Generally for me, April, which is National Poetry Month, means traveling for poetry readings and socializing with fellow poets, celebrating the art form we dedicate our lives to. But this year is different. As the Russian war against Ukraine rages on, April is indeed the cruelest month. A Ukrainian friend writes that she spent entire nights in kyiv metro stations – which are used as bomb shelters – reciting poems to herself and those around her to stay sane. When she gets tired, she starts translating these poems into other languages, just to keep going.
Western critics often ask if poetry matters. I now realize that the only valid answer to this question is: do these criticisms matter? If a person sheltering deep underground as their city is bombed recites poems as a survival tool – to calm themselves and appease others – that’s all the proof I need that poetry matters. But we humans have always known that.
The letters of the alphabet go to war/
clinging to each other standing forming words no one wants to shout/
sentences blown by the mines in the avenues, stories/
bombarded by several rocket launches.
So writes the Ukrainian poet Lesyk Panaisuk, who lost his house in Bucha. Russian soldiers occupied his house, Lesyk tells me; he says the same young soldiers invaded Chernobyl before coming to Bucha, having no idea of the disaster that unfolded there more than 35 years ago. No one told them what they were heading into, Lesyk tells me. Because the young soldiers brought with them very high levels of radiation from Chernobyl to the Bucha house of Lesyk, it is no longer habitable.
It’s surreal, this situation. In the middle of the ransacked town of Bucha stands a house whose owners cannot return due to radiation – an invisible war that still lives in these rooms, long after the soldiers have left.
How can poetry describe something like that? How can a language speak of a country that is being bombarded before the eyes of the rest of the world?
A Ukrainian word
Is ambushed: by the broken window of
a letter in other countries look how a letter in
lose your mind how the roof of a letter м
language in times of war
cannot be understood inside this sentence
is a hole – nobody wants to die – nobody
speak. By the hospital bed of the letter ©
finds a prosthesis that he is too shy to use.
You can see the light through the awkwardly stitched holes
From the letter ф – the soft sign has the tongue pulled out
due to disagreements about
etymology of torture. There are too many alphabets
in the hospital rooms of my country, too, too
Lots of alphabet, no place to stick an apostrophe, paint falls off
The walls, showering us with incomprehensible words
Like men who, in time of war, refuse to speak
So continues Lesyk’s poem. While I’m translating him, I can’t help but email him to see if he’s okay. Trying to help somehow, I offer him money, which he refuses. I don’t need your money he says. Translate my poem, publish it in the world.
As I read his response, another email pops up. It is from Kharkiv poet Anastasia Afanasieva, whom I have known for more than a decade. I translated her poems, she translated mine. Then she took a long break from poetry and decided to make hooks. Yes. Fish hooks. She built a successful business, which is now gone. Here’s what she has to say about the bombs that destroyed it:
“What’s more terrifying?” Planes. Kharkiv is close to the border, so the authorities cannot warn us if the plane arrives. It takes 3 minutes for the plane to climb into Russia and bomb Kharkiv. I had a friend in a border village send a warning: ‘Airplane.’ It meant: 1 minute to die for, we cover our ears.
She writes: “Since the start of the war, I feel like it’s been a long day: I still don’t know what day of the week it is or what date. Yes, she has been rewriting poems since the beginning of the war. This award-winning Russian-language poet from Kharkiv now writes about abandoning the Russian language; the second half of his poem is in Ukrainian. Her letter itself is poetry without trying to be poetic: she describes the world with precision and urgent clarity, finding poetry in everything her eyes see:
“The past was undone in a minute. Imagine a magic eraser, which erases all the text in an instant from the paper and the paper becomes white like new snow. The personal past no longer exists. No old goals, no old jobs, no old habits, no old stores we visited every day to get groceries, no old walking routes, no old landscapes, no house, no old dreams – nothing pure. You are born again at the age of 40, having only a book of memories with you, a book that you read to the end and there are no new chapters. And you, like a newborn, are trying to learn to walk and talk again.
TS Eliot was right. April is the cruellest month. And poetry is more necessary than ever. Not because it’s pretty or fancy. But because it helps us articulate the most impossible moments: it gives us a gasp, a shred of air in our lungs. When we have nothing else, we can still keep a handful of words in our memory, a melody, and that may be all we have now to survive – we don’t know that yet. But if we’re lucky, he’s there. Keep it preciously, this verbal music. Memorize new poems online if you can. You might need it one day, warplanes or not. Faced with the white wall that is the crisis, everyone needs a little music, an air, a balm.
Ilya Kaminsky was born in former Odessa, former USSR, now Ukraine. He is the author of Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press) and deaf republic (Graywolf Press). Kaminsky lives in Atlanta.
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