We watched in March, my students & I. As Putin ordered the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As cities were bombed and families forced to flee their ancestral homes. As museums containing the art of Mariia Pryimachenko and Ivan Aivazovsky burned in Ivankiv and Mariupol. As wartime shortages had ripple effects, spilling over and destabilizing the livelihoods of people in nations reliant upon Ukraine’s agricultural exports.
We watched the brazen outpouring of support for the Ukrainian people, the valorization of civilian resistance against an invading outside force, nations welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms. All of this right. All of it good.
Right, and good, and strange, thinking of conflicts that have happened, that are still happening, elsewhere. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine. Who do I welcome? Whose resistance against imperialism do I support? Can I change? And where to go, to ask this of ourselves.
I found an answer in a question Ilya Kaminsky penned earlier this month, “Why [do] so many turn to poetry in a time of crisis?”
My class turned to poetry. In the hope to change and change again, here are four poems we found, read, and treasured. Poems of resistance and of asking, of naming and love, by Ukrainian poets Olga Livshin, Ilya Kaminsky, Natalka Bilotserkivets, and Dzvinia Orlowsky.
The language for falling in love
with forests, and stories, and friends
does not care who’s killing whom.
Unfortunately, I care.
from "Translating a Life"
by Olga Livshin
I love this poem so much it is hard to know exactly what to say about it. There is a field, a war. And language, indifferent, in love. “And what does it matter…that I hear perfectly good / Russian names for plants and translate them / into You-and-Me-ish?” I am grateful to this poem, for it reminds me that, whatever else our resistance may be, it is shaped, as much as anything, by the words we decide not to use.
Inhabitant of earth for forty something years
I once found myself in a peaceful country.
from "In a Time of Peace" in Poets.org
by Ilya Kaminsky
In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “We Lived Happily in a Time of War” went viral on Twitter. It is a wonderful poem. As Victoria Chang has noted, it resonates and surprises in beckoning at once to complicity and pleasure. As Chang also observes, to read just one poem from Deaf Republic is to experience Kaminsky’s work as “moment,” rather than occasion. “In a Time of Peace” is a poem, I believe, that rewards our attention as much as “We Lived Happily,” and the two read wonderfully together.
It’s the last month of a long winter
from "February" in Kenyon Review
by Natalka Bilotserkivets
Published in Kenyon Review two years ago, Bilotserkivets’ “February” can seem prescient read from the vantage of current events. Things get locked away in this poem — voices consigned to cassettes, to the past, people to the accrued thrumming of debt and time: “Some owe less–others more. / Some more — others, less. Out of our hands / years crawl like worms.” It’s this poem’s last stanza that catches me by surprise each time I read it. I’m grateful for this translation, these words. Here, resistance bares its teeth, and it is not the same as hope.
My father carefully rolls his pant leg up, places his leg between two wide boards. He tells my mother to jump hard on it.
from "Playing Opossum"
by Dzvinia Orlowsky
This poem of Orlowsky’s felt like a necessary fit amongst our other selections. Standing out for its subject matter, draft-dodging, Orlowsky’s piece is representative of a very different form of resistance, the kind of resistance we levy against the demands impressed upon us by our own governments. I make no original contribution in stating that by speaking of countries as beings with agency, Russia has done x, Ukraine is y, we risk through language winnowing away at the individual experiences and wishes of millions of people. In this poem, two people, and the wish that one violence might abet another: “She springs from their horsehair-filled couch, eyes closed tight, fingers plugging her ears; she lands with a thump. The leg doesn’t break.”