Poetry for Ukraine
New poetry by Sue Eisenfeld, Susan Gillis, Jack Brown, Norma Smith and John Linstrom
Everyone’s heart is broken for Ukraine. Yet another trauma, another humanitarian crisis, another refugee crisis, another crisis of human life itself.
If I know one thing about trauma, it’s that it requires active healing. So I urge you: please take good care of yourself and your people. Speak to your nervous system in whatever language it hears and tell it I am safe right now. I am safe, even if the world is dangerous.
For over five years now a true refuge for me has been this community. Thank you so much for the deep ways you have showed up. Yet again, the news has left me at a loss, contending with pain so deep it could paralyze me. But the reactions from the poets, and the warmth of this community, has given me a compass. I’ve found when the news becomes too much to bear, the right poet can show me how and why to bear it.
For now, I offer you these words below by Sue Eisenfeld, Norma Smith, Susan Gillis, Jack Brown, and John Linstrom. May the world know true and complete peace.
Poets Reading the News
The rabbi from Odessa has bought enough food
To feed his congregation for a year:1
Sugar, macaroni, canned fruit.
He has arranged security and evacuation buses, too.
In a place that was once the third largest Jewish population in the world,
Home to forty synagogues,
They remember the hangings in the streets, the burnings in the square,
Murders in the basements.
The whole of Odessa is a tomb.2
In a bed next to mine, my grandmother from Kiev
Used to wake up from nightmares, screaming.
From under my covers, in those childhood nights,
I was afraid of the ghosts in her eyes.
She could never shake the chill of Russia
And died at 60.
Now, her blood is still bound up within me.
Amid the thunk of trench digging, the thunder of war,
Are trading shawls for helmets and camouflage gear,
Taking up arms and training for combat.
And I hear her quivering voice
Echoing through the streets of Kyiv.
“Bubelah,” she whispers this time,
“When an invader comes, I will resist, and I will be furious.” 3
The worst thing in life is not death, she taught me;
It is being afraid.4
1. Rabbi Avraham Wolff, New York Times
2. Njusia Verkhovskaya, New York Times
3. Valentina Konstantinovska, BBC
4. Ruth Salton, New York Times
Cut Flowers (for Ukraine)
from the jar
My Ukraine—A Complicated History
I am trying to reconcile
what I know
with what I feel. Roots,
drying in the open air. I am trying
to forgive my mother’s father’s homeland,
that lush paysage, pale of settlement, where
pogroms lit up the sky, while my grandfather,
in a shtetl not far from Kiev,
tried to be
an internationalist and stand
with Revolution. I am trying
to understand, so I might
stand there, too. Forgive
the land? The people on it?
Solidarity forever. Starting now.
Am I trying to forget
Some sunflower, searching
the horizon before us.
Elegy in Ash
Drums beat in a foreign land
(specters of burning and ash).
On holy mountains strongmen stand
and grind to earth the past.
Hot-takes stir the electric ether
where words are deeds and seen.
The stars at night, the wordless weather,
over us and them –
listen tonight. Rend your heart
and not your clothing. Keep
each hand in ignorance apart,
as ashes settle, sleep,
and see – for now the time and day
(dusting from a Star)
to take a sacrificial way –
create, renew the art.
A Hole That Can’t Be Filled
Unleashed by a mad hand
the intemperate projectile
forged in freedom frozen in folly
flung from the hammer
with lethal force
bore a hole that can’t be filled.
A hole in a head. A hole in a heart.
A hole in a life. A country. A Constitution.
A hole that can’t be filled.
When did a school become a foxhole?
A place of worship a coffin?
A concert a cowering sea of annihilation?
A walk down the street a jungle patrol?
Looking out the window a high wire act?
A bathtub a bunker? A porcelain refuge.
Compassion and common sense flung asunder.
Tossed to the winds of cupidity and confusion.
Young lives. Ageless sorrow.
We live to honor the lost.
Sacrificed in senseless violence.
Fighting to right wrongs.
Courage comforting grief.
Staring down the barrel
of a hole that can’t be filled.
We’d love to hear back from you with any responses. Just reply to this email or email email@example.com. Wishing you health and peace.
So heartened to read these poems. Please join me here for more poetry in response to Ukraine: https://pennkemp.substack.com/p/poets-are-talking-tough-and-their?s=w