Poetry in Times of War
On Feb. 24, the world bore witness to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as they launched missiles near Kyiv and deployed soldiers to the borders of their neighboring country. President Vladimir Putin commanded the attack on Ukraine and revealed his “military operation” for Luhansk and Donetsk in a nationally televised video. On Sunday, Feb. 27, he ordered his nuclear forces to be placed on high alert. During the week, the Russian army bombed buildings and monuments, including Kyiv’s Holocaust memorial. Hundreds of people are believed to be dead or injured, and millions of refugees have fled Ukraine in mass exodus.
The global news is filled with social media footage of defiant Ukrainians who have stayed to fight with Molotov cocktails and sunflowers. Anti-war sentiment in Russia is strong, with thousands of Russians arrested for protesting against the war. Many world leaders such as President Biden have denounced Putin, and many countries have imposed economic sanctions, banned Russian flights, and provided financial and military support. Ukrainian President Zelensky said Putin’s actions are reminiscent of Hitler, while some Europeans fear Putin has imperialistic plans to conquer other parts of Europe. Many say this tragedy could be the start of World War III.
With the turbulence and turmoil enveloping Europe, it’s important to find meaning and compassion amid the chaos, and poetry presents a powerful way to express our experiences, emotions, and outrage about this tragedy. Poetry offers peaceful protest and may bring awareness, insight, and wisdom to a situation that is escalating every day. As we search for freedom amid war-torn and troubled times, we are reminded as global citizens of this planet that the war in Ukraine is an issue that affects us all.
Below are three courageous poets who have learned valuable truths and lessons about what it means to be human in times of war.
To understand the implications of a world war, we must travel back to Britain and World War I. In her memoir, Testament of Youth, poet and novelist Vera Brittain writes of the patriotism the British people had before the Great War and then recounts the devastation the warfare brought them. The memoir is the story of feminist Brittain, an Oxford scholar who joins the cause in 1917 and enlists as a nurse to tend to wounded soldiers. The book also follows the lives of all the men in her life who died because of the war, including her brother, her best friends, and her fiancé, Roland Leighton, who writes her love letters and poems from the frontlines and trenches of the British units.
In one letter, Leighton sends her a villanelle recounting a traumatic encounter with a dead soldier. In the poem, Leighton lyrically describes the blue violets he found near the “mangled body” of the soldier, whose head was soaked in blood. The attention he gives to the death of the soldier reveals the complexity and lessons of the battlefield: In a war, no side wins, and the losses and devastation have immense psychological repercussions. In fact, when Leighton briefly visits Brittain on leave, he returns with PTSD, which was known then as shell shock. Even though the memoir is anti-war, it still shows the complexity of the situation: This was “The Great War,” and it initially felt justified to the Western Allies, but 16 million soldiers and civilians died because of the conflict.
Ilya Kaminsky is arguably the most well-known Ukrainian-American poet in the literary world. His beautiful and lyrical collection Dancing in Odessa received many well-deserved accolades and awards when it was published in 2004. Born in Odessa, Kaminsky emigrated with his family to the United States and was granted asylum by the American government. His Jewish family fled because of anti-Semitism prevalence in post-Soviet Ukraine, and this experience—along with his lifelong journey with partial deafness—is a major influence in his work.
In Dancing in Odessa, the repercussions of World War II are felt by the speaker as he recounts the legacies his grandfathers left. He also links his poetic sensibilities with that of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky in the titular poem “Dancing in Odessa:”
“. . . The city trembled,
a ghost-ship setting sail.
And my classmate invented twenty names for Jew.
He was an angel, he had no name,
we wrestled, yes. My grandfathers fought
the German tanks on tractors, I kept a suitcase full
of Brodsky’s poems. The city trembled,
a ghost-ship setting sail.”
Kaminsky’s most recent poetry collection, Deaf Republic, is a story about the fictional town of Vasenka, which is under siege by an authoritarian regime. The town chooses sign language and deafness as a form of dissent after a deaf boy, Petya, is killed during a protest. The New Yorker writes that Deaf Republic is “a contemporary epic that, like Homer’s Iliad, captures the sweep of history and the devastation of war.” While the work is fictional, the images of violence and the strong resistance of the townspeople offer a literary premonition to the current resistance in Ukraine, especially considering Deaf Republic was published in 2019. Kaminsky himself said in an interview that the ongoing conflict in Ukraine was a huge influence for the story in the book.
One of the poems in the collection, “We Lived Happily During the War,” offers sharp criticism of privileged American people who ignore the suffering of victims in war-torn countries. The poem has gone viral on Twitter as a protest against apathy towards the Russian-Ukrainian war: “The poem is meant to serve as a wake-up call; to prevent people from reading ‘Deaf Republic’ as a tragedy of elsewhere. Deaf Republics, with their hopes, protests, and complicities, are everywhere. We live in the Deaf Republic,” Kaminsky wrote in a recent interview with Slate.
Another affecting poem in the collection is the intense “Soldiers Aim at Us.” It offers witness of the brutal killing of a deaf boy from the perspective of a married couple (Alfonso and Sonya) who watch the violence unfold:
“Soldiers Aim at Us
as the crowd of women flees inside the nostrils of searchlights
—may God have a photograph of this—
in the piazza’s bright air, soldiers drag Petya’s body and his head
bangs the stairs. I
feel through my wife’s shirt the shape
of our child.
Soldiers drag Petya up the stairs and homeless dogs, thin as
understand everything and bark and bark.
I, now on the bridge, with no camouflage of speech, a body
wrapping the body of my pregnant wife—
we don’t die and don’t die,
the earth is still,
a helicopter eyeballs my wife—
a man cannot flip a finger at the sky:
each man is already
a finger flipped at the sky.”
The Russian war with Ukraine has a complex history that involves NATO, World War II, the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The war in Donbas is another major catalyst in the current conflict; Russia invaded this region in 2014, causing destruction, displacement, and an economic crisis. Poet Lyuba Yakimchuk grew up in Donbas and has fond memories of her childhood before the war. She left her home five years ago and relocated to Kyiv after a sniper seized her house. But now, with the second Russian invasion, she is once again in the midst of the conflict, receiving military training for the first time in her life.
Her poetry collection Apricots of Donbas expresses the remembrance of beautiful apricots from her youth and the desire for peace in poems such as “the return,” but these themes are also contrasted by the heaviness of the 2014 war in Donbas. In her poem “Decomposition,” the names of cities are broken into separate syllables to represent the shelling and bombing from the 2014 war:
“don’t talk to me about Luhansk
it’s long since turned into hansk
Lu had been razed to the ground
to the crimson pavement.”
In spite of the destruction of her homeland, Yakimchuk invokes a movement and genre of poetry known as “Ukrainian Futurism.” The goal is to instill hope in the speaker and in readers of her poetry: hope that the beliefs and stories that Ukrainians tell of their homeland can inspire a brighter and more optimistic future.
The world has witnessed the bombardment of major cities in Ukraine, the sirens blaring in Kyiv, and the blazing and smoky rubbles left in the aftermath. Russia has seized several Ukrainian nuclear power plants while reporters and leaders declare fears of a nuclear meltdown that could affect all of Europe. While we remain informed and send our solidarity and support to the people of Ukraine, we hope diplomacy can stop this horrifying war from becoming a global calamity. We hope that the people of Ukraine can someday soon return to their homes and finally find peace there waiting.
In the compassionate words of poet Lyuba Yakimchuk:
“we will walk back, even with bare feet
if we don’t find our home in the place where we left it
we will build another one in an apricot tree
out of luscious clouds, out of azure ether.”