War, Reality, and the Darkest Periods of Ukrainian History by Nicole Yurcaba

The poems in Arrowsmith Press’s most recent Ukrainian poetry anthology In the Hour of War: Poetry from Ukraine, edited by Carolyn Forche and Ilya Kaminsky, challenges language’s conventions. Ukrainian poets whom international poetry audiences have known for quite some time invent and reinvent capture and express the horror, grief, and reckoning with what the current war in Ukraine has offered not only to them, but Ukrainians across the globe. However, these poems boldly remind readers that while news regarding the war has all but disappeared from Western headlines, the war, for Ukrainians, remains an everyday reality.

Nonetheless, the poems in In the Hour of War are not merely see-and-respond missives which, like most political poetry, lose their flavor after the historical moment—or in the case of modern society, a few days—has passed. These poems are not only rooted in the current situation in Ukraine; they draw on other dark periods in Ukrainian history, such as Holodomor, to parallel Ukraine’s past experiences with Russian imperialism with the present one.

Boris Khersonsky utilizes historical Soviet denial of Holodomor. Holodomor refers to the starvation of millions of Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933. The starvation resulted from Soviet policies crafted to assault Ukrainians, particularly the Ukrainian peasantry, who resisted and “threatened” Soviet ideological dogma. In Khersonsky’s poem “They Printed in the Medical History,” the speaker introduces readers to the collective Soviet habit of propaganda: “They printed in the medical history: ‘There was no Holodomor. / It was the stable delusion of Anna Makhailenko, / a teacher of Ukrainian literature.’” Khersonsky utilizes real events to introduce readers to the Soviet practice of fabricating crimes against those who opposed its policies. In 1978, in Odesa, KGB officials summoned Anna Mikhailenko to discuss her circulation of literature, specifically The Gulag Archipelago. Officials issued Mikhailenko a warning after a second talk. Another common Soviet mentality regarding Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty—that Ukraine does not exist—also echoes in Khersonsky’s poem. In fact, “‘Because they don’t exist’” concludes the poem. It echoes Vladimir Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine, as Putin has continually stated that he does not believe Ukraine exists as an independent nation.

As the situation regarding Ukrainian refugees continues to influence European and global policy, one poem in the anthology epitomizes the refugee experience—Serhiy Zhadan’s “‘Take Only What is Most Important.’” Zhadan’s poem made international headlines after Dame Helen Mirren recited the poem at a vigil held for Ukraine at Trafalgar Square. The poem relies on imagery typically associated with Ukraine—icons, embroidery, fields, sunflowers. The speaker delivers stark warnings such as “We will never return again” and “You will not return, and friends will never come back.” However, Zhadan’s poem is not merely a reflection about the nearly 12 million people who fled Ukraine when Russia began its full-scale invasion. Since the annexation of Ukrainian territories like Crimea as well as the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Ukraine has experienced an internal refugee crisis as people from its eastern regions flee westward in an effort to escape Russian occupation. Thus, Zhadan’s poem parallels longer fictional works such as Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees and Mstyslav Chernov’s The Dreamtime.

Ostap Slyvynsky’s “1918” delivers to readers another historical anecdote. The year in the title refers to a formative year in Ukrainian history. At this time, Ukraine formally declared its independence from Russia. Slyvynsky’s poem opens with the gentle line “Sometimes even an exploding bullet / leaves only a tiny mark.” The poem then unfolds into a series of images remembered by an unidentified speaker. The speaker recollects only a single memory from the war: “how one day, towards the end, / a horse / fell off a platform / when a train took a turn.” The horse lies with broken legs, and no one rescues the horse. Instead, children feed the horse hay. The speaker continues:

he lay there
with broken legs and a dull eye,
charcoal black,
like a sign left by the retreating
night to mark a path for the night
that was to come.

The speaker presents the horse as an omen. They rely on words like “broken,” “dull,” “black,” and “night” to foreshadow and symbolize the violent future awaiting Ukraine as it fought for its independence. The horse, too, is a symbol entirely its own: in Ukrainian folk culture, the horse symbolizes speed, freedom, and endurance, as well as loyalty and devotion.

Alex Averbuch’s “how do you return to a town which does not exist” thematically echoes Serhiy Zhadan’s “‘Take Only What is Most Important.’” The speaker calls into question one’s ability to return to “streets with changed names— / swollen vessels that can’t find / an estuary.” Unlike Zhadan’s poem, Averbuch utilizes a looser form. Single lines such as “and you stand in this flood up to your throat” are not only emphasized because of their placement, they also act as dramatic shifts within the poem. These shifts deliver readers into longer, imagistic sections where confusion and disorientation reign: “getting mixed up how to open the door for it / with a key on a string that you’d lost / sleepily fumbling.” The speaker ultimately summarizes the refugee experience in the poem’s final two lines: “you ask: my beloveds, and where am I to go now? / where does one say goodbye to oneself these days?” The speaker’s disorientation and confusion mirror the collective one with which Ukrainians have lived, as evading drone strikes in bomb shelters and leaving behind one’s home becomes a normal daily routine.

In the Hour of War: Poetry from Ukraine also hosts some of Ukrainian literature’s premier translators, including Vitaly Chernetsky, Boris Dralyuk, Olena Jennings, Oksana Maksymchuk, Olga Livshin, Oksana Lutsyshyna, and Grace Mahoney. As Ukraine begins its counteroffensive, and as millions of Ukrainians across the nation continue living under the threat of missile and drone attacks, this anthology and others like it continue to be timely additions to the global literary canon. More significantly than that, In the Hour of War: Poetry from Ukraine adeptly captures the cultural resolve and collective determination which have, for centuries, fueled Ukrainian bravery and Ukrainians’ continual fight for democracy. 

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A 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, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and serves as Blue Ridge Community and Technical College’s Humanities Coordinator. She is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.