"Such problematic, such frightful poems..."
A translation of an early Ukrainian war poem, a comment, and an invitation
I have just finished teaching my open class at Yale, “The Making of Modern Ukraine.” It has been work to write the twenty new lectures, but it has been very gratifying to know that these lectures have been viewed millions of times around the world, including in Ukraine itself. (The link above is video; this is the podcast version).
In the penultimate lecture, on culture, I read my own translation of a poem by Julia Musakovska, which I first heard myself this summer (and which I recited myself in Ukrainian in front of a camera at one point.) Now my English translation, like other things from that class, is making its own little career on the internet. So I thought I would set it down here, and then offer some comments. Julia’s poem is found in her the collection Zalizo/Zelazo (Iron), which was published this summer by the Borderland Foundation in Poland. The poem itself dates from March. Here goes:
such problematic, such frightful poems,
full of anger,
so politically incorrect
no beauty in these poems,
no aesthetic at all
the metaphors withered and fell to pieces
before they could bloom
the metaphors buried
in children’s playgrounds
under hastily raised crosses
in unnatural poses
by the gates of houses,
covered in dust
they prepared meals over an open fire
they did try to survive
it was of dehydration that they perished
under the rubble
shot in a car
under a white flag
made from a sheet
with colorful backpacks over their shoulder
they lie on the asphalt
next to the cats and dogs
I'm sorry to say so, but such verses
are all we have for you today,
dear Ladies and Gentlemen
of the theater of war
In the lecture, I wanted to make the point that the poem answers itself, in a couple of ways.
First, this poem is only one example of a flood of Ukrainian creativity during this war. Looking at the horrors of the trenches around Bakhmut, people invoke the First World War. But another resemblance to that era is the unspoken assumption that war itself must be described, and that art is there to describe it, that nothing is beyond art. To be sure, different people have responded in different ways, and many creative people are now in the armed forces — where some of them continue their creative work. But in general, as far as I can make out, the attitude seems to be that the war calls for more creation and documentation, not less.
Second, there is nothing problematic or awkward about the poem itself. It is elegant and powerful. It reminds us how metaphors work. The awkwardness and the frightfulness resides not in the poem, but in us. The poem helps us own this. What are we supposed to do, we the spectators of the theater of war? When we feel awkward about the suffering of others, we sometimes find ways to make it all about ourselves. Hence all of the feckless talk about “escalation” and so on. Our fears then displace others’ experiences.
But in the end that leaves us feeling more awkward. The way to relieve the sense of awkwardness is to do something to help. In this horrible war of atrocity, the Ukrainians have made this easy for us. This is not a conflict where it is unclear whom to help or how. Both the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian civil society are highly functional, which means that it is quite simple to do something more than spectate.
If you want to help Ukrainians stay warm despite the Russian campaign to take down their entire power grid with missiles and drones, make a (tax-deductible) donation to Razom. If you want to support Ukrainian aims through President Zelens’kyi’s own platform, United 24, you can do so here. I am an “ambassador” for a campaign there to defend Ukrainian cities from Russian attacks. If you want to support Ukrainians who are at work in the arts, sciences, and in journalism to document this war, make a (tax-deductible) contribution to Documenting Ukraine.
These are three causes with which I am personally associated; other reputable people can recommend others (and in earlier posts I have other, longer lists). The Ukrainians are not only in need, they are offering us so very much — that will be the subject of my next, longer post.
So, please, don’t just spectate.
7 December 2022
PS 1 March 2023 I have corrected the formatting and made a change to the translation per the author’s suggestion.
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I've donated to several fundraisers and charities for Ukraine, including Razom, Saint Javelin, and United24. But the one that is closest to my heart is Good Bread Bakery in Kyiv. Good Bread hires mentally handicapped people to bake bread and other goodies, and takes them not just to liberated towns and villages, but to some of the most dangerous areas of Ukraine. Every day they get into their vans packed with goodies and risk their very physical existence because they believe so strongly in Ukrainian civil society. When they suffer blackouts, they work around them. They always manage to work around obstacles and do what needs to be done. This is from the latest email I received from them: "We were in Zabachmutka, the most dangerous region of Bachmut. For the first time in two months, people got bread there.The only way to Zabachmutka is a crossing through the river Bachmutka. You need literally go by water. That’s why volunteers can’t come here and bring help to people. Moreover, the roads are washed out and only off-roaders have less chance to stick in the mud. You can see our way on the video" (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsSbDjkwtuY). Here is their site if anyone wants to donate: https://www.paypal.com/donate/?hosted_button_id=WUNX7PBP2J6GQ and https://www.patreon.com/goodbread.
Donating to Good Bread helps me to turn my focus away from my own worries so that I can focus on what they've accomplished. And it does feel good to be a part of their community.
In a world full of fears and worries we come back again and again to the war in Ukraine because it is there that Evil is most open, most unashamed, most destructive. It must be fought and it must be defeated. Or we are all lost