.
Taylor wears a long black dress
& a fruit hat.  Front stairs
of the hyperacute hospital,
Taylor coughs, on her knees.
How, you wonder,
did she get here?  Don’t ask me.
I wanted to write a poem
to exalt a nice thing.
Yet here she is, spasming,
spitting a dark thread.
“Stop!”  you say, “Don’t go in!”
Yet in she goes.
Her black dress slips off
& her fruit hat.  She is naked
walking the hallway
past rooms of box-spring beds.
Here is a room heaped
with clothes: firefighter boots,
gas masks. Sooty tables,
murky slime.  An arthritic tree
curls in a shattered window.
A box-spring so tiny
It could be a doll’s bed.
Taylor stops, bows low,
palms together, mumbling words
I can’t even hear.
I’m tempted to remind her
she died sixty-five years 
before Chernobyl.
But now she’s alert,
back straight, listening
with her whole body
for what? I beg her
to put on the fruit hat,
just for the end of the poem.
It’s not too late!
But she keeps tossing it
onto a pile
of melted toys.

Source: John Wall Barger.  The Mean Game. Windsor, Ont.: Palimpsest Press, 2019.

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