During the Chernobyl crisis, Russian scientists
asked the question: Can the severity of radiation
exposure be measured by the luminescence of human cells?

Test subjects were organized by proximity
to the broken reactor core. Patient N was 200 metres
from the blast radius and witnessed the explosion.
Approximately seven hours after the event, N experienced
gastric discomfort, epigastric pain, and transient loss
of memory. Patient E was two kilometres
from the epicentre and suffered both heaviness
in the head and bitterness in the mouth.
Group three was control, and all had been exposed
to normal background radiation. They lived
as far away as Moscow. Figure 4 of the report

is a top-down drawing of the human cell, as if
Jackson Pollock were given a pencil and told
to recreate Guatemala from the eyes of a seabird.
The report goes on to state that the inhabitants
of the cell are subject to constant movement, the bump
and grind of rush hour traffic. A crooked line illustrates
the path of a Chernobyl particle through the cytoplasm,
like a fire engine driven by a drunk, a fault line scissoring
across the Earth’s crust. The disaster in Guatemala

occurs at night. A magnitude 8.1 earthquake. Inhabitants
rush outside to see strange lights rolling across
the cloud cover as Twitter unrolls its answers: Invasion
from space, the end of the Mayan Calendar.
Even National Geographic posts a theory: Seams of basalt,
running 60 miles deep, suffer immeasurable stress, ionize
from bottom to top, and turn the Earth into a battery,
lightning in reverse. Figure 5 of the report

is an aerial drawing of the universe, as if Jackson Pollock
were given a pencil and—with a Makarov to his head—
quietly asked to make a little more sense. A series
of perfectly concentric circles, from an ionized cell
out to the Ptolemaic spheres, from biopolymers
to gravitational waves, the bump and grind of existing,
then not. Someone who could have been a Stephen Hawking,
theorizing virtual particles, is instead a child
of Pripyat reaching from behind a polymer sheet.
But really, how much distance is there
between never winning a Nobel and being a dog
chasing after an evacuation bus, between a black hole
consuming a galaxy and 10 tons of wet concrete

swallowing a street of lead coffins? Not a lot,

says the report, hopeful yet ultimately disappointed. Its final
analysis suggests that everything brushes shoulders
with everything else and each little piece
has its lousy fifteen minutes of fame.


Internationally published, living in Toronto, Rocco de Giacomo’s next work, Casting Out, will be released in 2023.

Questions and Answers

Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful?

I’m currently using the “Discover” section of Submittable to look for new and interesting literary journals to publish my poems. If I have a manuscript ready and I am researching for a book publisher, I always check out Association of Canadian Publishers. Of course I always keep my ear to the ground with friends and associates on social media like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.


As a published writer, what are your tips or words of motivation for the aspiring poet?

As much as everybody dreams of becoming a “household name,” I would make sure that you write for yourself, first and foremost. Write to keep your curiosity alive. Write to find different ways of looking at the world. All in all, write to make yourself a better person.


What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

“HUMANS RUN OUTSIDE TO WATCH THE SHOW” is part of larger writing project. For this project, I am attempting to create a clearer, more distilled picture of the human animal by focusing on the connections between human biology and astronomy. For this poem, I came across a story about Russian scientists measuring the luminosity of cells in people suffering from radiation exposure.  I found the original paper and along with the biological report, it contained some astronomical implications as well. I had already done some research on “earthquake lights” and drawing a connection between these and the possible luminescent effect of radiation on human cells felt like a good match.


What did you find particularly challenges in writing this poem?

There are two challenges to writing poems like these. The first is trying to convey complex and scientific ideas in an interesting way. The second is trying to make draw a connection between the biological and astronomical in ways that are subtle and feel natural.

This poem “HUMANS RUN OUTSIDE TO WATCH THE SHOW” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 138-139.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.