From May 2022, The La Romita 2020 Online Poetry Community’s Kaminsky Prompt Poems – Part One

Ukraine in Wartime, February 2022. Photo Credit: State Border Guard Services/ Reuters

For Ukraine, Listen

You are alive, I whisper to myself, therefore something in you listens

— Ilya Kaminsky from the poem Alfonso, In Snow from Deaf Republic

You tell me you don’t recognize your life
that you hear even fear is prohibited
so you hold yours close.

You are running, always running, 
away from all that is not alive
just to stay alive.

And when this is finally over will you
hear again the nightingales
trilling your name?

Every dog in Ukraine a shaking leaf
about to fall, yet camelias continue
to bud, maybe you’ll recall

the one first open, finding
what’s precious
in the rocky rubble.

There is something inside the echo
of bloodline, my grandmother in Kiev
fleeing running away, then towards

the end of an unending cycle.
Tell me, is there anyone who
listens?

Nancy Issenman, May 2022

In June 2020 a group of poets gathered on-line for a week’s generative poetry retreat that I facilitated. Most of the poets had been registered for a ten-day poetry retreat at the La Romita School of Art in Terni, Umbria, which was cancelled because of the pandemic. Thus, the La Romita 2020 Online Poetry Community was formed and subsequently most, but not all, of those poets have gathered three or four times a year to share poems inspired by prompts suggested by the La Romita 2020 Online participants.

One of the recent poetry prompt challenges came a month or so after the beginning of the war in Ukraine in late February 2022. That challenge was based on lines chosen by Calgary-based poet Joan Shillington from the Ukrainian/American poet Ilya Kaminsky’s 2019 poetry collection, Deaf Republic, published by Graywolf Press. To see a link to my review of Deaf Republic in The Literary Review please click here.

Kaminsky’s book, one for the ages, feels like an eerie premonition of the Ukrainian war as it is set in an imagined town/city called Vasenka invaded by a foreign army. When I look up Vasenka online I discover it’s a surname most commonly found in Russia and Ukraine. That’s why using this collection to inspire our own poems in response to the war in Ukraine seemed so appropriate.

After hearing these poems in a Zoom gathering this past May I wanted to feature these poems in a blog series to honour these important poems and the people of Ukraine and to help us who live far away from that war and its atrocities to stay awake to its grim reality. And in this we also honour Ilya and his now much-shared poem from Deaf Republic: We Lived Happily During the War. This is Part One of a three or four part series.

Victoria-based poet Nancy Issenman

The poem above, the first of the so-called  La Romita Online Kaminsky Prompt Poems, comes from Victoria-based poet Nancy Issenman, a well-known participant from the active southern Vancouver island writing community. Nancy not only participated in the on-line La Romita retreat in 2020 but was part of two previous La Romita retreats in Italy. And she was the key influence in encouraging most of the La Romita 2020 online participants to keep writing together! And Calgary-based Sarah Wilson who has been to three La Romita poetry retreats and one art retreat in Italy has made the zoom sessions flawless!

So much to celebrate in Nancy’s poem. How directly and intimately she addresses the subject of the poem, a person in Ukraine running from war just as the speakers grandmother ran from war in Kiev years ago. And the horror that the grandmother is running towards the end of an unending cycle. This very personal reminder of our unending cycles of war. And a reminder of that unending cycle in the latest war in Ukraine.

How personal she makes the details in the poem right from the start with her You tell me and the powerful reminder how wars can make the lives of those living in them unrecognizable. And this lovely yes and no. Its lyrical power:

Every dog in Ukraine a shaking leaf
about to fall, yet camelias continue
to bud, maybe you’ll recall

the one first open, finding
what’s precious
in the rocky rubble.

Shawnigan Lake poet Pat Scanlan

The second feature poet in this blog post is Pat Scanlan who lives nearby Shawnigan Lake in southern Vancouver Island. She is a fearless octogenarian creative not afraid to try new things like coming to a writer’s retreat in Italy four or five years ago! So glad to share her unflinching look at the beginnings of the Ukraine war and the many politicians in the world representing billions of people who still look away and will not directly condemn the Russian aggression.

DAILY NEWS COVERAGE

“We pocket our phones and go.
To the dentist
To pick up the kids from school,
To buy shampoo
And basil.”

– Ilya Kaminsky from In a Time of Peace from Deaf Republic

Thousands of miles away
Shell shocked, battered trees still tremble, branches broken;
petals dance, float in the breeze.
No bird song fills the air.
A hand stretches toward a smashed cell phone,
a faint signal,
incoming call.
The child chiselled in stone, blinded by visions of horror;
deaf – bombs explode, heavy artillery;
dumb, no words left to utter.
Motionless beside the lifeless figure. Teddy bear beside him.
No comfort there.
His mother on her way to find food
now beside him dead.
Two visible victims
Sending shock waves across the world.
A war is escalating
The politicians look away.

Pat Scanlan, May 2022

How Pat brings the war up close and uncomfortably personal. Her terse exclamation: No comfort there. And as it should be, no comfort here in the poem. And the unasked but implied question: why, why, why war?

Castlegar-based poet Linda Crossfield

 

The third poet featured here, Linda Crosfield,  is no stranger to the Vancouver Island poetry community and the wider B.C. poetry community, especially in the BC interior near Nelson. Linda, a widely published poet, is also an active publisher of poetry chapbooks through her press, Nose in Book Publishing which published the first collection of poems, Wild Swings from the La Romita 2020 On-Line Community in 2021.

How Linda conjures the great invasion dragon so visible in Ukraine then brings it uncomfortably close with mention that we here in Canada may not be so far away from a future conflict as we may think. Our plentiful water and a neighbour to the south already envious of it. These fears true or not, what a jolt out of any complacency that we are immune to the horrors in Ukraine:

I imagine it here
          (fingers crossed so’s not to
           tempt the dragon)

the invasion dragon

what next
when will it be our turn
we’ve got water
                     …so far
                               uh oh

Now, Linda’s complete poem:

Ilya      Ilya      give me a word

Ilya     Ilya
         give me a word
                a phrase   a line	

	 something to amplify
	       my reaction to this war
		     so many pretend isn’t 
			      happening

everyday
I go about my everyday 

I think I count my blessings
	but do I  ?

how can we  — the great swirling swell of the we of us — 
      not inhabit this gentle place
	     in this great sphere of a planet
		     in this incomprehensible universe

	and not      count 	our blessings

					     yet so many seem not to

I tread carefully around Twitter
	no one wants to see
		all this stuff going on
		in the bombed cities
				the loss
			 the loss

I imagine it here
	   (fingers crossed so’s not to
	   tempt the dragon)    

the invasion dragon

	what next
 	when will it be our turn
	we’ve got water	
				…so far

					    uh oh

and still the moon manages to rise
in a tortured sky

a candle is lighted
for a somewhere love
who needs a candle lighted

and isn’t there a sense
— can’t you feel the sense —

that we 
	as a species
		are going down

	some see it coming
		some waiting for
			the next generation to weigh in

whatever —
I’m being serious now
we — we humans —
are not good examples 
of how to behave nicely 
with each other

we’ve pretty much outstayed 
our welcome on this planet 
and much as some of us would like to stick around
for a few more millennia
	I’m not convinced we deserve to

the heavens observe
our feeble machinations
when it comes to getting through 
	a day
		a year
			a life

on earth
a man cannot flip a finger at the sky

because each man is already 
a finger flipped at the sky.*

Linda Crosfield, May 2022

* Last four lines in Italics from Ilya Kaminsky from the poem Soldiers Aim at Us from Deaf Republic

I appreciate the bigness of Linda’s poem. How she looks beyond the war in Ukraine to all the damage we do to to each other and this planet. And these lyrical lines, the yes of them:

and still the moon manages to rise
in a tortured sky

a candle is lighted
for a somewhere love
who needs a candle lighted

And the no that follows:

and isn’t there a sense
— can’t you feel the sense —

that we
as a species
are going down

An important shift in this poem. It’s not just one country at war with another. We are all complicit in even bigger things going on in the world, climate change among the biggest of them.

What privilege to share these first three poems in this new series. More to come! But also a deep sadness that the war in Ukraine continues on, all the death and destruction.

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