The Cafe at On The Issues Online Magazine is deepening the conversations by continually adding the insights of progressive writers, thinkers and artists on the topics we address. Check back frequently for new commentary. If you wish to contribute to the Cafe, email [email protected].

We’re now taking comments in The CAFE! Join the discussion.


Share |

View and Leave a commentView Comments

Back to Cafe Home



Poetry: Reliving the Nuclear Nightmare

by Karen Ethelsdattar

March 29, 2011

With the now-ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan, I was shaken all over again. After the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the Pennsylvania in 1979 during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, I was moved to write a poem about it.

Many of the details were related to me by my-then lover, Stephen, who learned them from his friend, John, a sculptor and dairy farmer in Pennsylvania. Now with the terrible news from Japan, there still exists the possibility that a tragedy of these proportions could happen here. We have lived with this nightmare and attendant guilt and fear, conscious and unconscious, ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Three Mile Island
Middletown, Pennsylvania
Nuclear Accident

by Karen Ethelsdattar

I walk in Manhattan
where someone has stenciled NUCLEAR TARGET
on the sidewalk in green,
where someone has drawn the outline of a body
in white on the pavement,
& splashed red paint like blood inside it

Another woman
is walking in Middletown,
afraid to look above the tree-tops
as though she would see the radiation
hovering above her,
her mind rejecting the knowing
that it has already descended, & is descending
& will descend
She breathes it even as she looks away from the sky.
It is in the air; it is in the soil;
it is in her body & the body of her husband & the child
who is holding her hand.

At the corner grocery she hears on the radio
that radiation is now at a safe level: only 3 rems.
A man stands beside her
with a Geiger counter.
It registers 60,
20 times what it says in the news.
She wants to believe what she hears
on the radio.
She wants not to know.
She wants to believe her 4 year old daughter

& her daughter's daughters
her sons & her daughters
have not been harmed.

Her husband is at the dairy farm
that's been in the family for generations.
The cows are now radioactive,

The cows & their fodder,
The cows & their milk.
It is in the soil
& the air he breathes
at his father's farm
his home
& the milk they sell
to make their living.

The President of the United States,
who believes in nuclear weapons,
who has authorized the building of a bomb
that will kill people
but leave buildings standing
has flown to Harrisburg.
He speaks on the street in Middletown
3 blocks away.

The voice of the Great White Father
soothing troubled minds
telling children what they want to hear,
using the power of his office
to lie.

The woman can see the President
from her window
Who can see the unborn generations?

These things happen
we are told
as though nuclear power
were an Act of God
& I think
how Hiroshima happened
how I have seen the outlines
of bodies burnt into the pavement.

& I walk in Manhattan
where someone has stenciled NUCLEAR TARGET
on the sidewalk in green,
where someone has drawn the outline of a body
in white on the pavement,
& splashed red paint like blood inside it.

& I imagine only the buildings standing.

Back to Cafe Home

Karen Ethelsdattar is a poet, liturgist, ritual maker and explorer of world spiritual traditions, who currently lives in Union City, NJ. She is the author of three volumes of poetry: Earthwalking & Other Poems, Thou Art a Woman, and Steam Rising Up from the Soul, as well as several chapbooks .Many of her individual poems appear in a number of publications and anthologies. Her poem on Three Mile Island initially appeared in International Quarterly, Vol.II, No.2, 1995.

Also see "Nuclear Revival? Lessons for Women from the Three Mile Island Accident" by Karen Charman in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See The Poet's Eye" featuring Denise Bergman, Marge Piercy, Frances Payne Adler, curated by Poetry Co-Editor Judith Arcana, in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


Ray Korona posted: 2011-04-02 03:19:44

This is an extraordinarily powerful and moving poem for many reasons. Fundamentally, it’s unnerving and frightening because the horror is very real here. Most of us don’t worry much about being attacked by Dr. Frankenstein’s monster or a mummy who’s returned to life and gone on a killing spree. Radiation is another matter entirely. Radiation is especially scary in a poem when it appears just as it does in life as an invisible, understated, mysterious threat. Karen Ethelsdattar offers just the right mix of uncertainty to bring home the terror. And just as the old horror flicks brought on the off beat, minor chord music when the vampire was about to appear, her poem gives us the chalk figure on the sidewalk splashed with paint the color of blood. Even more chillingly, Karen sticks to the cold bare facts, such as the numbers on the Geiger counter, and couples them with the lies we tell ourselves. Yes, read this poem and then try to tell me you still want that nuclear power plant as your next door neighbor... Thanks, Karen, great work and even more on point today!

Ellen Wolfe posted: 2011-04-02 22:11:18

An unnerving and suitably stirring poem driving home the horror of current events in the world. What I have come to expect of Karen Ethelsdattar. Up to her standards of excellence.

Ellie Soler posted: 2011-04-03 17:24:36

I was very moved, as I often am by your poetry. Thanks.

Lottie posted: 2011-04-23 13:39:42

Great thinking! That really brekas the mold!

posted: 2012-04-26 21:27:55

Just to let you know, this page appears a little bit strange from my android phone. Who knows maybe it really is just my cellular phone. Great post by the way.

Join the conversation. Leave a comment.

All comments will be reviewed before being published. This is a space for thoughtful and critical commentary; any personal attacks, abusive or offensive language, off-topic comments or comments that may be harmful to the conversation or to readers will not be published. *All fields required.*


Follow us on:

Choices Women's Medical Center Banner Ad

Print page      Bookmark site      Rss Feed RSS Feed

1983-2015 On The Issues Magazine; No Reuse without permission. • Complete Table of ContentsPrivacyLinks of Feminist and Progressive Interest