Rather than publish excerpts I decided to print the entire articled because, “Ilya Kaminsky (@ilya_poet) is the author of “Dancing in Odessa” and “Deaf Republic.” Born in the Soviet Union, he lives in Atlanta, where he teaches at Georgia Tech.
Poems in a Time of Crisis
March 13, 2022
By Ilya Kaminsky
Mr. Kaminsky is a Ukrainian American poet and the author of “Dancing in Odessa” and “Deaf Republic.”
Two weeks into the war, the Russians are still menacing my birth city, Odessa, in southwestern Ukraine. It sits on high bluffs above the Black Sea, its famous steps leading from the water to a square.
I don’t want to imagine soldiers chasing civilians through my city. Some part of my brain turns it into a farce, based on something I remember from my own childhood: In 1984, in a village just outside Odessa, I’m a 7-year-old deaf boy running in the government’s corn field. Behind me, waving his arms, runs a policeman. My grandmother, in her 60s, sprints in front of me.
We are stealing corn from the government, my grandmother and I. We get away, and we don’t stop at corn. A different day, Grandmother hauls me up onto the roof of the state farm so my long arms can reach into the branches of the plum trees. Her lips say, “Pick only the ripest.” She makes jam. Years later, I read the Russian poet Inna Kabysh: “Whoever is making a jam in Russia / knows there is no way out.”
Now I spend most of every day online, in America, trying to find ways out for Ukrainian poets and translators. Many literary organizations are willing to open their doors, bring in refugees, but unlike my grandmother and me, lots of Ukrainians writers don’t want to leave. They want their freedoms. They want their own languages — Ukrainian and Russian — in their own streets. I understand. My Jewish family keeps running from Odessa — and then returning.
Since the war began, I have received emails from journalists asking me to explain my poem “We Lived Happily During the War,” which went viral on the day Vladimir Putin’s troops began bombing my birth country. The poem was published on Poetry International in 2013, the same year the Maidan protests began in Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president at the time, was trying to lean closer to Putin and crush protests. Ukrainians rejected him; Putin stole Crimea; and the war in Donbas began.
“We lived happily during the war,” the poem begins, “and when they bombed other people’s houses, we / protested / but not enough, we opposed them but not / enough.” As I was writing the poem, my adopted country, the United States, was in the middle of its own “freedom” campaigns.
How are Putin’s bombardments of Kyiv different from George W. Bush’s bombardments of Baghdad? Both invasions used false premises: imaginary weapons of mass destruction in Bush’s case, and imaginary protection of the Russian language, among other justifications, in Putin’s. Odessa is a largely Russian-speaking city and Putin is sending troops to bombard Russian speakers — that is how he “protects” the Russian language.
“I woke up because of explosions,” my cousin Petya emailed me recently. “They were bombing the beach. Who do they think they’ll hit? This isn’t vacation season!” His jokes are typical of Odessa, a city of good humor, where April 1 is one of the most important holidays.
When I think of Russian troops arriving at the bay, I imagine them in their heavy gear, trying to huff and puff up the stairs, while Ukrainians throw Molotov cocktails and stones. My grandfathers fought the German tanks on tractors. This war feels like something out of a movie or a poem — but it is real. The city trembles.
“And when they bombed other people’s houses,” the poem goes. Who remembers the blitz of Grozny, Chechnya’s capital city, now? American politicians shouted for a bit. Then they forgot. It is lucrative to forget. The oil companies like doing business with Putin. “In the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,” the poem says, “our great country of money.”
And yet on the first day of March, over 800 people gathered for a Zoom poetry reading bringing together Ukrainian and American poets. It was one of the largest poetry readings I have witnessed. Why did so many turn to poetry in this time of crisis?
While we read poems, the 40-mile Russian military convoy threatened north of Kyiv. The West watched as young civilians took up guns, sand bags, Molotov cocktails. It’s not an especially large country, only 44 million people. There’s no one to fight for us but us.
“The West is watching us,” a friend writes. “This is their reality TV war, they are curious to see whether we will go on living, or die.”
Another friend emails: “We saw fighter aircraft, helicopters and Russian paratroopers from our window. But we walked for miles.” He tells me that they’re safe now: His wife is in Poland and he’s in Ukraine. He sends photos of the city where they lived.
A different day, a friend from Kyiv writes: “Am in Bukovina, took 2 dogs and 1 cat with me, Sophie’s choice, left 3 cats behind, being cared for by a neighbor.” It’s unbearable, she tells me. She is 12 miles from the Romanian border. Eventually, she crosses with only one dog.
An Odessa friend contacts me to say: “I’ve seen today 10-km queue in Palanca and approx 500-600 people that were walking by feet. Mamas with kids and it’s snowing and some kids crying, others have serious men’s eyes.”
Another friend, who remains in Odessa, tell me he just got back from the store: “People are grabbing any food they can find. I’m trying to do art. Read out loud. To distract myself. Try to read between the lines.”
I ask how I can help. Finally, an older friend, a lifelong journalist, writes back: “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.”
In the middle of war, he is asking for poems.