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'The Chernobyl Hibakusha': dark poetry, the ineffable and abject realities’

journal contribution
posted on 2020-10-01, 00:00 authored by Cassandra AthertonCassandra Atherton, Alyson Miller
Chernobyl occupies a complex space in the Western cultural imagination, complicated by science fiction fantasies, crime thrillers, military-style video games, haunting photo installations, and a recent HBO drama series focusing on the nuclear disaster. While the devastation of the reactor is often regarded as a ‘dark metonym for the fate of the Soviet Union’ (Milne 2017: 95), the nuclear crisis is also at the centre of increasing anxieties about the ‘fate of future generations, species extinction and the damage done to the environment’ (93). In such a context, ‘the writing of the future’ assumes an ethical burden, one tasked with envisioning an experience beyond the apocalypse whilst grappling with the implications of a contemporary atomic reality. Drew Milne contends depictions of the nuclear ‘remain circumspect and partial’ and are ‘scarcely plausible when reduced to the terms of human experience’ (90). Indeed, the enormity of Chernobyl, like Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima, is often regarded as beyond representation; as one liquidator observes: ‘The Zone is a separate world…literature stepped back in the face of reality’ (Alexievich 1997: 132). By examining a range of poems produced by Chernobylites or derived from witness testimonies, we examine the way in which these poems confront the unthinkable. We argue, of all genres, poetry is uniquely able to respond to the inexpressible and abject horror of nuclear destruction. Edward A. Dougherty suggests that hibakusha poets seeking to convey the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki understood the limits of language and the impossibilities of complete or total representation: ‘Writing about the scale of the event creates anxiety about the writer’s ability to convey the experience because of the complexities of both the experience and its emotional impact’ (2011). We assert that as poetry ‘evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience’ (Nemerov 2001: n.p.), it is the most appropriate genre to distil overwhelming tragedy into potent evocations of lived reality, whilst also creating space for ambiguity and uncertainty.



Text journal of writing and writing courses






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Australian Association of Writing Programs


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Publication classification

C1 Refereed article in a scholarly journal

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