REVIEW by Jack Pugh

NWR Issue r14

The Elephant’s Foot

by Michael Oliver-Semenov

The Elephant's Foot by Michael Oliver-Semenov

The Elephant’s Foot, this debut poetry collection’s subject, is the largest agglomeration of corium (the toxic by-product of a nuclear core meltdown) in the world, formed after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. An unusual place of departure, for, as much as it is about Chernobyl, this collection is also a memoir of sorts. Among other themes, Oliver-Semenov considers the politics of his home nation, long-distance relationships, love, terrorism, the oddities of work, and the impersonality of technology.

Oliver-Semenov is thrust into a strange position as cultural ambassador – a representative for Russia in Wales, and vice versa. The title poem is an epic tirade concerning the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Oliver-Semenov considers how the facts of the disaster were kept from the public. Khrushchev found out via a phone call from Sweden (they’d noticed a rise in background radiation levels). The levels in the immediate area just after the disaster were fifty times what would be considered a harmless dose. This information was hidden from the soldiers sent to deal with it. It was hidden, too, from the residents of Pripyat, asked to evacuate the area a week later. Governmental lies, however, only have a certain mileage. The levels of radiation in the air cannot be faked. Nor can the deaths immediately after the incident, or the countless cancers in the years after. Chernobyl comes to symbolise a government's secret – something waiting to explode, whose cracks can only be papered over so long. The Elephant’s Foot stands in as the massive, toxic remainder of these lies. This is first and foremost a political collection.

How to reconcile these two worlds – that of Chernobyl, and of Michael Oliver-Semenov’s own personal experience? What are they doing together? An incident on such a vast scale as this can perhaps only be expressed in terms of the personal. In doing this, Semenov also suggests there is something vast about our own personal experience – something inaccessible or unreachable. In ‘Eliot’, the poet views himself from a distance (through the guise of a doppelganger). ‘Eliot’, the poet says, ‘do not gaze too long at the ocean depths, / or the setting sun at the end of the world.’ And later, ‘You do not yet know the harm that is out there, / and what it could do to you.’ In the same way that the Elephant’s Foot can only be examined from a distance, or approached only for a matter of minutes, the poet’s identity can only be examined adjunctly, through another.

In ‘Shadows and Light’, the poet ‘[longs] / to be absorbed by the me that is indistinguishable / from nothingness.’ And in ‘How I Feel Knowing the Kind of Pornography You Watch’: ‘you should know that I have come to crave / a solitude so deep, that even I am not there.’ Self-deprecation taken to its extreme: effacement. The poet’s obsession with self-effacement extends to love, where love becomes the wish to become fully absorbed (and thus annihilated) in the other. In one place, the poet wishes ‘to both watch and be your first kiss’. Like a ghost haunting his own most intimate moments. Much of the love poetry contained in this collection has no lover. The lovers are ships in the night or, as the poet puts it, ‘boats in different corners of the same ocean’. There is again something ghostly here, skilfully mirrored in the ghostly town of Pripyat after Chernobyl.

The Elephant’s Foot would be relentlessly dour if the poet was not so self-aware, and did not spend much time with tongue firmly in cheek. This is not to make light of its subject, but to give it a much-needed human touch – somehow both sensitive and scathing. Michael Oliver-Semenov’s collection moves between the personal and the political in such a way that the two become inseparable, and which calls the reader to action. I asked earlier how poetry about a massive nuclear disaster could then go on to talk about ‘everyday’, mundane struggles. This collection suggests radiation hangs in the air in the same way as a zeitgeist, or a lover’s smell. It’s there, but just beyond our reach, just beyond our grasp.

Jack Pugh is an MA candidate at Cardiff University.

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previous review: 35 Diwrnod
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