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Resistance Poetry: Ukrainian Poets Make Poetry The Voice Of Freedom

Poetry, with its maximum frankness and emotionality, breaks all the check valves that allow you to experience the war as a huge trauma and not go crazy

Resistance Poetry: Ukrainian Poets Make Poetry The Voice Of Freedom
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Come and see the blood in the streets,
come and see
the blood in the streets,
come and see the blood
in the streets!

Pablo Neruda’s lines from ‘I Am Explaining A Few Things’ on the brutality of the Spanish Civil War resonate across war-torn landscapes. When the silence of graveyards clouds the cities, metaphors appear to be the last things that one looks for. During the war, the line between poetry and journalism gets blurred. In the words of Ukrainian poet Daryna Gladun, “My work sits at the boundary between literature and journalism. I set aside metaphors to speak about the war in clear words.”

Since the war broke out in Ukraine in February this year, young poets of the ravaged country took up poetry as one of the means to document the war. While the literary journal, Chytomo, has been gathering the words that spilled out across the streets of Kyiv, a Ukrainian government website is encouraging poets through the words, “Every poem, every line, every word is part of Ukrainian history. We know for sure that wars end, but poetry does not.” The Guardian reports that, till now,  24,000 poets have registered on the site.

Ukrainian poets have been documenting the war since the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak at Donbas in 2014. In 2017, prominent Ukrainian poets, including Ilya Kaminsky, the author of Deaf Republic came up with a collection of poems titled Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine. Documenting anxiety, tragedy and moments of ruptured innocence, the poems portrayed a country that will never ‘compose any song’. In the words of Kateryna Kalytko,

They won’t compose any songs, because the children of their children,
Hearing about this initiation, will jump out of their beds at 4 am
By the echoes of their spinal cords. Separate parts of death
Cannot form a whole: a quarter of fate or of body is always missing.

However, the hope of restoring a home in the time of despair doesn’t leave her soon. In her poem ‘Home is still possible there’, Kateryna describes the hopes embedded in it,

Home is still possible there, where they hang laundry out to dry,
and the bedsheets smell of wind and plum blossoms.
It is the season of the first intimacy
to be consummated, never to be repeated.
Every leaf emerges as a green blade
and the cries of life take over the night and find a rhythm.

Though the war in Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, has continued, relentlessly, since 2014, the full-scale invasion of Russia early this year forced poets to rethink and reshape the idea of hope. Iya Kiva, a young Ukrainian poet who has been arranging her words to depict the tragedy of the wars for almost a decade tells Outlook, “It all depends on how to understand the word ‘hope’. If it is in the sense of encouragement ... or rather, on the contrary, I think, poetry makes you think about certain things as honestly as possible, thus it is more sobering than encouraging, especially if the poetry is about war.”

“I think, poetry makes you think about certain things as honestly as possible, thus it is more sobering than encouraging, especially if the poetry is about war.” Iya Kiva

The never-ending battle in Ukraine sometimes made her feel that poetry is ‘worthless’. “After all, I have been writing about the war for eight years and what did it change?” asks Kiva.

However, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. There must be reinterpretation of words, the words of peace time need to be sewn together with the words with rough edges that emerge from a crisis.

Thus, Kiva returns to poetry, “It’s like a way to come up to the surface, to breathe a little oxygen, to feel alive. Yet it takes much longer to breathe under the water of war. War fills in one’s thoughts, emotions and the places where there used to be space for poems,” she says.  

For Kiva, like many poets in the region, “in the condition of a full-scale war, writing is perceived not only as a private territory of freedom, but also as a responsibility, an obligation to testify (not only for myself, but also for our dead ones), an obligation to preserve the memory of these events, and preserve it exactly in the Ukrainian version,” says Kiva.

Her words echo that of US poet Muriel Rukeyser who in her 1949 book, The Life of Poetry, said “Poetry depends on the moving relations within itself. It is an art that lives in time, expressing and evoking the moving relation between the individual consciousness and the world.”

Poetry, nevertheless, finds different expressions in the diverse words of the poets. While Kiva still writes poetry to ‘breathe’, Ukrainian novelist, Victoria Amelina, who has taken up poems, as the time is not ‘right’ for novels, in her poem entitled ‘No Poetry’ questions the very status of literature at the time of war.

As if shells hit language
the debris from language
may look like poems/
But they are not
This is no poetry too
Poetry is in Kharkiv
volunteering for the army.

The thought of ‘volunteering for the army’ instead of writing poetry had not only struck  Amelina. There are other poets who eschewed poetry for direct action. Ostap Slyvynsky, a poet and translator, started volunteering at the Lviv railway station, serving hot drinks and food to the people coming in from the east.

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However, he soon realised that the refugees need something more. They needed their stories to be told, to be documented for posterity. Slyvynsky then started working on Dictionary of War, a collection of stories that depict the loss, dislocation and tragedy of war escapees. While talking about these vignettes, Slyvynsky told The Guardian, “There is nothing imagined, nothing fictionalised, nothing created by me in this text, but there came a moment when I understood that this was also poetry.”

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Murals as protest A pro-Ukraine mural in Gdansk Photo: Getty Images

Besides documenting conflicted souls, poems also work as carriers of resentment. Halyna Kruk’s work unravels the cracks in solidarities. In her poem ‘No War’, she portrays what Ukrainian people feel about Russian civilians, even those who have been protesting against the war. It rejects Russian allies and holds them accountable for enabling a regime that is destroying Ukrainian cities. The slogan ‘No War’ upheld by the Russians here becomes a failed rhetoric that couldn’t save the “civilian managers, clerks, IT-guys and students” from joining the war. She writes,

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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.

(Translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk)

The crude depictions of the missile strike that rip into the hearts of cities, however, fills the Facebook walls of the poets. Marianna Kiyanovska who earlier wrote about the killings of tens of thousands of Jews by Nazis outside Kyiv, comes up with a child’s voice and rhythmic intensity to capture the gruesome reality of a murderous Russian army. On June 21, she posted,

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it’s our very last moment of silence
we’ve already had four
Three times since this morning: sirens
we all ran out the door
we knew Tanya’d run ahead
but the bomb buried everyone
Tanya, missing a leg, lies dead
still in kindergarten

(Translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk)

Writing poems in this context of war becomes a way to negotiate with diverse realities, more so when the war waged against you is because of your language. Vladimir Putin, while justifying the invasion, even used the idea of language and said that there is an ongoing effort to eliminate Russian-speaking Ukrainians. An article published on the Kremlin website compared the institutionalisation of the Ukrainian language to a ‘weapon of mass destruction’.

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Vladimir Putin, while justifying his war drive, even used the trope of language and said that there is an ongoing effort to eliminate Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

So, when the language becomes the ground for an invasion, a poem becomes the response. In her 2019 poem, which is untitled, Kateryna Kalytko writes,

Here, take this language, woman,
Use it to shoot.
Defend yourself to your last breath—and whatever you do
don’t let them near you. Use
the radio interception system
and the night vision riflescope.

(Translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk​​​​​​​)

Echoing poets who for centuries have been countering the Russian colonialism, Kalytko writes,

There are plenty of bullets, don’t spare them,
if they run out—
make new ones out of words,
only slender feminine fingers are suited to such manoeuvres.

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However, transcending the domains of hope, resentment and documentation lies a world where we need the strength to gather the debris of our lives, strewn by the undeterred bombing and missile strikes. And there rests the significance of poetry.

In words of Iya Kiva, “War as if freezes people, forces them to concentrate, gather all their strength, squeeze it into a fist, and poetry, with its maximum frankness and emotionality, seems to break all the check valves that allow you to experience the war as a huge trauma and not go crazy. Poetry allows you to cry, scream or just sit in silence and think about the fact that you, too, feel similar emotions. Poetry, as I have already said, helps one to feel alive, because war is a continuous space of death.”

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Gathered Into A Fist")

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