American Life in Poetry: Column 320


When I was a little boy, the fear of polio hung over my summers, keeping me away from the swimming pool. Atomic energy was then in its infancy. It had defeated Japan and seemed to be America’s friend. Jehanne Dubrow, who lives and teaches in Maryland, is much younger than I, and she grew up under the fearsome cloud of what atomic energy was to become.

Chernobyl Year

We dreamed of glowing children,
their throats alive and cancerous,
their eyes like lightning in the dark.

We were uneasy in our skins,
sixth grade, a year for blowing up,
for learning that nothing contains

that heat which comes from growing,
the way our parents seemed at once
both tall as cooling towers and crushed

beneath the pressure of small things—
family dinners, the evening news,
the dead voice of the dial tone.

Even the ground was ticking.
The parts that grew grew poison.
Whatever we ate became a stone.

Whatever we said was love became
plutonium, became a spark
of panic in the buried world.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2010 by Jehanne Dubrow, whose most recent book of poems is Stateside, Northwestern Univ. Press, 2010. Poem reprinted from West Branch, No. 66, 2010, by permission of Jehanne Dubrow and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2021 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.