The eleventh volume in Lost Horse Press’s Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series, Kateryna Kalytko’s Nobody Knows Us Here, and We Don’t Know Anyone processes separation, loss, and drastic personal and social changes while hinting at the ongoing war in Ukraine. Departures, expulsions, and displacements permeate the collection, drawing on Ukraine’s historical importance and complexities and elevating losses, wars, and even abandoned buildings to a universal, yet mythical realm. Vividly stunning, the collection leaves readers contemplating the meaning of banishment, home, and geographical, even cultural, loss.
Adding to the poems’ mythical tones is the fact that the poems are untitled. The lack of poem titles reinforces the sense of loss, displacement, and departure. It also creates continual fragmentation, and this fragmentation mimics the separation of families, the annexation of a sovereign country’s territories, and the destruction occurring because of ongoing war. The fact the individual poems can be identified by their first lines also mirrors how refugees and displaced persons, especially those seeking refuge in foreign countries, are identifiable only by passports and paperwork. The significant parts of their identity, their livelihood, and ultimately their lifestyles are left behind.
The abandonment of place is a key motif in Kalytko’s collection. In this regard, “Little dove, gray throat, caught by a black ribbon” eloquently captures the sense of timelessness abandonment creates. The speaker makes a beautiful observation: “The evening is a spoonful of honey in warm water” that “dissolves quietly, viscous.” A sense of eternal pause takes shape as the speaker reveals that the house once served as a hiding place for two people who “drown in one another for many hours” as “the war with the tide gnaws at the shore.” However, the couple’s spirits live eternally in the house. The speaker states, “In this house / there hasn’t been anyone for a hundred years. / Only the dove.” Thus, much like Markiyan Kamysh’s poetic takes in Stalking the Atomic City about nature’s reclamation of the environments destroyed by humankind, Kalytko relies on the symbolism of abandoned structures to convey the past and the present.
“That time after the subject came the verdict” testifies to how no matter where individuals migrate, their first homeland is always within them. The speaker observes, “A human being / is always a bit of a home, especially for someone else.” The speaker compares individuals to buildings which others will destroy and rebuild: “They will take you apart too, just you wait.” For the speaker, the transformative moment occurs when one individual recognizes the same place, the same experiences in another person. In the context of war, and specifically the current war in Ukraine, the shared and long-lasting trauma individuals experience may initially isolate them as individuals. The speaker conveys this recognition as an observance of another individual’s physical actions:
What does a woman think about at a moment like this?
About how you, feeling anxious, raise your head,
how nervously your Adams apple moves, how three times
you repeat exclamations, affirmative and negative
The speaker’s clinical observation of personal mannerisms is intimate. This intimacy, and the recognition of oneself and one’s experiences in another person, mirrors the structural deconstruction the speaker conveyed in the poem’s initial lines.
“I will live for you so defenselessly I could die for you” is another poem relying on natural imagery as a means of processing not only the human experience but the war experience. The poem’s initial line may capture a reader’s attention, given that in the first days of the Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian resistance, fortitude, and determination created a global swath of mottos like “Be Brave Like Ukraine.” Quaint images devoid of war, violence, and bloodshed fill the poem. In it, readers see “A girl by the water” who “feeds bread to a dog” and “The fisherman at dawn covers his cough with his sleeve.” Geography is paramount in the poem. The speaker mentions the Buh, also known as the Western Buh, which flows a lengthy 516 miles through Ukraine, Poland, and Belarus. Historically, the borders of Russian gubernias and Polish voivodeships ran along the river. The speaker asks, “Where do you remember / this fog from— from around Verden? From around Ypres?” The speaker mentions these places casually. Verden is a town in Lower Saxony, Germany, situated along the river Aller. Ypres is known as the center of The Battle of Ypres during World War. The speaker’s casual tone is also tinted with a subtle, sad recognition: despite humankind’s best efforts, war is inescapable.
Translated by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna, Nobody Knows Us Here, and We Don’t Know Anyone is a testament to the solace nature offers in wartime and the boundless determination of the human spirit to survive. Its poems thematically harken back to classic works like All Quiet on the Western Front, and the verses and voices parallel those in Arrowsmith Press’s powerful anthology In the Hour of War: Poetry from Ukraine. More significantly, it is a powerful work that reminds the global community that even when wars and conflicts disappear from the headlines, they still rage—at the expense of lives and existences.
Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба–Nikola Yurtsaba) is a Ukrainian (Hutsul/Lemko) American poet and essayist. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.