“I wish that poetry could really kill”. Halyna Kruk’s statement in Berlin
In June 2014, during one of my literary performances in good old Europe, while the Russian tank columns were invading the Ukrainian Donetsk and Luhansk regions, I said that in such a situation it was hard for us in Ukraine to talk about poetry. The moderator, a 30-year-old expert in Russian culture from Berlin, immediately objected in an edifying tone: poetry, allegedly, was above the war; Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova or Pasternak had never stooped to the worthless hot button issues – they proved superior to war, they were looking towards eternity! And what did Russia have to do with it, anyway? For eight years we have been trying to reach out to others: come on, we are at war, a part of our country is occupied, we are being killed every day! Stop shooting back, they told us as if we were unreasonable children, and it will stop. Be wiser. Prove superior.
For all these eight years Russia has been building up its military capabilities and preparing for the full-scale invasion. Its appetite has been growing. Russian poets kept obstinately looking towards eternity, not even noticing their own country’s transformation into an autocratic state which only simulates democracy while cherishing its imperialistic narratives of grandeur. Those who felt really uncomfortable left for good but continued to showcase the Russian culture as a facade of Russia. I know that you, the well-read people, brought up on the best examples of Russian culture, will dislike what I have to say. Perhaps you won’t even believe it, much as the residents of Borodianka, Bucha, or Hostomel near Kyiv refused to believe that Russians had come to slaughter them all in a row, unarmed civilians, for no reason and without justification. Be it men or women, small children or the elderly, Russians had come to kill, rape, and run them over with tanks. I don’t know any metaphors that could have made these words more attractive or at least less shocking.
No metaphors work against an armed soldier. No poetry can save you from a tank that runs over your car as you are trying to take your kids away from the war. There is no room for poetry at the wreckage of your apartment block where you are relentlessly staying for days, incapable of saving your weeping children and grandchildren from the basement underneath. It’s a very powerful storyline for a European author to write a novel directed towards eternity. Such a book would be read and re-read for decades. But no person who has survived that in real life would ever write it. One cannot have any strength to remain alive after something like this and still be able to explain their suffering to others.
The war forms an abyss between those who have experienced it and those who stay at a distance. With each day I find it harder to explain to outsiders how the war feels to us here from the inside. Our very intention to explain dwindles. Our language loses clarity. Poetry is not for us anymore. When your husband is fighting at the war, your relatives suffer horrible occupation in the Kherson region and your other relatives live under constant shelling in the Kharkiv region while you must consider air-raid alerts because a missile can hit and kill you, it’s hardly possible to prove superior to all of that. In such a case, poetry takes on peculiar forms of either spontaneous prayers, sparing testimony, lament or even a curse upon the enemy. These are not the forms of poetry the modern European culture is used to. They are ritualistic and functional, way too primeval in their emotion, way too subjective, pathetic, and intolerant. It’s hardly possible to be tolerant towards your enemy who’s come to slaughter you and your children – because after having killed once, he’ll continue with the next. You could hardly prove superior to this.
A fifth of my country is temporarily occupied now. I wish this was a metaphor. People from the occupied area get killed, terrorized, sent to filtration camps in Russia, denationalized and separated from their children and parents. No poetry has words for this. My Facebook feed abounds with photographs of amazingly beautiful people, men and women, somebody’s parents or children, killed by Russia. This is not a metaphor. Facebook blocks and deletes these images as a kind of sensitive content that could upset other users. None of these people were born to die at war, got a degree to die at war, mastered an uncommon profession to die at war, cherished their talents to die at war. Their loss will forever leave a gaping wound in our hearts; it will be an irreparable blow to our Ukrainian culture, science, economy, industry, and society. This is not a metaphor.
I don’t know any poetry that could heal this wound. This war is killing us all, each in their own way: though we may look safe and sound, we can’t but get through life in brief dashes. We startle from loud sounds. Our little kids have a background in hiding from bombardments, and they no longer cry out of fear. In their childhood, they have already learnt that a cry can cost their lives. And this is still not a metaphor.
War makes everything so straightforward that almost no room remains for poetry – only for testimony.
Yet there still are those who look towards eternity; those who keep writing beautiful and profound poetry of this war. It’s our Russian colleagues from safer places abroad. Not forced to live under shelling, they can cast aside the filth and abomination of the reality without neglecting their creative search. Not a single air-raid alert, not a single shelling or occupier with their guns and tanks can keep them from focusing in the meanwhile.
I wish that poetry could really kill.
Translated by Anna Vovchenko
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