Saturday, June 11, 2022

Red Letter Poem #114

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner





Red Letter Poem #114



I’m no theologian, but if I were searching the Bible for an iconic moment to symbolize the ‘fall of humankind’, it couldn’t possibly be that of a woman (or man) so desirous of knowledge that they indulge in the fruit of God’s creation.  It seems apparent that the mind inherently needs to know, that it’s a part of its very design (divine or otherwise.)  No, the symbol for me would be that of one brother so angered by the other’s good fortune, he would murder his sibling out of jealousy.  From envy and violence, all darkness arises, and what was once a garden is made barren.  So in reading Yuliya Musakovska’s new poem, I couldn’t help but see the brutal aggression of one brother-nation toward its neighbor in almost Biblical terms – especially today, as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has just surpassed its hundredth day.  But in corresponding with Yuliya, she cautioned me in my metaphor.  “There has not been any brotherhood or even friendship between Russia and Ukraine. Through the centuries, Russia was trying to colonize [my homeland], to destroy its identity.” She went on to describe how Russia has long been painting the picture of a weaker, rural, culturally-backward ‘younger brother’ nation, which cannot exist without the older one's patronage.  This version attempts to negate Ukraine’s ancient cultural legacy and its aspirations to become part of a modern European Union.  “And this deceitful narrative sounds especially cruel through the lens of today's events. . . so my address to the "older brother" [in the poem] is, of course, bitter and sarcastic.”


Yuliya Musakovska is an award-winning Ukrainian poet and translator.  The author of five poetry collections, the most recent of which – The God of Freedom (Old Lion Publishing House, 2021) – is where “Garden of Bones” first appeared.  This English translation, done by Olena Jennings and the author herself, is making its debut in the Red Letters.  Yuliya’s own poems are quite well-traveled, having been translated into numerous languages, from English and German, to Bulgarian, Hebrew, Chinese and more.  Among her many honors in Ukraine, she is the recipient of the Krok Publishing House’s DICTUM Prize, the Smoloskyp Poetry Award for young authors, and the Ostroh Academy Vytoky Award.  Yuliya makes her home in Lviv and, in addition to her literary endeavors, works in Ukraine’s tech industry.  She has been drawing on her expertise in both poetry and technology in her efforts to help her nation survive this terrible conflict.


In this poem, a new mythology is taking shape, repurposing the Biblical seeds and attempting to grow something that will prove enduring, where even the buried bones give rise to some future sweetness.  I was introduced to Yuliya by an organizer of one of the numerous readings in support of Ukraine.  I loved her work and asked if I might publish one of the new poems here.  In conversation, we remarked (rather ruefully) on a term someone mentioned at that event – ‘Ukraine fatigue.’  It's undeniable that, here in America – where life is bountiful even in the worst of times (at least compared to much of humanity) – our generosity is substantial and our hearts do go out during a time of crisis.  But I needed to acknowledge that, as crises continue to mount, our interest tends to wane, and we are drawn to the next drama unfolding elsewhere.  Yet another simple appeal from that poetry event has also stayed with me: “Please don’t forget us.” 


In Genesis, the Lord asks "Where is Abel, your brother?” and Cain replies: "I do not know – am I my brother's keeper?"  That question has haunted humanity since its inception.  From the skies, God proclaims: “Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil.”  Indeed, haven’t we all arisen from the same garden?  Don’t we share the same joys – and comprehend, as well, the weight of suffering and loss?  All the wanton death and destruction taking place.  All my sisters and brothers.  How can we allow ourselves to forget?



Garden of Bones



What's rattling in the bag?


My bones, but not all of them.

My brother stole three bones,

he sold two of them at the market

and buried one in his garden.


An apple tree will grow from that bone.

Each apple with my face

will speak to my brother.

 Why did you do this, older brother?

What did you kill me for,

taking the bones from my body,

sewing it shut with a coarse thread,

put me into a bag,

not letting them bury me for three days.


– It is because your wife is prettier,

your song is louder,

your soil is richer,

the apple tree in your garden is taller.

Give me your wife,

your land,

tie your song

in a knot in your throat.


You're not a brother to me,

not an honest enemy,

not a man,

not a beast.

A bag full of bones.


Your wife will come outside

and take a bite of an apple.

She will fall dead.

Your children will come out.

They will take a bite

and fall, lifeless.

The sun will rise

and burn your house to the ground,

sowing the land with ashes.


What's rattling in the bag?


So very sweet.



 – Yuliya Musakovska





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