Saturday, August 27, 2022

Red Letter Poem #125

 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 #125




“In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.”  The aphorism comes from the Argentinian writer José Narosky.  It hints at what might seem a simple lesson but one that, since the dawn of nations, we seem incapable of learning.  Veterans’ hospitals overflow with men and women for whom the bloody conflict will never end.  Their bodies and minds have been reshaped into a kind of battlefield, and their families and communities share in the lasting effects.  And then there are the cemeteries. . .  The dream of peace remains a distant province.


Two days ago, August 24th, was Ukrainian Independence Day commemorating the time in 1991 when their parliament voted to separate from the Soviet Union. The date this year will also mark six months since the start of the current Russian invasion.  President Zelensky issued a statement requesting no large celebrations this week, fearing “Russia could try to do something particularly ugly, something particularly vicious” in a war that has already been rife with atrocity.  But I would like to honor this Red Letter day (red, in all its implications, terrible and joyous) with two bits of narrative, both coming from the acclaimed Ukrainian poet Yuliya Musakovska.  The first is her powerful piece “The Spartan Boy” which has been making quite a stir in Europe, translated this spring into several other languages including Portuguese, Swedish, Estonian and Czech.  The poem comes from her recent collection The God of Freedom (Old Lion Publishing House, 2021) – rendered here into English by Olena Jennings and the author herself.  I am anxiously awaiting the translation of the entire book so her work will be more fully available to American audiences.  In this poem, Yuliya plays off of an ancient Greek tale featured in Plutarch’s accounts of Sparta and the harsh training their youths underwent, hardening them for battle.  Stealing, for example, was considered an acceptable activity, a necessary survival skill preparing for times of war; being caught was the only crime.  In this story, a young boy found a beautiful fox cub and, not wanting to have it taken from him, hid it beneath his shirt.  But the creature eventually gnawed through his chest, ending his life. 


In Yuliya’s poem, it’s war itself that is the feral animal, eating away at all who must embrace it.  I’d like to believe that, one day, there will be a reckoning within the Russian people because of the brutal crimes committed in their name – but my friends shake their heads, think me naïve.  Sadly, it is undoubtedly true that the Ukrainian men and women currently fighting cannot yet imagine how they will forever be changed by the conflict.  They know quite well what’s made them take up arms – the survival of their families, their homes, their homeland and its freedom – and are assured of their country’s gratitude.  But the price Ukraine is paying is inestimable.


The second little narrative comes from a recent post on Yuliya’s Facebook page: it shows a photo of her young son about to blow out the candles from his birthday cake.  She told me how, unable to gather his school friends for a large party, the family drove out of the city to their grandparents’ house, hoping for a calmer afternoon.  She captioned the post: “Blowing out candles on a birthday cake to the sounds of air raid alarms.  Such is life in Ukraine now.  But you only have your 11th birthday once.”  No respite for this beleaguered nation.  So my wish is that the same blessing will prove true for his 12th birthday, his 13th, his 14th. . .  Did the poet have to keep herself from imagining that fox somehow sneaking its way beneath her son’s black tee shirt?  Or that of her loved ones?  Do we, in America – at this seemingly safe distance – remember the sound of the fox’s claws sprinting up our own streets?




The Spartan Boy



The war that you've been carrying

in your shirt pocket

gnawed a hole in you as if it were a fox.

Your heart keeps falling out.

I am sewing the hole shut,

firmly holding the edges together

with my numb, unbending fingers.

I hope it stays closed a little longer.

When the city falls asleep,

the black caterpillars of scars wake up.

And only death’s head moths will emerge.

The city pours steam out of its nostrils

and sets its hills like horns.

You have a vision of your mates’ faces

at the bottom of the lake —

a dark fairy tale from his childhood that came to life.

Although you were polite, respected elders,

and were easily content.

Actually, there is no such thing as justice.

The scratched steel mug you never part with,

your superficial sleep, and fierce hate of fireworks.

What a lucky one, he could have lost so much more,

he's almost whole, they say.

You have chosen me because of my skillful,

sensitive fingers.

I’m comfortable holding a needle with them.

A fox's muzzle is peering out of your pocket,

licking its lips, recalling what my bird of peace tasted like.



––Yuliya Musakovska




The Red Letters 3.0


* If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:



To learn more about the origins of the Red Letter Project, check out an essay I wrote for Arrowsmith Magazine:


Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog



and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene


For updates and announcements about Red Letter projects and poetry readings, please follow me on Twitter          


No comments:

Post a Comment