Reviewed by Brendan O’Connor
A physicist before he was a poet, Mario Petrucci is intimately familiar with the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox, probably the best-known “thought experiment” in modern physics. In Petrucci’s words:
Only a physicist, perhaps, would decide to put a cat in a box with no more company than a radioactive atom, a Geiger counter, a hammer and a vial of Prussic Acid ... The set-up is that if the atom decays, it activates the Geiger counter which then causes the hammer to strike the vial and release the cyanide, killing the cat.
What’s the point? Since we (the observers outside the box) have no way of knowing whether the atom has decayed or not, we cannot say with any certainty whether the cat is alive or dead before opening the lid of the box. Therefore, for us the cat “is neither dead nor alive, but a mathematical blending, or admixture, of both ‘states.’” The experiment, though never actually performed, is meant as a neat illustration of the Quantum-Mechanical principle that the act of observation itself alters the state of a system. But it leaves us with an unsettling intuition about the building blocks of nature, which, it might seem, are leading double lives (like the cat, permanently in limbo) when we’re not looking.
Such is the case with Petrucci’s Chernobyl survivors--although the term “survivor” is problematic in this instance--who resemble Yeats’s Byzantine phantasm, “an image, man or shade, / shade more than man, more image than a shade,” neither alive in the sense they used to be, nor truly dead, though they carry and disperse the seeds of death. The figures in Heavy Water are keenly aware of the ironic dimensions of their tragedy: rather than claiming their lives at once, radiation sickness takes months or years to devour them, leaving them in the cat’s position. These people haven’t survived, exactly, but they aren’t exactly dead, either. In this context, we encounter a “Soldier” who wonders bitterly at “this, a strange war. You get killed / when you get back,” and the “Sleepwalkers,” women laborers irradiated as a result of the disaster, “paying / respects at the bright coffin of themselves.” Petrucci achieves some of his finest effects by giving us an opportunity to ponder the absurdity of his speakers’ “death-in-life and life-in-death,” perhaps nowhere better than in the first poem, where he imagines “The Man Buried With Chernobyl” stirring from his grave beneath the reactor, “lift[ing] / from his calcined mould like a grit jelly.” It is a remarkable image of organic memory surfacing to confront the legacy of industrialized terror, and a fitting way for Petrucci to inaugurate his project of bearing witness to Chernobyl’s dead.
The nagging question about Heavy Water is not, fortunately, “Is this poetry necessary?” If a book of poetry can be said to be “necessary” in any meaningful sense of the word, surely Heavy Water is a necessary book, bringing its readers face-to-face with a forgotten tragedy and operating simultaneously as elegy and prophecy. We might, however, pose the inverse question to Petrucci and other contemporary poets of witness: “Is this necessarily poetry?” That is, does it have to be poetry? What is there about Heavy Water, for example, to set it apart from a work of investigative journalism? The author draws heavily on a book called Voices from Chernobyl, composed of interviews with “survivors” of the disaster, and in an interview of his own (in Jacket), praises the Russian author’s “uninvasive sensibility.” Petrucci’s work of poetic witness often seems to privilege such a sensibility. Indeed, in certain poems, the author exhibits a formal commitment to presenting the reader with the least embellished version of events possible. One can imagine Petrucci making this choice out of respect for the survivors’ testimonies (which must remain the “definitive” account of the tragedy) and a sense that the stories must speak for themselves, beyond his “poor ability to add or detract.” As a result, however, the situations described in the poems are sometimes more interesting than the poems themselves, as in a tale of “Two Neighbours” arguing about whether or not to eat contaminated produce:
They tell us--bury
your cucumbers. You--
you eat them.
You were not in the War.
So for you Chernobyl
is less than a cucumber.
It was a good crop.
And so on. The concept is intriguing, but the language might as well be a recorded conversation between two not-especially-articulate farmers. They have a right to tell their stories and be heard on their own terms, of course, but one might argue that journalism is a more appropriate (and arguably far more effective) medium for unvarnished testimony than poetry. Certain other poems in Heavy Water (“Spring,” “Rite,” “The Room,” and “A Name” to name a few) fall victim to the same tendency towards flat, declarative sentences, clipped imperatives, and flaccid dialogue. Happily, there are moments in Petrucci’s “survivor” poems when less is more, and his weary speakers hit just the right note. Take, for example, the peasants “painting door-planks and fences with / parting notes” as they evacuate their homes (in “Soldier”). The poet’s careful framing of these victims’ last utterances in the eyes of a soldier, whose coming spells his own death sentence, gives them a special poignancy:
’10 May. Dawn. By donkey and cart.’
‘May 24. There is pilaf in the blue pan.’
‘Don’t kill our Zhuchok. He’s a good dog--4th June.’
‘June 1st. Forgive us, house.’
That being said, the really interesting poems in Heavy Water are those in which Petrucci sustains a note of skepticism with regard to the possibility of the reader (or the author) understanding much of anything in the aftermath of the meltdown. A particularly vicious, oafish character named “Ivan” scorns “your microphones. / That pity in your eyes like small print,” suggesting that anyone’s experience of the disaster is finally irretrievable, in spite of Petrucci’s efforts to write footnotes to Chernobyl in “small print.”
Heavy Water is most compelling when the author steps away from the wreckage, in effect, and acknowledges his own distance from the events. In a series of lyrics evocative of the turbulence of salvage operations, Petrucci puts on his physicist’s lab coat once again and emerges to size up the damage in the bold, dispassionate language of science: “See--the stacked / borders of fault analysis / are losing their crisp definitions / to rain,” his speaker observes in “Box,” a sort of concrete poem that weaves fragments of testimony into the shape of a double helix. On the very next page, (“_ _ _”) the physicist lends his expertise to tease out the implications of Chernobyl for the previous speaker’s DNA:
and then we come to Gamma
which can home in on
one strand of DNA and tie
a knot in it that takes
generations to unravel
and, in so doing, contributes his own perspective to the still-unfolding story.
The fusion of lyrical and clinical perspectives results in the most original and accomplished poems in the book, such as “Ukritye” and “Exposures,” which remind the reader of newsreels on fast-forward, the author scrambling to keep up with the nightmarish flood of images sprung wholesale from his subjects’ memories--yet straining to make sense of it all through the lens of science. In “Chain of Decay,” a jarringly minimalist poem listing radioactive isotopes, the types of radiation they emit, and their half-lives, the final couplet--“Uranium-235 / 703.8 million years”--arrives with the devastating loneliness we associate with Gary Snyder’s lyrics. The camera pulls back at the very end and pauses just long enough to give us a feeling for the enormity of time: poetry on a geological scale. That Petrucci succeeds so well in certain of these poems suggests a new track for poets of witness: by coming to terms with their own subjectivity, they can make the (cruelly silenced) voices of their subjects resound all the louder in their poems.