This, my last, issue of MPT features poems of conflict and protest from Russia and Ukraine. The conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine is politically intricate, and at the same time it is diabolically simple. In 2014 Russia covertly invaded an area of Ukraine with an ethnically and linguistically Russian population after illegally annexing the Crimea. A fierce war broke out, with daily casualties and atrocities, and even now it smoulders on in the area. Propaganda and false truths draw a veil over the war and its many casualties and victims, and serve at the same time to heap grievance upon grievance; to ensure that peace will remain provisional and uneasy.
A generation of Ukrainian poets has risen to the challenge with war poems of exceptional honesty, integrity and courage. If you want to know what it feels like to live through a European twenty-first century war then you should start by reading this poetry, just as you might well start with the poetry of the First World War. Poetry in war has a heightened significance because, as Ilya Kaminsky writes, it ‘like a seismograph, registers the violating occurences’ that everyday forms of language are no longer able to measure. Poetry continues to insist on the seismic tremors of Keats’s ‘felt truth’. Awkward, uncomfortable and deeply individual, ‘felt truth’ resists the monolith of propaganda and the easy generalisations of foreign policy and journalism. It also resists the glamour of sacrifice and the glibness of despair. As Serhiy Zhadan writes of a war victim: ‘There will come a time when some bastard will surely write heroic poems about this. | There will come a time when some other bastard will say this isn’t worth writing about.’
It’s worth noting here that the number of Ukrainian poets includes some Russian speaking poets, as Ukraine is linguistically divided and many of her citizens have two mother tongues. The front line is along ethnic and linguistic lines of difference; however many Ukrainians will say that until the protests in Kiev in 2013 the differences between East and West were at the level of jokes about ethnic stereotypes. The poetry by Russian authors here is equally unsettling because it lays bare a fractured and troubled post-Soviet landscape and a poetics which is born of anxiety and loneliness.
I have translated and included here Maria Stepanova’s poem ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’, because it is a direct commentary on the war in Ukraine: ‘a civil war’ as Stepanova has said, ‘in the sense that all wars are civil wars’, although of course it is also a civil war in the sense that both sides have a common tongue and a common Soviet and imperial history. Stepanova explodes the martial culture and jingoism of post-Soviet Russia into a million constituent splinters and shows the complicity of culture in violence. Culture is simply the lubrication needed to insert a people into a new war: the erosion of real memory by mythmaking, the destruction of real humans in the fabrication of heroes. ‘War of the Beasts and Animals’ is a new modernist poem, political, angry and lyrical.
The poetry from this region has never been more necessary to us. It provides us with a true insight into modern war and its psychological effects, measured with the finest instruments: lyric poets. With its truth-saying powers it also alerts us to the danger of imperial reach and the glorification of nationalism and military might. There is much that prophetic Russian poets can tell us about our own future.