Halyna Kruk gave the following speech at the opening of the 23rd poesiefestival berlin on 17 June 2022.
In June 2014, while files of Russian tanks were entering the Donetsk and Luhansk Ukrainian territory, I was performing at one of the literary readings in good old Europe. I said there, “In such situation it is difficult for us Ukrainians to talk about poetry.” Upon which the MC, a 30-years-old Russian Studies scholar, burst into a fit of lecturing and telling me off: “The great Russian culture is always above the war. Tsvetayeva. Akhmatova, Pasternak had never even descended to such lowly hype themes as war. They were always looking into eternity. They were above the mundane. And what does Russia have to do with war anyway? For eight years, we have been trying to reach out to others, to break the wall of indifference. We were saying, “Hey, we’ve got war here, part of our country is occupied, were are killed every day.” But we they only reproached us and gave us advice: don’t shoot back, and then it will stop. Be wiser than them, be above it.”
All these eight years, Russia has been growing war resources and preparing for a full-scale invasion; its appetite has been growing. Meanwhile, Russian poets were stubbornly gazing into eternity without so much as noticing their country to be turning into a dictatorship, only feigning democracy, and nurturing empire narratives of grandeur. Those who felt too uncomfortable to go on living in Russia fled, yet, everywhere abroad, they continued to showcase Russian culture as a flawless grand façade of a corrupt mogul. I understand that those of you who grew up and were raised upon the best samples of Russian culture, will not like what I have to say. You might even not believe me, just like the population of Borodyanka, Hostomel or Bucha wouldn’t believe that Russians had come to murder them, unarmed civilians, without any reason, indiscriminately. Regardless of whether they were men or women, children or elderly. To murder, rape, crush them with tanks. I don’t know any metaphors that would make these words sound more appealing, or at least less shocking.
Metaphors don’t work against gunned men. No poetry can protect your car when it is being overridden by a tank while you are trying to escape from the war with your children. There is no place for poetry when you stand over the cellar of a tower block turned to rubble and hear your children and grandchildren crying under the debris, and you cannot rescue them. This is some very strong plot for a European writer to write a book for generations to come, to be read and reread. But those who experienced war personally will not write such a book because it is impossible to both survive all this and remain capable of explaining one’s anguish to others.
War creates an abyss between those who are within it and those who are at a distance. As the war wears on, I see that it is gets increasingly difficult to explain what we feel deep down to those outside. The longer the war lasts, the less desire we feel to explain. Our language becomes ever less coherent, and poetry is the last thing on our minds. With your husband at war, your relatives in a horrible occupation in Kherson District, your other relatives under constant shelling in Kharkiv District, and yourself constantly forced to reckon with air raid alarm because missiles do come and kill at times – it’s hard to be “above it”. Then poetry assumes quite specific shapes: an impromptu prayer, a sparse testimony, a lament or even a curse to the enemy. These are not forms of poetry that modern European poetry is used to: they are functional and ritual, too primordial in their emotions, too subjective and too solemn, too biased. It’s difficult to be tolerant to the enemy who is killing you or your children. Because, having killed them he goes on to kill more. I don’t think you yourselves would manage to be “above this”.
Currently, one fifth of my country is temporarily occupied. I regret that it is not a metaphor. People who live on the occupied territories are murdered, terrorized, transported to filtration camps in Russia. Parents and children are separated, denationalized. No poetry has words for this. My Facebook timeline is replete with photos of incredibly beautiful people – men and women, someone’s parents, children: they were all murdered by Russia. This is not a metaphor. Facebook blocks or deletes these photos as content sensitive material which can upset the social media users. These people in the photos were not born to die in the war, they didn’t go to university or acquire rare professions to die in the war, they didn’t nurture their talents to die in the war. The loss of these people will leave an eternal gaping wound – in our souls, in our culture, science, economy, industry, society. This is not a metaphor.
I don’t know any poetry to heal this wound. This war is killing us all, each of us in our own way. Although we might look whole and unharmed, we move along our lifelines in short runs, even in open spaces. We startle and shudder from loud sounds, and our children, who have the experience of staying in bomb shelters during shelling, don’t cry with fear. Even this young, they understand that crying may cost them their life. And this is not a metaphor either.
War makes everything so unambiguous that it leaves no space for poetry. There is only space for testimony.
Yet there are indeed some people who are currently writing beautiful and profound poetry about this war. They are our Russian colleagues: in safe places, in emigration, without shelling, on their artistic quest. They don’t have to get distracted by reality’s dirt and squalor. And no tank, no shelling, no occupant can disrupt their artistic stream.
Poetry doesn’t kill. What a shame.