Friday, May 05, 2023

Red Letter Poem #159

 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 #159




The Ukraine headlines in American news outlets may have diminished – but it requires only a little effort to gather reports of the continuing brutality in Russia’s unprovoked war.  And so I’ve continued to seek out the voices of some of Ukraine’s finest poets, hoping they can offer a small reminder of what is at stake for their beleaguered nation – and for the rest of the world if such naked aggression is tolerated.  Because of that, I was delighted to see the recent publication of not one but three new volumes of Ukrainian poetry by Boston-area Arrowsmith Press.  Today’s Letter is taken from In the Hour of War: Poetry From Ukraine, an absolutely compelling anthology edited by noted poets Carolyn Forché and Ilya Kaminsky.  They’ve brought together over two dozen important voices, carried over from Ukrainian and Russian into English by a host of talented translators.  I’ve been entranced and appalled by these poems and the suffering they depict, focusing on, not just this first year of the current conflict, but the long period since the 2014 Russian occupation of the Crimean Peninsula.  Of course, the poems demonstrate something besides: the fact – as astonishing as it may seem – that while the human spirit is no shield against artillery and cruise missiles, what it inscribes across the land in ink and blood proves to be ineradicable.


Boris Khersonsky is perhaps the most prominent Russian-language Ukrainian poet writing today.  Trained in medicine, he became the Chair of the Department of Clinical Psychology at Odessa National University.  He’s the author of seventeen collections of poetry and essays and has been widely translated.  Last year, he and his wife Ludmila published a joint selected poems entitled The Country Where Everyone's Name Is Fear (Lost Horse Press.)  In today’s selection, the poet recalls just one name of the endless roster of those who’ve found themselves imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals like the notorious Serbski Institute in Russia, where the diagnosis of madness is derived from simply speaking the truth.  Perhaps, in the past year, you too have received a crash course in Ukrainian history – but in case you need a refresher: what’s referred to as Holodomor was Stalin’s man-made famine that resulted in the deaths of millions in the early 1930’s – a policy that seemed largely focused on bringing Ukraine to its knees.  Decades later, the dissident Anna Mikhailenko found herself committed for seven years for daring to speak about this mass starvation.  While an historian might recognize the concept of ‘hybrid hospitals’ – part madhouse, part prison – it takes a poet to then brand a swath of our delusional times as a “hybrid war”, where the attacks are not simply aimed at the bodies of combatants but at human consciousness and, more broadly, our very belief in an objective reality.  If facts are so easily disregarded, will reportage from the human heart still demand attention? 


But what a piece of legerdemain when Boris slips from Anna’s confinement to the Biblical tribulations of Jacob and Rachel.  Cheated by Laban and thwarted by God, still their love endured and eventually triumphed.  Is that what the poet is prophesying for his wounded country?  But he also makes us experience vicariously a mother’s anguish for all her physical and emotional losses.  No outcome is certain.  There are multiple histories at stake here: the first involves political gaslighting posing as a legitimate medical account; the second History (with a capital H) is what will be settled in the human record over time (if our civilization is to survive.)  But the third is the sort of small and anguished scripture that millions of individuals must compose daily as they wrestle with what is taking place all around and through their lives.  May theirs, too, prove indelible.




They Printed in the Medical History

They printed in the medical history:

“There was no Holodomor.

It was the stable delusion of Anna Mikhailenko,

a teacher of Ukrainian literature.”

For seven years she was in a Special Psychiatric Hospital.

It was a hybrid hospital­­––

a madhouse and a prison.

It was a time of hybrid hospitals. Now is the time of

hybrid war. Seven

years is a biblical phrase.

“And Jacob served Laban seven years for Rachel.

Because he loved her.”

Seven. Seven years.

“Rachel calls for her children.

She can’t calm herself.

Because they don’t exist.”

––Boris Khersonsky

Translated by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky