Alison Croggon, “Sonnet: Thoreau in Chernobyl”

Sonnet: Thoreau in Chernobyl (from Lost Poems)
Alison Croggon

The woods were beautiful as always, but dry.
It seemed a subtle poison at the roots
drained them imperceptibly of life.
A want, or heightened colour, in each leaf
hinted profound disease, as if the rites
of generation faltered and withdrew
beyond emergencies of flood and fire
to deserts that no green could penetrate.
I shaped my stanzas, but the form seemed trite:
all metre euphemised a deepening flaw.
I heard no frog calls, and the birds were fewer
in species and in number. I trod
ungodly glows, a covenant betrayed,
a humus rotting slowly into fear.


Recall Gary Soto’s “The Soup:” the problem of Creation might have been dominion, a license which resulted in a most unnatural, cruel appropriation by us.

Perhaps Creation and Nature are not equivalent in the poem at hand, but well before “ungodly” and “a covenant betrayed” we get the sense that what we’ve done to nature is anything but holy. The movement of the poem is curious. “Beautiful as always, but dry:” we might feel initially that the woods are bare trees in late fall or winter. We might even think the trees completely dead. Neither can be true. “Imperceptibly of life” is one hint – the draining at the roots might have killed the tree outright, and perhaps that draining was imperceptible. But maybe what we normally recognize as life is imperceptible. Are these trees alive or not?

They actually look alive, but it is life that may be worse than death:

A want, or heightened colour, in each leaf
hinted profound disease, as if the rites
of generation faltered and withdrew
beyond emergencies of flood and fire
to deserts that no green could penetrate.

“Rites of generation” is more than a foreshadowing of religious language to come. Our speaker – Henry David Thoreau – is asking a question that might be better than any asked in Walden (I put the book down when he said it would be awesome if we could all live in the boxes railroad workers put their tools in. The actual Thoreau’s capacity to tell life from death is rather suspect). How do we tell when one thing is alive, another not? The modern debate starts parsing what we could possibly mean by consciousness and trying to move to the smallest level of “living” possible. There’s “sentience,” maybe also organic growth. Whatever we think is alive, the burden of proof is on it to show it is alive.

But how do we know when something is alive or not? It’s like we have these “rites” where we, in our “higher” consciousness, name things “alive,” “not-alive.” That doesn’t mean “life” is a product of convention necessarily. We may have logically regressed, personalized something belonging to life as “life” itself. Hence, “rites of generation” which fly away from our desire made concrete. That desire was kept in check through Biblical calamity. If the “rites of generation” are what life is – nay, even if they’re only what we think life is – then they’re gone to the desert, not to wander so much as to ascend. They didn’t really falter. Our tinkering was simply pushing the green away. But that doesn’t mean green goes back to God. It just goes away. This is our world now.

And we don’t have a definition of life any more. We never really did, but before desire didn’t push us to recreate Eden. The question wasn’t asked before. It is being asked now, as we stare at beauty that scares us to death. Thoreau wants to write a poem about this; he can’t truly do so, given that he knows exactly what Greek poesis means (“making,” in general). The poem has been written. Now we’re left with his experiences. No “frog calls” or “birds.” This is very strange territory: death itself has been altered too. Reading frogs croaking and birds as symbolic of the descent or ascent of the soul. We’re not immortal? The joke’s on us. Wherever we are, it is an intermediate step. You don’t just “get” immortality. You’d have to freeze time to really pull it off. Maybe we did make a step toward it; maybe the artificial beauty can be worked with. Fine, but it is a “humus,” it has to grow or decay into something. Thoreau isn’t exactly feeling positive about all this.

One might ask about Chernobyl itself. It was a power station, not an attempt to create immortals. But that’s just it – to get more power, the atom was split. The fundamental unit of being was split.


  1. I’m going out there a bit and exchanging what’s alive for what we hold valuable. I think it fits the poem, I definitely think it fits your analysis and I think it extends beyond into the things we value over the things we don’t and how devoid of life and/or bankrupt those things can be.

    On the other hand, I’ve been awake for about 3 minutes and don’t really know what I’m talking about…

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