Ukrainian Poets: Five Barometers of Wartime

April is Poetry Month in Canada—why not support Ukrainian poets and buy this wonderful book?
April is Poetry Month in Canada—why not support Ukrainian poets and buy this wonderful book?

A poet is like a barometer for the psyche of a nation. It cannot change the weather. But it shows us what the weather is.

The voice of Zbigniew Herbert, a Polish poet, essayist, drama writer and moralist, one of his country’s best known writers. April is National Poetry Month so I had prepared a blog. Then came Putin’s War. No words of mine nor a grand poem about magnolias are appropriate for his kleptopian crimes. Instead,  in Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine, I found a brilliant compilation of poets from which I selected five “barometers” of wartime.

Born in Kharkiv, Anastasia Afanasieva is the author of six books of poetry translated into English, German, Italian, Ukrainian and Belarusian. Anastasia has won numerous major literary awards and prizes, including the Debut Prize and the Russian Award, two of the top awards in Russian poetry. The English language translation of her poem about refugees won First Place in the 2014 Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize Competition.

Photo: Stanislav Lvovsky, Calvert Journal

“She says we don’t have the right kind of basement in our building”

when a four-wheeler with a mortar
passed down the street
we didn’t ask who are you
whose side are you on
we fell on the floor and lay there.

I listen, and I don’t know
if heaven and hell really exist
they must be separated by a journey
in a minivan, packed pull of people
where plums ripen in silence
where people fall to the ground
and we’re experiencing these moments
after death

“You Whose Inner Void”
Your inner void is larger
than the hole in your pocket,
larger than a black hole

“Can there be poetry after”

I ask
Is poetry possible
At the moment history stirs
Once its steps
Reverberate through every heat?

Impossible to speak of anything else,
Talking becomes impossible.

As I write this
Very close to me
Every hope is being ended.

Lyudmyla Khersonska was born in Moldova but lives in Odessa. She is the author of two books of poetry and speaks about Rus­sia’s aggression and war in Ukraine on Radio Liberty. Her poetry, translated into Ukrainian, Lithuanian and German, has garnered sev­eral literary awards and she has been named laureate and winner of the Voloshin competition. She also translates English-language poets into Russian, including Vladimir Nabokov and Seamus Heaney.

Photo: L’Academic Studies Press

“A country in the shape of a puddle, on the map”

Any country is an easy target in March,
in June, July, August, September, October,
as long as it rains
and maps litter the street.

Stop, who goes there, General Oaken Knees.
The Red Square of his naked chest shines the way.
And behind him, a half-shadow, half-man,
half-orphan, half-exile, whose mouth is as coarse
as his land —
double-land where every cave is at war.

Do you say there won’t be a war? I say nothing.

A small gray person cancels
this twenty-first century,
adjusts his country’s clocks
for the winter war.

It is said the Russian-language poet Boris Khersonsky, who because of Euromaidan and Putin’s attack on Donbas refuses to lecture in Russian, “might be the most observant and creative literary reader and critic of the Putin empire’s propagandist language and its highly sophisticated and, alas, effective apparatus.” A psychologist and psychiatrist, he became chair of the department of clinical psychology at Odessa National University in 1999. In Soviet times, he disseminated nonconformist literature through unofficial channels and after its collapse published seventeen collections of poetry and essays in Russian, and recently in Ukrainian. He has received the Brodsky Stipend and the Jury Special Prize at the Literaris Festival for East European Literature.

Photo: Craft Magazine

“When wars are over we just collapse”

When wars are over you don’t know what to
do anymore
it might even be nice if the enemy knocked
on the door
killed your old mother raped your daughter
or sister
then we can tighten our belts and stand
shoulder to shoulder
march through europe and capture a capital
and mark this tremendous day in the state

Lyuba Yakimchuk, who lives in Kyiv, is also a playwright and screenwriter. Her poetry has won prestigious awards, including the International Slavic Poetic Award (Ukraine) and the International Poetic Award of the Kovalev Foundation (USA). Her latest poetry collection is Apricots of Donbas. You can read a CBC interview with Lyuba here.

Photo: CBC: Lost Horse Press/Dirk


he says: photo? who gives a damn about your
he says: the school has melted—this winter
is too hot
he says: I haven’t seen your teacher, please
don’t ask me to look for her
he says: I saw your godmother, she’s no
longer with us

run away you all
drop everything and run away
leave your house, your cellar with apricot
jam jars
and pink chrysanthemums on the terrace
shoot your dogs, so they don’t suffer
abandon this land, just go

he says: don’t talk nonsense, we throw dirt
on coffins daily
he says: everything will be fine, salvation
will come soon
he says: the humanitarian aid is on the way

Photo: A Quaint Life blog

Serhiy Zhadan is Ukraine’s Rock-Star Poet. During a pro-Kyiv demonstration in 2021 on Kharkiv’s Freedom Square when pro-Russian rioters demanded that he kneel and kiss the Russian flag,  Serhiy told them to go f*** themselves, eliciting (can you believe it?) protests from cultural elites all over the world. His books, including his first major novel, Depeche Mode that “peels back the skin on the post-Soviet 1990s”, have been translated into more than ten languages. Serhiy plays with a band called Dogs in Space. You can read Mayhill Fowler’s story on Serhiy here.

Photo: Фото: Дмитрий Чирик/Facebook

“Three Years Now We’ve been Talking about the War”

Village street—
Gas line’s broken.
Accident site. Danger.

Emergency crew isn’t coming—
No one wants to ne out during shootings.
When you call them—they’re silent,
Don’t say anything,
Like they don’t understand you.

In the store next to the day-old bread,
They sell funeral wreaths.
There’s no one out in the street—
Everyone’s left.

There are no lines.
Not for bread,
Not for the wreaths.

Have you found poets who show us the psyche of a nation, be it Ukraine, Russia or some other country? Even a few lines can provide perspective, solace, the hope for better “weather”, the unrepressed joy of magnolia blossoms. As the editors write in the Afterword of Words for War:

While the other means and modes of literature need time and concentrated effort of attention to pronounce their observation, poetry has the capacity to react urgently and uses the fact of shattered language as its tragic building material.


Kaminsky, Ilya. “Ilya Kaminsky on Ukrainian, Russian, and the Language of War”. LitHub, February 28, 2022. A superb article that references many of the poets in Words for War. Ilya Kaminsky is the USSR-born, Ukrainian-Russian-Jewish-American poet that the BBC named among “12 Artists who changed the world” and author of the iconic poem “ We Lived Happily During the War”.

Maksymchuk, Oksana and Rosochinsky, Max, Editors. Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine. Boston: Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University, with Borderlines Foundation for Academic Studies and Academic Studies Press, 2017. In this inspiring collection, the editors have selected one-hundred twenty poems from sixteen poets throughout the Ukraine. Oksana wrote two award-winning books of poetry in Ukrainian and has received the Richmond Lattimore translation prize. She teaches philosophy at the University of Arkansas. Max, a poet and translator of twentieth century Russian poetry, has been nominated for the PEN International New Voices Award. He and Oksana won first place in the 2014 Brodsky-Spender competition. You can read more about this book here.

Photo Locations: 1. Plums, Klippers Organics, Cawston, BC  2. The watch belonging to Magellan’s grandfather, Ernie Reynolds from Biggar, Saskatchewan 3. Nyksund, Norway 4. Credo Restaurant, Trondheim, Norway

Snyder, Timothy. The Road to Unfreedom. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2018. An excellent book on what is happening in Russia, Ukraine and America dedicated “For the reporters, the heroes of our time.” To hear what he thinks about unfreedom and the future (grim) you can watch an interview with Tim on Bill Maher’s “Real Time”, the first show of 2022.


2 Responses

  1. My Grandfather on the Matthew side, said to me, join the military and see the world, my Grandmother, immediately said I hope that he does not have to do that, to see the world.
    Profound words I will never forget.

    If only we could remember the past atrocities and strive to not do that again, would not the world be a better place?

    “When will we ever learn”


    1. The wisdom of poets, of those like your grandparents who have lived a long life, like Madeleine Albright, who when she went to her birthplace, the Czech Republic, on the 50th anniversary of World War II, noticed people flying American flags.They had been handed out by American G.I.s a half-century earlier and passed down from generation to generation “as the embodiment of their hope for a better, freer future.” What flags will Ukrainians, half a century from now, be flying?

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