Over a River Strangely Rosy: Reading Poetry in Wartime

Historian Joan Neuberger turns to poetry at a time of war.

By Joan NeubergerMarch 31, 2022

    Over a River Strangely Rosy: Reading Poetry in Wartime

    I spent most of my life not reading poetry. Right now it’s the only language that makes sense to me.

    But I can’t write poetry, so I don’t have the words I need to talk about the subject that preoccupies all of us: the vicious, criminal, irrational Russian war on Ukraine and the lies that the Russian government is using to justify its plunder and murder.

    And my familiar historical voice — narrative, engaged, analytical — appears to have fled. As if it wants to escape the carnage, the need to understand and explain, the tangled complications that come with loving and identifying in some way with this whole region.

    Some of my colleagues in history and the social sciences do have words, though, and I am full of admiration for people who have managed to pull their thoughts together to say something important about these incomprehensible events as they unfold, something to counter the Russian government’s lies: Francine Hirsch on memory politics and war crimes; Mark Edele on Putin’s paranoia; Victoria Smolkin, Rebecca Adeline Johnston, and Matthew Lenoe on Putin’s and Medinsky’s nationalist-fantasy history; Rory Finnan on misunderstanding Ukraine; John Connelly on Ukrainian democracy and Russian empire; Nicholas Mulder on sanctions; Hilary Lynd and Adam Tooze on the view from Africa; Sasha Razor on the view from Belarus; Maksim Trudolyubov and Tony Wood on “how to lose a war by starting one”; Keith Gessen on “how we got here”; Nancy Ries and Catherine Wanner’s collection of ethnographies; and the many daily observations and acts of witness appearing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Magazine, and elsewhere.

    When I say I can’t write about this, I know it’s a dodge. It’s my job to explain things about Russia and its various incarnations of empire. I know how to do that — I’ve been doing it for a long time. I consider scholarship to be as necessary as anything humans do. But, in this moment, analysis seems to me to be somehow incomprehensible and profoundly unsatisfying.

    I’m not alone.

    Here is the prolific Ukrainian writer, Andrey Kurkov, in The Guardian:

    I have long since run out of words to describe the horror brought by Putin to Ukrainian soil. […] It’s the time of year to prepare the fields for sowing, but this work is not being done. The soil of the wheat fields is full of metal — fragments of shells, pieces of blown-up tanks and cars, the remains of downed planes and helicopters. And it’s all covered in blood. The blood of Russian soldiers who do not understand what they are fighting for, and the blood of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who know that if they do not fight, Ukraine will no longer exist. In its place there will be a cemetery with a caretaker’s hut and some kind of governor general sent from Russia will sit and guard it.

    And on Twitter, Nika Melkozerova, the stalwart Ukrainian journalist, writes: “I am one of 2 million people left in Kyiv, once a busy vibrant city of more than 4 million. Now it is almost empty. Ravens have become so loud. People are silent, sad and polite. It’s the 18th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine. And I can’t digest how the world let this happen.”

    I have been reading about this region of the world since I was a teenager. Since February 24, I’ve been reading all day long and well into the night, what seem to be genuinely insightful essays by scholars I admire, and I still can’t digest how the world let this happen. Russia’s war on Ukraine feels both very close and very far away.

    So poetry.

    It was Odesa-born Ilya Kaminsky’s 2019 poetry collection, Deaf Republic, that first whetted my appetite. When I read the opening poem of that collection, “We Lived Happily During the War,” I couldn’t do anything else for the rest of the day. I wasn’t surprised that it went viral when the Russian invasion began.

    And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

    but not enough, we opposed them but not

    enough. I was
    in my bed, around my bed America

    was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house—

    I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

    In the sixth month
    Of a disastrous reign in the house of money

    in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money.
    our great country of money, we (forgive us)

    lived happily during the war.

    My whole life has been punctuated by alternately protesting and reckoning with complicity in wars my native country and adopted country have perpetrated. My first immersive political experience was watching the Vietnam War on TV when I was in high school. We saw lies exposed, imperialism and military power escalated and eventually defeated. I spent my weekends at anti-war rallies. But I never had to put myself in a position to get arrested and I was in no danger of being drafted. My suburban demonstrations were as much about meeting boys and listening to Jefferson Airplane as they were about principles. After the draft lottery was introduced, our family orthodontist pulled my mother aside to tell her that he could get an exemption for my brother. The horror of My Lai is seared into my brain, but Vietnam was far away, and we lived pretty happily during the war.

    Kaminsky ends his recent New York Times essay about poetry in a time of crisis with his trademark combination of the quotidian and the timeless. One of his friends in Odesa counters panic food buying by “trying to do art. Read out loud. Trying to distract myself.” Another friend, a journalist, asks him to send poems and essays because they are putting together a literary magazine. “In the middle of war,” Kaminsky notes drily, “he is asking for poems.”

    In January this year I finally read the Russian writer Teffi’s account of fleeing the Bolsheviks into Ukraine in 1918, Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, translated by a team led by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. Her vivid, often wry descriptions of the worlds she encountered and of the nearly constant fear she experienced haunts me even more now that what she described is being reenacted in all the same places. Villages along railway lines, Kyiv, Odesa. At one point her friends in Kyiv — mostly other writers from Petersburg and Moscow — are talking about starting a literary magazine, which seemed ridiculous in Teffi’s view (and in mine, when reading it two months ago): a denial of the reality closing in on them. Today, though, Kaminsky’s friend’s project seems like a perfectly reasonable response to catastrophe, perhaps the only alternative to pulling up a chair to watch the sun.

    Also on Twitter this week, the poet, translator, and editor of Los Angeles Review of Books, Boris Dralyuk wrote this about a translation he will publish soon: “The poet Boris Khersonsky, who recently left Odesa with his wife and fellow poet Lyudmyla, finds a perfect image for historical contingency in the lines below.”

    this morning’s rain overpowers the dim morning light
    a paper boat floats on the current it was at one point
    the head-of-state’s portrait but folded just right
    it’s a boat that knows not where it floats

    a peculiar summer no sunlight no warmth
    been pouring all day and life wouldn’t stay
    thoughts and cigarette filters also drift off
    a boat once a portrait is floating away.

    This is the only kind of language that makes history sensible to me now.

    I have no analytical frame of reference for linking the irrational events taking place now, including the increasingly arbitrary and harsh repression of Russian speech. Last week I saw a video of Russian forces blowing up the car of an elderly couple driving down a road. Just now I received news that Russian troops murdered a highly regarded physicist outside of Kyiv when he was on his way to evacuate his family. Nothing that comes out of Vladimir Putin’s mouth has any substance. As ruthless as these acts are, the boat, once a portrait, seems to just float away.

    In a different pitch, the urgency of everyday life in wartime seems to have jolted some poets out of their usual mode of writing. Pure outrage motivates Daria Serenko, a feminist poet and activist who appears in another of the acclaimed poetry publications of recent years, F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, edited and translated by a team led by Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Ainsley Morse. Serenko uses a kind of poetic diction to write a manifestly unpoetic, impassioned exhortation to fellow Russians in the first days after the invasion.

    I have never spoken like this before but these words may be the only ones that it is generally possible to say in this reality, so let them be like this:

    Stop being pathetic cowards, conformists, patient sufferers, loyal citizens, stop being apolitical.
    The world has changed. Our apathy might be the cause of the destruction of a great number of people, including our children and loved ones.
    Stop sitting in cafes. Stop planning vacations. Stop listening to propaganda. Don’t die like fools. Stop being scared of prison and arrests, I swear to God, those are not the worst options.
    Join antiwar activists and movements. Protest this war. Even if you are Putin supporters, I doubt you are suicide supporters.
    We thought there would be no war, but the war came. And, for the first time in years, the nuclear threat is no empty threat.
    Stop whining about how much you’re suffering from inaction. Ukraine is the one suffering.
    All of these harsh words I address not only to others, but to myself as well.

    (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky)

    That words fail us (or some of us) in the midst of violence is nothing new. Historians will also recognize the Putin regime’s efforts to drain words of meaning — by inverting them, by lying with them, by twisting them to justify the unjustifiable — in order to delegitimize language altogether. Fran Hirsch pointed out on Facebook that the Russian Prosecutor’s Office invoked the 1948 UN definition of genocide to justify blocking Instagram. “Every day,” Fran wrote, “the Putin regime’s cynical use of the language of international law seems to reach new heights.”

    We need the work of scholars to expose those lies and to amplify them as lies. But we also need poetic truth. And poets are fighting back. The incredible flourishing of poetry in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus in recent years is almost exclusively driven by politics and the need to challenge monolithic patriarchal and imperial powers.

    “In a twist of macabre irony,” the acclaimed poet-scholar Polina Barskova observes in her afterword to Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine, “this anthology testifies that if anything is possible after the war—it is poetry [which] uses the fact of shattered language as its tragic building material.”

    I’ve been reading Words for War, edited by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky, obsessively and, I confess, somewhat randomly, since the day Russia invaded Ukraine. This volume collects poems written in Ukraine after Maidan and in response to the so-called “hybrid war” going on in Donbas since 2014. Barskova argues that the Maidan revolution and the undefined new form of warfare — a war that denies being a war — brought about an entirely new poetics. The collection is rich in its diversity, but that is a meal for another day. For me, the fragmentary, splintered mosaic is the ideal form for this time. This is writing composed of Kurkov’s “pieces of blown-up tanks and cars, […] all covered in blood.” And it’s these poems made of shrapnel, sometimes with only a tenuous, somewhat broken, connection to recognizable reality that I want to read. In Oksana Lutsyshyna’s “don’t touch live flesh,” my UT Austin colleague, the celebrated Ukrainian writer, gives us an immediate sensation of pain. At the same time she makes it clear that this pain is not for us to claim as our own.

    don’t touch live flesh
    if you must, touch a wound no longer open
    this one — let me embrace it
    coil myself around it

    leave it alone, let me carry it back home
    alive in a boat of flesh
    this resolute flower of summer
    this most succulent of its berries

    (translated by Maksymchuk and Rosochinsky)

    What’s meaningful about reading poetry now is not the sense it makes, or the world of grief and fear and anger and wreckage and people on the move that it represents, but the ability of some poems to convey a sensory-emotional reality that defies logic in the same way this war defies logic.

    Eventually it will be time for me to return to narrative and explanation, to prose, but I don’t want to abandon what I’ve absorbed from the poetic voices I’ve been listening to. Some poems are able to mediate between the analytical and the illogical and “Some People,” by Wislawa Szymborska, is one of those. Historical in the devastating specificity of its details, it is at the same time transhistorical in showing that no matter how war is explained or justified, whether fought for ideological or delusional or territorial or imperial reasons, for ordinary people “some invisibility would come in handy.”

    Some people fleeing some other people.
    In some country under the sun
    and some clouds.

    They leave behind some of their everything,
    sown fields, some chickens, dogs,
    mirrors in which fire now sees itself reflected.

    On their backs are pitchers and bundles,
    the emptier, the heavier from one day to the next.

    Taking place stealthily is somebody’s stopping,
    and in the commotion, somebody’s bread somebody’s snatching
    and a dead child somebody’s shaking.

    In front of them some still not the right way,
    nor the bridge that should be
    over a river strangely rosy.
    Around them, some gunfire, at times closer, at times farther off,
    and, above, a plane circling somewhat.

    Some invisibility would come in handy,
    some grayish stoniness,
    or even better, non-being
    for a little or a long while.

    Something else is yet to happen, only where and what?
    Someone will head toward them, only when and who,
    in how many shapes and with what intentions?
    Given a choice,
    maybe he will choose not to be the enemy and
    leave them with some kind of life.

    (translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)


    My sincere thanks to Lisa Moore, Michael Kunichika, Valerie Kivelson, Rachel Watson, and Charters Wynn for their readings and inspiration.


    A version of this article was originally published in Newsnet, the newsletter of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

    Joan Neuberger is Earl E. Sheffield Regents Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches modern Russian culture in social and political context, with a focus on the politics of the  arts. Her most recent book, This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (Cornell, 2019), was a finalist for 4 awards and won the American Historical Association's George L. Mosse Book Prize. She is also the president of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (for 2022).

    LARB Contributor

    Joan Neuberger is Earl E. Sheffield Regents Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches modern Russian culture in social and political context, with a focus on the politics of the  arts. Her most recent book, This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (Cornell, 2019), was a finalist for 4 awards and won the American Historical Association's George L. Mosse Book Prize. She is also the president of the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (for 2022).


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