Sunday, April 24, 2022

War in Ukraine Rages So do Poets—National Poetry Month 2022

Ukrainian volunteers inspect inspect damaged and abandoned Russian tanks.

The brutal war against Ukraine grinds relentlessly on and enters a new phase at the massive Russian offensive in the eastern Donbas region and missile attacks on Odessa in the Crimea and western cities that are both escape routes for refugees and receiving points and staging areas for influxes of Western arms and ammunition.  Ukraine resistance remains fierce and billions of Dollars’ worth of heavy weapons including artillery and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile systems, and drones as well parts for helicopters and jet fighters are pouring into the country from the U.S. and NATO allies enraging a probably unstable Vladimir Putin.

It is just the latest in battles for the breadbasket of Eastern Europe stretching back centuries involving the Rus, the Mongol Hoards, Tartars, Cossacks, Poles, Imperial Russia, the Ottoman Turks, World War I Bulgarians and Austrians, Red and White Armies during the post-revolutionary Russian Civil War, Stalinist repression and famine, Nazi invasion with collaborationist genocidal attacks on Jews, and finally post-Soviet attacks on Crimea and ethnic Russian rebellions in the east.

Ukrainians feel the weight of this history to their very bones, and it is reflected in new poetry arising from the war.

                       Halyna Kruck.

Halyna Kruk was born in Lviv, Ukraine and was educated at the University of Lviv, earning a PhD in Ukrainian literature in 2001. She is a professor of literary studies at the university where her research focused on medieval literature in the country.  Her first two collections of poetry were published in 1997: Mandry u Poshukakh Domu (Journeys in Search of Home) and Slidy na Pisku (Footprints on Sand). She also writes poetry and fiction for children. Kruk has been vice-president of the Ukrainian branch of the writer’s organization PEN. In 1996–97, she won the literary competitions Ptyvitannia Zhyttia and Granoslov. In 2003, she was awarded the Gaude Polonia Fellowship by the Polish Ministry of Culture. In the same year, she won the Step by Step international competition for children’s books. She has participated in the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators’ program.  Her deep grounding in Ukrainian culture and history have informed her new writing about the current war translated into English by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.

we stopped digging deep long ago,

just a couple fingers down,

we leave the plowed earth unturned,

so the fertile soil won’t all blow away in one generation

so we rake our beds,

make the sign of the cross, and sow

we sow, from here to there, like everyone

like everywhere

we stopped digging deep long ago

in this uncertain field of ours-yours

because all kinds of junk can turn up:

human bones, horses’ heads, unexploded mines,

a battle ax, the peg that marked the border

between our side and yours

we don’t go there

between the eyes out of sight about the eye

we don’t measure it in steps,

we can’t tell

when all our land’s stuck to our soles

and keeps us from moving our feet


Halyna Kruk


Despite the very real and dangerous sacrifices many Russians have made to oppose Putin’s invasion, Kruk turned a bitter, cynical eye to simple, empty anti-war protests that call for an end to shooting without safety and security for Ukrainians.


“No War”


You’re standing with a “No War” sign as if to redeem

the irreversible: this war can’t be stopped,

like bright arterial blood from an open wound

it flows till it kills,

it enters our cities with the armed men,

seeps into our courtyards with the reconnaissance units,

like deadly mercury beads that can’t be put back,

you can’t fix it, except to find and neutralize it,

these civilian managers, clerks, IT-guys and students,

life didn’t prepare them for street fights, but the war did,

on the frontline, in a painfully familiar landscape, in a hurry

at first they only recruit experienced combat fighters to the defense units,

after that gamers who play Dune and Fallout,

or maybe if you’ve had a short-course in Molotov cocktails from a bartender you know,

at the local club while the kids are asleep, the kids are crying, the kids are being born

into a world temporarily unfit for life

Out on the playground they’re assembling Czech hedgehogs,

and nuclear families are mixing deadly “drinks.”

whole families, finally enjoying a conversation

and a collective project—war shortens the distance

from person to person, from birth to death,

from what we never wished for—

to what it turned out we were capable of

“Mom, pick up the phone,” a woman’s been pleading for two hours in the apartment building basement,

stubborn and dense, she won’t stop believing in a miracle

but her mother is out of cell phone range, in the suburbs,

where the prefab collapsed like cheap Legos

from the massive strikes, where just yesterday broadcast towers

stopped connecting people, where the world got blown up into pre- and post-war

along the uneven fold of the “no war” sign,

which you’ll toss in the nearest trash,

on your way home from the protest, Russian poet,

war kills with the hands of the indifferent

and even the hands of idle sympathizers.


Halyna Kruk


                                Simon Armitage.

In the United Kingdom incumbent Poet Laureate Simon Armitage employed dramatic news footage as imagery in his Ukrainian protest. 


It’s war again: a family

   carries its family out of a pranged house

      under a burning thatch.


The next scene smacks

   of archive newsreel: platforms and trains

      (never again, never again),


toddlers passed

   over heads and shoulders, lifetimes stowed

      in luggage racks.


It’s war again: unmistakable smoke

   on the near horizon mistaken

      for thick fog. Fingers crossed.


An old blue tractor

   tows an armoured tank

      into no-man’s land.


It’s the ceasefire hour: godspeed the columns

   of winter coats and fur-lined hoods,

      the high-wire walk


over buckled bridges

   managing cases and bags,

      balancing west and east—godspeed.


It’s war again: the woman in black

   gives sunflower seeds to the soldier, insists

      his marrow will nourish


the national flower. In dreams

   let bullets be birds, let cluster bombs

      burst into flocks.


False news is news

   with the pity

      edited out. It’s war again:


an air-raid siren can’t fully mute

   the cathedral bells—

      let’s call that hope.


Simon Armitage 

Vasyl Makhno.

Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, prose writer, essayist, and translator and author of 14 collections of poetry, most recently of which is One Sail House in 2021. He is the recipient of Kovaliv Fund Prize in 2008), Serbia’s International Povele Morave Prize in Poetry in 2013, the BBC Book of the Year Award in 2015, and the Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize for Encounter in 2020.  He currently lives with his family in New York City.  His poetry style, which eschews punctuation and other conventions has been described anarchic.”  Which begs the question—is he any relation to legendary communalist anarchist leader Nestor Makhno who commanded an independent anarchist army in Ukraine from 1917 to 1921 battling both Red and White armies to preserve the independence of peasant cooperatives and industrial unions.  That Makhno died in exile in Paris in 1934 at the age of 45.


Lord, the way Tychyna writes:
“And Bely, and Blok, and Yesenin”
the way they surrounded us
on all four sides

give us strength and power
a hastily packed suitcase and bread
naturally their sly foxes lie
that we have neither shields nor centuries

Ihor leads us somewhere
over the Don with his regiments
today with the February snow
and tomorrow with a bloody shield

and their dark forces come from Tmutarakan
and Mokshas and Chud
shoot at our location
hit at the positions we take

so what is there in The Tale of Ihor’s Campaign
and what is there in ancient sounds
you — jumping barefoot as a wolf
spreading the spit of the devil

reached the rivers and borders
reached my clenched heart
your blackened icons
can’t even be cleansed with milk

Lord, the way Tychyna writes
about Kyiv — the Messiah — about the country
why didn’t we learn these poems by heart?
Bleed — my heart — bleed

Vasyl Makhno

Translated from the Ukrainian by Olena Jennings








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