Poem: Olga Korbut on Chernobyl, 1991

Collage from photos by Heinz Kluetmeier (l), Kimberly Butler (c) and Taro Yamasaki (r)

OLGA KORBUT ON CHERNOBYL, 1991 (after reading "Olga Korbut's Deadly Foe," People, 3/4/91)

The radiation does this.
These pictures in the magazine
could be two different women.

At 17, smiling,
in pigtails
at the Munich Olympics,
I look, what, maybe 12.

At 35, these lined, swollen eyes
this brittle hair
this thin, thin mouth
remind me of my grandmother.

Only the shot
with my student
at the Minsk Sports School
balanced on the beam--
feet perfectly arched,
one hand flourished--
reveals some connection.

Funny, yes?
I didn't know I was smiling.
It's as if
a long-practiced gesture
creates the earlier time.

At our regional hospital
7,000 have come in for leukemia--
if you could see their pictures:
adorable children, each of equal desperation.

I stayed there myself last spring
for my liver
and even with my connections
could get no disposable syringes.
We found a needle
and we boiled it and boiled it.
It was so dull
I could not finish the treatment.
One learns to accept people dying.
(stanza break)

You in the West knew first.
They didn't tell us for four days.
And then only about the accident.
The papers called the radiation levels safe.

In Minsk, 180 miles away,
we were all outdoors.
It was close to May Day
and we were planting gardens,
enjoying the spring weather.
If we had been told
we could have stayed inside.

When people began to hear
our authorities might be
hiding the truth
we were afraid.
Of the water.
Of air.
At first, people were very ill.
Now all the time
we have headaches.
We always feel weary.
It has been five years
and we are still afraid.
When it rains we
cover our heads.

On the streets of Minsk
there used to be
so many pregnant women.
Now you see fewer and fewer.
We are scared and cautious.
We could go away
and maybe give birth to
healthy children.
But it is our home.
Our families are here.
It makes us torn.

Byelorussia used to be
the feeding ground.
Now it is poisoned.
In the past
when I would come to your country
I would buy blue jeans and shoes.
Now I buy chicken bouillon,
dried fruit.

Byelorussia used to be
the republic of mushroom gathering,
berry hunting,
flower picking--
now people don't go into the woods.
In some schools
when the children want to see
what nature used to be like
they go into a little courtyard
inside the building.
The teacher says,
"This is a bird"
and it is a plastic bird.
"This is a tree."
And it is also plastic.



Old Wives Tales

The photo  comes from a post by Susy Morris at her blog.

This poem comes from circa April 1988.I no longer have the email account which would let me know for certain, but I know I wrote it during the time of the Nellie's Cave Road controversy, which started that year. Here is my note on the inspiration:
April 25 it got up to 90 here & I bought my first glass of lemonade of the season. Because VE was floating on the horizon, I started to write in my journal about lemons. I went to the Tech library to investigate if lemons might have some mythic or folkloric significance I could use in a poem & discovered the Cleveland Public Library's Popular Beliefs and Superstitionsfrom the Ohio Collection of Newbell Niles Puckett (G. K. Hall & Co., Boston, 1981). This seemed the perfect resource, given our Cleveland connection. I wrote down lots of Mr. Nile's superstitions. Since I had a horrendous cold, many were of the ilk of  "To cure a cold, boil rabbit tobacco leaves with goose grease and lemon. Drink the liquid with the grease that falls in the bottom." The two that found their way into the poem, though, were the most intriguing. The one about the ghost brought to mind a man who haunts the life of a friend of mine. The Roanoke Times had just had an article on a prof at Hollins who was interviewing women on how their husband's ex-wives haunted them. A woman in my office who read the article had said, "The last few days I've had nightmares about Steven's first wife & in real life she's not the type to cause nightmares." So in the poem, I started to toy with bringing in the ex-wife. Then I thought, my friend is also an ex-wife, hence I had the ending. & the title. My journal entry about lemons found its way into the piece, displaced as to person. All that remained was to get all the loose ends to tie together. This is one of my favorite kinds of writing, the poem that comes out of the ozone, a serendipitous mix of ideas glomming together at some pt. in time to make a new whole.

OLD WIVES TALES (for Angela, after reading Newbell Niles Puckett)


"The eating of lemons will cause you
to have a good sense of humor."

He grins, clicking
the rind in front of
his teeth with his tongue.
They are drinking iced-tea
and he always says this
before finishing off the yellow wedge,
bumpy skin and all.

He is the man who makes her laugh.
It is only later
when they cling to each other
in her poster bed at the farmhouse
she's restored with her bland husband
that the woman pictures
the man in a gauze mask
in an ivory-tiled room
timing contractions.
Not hers, the college abortion
and grapefruit-sized tumor
have foreclosed such options.

But isn't jealousy love?
He has told her he stole his daughter
because her mother didn't love her as
he does,
because he didn't want
his daughter raised by a Kansan
who never laughed at jokes.
The woman is always dreaming of
his pale midwestern wife
who appears at her door
takes the girl and
this man, who's so clever,
so misunderstood.


"To ward off the ghost of a dead
person, hang a lemon in your front

In the front window
of her new, compact apartment,
the woman hangs out a lemon
to ward off his ghost.
He is not dead,
only gone.
And not gone.
With her first husband
it wasn't like this,
nor her second.
Only this man in between.
This one who had beat her.
Not with his hands
but his words

which linger acrid in the air,
sarcasm with a sound
like the smell of cabbage cooking.
And since he had been in her life
she cannot feel alone.

She cannot enjoy the quiet
to pursue reading her stories
canning cloved peaches
sewing lace curtains.
Instead she feels guilt.
That she stayed so long.
That she'd gone so soon.
The woman is always hearing
the small daughter
left with him, whimpering
"Didn't you love me?"

The woman should be combing
the girl's hair.  Sewing
rick-racked smocks,
buying a tiny silver ring
with an amethyst birthstone.
He always said he stole
the girl for love.

She'd overlooked
that he'd put a four-year old
to bed on a matress without sheets
with their dishes piled
filthy in the sink, their food
dessicated in the oven.
That the girl would approach
even strangers to be cuddled.
She'd told herself it was the wife
who'd depressed him like this.

So the woman let her husband go, and
clung to the man, and took the girl
shopping for contour cartoon sheets.
She hung lemons to freshen the air,
polished every surface with lemon-
fresh Pledge, filled their life
with lemon meringue pie,
hot tea with lemon and honey.
Come summer they'd
drive to the drugstore and order
their first glass of lemonade
iced down, hand squeezed.

And wasn't jealousy love?
He'd been so possessive
he hadn't let her girlfriends
or even her sisters visit the farm.

It wasn't until
they'd spirited the woman away,
ordered her to sell the house,
for gadsakes, out from under him
if he wouldn't leave,
it wasn't until she'd
married a second time to avoid him
and divorced within a year
that she began to think, maybe
jealousy was something different.

Who was this wife,
the mother of the girl?
At night, the woman can hear
the wife sob for her firstborn.
Is this lemon--lit by the street lamp
outside the pane glass of an in-town
apartment that he has never seen--
really for him
or is it for the child and her mother?

And how do ties bind--
the woman's ex-husbands
who now have new wives--
are those wives hanging lemons
in their front windows
to exorcise her?