The Language of Poetry and Losses by Oksana Kutsenko. Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj
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.
Poems by Oksana Kutsenko, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj
ПЕРШИЙ ВІРШ ПРО ВІЙНУ
ці розмови ми відкладемо на потім
може колись від них не гірчитиме в роті
може колись не горітиме небо над нами
зараз не можна про те що роз’ятрює рани
ми відкладемо все що просило тиші
ночі розніжені вишні розтрачену ніжність
передчуття чудес на весняних вулицях
відкладуться на потім а може забудуться
ми відкладемо смуток і ностальгію
поки пульсує біль вимучує біль
крик про загибель радості
крик що не буде нової
не відкладемо зі зброєю чи без зброї
поки з нами наші любов і сором
ми наповнені болем і ним говоримо
поки своїх не оплачемо всіх до останнього
болем кричатимуть наші бузки і каштани
болем кричатиме навіть чуже мовчання
The First Poem About The War
We defer these conversations till later
Maybe one day they won’t leave a bitter taste in the mouth
Maybe one day the sky above us won’t burn
Now we cannot talk about what provoked these wounds
We defer everything that asks for silence
The nights are spoiled cherries, their tenderness wasted
The anticipation of marvels on the springtime streets
Will be postponed until later or possibly forgotten
We will set aside sadness and nostalgia
While pain throbs unbearably
That cry about the loss of joy
The cry that no new delight will be
Will not be delayed with weapons or without them
While our love and shame are with us
We are filled with pain and speak with it
Till we have not wept over every one till the last
Our lilacs and chestnut trees cry with pain
As does even another’s silence.
НЕНАВИСТЬ І ЛЮБОВ
чи перегорить колись ненависть як – казали – перегорає любов?
чи розчиниться її голос чи смак забудеться?
біль увійшов по руків’я щоб лишитися в грудях
ми – поранені люди ми – зруйновані вулиці
іменами загиблих названі всі до одної
чи триватиме ненависть вічно чи зсядеться згорнеться?
поки ми по шматку відтинаємо в себе найм’якше –
впізнаємо смерть у надривному – не одне покоління – кашлі
і у промені золотому і у зізнанні горлиці
а у згарищах і руїнах – тривке наше щастя
якщо раптом не встигнемо – нам ніхто нічого не винен
значить наша ненависть недостатньо зла і голодна
на годиннику людства вмирають останні хвилини
але нам не можна з ними
не можна сьогодні
коли серце летить наче м’яч до трави чи безодні
Hatred And Love
will hatred ever burn out as, they said, love burns out?
will its voice dissolve or its taste be forgotten?
that pain ascended the sleeve to remain in the chest,
we are wounded people, we are the destroyed streets
the dead are all named down to the last one,
will the hatred last forever or will it settle?
while we cut away the softest thing piece by piece in ourselves
we recognize death in the hacking cough of more than one generation
and in the gold ray and in the dove’s confession
and in the fires and ruins – our lasting happiness
if suddenly we do not have time – no one owes us anything
so our hatred is not malevolent and hungry enough
the last minutes are dying on the clock of humanity
but we can’t die with them today
when the heart flies like a ball to the grass or the abyss
Заплющую очі щоб згадати як вдома пахне полуниця
Побачити квіти на сукнях які носили того року як я поїхала
Перелічити горобців на шовковиці дитинства
Дочитати історію якою воно починалося
Встигнути перебігти на червоне вулицю у центрі Чернігова
Стрибнути у калюжу
Скрикнути в арці
Почути як кусає шкіру шкільна уніформа середини вісімдесятих
Привід роздратуватися на саму себе
Майже себе зненавидіти
Облизати губи від сліз яких насправді давно не було –
Десь усередині зупинився час
Десь усередині зачаїлася смерть
Тепер я знаю що в мене вкрала війна –
Те що залишається під повіками
Тепер знаю чого не вкраде ніколи –
Вміння їх опускати
I Close My Eyes
I close my eyes so I can remember
The smell of strawberries at home
To see the flowers on the dresses that were worn that year
When I went to count the sparrows on the mulberry tree of childhood
To read the story with which it began
And run over the road swiftly when the lights were red
On the street in the centre of Chernihiv,
Jump into a puddle
Scream into the arch
And feel how that the mid-eighties school uniform
Bite into the skin
A reason to be angry with myself
Indeed almost to hate myself
To lick the tears from my lips
that actually have long not been there.
Time has stopped somewhere inside
Somewhere inside death loiters.
I know now what the war stole from me –
That which remains under the eyelids
And I know what will never be stolen
The ability to lower them.
торкаючись леза весни вітер дужчає повертає нам осінь
чуєш, за високою травою плаче річка?
за суєтою комах і веселощами птахів – вона то далеко то близько
губимося між сухих очеретів набираємо до взуття пісок
щоб нарешті подивитися їй в очі –
там ще стільки бажань стільки леліток сонця
так легко гойдаються в гніздах надії
так ясно відбивається спокій сусідньої гори
але річко не дай нам бути обманутими
покажи що в тебе на дні
між важким камінням помилок
і покрученим гіллям любові
покажи усе від чого колись відмовилась пам’ять
що пустило власне коріння набувши сили
страшної сили яка одного дня відкриється кожному
що в тобі втопили вороги
коли забирали нашу молодість
наші сни наших коханих
розкажи якою чорною стане проти ночі твоя вода
а на світанку забарвиться кров’ю
коли на піску захолонуть сліди
тих кому ти не повірила
хто не повірив у тебе
торкаючись леза води вітер спиняється
не дай нам річко збрехати
не дай бути обманутими
touching the blade of spring, the wind strengthens and returns autumn to us
do you hear the river weeping behind the tall grass?
behind the bustle of insects and the birds’ happiness – it is either far or near,
we get lost among the dry reeds and accumulate sand in our shoes
to finally look into the river’s eyes –
there are still so many wishes, so many of the sun’s rays
swinging so lightly in the nests of hope
the tranquillity of the nearby mountain so clearly reflected
but, River, don’t let us be deceived
show us what’s in your depths
between the heavy stones of error
and love’s twisted branches
show us everything that memory once refused
That put down its own roots and gained strength
a terrible power which will one day be revealed to everyone
that foes have drowned in you
when they took away our youth
and our dreams of our loved ones
tell me how black your water will become against the night
and how at dawn it will be stained with blood
when the footprints cool on the sand
of those in whom you did not believe
and who did not believe in you
touching the blade of water, the wind halts
Oh River, don’t let us be lied to
don’t let us be fooled
Stanzas for Ukraine: Let’s Write with Ukrainian Authors
In the manner borrowed from the Poetry School’s ‘Transreading’ practice, this blog series invites us to write in conversation with Ukrainian authors. Our close readings and our new texts are also gestures of our support and appreciation. As writers, we too can learn from our Ukrainian colleagues and their international translators.
‘Do Not Translate This!’
Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
‘Our language grows stronger from experiencing powerful emotions,’ writes Oksana Kutsenko – about Ukrainian, but also, perhaps, by extension, of other languages, too. ‘This language now is a way to survive grief,’ she concludes. Perhaps this observation might be true about other languages as well. And yet Kutsenko’s last poem in this selection cautions with the strength of the capitalized title: ‘Do Not Translate This!’ Therefore, ask yourself in your own poem: what do I not want to have translated? What emotions, images, experiences, memories, scenarios, habits, practices… Indeed, which conversations should be deferred till later?
You’re always welcome to invent your own writing games in response to the presented poems. Share your texts with our writing community here.
The nine previous invitations to write can be found here.
Invitation to Donate
This project aims to support refugees displaced by the conflict through raising funds for the World Central Kitchen. Please consider donating via their site here.
Оksana Kutsenko is a Ukrainian poet, performer, and children’s author and a member of PEN Ukraine. She has performed at literary festivals in South Africa and Ukraine and been published in numerous anthologies in both countries. Her poetry collections include The Chrysalis (Old Lion Publishing House, 2016). She has also worked on numerous interdisciplinary projects including I Will Be Waiting for You Under The Kaice-Drat (Kyiv-Lviv-Chernihiv, 2016, Ukrainian poets translating and reading poets from today’s Africa in collaboration with ethno-theatre Dyvyna, Donetsk region, drum theatre Afri-KAN, contemporary dance theatre and Black and Orange Dance Production).
Poetry School is proud to have partnered with tutors Steve Komarnyckyj and Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, and PEN International’s Judyth Hill to publish Stanzas for Ukraine.
Every fortnight we publish a blog written by some of the most significant contemporary Ukrainian poets, who will reflect upon the more than 300 years of historical conflict their country has endured, the on-going struggle, and highlight poems and voices from the past and present. This will launch a new strand of Poetry School work, giving voice to those globally who are being silenced and providing a platform for those suffering forced migration. Future strands will include Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and more.
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