Editor’s note: this 2017 essay is excerpted from Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine.
My family huddled by the doorframe at 4 am, debating whether or not to open the door to the stranger wearing only his pajama pants, who’d been pounding on the door for at least five minutes, waking the whole apartment complex. Seeing the light come on, he began shouting through the door.
“Remember me? I helped you haul your refrigerator from Pridnestrovie. Remember? We talked about Pasternak on the drive. Two hours! Tonight they bombed the hospital. My sister is a nurse there. I stole someone’s truck and drove across the border. I don’t know anyone else. Can I make a phone call?”
So the war stepped its shoeless foot into my childhood two decades ago, under the guise of a half-naked man gulping on the phone, victim of an early post-Soviet “humanitarian aid” campaign.
During a recent visit to Ukraine, my friend the poet Boris Khersonsky and I agreed to meet at a neighborhood café in the morning to talk about Pasternak (as if he is all anyone talks about, in our part of the world). But when I walked up the sidewalk at 9 am, the sidewalk tables were overturned and rubble was strewn into the street from where the building had been bombed.
Living many hundreds of miles from Ukraine, away from this war, in my comfortable American backyard, what right do I have to write about this war?—and yet I cannot stop writing about it.
A crowd, including local media, was gathered around Boris as he spoke out against the bombings, against yet another fake humanitarian aid campaign of Putin’s. Some clapped; others shook their heads in disapproval. A few months later, the doors, floors, and windows of Boris’s apartment were blown up.
There are many stories like this. They’re often shared in short, hurried sentences, and then the subject is changed abruptly.
“Truthful war books,” Orwell wrote, “are never acceptable to non-combatants.”
When Americans ask about recent events in Ukraine, I think of these lines from Boris’s poem:
people carry explosives around the city
in plastic shopping bags and little suitcases.
Over the last twenty years, Ukraine has been governed by both the Russian-speaking East and the Ukrainian-speaking West. The government periodically uses “the language issue” to incite conflict and violence, an effective distraction from the real problems at hand. The most recent conflict arose in response to the inadequate policies of President Yanukovych, who has since escaped to Russia. Yanukovych was universally acknowledged as the most corrupt president the country has ever known (he’d been charged with rape and assault, among other things, all the way back to Soviet times). However, these days, Ukraine’s new government continues to include oligarchs and professional politicians with shrewd pedigrees and questionable motivations.
When the standoff between the Yanukovych government and crowds of protesters first began in 2013, and the embattled President left the country shortly thereafter, Putin sent his troops into Crimea, a Ukrainian territory, under the pretext of passionately protecting the Russian-speaking population. Soon, the territory was annexed. In a few months, under the pretext of humanitarian aid, more Russian military forces were sent into another Ukrainian territory, Donbas, where a proxy war has began.
All along the protection of Russian language was continually cited as the sole reason for the annexation and hostilities.
Does the Russian language in Ukraine need this protection? In response to Putin’s occupation, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians chose to stand with their Ukrainian- speaking neighbors, rather than against them. When the conflict began to ramp up, I received this e-mail:
I, Boris Khersonsky, work at Odessa National University where I have directed the department of clinical psychology since 1996. All that time I have been teaching in Russian, and no one has ever reprimanded me for “ignoring” the official Ukrainian language of the state. I am more or less proficient in the Ukrainian language, but most of my students prefer lectures in Russian, and so I lecture in that language.
I am a Russian language poet; my books have been published mostly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. My scholarly work has been published there as well.
Never (do you hear me—NEVER!) did anyone go after me for being a Russian poet and for teaching in Russian language in Ukraine. Everywhere I read my poems in RUSSIAN and never did I encounter any complications.
However, tomorrow I will read my lectures in the state language—Ukrainian. This won’t be merely a lecture—it will be a protest action in solidarity with the Ukrainian state. I call for my colleagues to join me in this action.
A Russian-language poet refuses to lecture in Russian as an act of solidarity with occupied Ukraine. As time passed, other such emails began to arrive from poets and friends. My cousin Peter wrote from Odessa:
Our souls are worried, and we are frightened, but the city is safe. Once in a while some idiots rise up and announce that they are for Russia. But we in Odessa never told anyone that we are against Russia. Let Russians do whatever they want in their Moscow and let them love our Odessa as much as they want—but not with this circus of soldiers and tanks!
Another friend, the Russian-speaking poet Anastasia Afanasieva, wrote from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv about Putin’s “humanitarian aid” campaign to protect her language:
In the past five years, I visited the Ukrainian-speaking Western Ukraine six times. I have never felt discriminated against because I spoke the Russian language. Those are myths. In all the cities of Western Ukraine I have visited, I spoke with everyone in Russian—in stores, in trains, in cafes. I have found new friends. Far from feeling aggression, everyone instead treated me with respect. I beg you, do not listen to the propaganda. Its purpose is to separate us. We are already very different, let’s not become opposite, let’s not create a war on the territory where we all live together. The military invasion which is taking place right now is the catastrophe for us all. Let’s not lose our minds, let’s not be afraid of non-existent threats, when there is a real threat: the Russian army’s invasion.
As I read the letter after letter I couldn’t stop thinking about Boris’s refusal to speak his own language as an act of protest against the military invasion. What does it mean for a poet to refuse to speak his own language?
Is language a place you can leave? Is language a wall you can cross? What is on the other side of that wall?
Every poet refuses the onslaught of language. This refusal manifests itself in silence illuminated by the meanings of poetic lexis—the meanings not of what the word says, but of what it withholds. As Maurice Blanchot wrote, “To write is to be absolutely distrustful of writing, while entrusting oneself to it entirely.”
The language of poetry may or may not change us, but it shows the changes within us.
Ukraine today is a place where statements like this one are put to the test. Another writer, John Berger, says this about the relationship of a person to one’s language: “One can say of language that it is potentially the only human home.” He insisted that it was “the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man . . . One can say anything to language. This is why it is a listener, closer to us than any silence or any god.” But what happens when a poet refuses his language as a form of protest?
Or, to put this question in broader terms: what happens to language in wartime? Abstractions very quickly attain physical attributes. This is how the Ukrainian poet Lyudmyla Khersonska sees her own body watching the war around her: Buried in a human neck, a bullet looks like an eye, sewn in. The poet Kateryna Kalytko’s war is also a physical body: War often comes along and lies down between you like a child / afraid to be left alone.
The language of poetry may or may not change us, but it shows the changes within us: the poet Anastasia Afanasieva writes using the first-person plural “we,” showing us how the occupation of a country affects all its citizens, no matter which language they speak:
when a four-wheeler with a mortar
passed down the street
we didn’t ask who are you
whose side are you on
we fell down on the floor and lay there.
On another visit to Ukraine, I saw a former neighbor of mine, now crippled by war, holding his hand out on the street. He wasn’t wearing any shoes. As I hurried by, hoping he wouldn’t recognize me, I was suddenly brought up short by his empty hand. As if he were handing me his war.
As I walked away from him, I had an eerie feeling of recognition. How similar his voice, the voices of the Ukrainian poets I’ve been speaking with, to the voices of people in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose houses my own tax money has destroyed.
In the late 20th century, the Jewish poet Paul Celan became a patron saint of writing in the midst of crisis. Composing in the German language, he has broken speech to reflect the experience of a new, violated world. This effect is happening again—this time in Ukraine—before our very eyes.
Here is the case of poet Lyuba Yakimchuk, whose family are refugees from Pervomaisk, the city which is one of the main targets of Putin’s most recent “humanitarian aid” effort. Answering my questions about her background, Lyuba responded:
I was born and raised in the war-torn Luhansk region and my hometown of Pervomaisk is now occupied. In May 2014 I witnessed the beginning of the war . . . In February 2015 my parents and grandmother, having survived dreadful warfare, set out to leave the occupied territory. They left under shelling fire, with a few bags of clothes. A friend of mine, a [Ukrainian] soldier, almost shot my grandma as they fled.
Discussing literature in wartime, Yakimchuk writes: “Literature rivals with the war, perhaps even loses to war in creativity, hence literature is changed by war.” In her poems, one sees how warfare cleaves her words: “don’t talk to me about Luhansk,” she writes, “it’s long since turned into hansk / Lu had been razed to the ground / to the crimson pavement.” The bombed-out city of Pervomaisk “has been split into pervo and maisk” and the shell of Debaltsevo is now her “deb, alts, evo.” Through the prism of this fragmented language, the poet sees herself:
I stare into the horizon
. . . I have gotten so very old
no longer Lyuba
just a –ba.
Just as Russian-language poet Khersonsky refuses to speak his language when Russia occupies Ukraine, Yakimchuk, a Ukrainian-language poet, refuses to speak an unfragmented language as the country is fragmented in front of her eyes. As she changes the words, breaking them down and counterpointing the sounds from within the words, the sounds testify to a knowledge they do not possess. No longer lexical yet still legible to us, the wrecked word confronts the reader mutely, both within and beyond language.
Reading this poem of witness, one is reminded that poetry is not merely a description of an event; it is an event.
What exactly is the poetry’s witness? The language of poetry may or may not change us, but it shows the changes within us. Like a seismograph, it registers violent occurrences. Miłosz titled his seminal text The Witness of Poetry “not because we witness it, but because it witnesses us.” Living on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Zbigniew Herbert told us something similar: a poet is like a barometer for the psyche of a nation. It cannot change the weather. But it shows us what the weather is like.
Can examining the case of a lyric poet really show us something that is shared by many—the psyche of a nation? the music of a time?
How is it that a lyric poet’s spine trembles like a barometer’s needle? Perhaps this is because lyric poet is a very private person: in her or his privacy this individual creates a language—evocative enough, strange enough—that enables her or him to speak, privately, to many people at the same time.
Living many hundreds of miles from Ukraine, away from this war, in my comfortable American backyard, what right do I have to write about this war?—and yet I cannot stop writing about it: cannot stop mulling over the words by poets of my country in English, this language they do not speak. Why this obsession? Between sentences is the silence I do not control. Even though it is a different language, the silence between sentences is still the same: it is the space in which I see a family still huddled by the doorframe at 4 am, debating whether or not to open the door to the stranger, wearing only his pajama pants, who is shouting through the doorframe.
Excerpted from Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine, edited by Oksana Maksymchuk & Max Rosochinsky and published by Academic Studies Press.