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my great-grandmother had the health of a cosmonaut

By Maria Tselovatova
Translated By Hilah Kohen

During the Northern Hemisphere’s 2019 wildfire season, Maria Tselovatova posted a Facebook status simply containing the text of this documentary poem. Amid life updates and news articles, it was an arresting sight. “my great-grandmother had the health of a cosmonaut” remains one of very few literary works from the Russian Federation to address the climate crisis explicitly, grappling with its personal and systemic violence across the country’s regions. As the poem builds on a series of short refrains, it mirrors the cyclicality of the annual fires it describes and of the inaction those fires have met with since that original post.
Although the current wildfires in Siberia have covered more than 42 million acres, and a new August 9 report from the IPCC indicates that the worst is yet to come, the Russian government has only recently begun to acknowledge the heating effects of greenhouse gases. The Russian Federation remains a top-five emitter (#1 per GDP) and a major exporter of fossil fuels. Tselovatova makes the consequences of this status quo clear by pushing the established Russophone tradition of documentary poetry closer to nonfiction in verse. Rather than fictionalizing catastrophe, she has composed a tribute to the distances her great-grandmother crossed through history and language before facing a global event that has changed the nature of both.
—Hilah Kohen


my great-grandmother had the health of a cosmonaut

my great-grandmother had the health of a cosmonaut
my mama said—
grandma’s going to outlive us all
healthier at 92 than anyone around

she remembered the evacuations to Kuybyshev and the factory
and Stalin’s speech after the war
and the Koran
and how she waited for her husband to come back from the Carpathians in ’46
and her öçpoçmaq recipe
and the names of her great-grandchildren

she called my brother “Aleksandrushka!”
she remembered my name
she remembered her entire life
until the very end
she lived in complete presence
in her sharp mind and her unshakeable memory

she had the health of a cosmonaut

she had the health of a cosmonaut

she had the health of a cosmonaut

in 2010 in Moscow the peat bogs burned
in 2010 in Moscow it was 38 degrees Celsius in the shade
in 2010 in Moscow there was nothing to breathe
in 2010 in Moscow we breathed smog

smog was everywhere, smog broke into our apartments, smog broke into our lungs, smog broke into our pores, we wiped soot off our skin, we snorted chunks of carbon into tissues,
apartments held wet sheets against their windows and walls
apartments held people depleting their bathtubs of cold water, nowhere to hide, no path to salvation, sweat dripped down chests, sweat leaked into eyes

in 2010 in Moscow it was hot

Wikipedia says: “Smog in Moscow (2010)”—
an ecological situation
that occurred in August 2010
when a severe heat wave and extended peat fires
in forested areas surrounding the capital
generated an extremely heavy veil of smoke.

I say:
in 2010 in Moscow
my great-grandmother
who had the health of a cosmonaut
gave way beneath the high temperatures
and the smog that covered the sky
she died in Moscow
in 2010
when the peat bogs burned
when the air turned a dull brown

when the peat bogs burned

I know
there are vast peatlands outside Moscow
at our dacha near Dmitrov we would use them to fertilize the lawn and the fields
my papa would take a wagon and “go out for some peat”
and I would wait for him, I was five
and the word “peat” sounded secretive, his goings
like a treasure hunt

and then in 2010 that peat burned and suffocated my great-grandmother

heat and smoke
heat and smog
window screens covered all over in a layer of soot
bodies covered all over with a gray crust of sweat and dirt

my great-grandmother had the health of a cosmonaut

my great-grandmother had the health of a cosmonaut
that’s what my mama said
she would have lived on and on
my mama said
92 is just the beginning
my mama said

my great-grandmother had the health of a cosmonaut
but in 2010 in Moscow the peat bogs burned
and my great-grandmother flew away.


and now 9 years have passed
and now in 2019
the fires have seized all of Siberia,
the taiga burns.

the taiga in all its hectares of pine, fir, and spruce
the cities, the endless earth
I took the Trans-Siberian and looked out the window
a whole land of people there, and I
don’t know them at all
they ride in the third-class cars with the bunk beds
Krasnoyarsk to Chita, Novosibirsk to Omsk

the taiga with its people wearing masks
in the streets of their own cities
taking their kids to preschool
walking to their offices
and looking out the windows at the smoke-laced
dull brown sky

they don’t see anything
they don’t see anything

they wait

the forests burn, and the animals, and the birds
the sables, the lynxes, and the golden eagles
suffocating as they flee
they have nowhere to go and nothing to wait for

I look without seeing, I read headlines
I count numbers

the smog has spread to Alaska
the smog has spread to the Urals
the smog has spread to the Volga basin
carbon dioxide emissions rise
Siberia burns with catastrophic consequences
for the melting rate of glaciers

but I am told:
it’s economically unprofitable to put out fires
if they’re inside the control zone
far from inhabited areas and industrial plants

control zone dead zone

I see how they put on masks
I see how they change out the gauze sheets on their windows
I see how their cars
take more and more of them to the morgue

I see how people
healthy cosmonauts
look out the window
look into the fog
and breathe in the smell of the burning taiga
and themselves become forest
and beasts and birds and peat
and pine needles and moss

burning this July.



"my grandmother had the health of a cosmonaut" © 2019 by Maria Tselovatova. Translation © 2021 by Hilah Kohen. All rights reserved.


Related Reading:

Global Warnings: Writing on Climate and the Environment

"About Time to Smile at Homeless People" by Dinara Rasuleva, translated by Hilah Kohen

"Climate Fiction for Climate Action" by Amy Brady


Published Aug 26, 2021   Copyright 2021 Maria Tselovatova

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