The Language of Poetry and Losses
During wartime the language that people use changes, you can’t argue with that, it’s self-evident. However, turning page after page of the Ukrainian calendar, beginning from February 24, 2022, many details are revealed that are important for the Word in the modern world and in particular, for poetry.
It became obvious, from the beginning of this wider war, what a language is for a community united in the struggle against an external enemy. Why did those who previously did not want to learn it, who managed easily without it, begin speaking Ukrainian immediately? These people include, for instance, the same ethnic Russians who managed to put down roots in Ukraine, and other foreigners who, one way or another feel a connection with Ukrainians? It’s probably because this language now is a way to survive grief, which turned out to be essentially Ukrainian. This language is poured in the crucible of pain, actually shared by few outside us. And rage at the enemy.
Pain and rage are what united Ukrainians, and helped them to endure in the first most difficult days of the war, making them indomitable, able to cope with fear.
It is not in the least a matter of new vocabulary or phraseology. Today, life and death are pronounced in Ukrainian: cries for help and reports of deaths. A few short sentences on social networks and an infinity of testimonies and memories. It is in this language, they mourn the dead, pray for a return from hell, entertain children in bomb shelters, tell each other that they must survive, despite the vacuum and phosphorus bombs and the painful realisation that these are falling on their native land.
It became clear on a particular day during the war that this language had been taken away from me. On February 24, 2022, I was far from home, which only increased the pain – my closest relatives were there. Then it turned out that I have many more relatives than I thought I had. My only possible salvation laid in helping Ukraine by doing something, anything. However, the most bitter aspect was that I felt powerless with words, I could not respond with poems to events for a long time. I should have done so, but I couldn’t.
I’m not alone. It is surprising at first glance that Ukrainian poets, who have reflected on the occupation of the eastern regions of the country for the past eight years, did not immediately find words. The same poets, in whose voices the anticipation of this war was already pounding even before the beginning of the Russian military aggression, identified that early military metaphorical quality.
However, now there was shock and respiratory arrest. Neither the brain, nor the body, nor indeed the language could answer the cynicism and barbarism of the Russians and the world’s long hesitation.
Silence was the worst thing that could happen to us then.
Fortunately, speech returned to each of us. It returned to some within days, and to others in a few weeks or months. This return was like rehabilitation for me – as when a person learns to walk again. I started writing again with a pen on paper initially and only later returned to the laptop. The first verse was sharp and sudden, like the cry of a newborn baby. It was rough, as if carved from wood. ‘I won’t write like I did before’ was the phrase that stuck in my mind. However somehow, quite by chance, the poem ‘Red Angel’ by the Australian writer Ann Kellas appeared in my Facebook feed, in a photo with a publication in the Canberra Times in 2019.
The poem resonated with the depth of pain that no longer destroyed, but healed. I translated it into Ukrainian in one sitting and found the key to a new way of writing about war: to cure pain, you need to write a lot about it.
The file entitled ‘War’ appeared simultaneously on my laptop, to which new poems are now being added, where various degrees of pain are spoken of. I do this with the only language capable of working with my pain today, and the feeling that this language has begun its new reckoning. Why is that?
Firstly, because this language will never again be in the shadow of the Russian ‘elder brother’. Ukrainian has for too long been associated with Russian in one way or another. It is as if we absolutely needed to stand on the edge of the abyss and confirm our own readiness to jump to it to die for our own land, language, education, people – that’s the point when we believed that we exist.
This is because it is also the language of retribution, if you will, compensation for Ukrainian writers who died in the camps and were shot in the basements of the Russian, and then Soviet, empires. For enforced silence, for the exclusion of Ukrainian school children from Ukrainian lessons in Soviet schools (the only subject in the school curriculum, which, it was believed, could be chosen at will).
Today, we are witnessing the expression of Ukrainian against the context of how the world talks about this great war, calling it a ‘conflict’ or a ‘situation’. How the world replaces the concept of ‘victory’ with the concept of ‘peace’. How it turns a blind eye to genocide, the destruction of culture, the erasure of identity. All these are particular and terrible losses that no one can share with us. Instead, they try to balance them, sometimes with care, dividing it equally between the victim and the killer, caring about who is destroyed and who destroys, who hurts and who inflicts pain.
We are asked to come to an agreement with our enemies in various world languages, we are taught tolerance. They protect the influence of Russian culture on the world, turning a blind eye to the obvious: this culture has not coped with the problems in its own country. It is only in Ukrainian that that I feel summonses not to falsify reality and fight to the end.
The modern tolerant world does not want to hear hatred, cursing, or age in any language: it would like to remove or hide them, as social networks do with video and photo content from the war. However, our language grows stronger from experiencing powerful emotions, and the scars of this war will never disappear from it. The scars of our losses, our dead, our schools, museums and universities destroyed by Russian missiles.
After each war, the language of the people becomes changed. The language we use today it is no longer the Ukrainian that caught the ear of a tourist in Kyiv or Lviv a year ago, while they were marveling at the local cultural diversity, and even more so at the low cost of taxis and hotels, tasty and cheap food. Today, it is a language scorched by war, and extremely strong in its expressiveness. Our generation of Ukrainian writers is the first to work in this new Ukrainian style, which requires special vigilance and responsibility.
Language and war are the subject of more than one scientific study, however, I have for now allowed myself to generalise from my own experience of creating poetry.
We need your help to create projects and materials aimed to defend freedom of speech, popularize Ukrainian culture and values of independent journalism.
Your donation means support for discussions, awards, festivals, authors’ trips to regions and PEN book publications.