As we all watch the nightly coverage of the horror of the war in Ukraine, I wonder about the concept of war and violence around our world. I also discovered that Ukraine, in fact, is older than Russia. Kyiv (Capital of Ukraine) is 665 years older than Moscow. “Kyiv” was founded in 432 CE, in 1932 it was Ukraine’s 1,500th anniversary. Russia was founded in 1547. I paraphrase a pundit form Ukraine who said, “Kiev was a city when Moscow was just a village.”
How does this carnage make sense to some? When will it make no sense to all? I retreat to the world of poetry, a world of hope, of vision and of a sacred place for the future of our children. I am sad. I am angry, I feel hopeless, and I also feel hopeful. And I am not alone. Serhiy Zhadan is arguably the best-known contemporary Ukrainian-language poet and novelist. His 2015 poem, “Needle,” tells the story of a tattoo artist who is shot at a checkpoint. The horror of war clarifies art’s potential to create meaning, to add color to our lives.
“… carve out angels’ wings on the submissive surface of the world.
Carve, carve, tattoo artist, for our calling is to fill this world with meaning, to fill it with colors.” (“Needle,” translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk, in Words for War)
Zhadan’s poetry is filled with tough descriptions of an economically depressed, crime-filled post-Soviet industrial east. This territory inspires Zhadan: far from being a Soviet wasteland, it is a place of deep, complicated friendships, and of creative potential. Zhadan is also the charismatic front man and lyricist for the ska-punk band, Zhadan and the Dogs. He wrote these poetic lines about the Crimean Tatars, who were deported from Crimea under Stalin in 1944, and again were displaced after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“How did we build our houses? When you’re standing under winter skies, and the heavens turn and sail away, you know you’ve got to live somewhere you aren’t afraid to die.”
There are some forty armed conflicts currently in full, dare I say bloom, on our planet today. Though Ukraine garners its warranted coverage and my full compassion, I also hold space for all who are suffering under the misguided wisdom that says that war is inevitable. That somehow, this is the way men settle disputes about power, about prestige, about riches and about a thirst for control. I will take poetic license with Zhadan’s words and say, may our world become not only a place where, “you’ve got to live somewhere you aren’t afraid to die,” but also, a place where you’ve got to live somewhere you aren’t afraid to live.
May It Be So.