At War with Words – Three Poems by the Ukrainian Poet Lyuba Yakimchuk and some More Words from Ilya Kaminsky

Ukrainian poet Lyuba Yakimchuck. Photo credit: Kate Motylova

Crow, Wheels

When the city was destroyed,
they started fighting over the cemetery.
It was right before Easter
and wooden crosses over the freshly dug graves
put out their paper blossoms—
red, blue, yellow,
neon green, orange, raspberry pink.

Joyful relatives poured vodka for themselves
and for the dead—straight into their graves.
And the dead asked for more, and more, and more
and the relatives just kept pouring.

The celebration went on.
But at some point
a young man tripped over the stretchers
at the grave of his mother-in-law,
an old man stared into the sky
and found himself missing an eye,
a fat man smashed his shot glass
and damaged the edging around his wife’s grave.
Glass fell at his feet
like hail.

Easter came.
Now a live crow sits on top of a grave
of Anna Andriivna Voronova
instead of a gravestone.
BTR-80 wheels
rest at the cemetery nest of the Kolesnykiv family,
where lie buried
Maria Viktorivna, Pylyp Vasylyovych, and Mykola Pylypovych.

What are they to me, those wheels and that crow?
I can no longer remember.

Lyuba Yakimchuk, translated by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky
from Words Without Borders, April 2016

Do you know that this poem that could be set in present day Lviv, Ukraine or many other places is set in 2014 or soon after, in Eastern Ukraine after the takeover there by Ruissian-controlled forces? I am chilled by the ironic tone here as in many places in this commanding poem, Crows, Wheels:

Joyful relatives poured vodka for themselves
and for the dead—straight into their graves.
And the dead asked for more, and more, and more
and the relatives just kept pouring.

Will there be enough vodka for all the new graves in this expanded war , some being pictured being dug in front of bombed-out apartment blocks in Ukrainian cities. The bodies going into the ground where they died. And so many more graves for crows to fight over. The dark-winged spectres of war in this poem!

A wheel from a model of a Russian BTR-80 troop transporter

And how current the lexicon of war included in this poet’s poem with its reference to the BTR-80 wheels. Wheels from a Russian troop transporter. This poet, Lyuba Yakimchuk, a poet who has lived with war, knows it first hand. The places she has lived have been bombarded twice. First, her childhood hometown of Pervomaisk where her grand parents and mother fled in 2015 from the Russian takeover/control of the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. And now, with tape on her windows, she is hunkered down still, as far as we know, in Lviv, Ukraine, as bombs and missles fall.

I first came across Lyuba’s poetry thanks to my friend Liz McNally who sent me a the interview aired on Feb. 25th, 2022 in CBC radio’s IDEAS that Lyuba did from Lviv as shells were dropping. From that interview: Before the invasion started, she and her husband attended civilian military training, completed their first aid kits, stocked up on food, installed a solid fuel boiler and an electric generator. “Our plan is to stay in Kyiv and try to be helpful. Tomorrow, we are going to donate blood for Ukrainian soldiers. I guess it won’t be easy for us, but … Putin’s regime will fall apart,” she said. “We will be witnesses.”

Then I started to read more of her poems from the anthology of Ukrainian war poetry cited in the CBC interview. It was published in 2017 with a preface by Ilya Kaminsky, the celebrated Ukrainian American poet and advocate (countless times a day on Twitter) for Ukraine and poetry. Remember that these poems of hers that Ilya references in the preface are from the 2014 war in Eastern Ukraine but it is so chilling to think his words and hers could be from today, literally:

In the late twentieth century, the Jewish poet Paul Celan became a patron saint of writing in the midst of crisis. Composing in the German language, he has broken speech to reflect the experience of a new, violated world. This effect is happening again—this time in Ukraine—before our very eyes.

Here is the case of poet Lyuba Yakimchuk, whose family are refugees from Pervomaisk, the city which is one of the main targets of Putin’s most recent “humanitarian aid” effort. Answering my questions about her background, Lyuba responded: “

I was born and raised in the war-torn Luhansk region and my hometown of Pervomaisk is now occupied. In May 2014 I witnessed the beginning of the war . . . In February 2015 my parents and grandmother, having survived dreadful warfare, set out to leave the occupied territory. They left under shelling fire, with a few bags of clothes. A friend of mine, a [Ukrainian] soldier, almost shot my grandma as they fled.”

Discussing literature in wartime, Yakimchuk writes: “Literature rivals with the war, perhaps even loses to war in creativity, hence literature is changed by war.” In her poems, one sees how warfare cleaves her words: “don’t talk to me about Luhansk,” she writes, “it’s long since turned into hansk/Lu had been razed to the ground / to the crimson pavement.” The bombed-out city of Pervomaisk “has been split into pervo and maisk” and the shell of Debaltsevo is now her “deb, alts, evo.”

Here , now, the poem, Decomposition, refered to by Ilya above. It’s tragically apt metaphor of things and words coming apart. How much more before nothing is left.


nothing changes on the eastern front
well, I’ve had it up to here
at the moment of death, metal gets hot
and people get cold

don’t talk to me about Luhansk
it’s long since turned into hansk
Lu had been razed to the ground
to the crimson pavement

my friends are hostages
and I can’t reach them, I can’t do netsk
to pull them out of the basements
from under the rubble

yet here you are, writing poems
ideally slick poems
high-minded gilded poems
beautiful as embroidery

there’s no poetry about war
just decomposition
only letters remain
and they all make a single sound — rrr

Pervomaisk has been split into pervo and maisk
into particles in primeval flux
war is over once again
yet peace has not come

and where’s my deb, alts, evo?
no poet will be born there again
no human being

I stare into the horizon
it has narrowed into a triangle
sunflowers dip their heads in the field
black and dried out, like me
I have gotten so very old
no longer Lyuba
just a -ba

Lyuba Yakimchuk from eWords For War – New Poems from Ukraine, Academic Studies, 2017

What an “isness” of war does as Lyuba decomposes her words in this poem, something she does with great deliberation as she said in the CBC interview: “Language is as beautiful as this world. So when someone destroys your world, language reflects that,” she said. In her poem Decomposition,  the names of places like Luhansk, Donetsk, and her hometown of Pervomaisk literally fall apart. “I decompose words to describe the decomposition of cities and towns, the decomposition of Donbas region, my little motherland,” she said.” Now, how might she write V\Lviv, Ukraine and Mariupol to name a few of the many cities under decomposition as you read this.

And this quote of Lyuba’s published a few days before the war:

New strong narratives [can lead] to life-changing things… For centuries, Ukrainians have told each other the story of being victims…because of Soviet propaganda, Ukrainians believe that the heroes are dead people, which is very dangerous…
The Russian political narration of history is usually just a story – fiction that is based on disinformation. I think that new Ukrainian stories are changing this narrative now. If we don’t tell stories for ourselves, our enemies tell them for us.

Lyuba Yakimchuk from February 17th article sponsored by StAnzaPoetry Festival (March 7th to 13th, 2022), on-line

Lyuba has been telling storiers and poems for Ukraine. And her agony in doing so:

there’s no poetry about war
just decomposition
only letters remain
and they all make a single sound — rrr

Perhaps, we poets needs to keep writing a poetry of holy witness. A wholeness of language to comabat a destruction of language. Perhaps a need for praise poetry. Alomng side poetry of decomposition and a poetry that creates the “isness” of its destruction, All, so that we may get war out of our heads and hearts.

Something shockingly unexpected about this poem, the way it ends. The way it slowly subverts the meaning of Motherland. Sees in it the excuse to kill and destroy others. This blind obedience to nationalism. Motherland becomes a disturbing word. As has “homeland” as in homeland security in the U.S. Thank you Lyuba for the complexity of your poems. How they make me reexamine my unchallenged beliefs. Her scary last three lines.


Our Father, who art in heaven
of the full moon
and the hollow sun

shield from death my parents
whose house stands in the line of fire
and who won’t abandon it
like a tomb

shield my husband
on the other side of war
as if on the other side of a river
pointing his gun at a breast
he used to kiss

I carry on me this bulletproof vest
and cannot take it off
it clings to me like a skin

I carry inside me his child
and cannot force it out
for he owns my body through it

I carry within me a Motherland
and cannot puke it out
for it circulates like blood
through my heart

Our daily bread give to the hungry
and let them stop devouring one another

our light give to the deceived
and let them gain clarity

and forgive us our destroyed cities
even though we do not forgive for them our enemies

and lead us not into temptation
to go down with this rotting world
but deliver us from an evil
to get rid of the burden of a Motherland —
heavy and hardly useful

shield from me
my husband, my parents
my child and my Motherland

Lyuba Yakimchuk,  translated by Oksana Maksymchuk, Max Rosochinsky and Svetlana Lavochkin from CBC Ideas, February 25th, 2022


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