Chornobyl Poem with Radiation Sickness

How can we use something as small as words to describe something as expansive as apocalypse? ‘Chornobyl Poem with Radiation Sickness’ is an interactive text game that engages the impossibility of literature after catastrophe, challenging its players to innovate and work poetically as they tell the story of Chornobyl in a new way.

View Fullscreen


“Write about it? I think it’s senseless. You can’t explain it, you can’t understand it. We’ll still try to imagine something that looks like our own lives now. I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. The Chernobyl explosion gave us the mythology of Chernobyl.”

— “Monologue about Writing Chernobyl”, Anatoly Shimanskiy in Voices from Chernobyl

In the wake of catastrophe, writers find themselves skeptical of words. When journalist Anatoly Shimanskiy said of Chornobyl that “what happened to us didn’t fit into my consciousness,”1 he gestured towards a central question of linguistic philosophy, one that stretches back thousands of years: whether the language we have access to, the language we are obliged to use to represent our reality, can ever be trusted to do its job.2 How can something as small and arbitrary as words, contrived and artificial symbols, ever be true enough to touch or even resemble something as traumatic and recalibrating as Chornobyl, much less encapsulate the breadth of its experience?

The vocabulary of Chornobyl is overexposed. Tamara Hundorova writes about the crisis of language following Chornobyl, and how, because words are an imperfect representation of reality, there is always necessarily a gap between the word (signifier) and what it is meant to evoke (signified). This gap is present in all language, but it is exaggerated by a reality that is so hyperbolically large as to be difficult to grasp, even before one is asked to express it in words. Shimanskiy recalls being told that some radioactive elements have half-lives in the billions of years. “Fifty, one hundred, two hundred,” he says, “But beyond that? Beyond that my consciousness couldn’t go. I couldn’t even understand anymore: what is time? Where am I?” 3 This disorientation in the face of inhuman scope and scale bleeds from numerical to spacial to chronological, decaying the edges of sensory and cognitive experience and complicating any sense of certainty. If words are by default imperfect representations of the simplest realities (indeed, not representations at all, but abstract signs which refer to reality), it seems absurd that “a billion years” could mean anything at all, could be at all useful in the game of communication. And, if that is the case, we must find another strategy

One answer is poetry. Rather than trying to access reality directly, poetry allows for the formation of something with a likeness to reality: “the impression of shifts in reality, called forth by the event”. 4 If Chornobyl cannot be approached literally, it can perhaps be imagined laterally.

In poetry, here is some of what happened at Chornobyl:

Even the ground was ticking

The sky is boiling only with crows

Everything as on a blade of a knife, ready for cutting

Your lips find traces of someone else’s tentative sips

Scheherazade’s tales run dry 5

Chornobyl Poem with Radiation Sickness is an interactive text game that challenges its players to work expansively and poetically to retell the fact and myth of Chornobyl. It is a project built from a collection of retellings, beginning from a simple survey which asked respondents to describe “what happened” at Chornobyl. From those responses was generated a list of the most-used words, the words most quickly reached for, the vocabulary most often tasked with the burden of representing the end of the world. These are the words considered “irradiated” in Chornobyl Poem, words that will begin to eat themselves, destroying the poem as it is written; if irradiated words are left in the poem for too long, the page will be reset. The goal of this game is to make visible the sense that “Chornobyl” does not mean Chornobyl—it is not big enough. Rather, collections of images, indirect invocations, ruptures and fragments can evoke and recreate the truth of a tragedy.

Works Cited

  1. Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl. Dalkey Archive Press, 2005. EBSCOhost, 

  2. Shane Weller. “The Language Crisis: From Mallarmé to Mauthner.” Language and Negativity in European Modernism. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018, pp. 15–37. 

  3. Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl. Dalkey Archive Press, 2005. EBSCOhost, 

  4. Hundorova, 8 

  5. Jehanne Dubrow, “Chernobyl Year”, West Branch, 2010, Republished by Poetry Foundation.; Liubov Sirota, “At the Crossing”, “Chernobyl Poems by Liubov Sirota.” The Website of Prof. Paul Brians, Washington State University, 5 Dec. 2016,; Ivan Drach, “Mother’s Eternal Elegy”, Shifting Borders: East European Poetries of the Eighties, Associated University Presses, 1993. Edited by Walter Cummins.; Natalka Bilotserkivets, “May”, translated by Wanda Phipps and Virlana Tkacz. AGNI, vol. 34, 1991, pp. 51–54.; Lina Kostenko “Untitled” Translated by Uilleam Blacker, Words Without Borders, 2016. 

Grace Reed Richardson is an English major who writes and does theatre.

RUSSB220 Chornobyl, Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2023

Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.