In Love with This World But Telling the Not-Always-Beautiful Truth of It – Some Wisdom and A Poem from Ukrainian American Poet Ilya Kaminsky – Part of an On-Going Series of Poems Dealing With War and Its Consequences

Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky – Recipient of the 2021 Carnegie “Great Immigrant Awards”. Photo Credit: Carnegie Corporation of New York

In a Time of Peace

Inhabitant of earth for forty something years
I once found myself in a peaceful country. I watch neighbors open

their phones to watch
a cop demanding a man’s driver’s license. When a man reaches for his wallet, the cop
shoots. Into the car window. Shoots.

It is a peaceful country.

We pocket our phones and go.
To the dentist,
to buy shampoo,
pick up the children from school,
get basil.

Ours is a country in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement
for hours.

We see in his open mouth
the nakedness
of the whole nation.

We watch. Watch
others watch.

The body of a boy lies on the pavement exactly like the body of a boy.

It is a peaceful country.

And it clips our citizens’ bodies
effortlessly, the way the President’s wife trims her toenails.

All of us
still have to do the hard work of dentist appointments,
of remembering to make
a summer salad: basil, tomatoes, it is a joy, tomatoes, add a little salt.

This is a time of peace.

I do not hear gunshots,
but watch birds splash over the backyards of the suburbs. How bright is the sky
as the avenue spins on its axis.
How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.

Ilya Kaminsky from Deaf Republic, Graywolf Press, 2019

It is not surprising that I am featuring a poem in this blog post by Ilya Kaminsky, the celebrated Ukrainian American poet and Bourne Chair of Poetry at Georgia Tech, Not just because he has close ties to the Ukraine and is naturally outraged by Putin’s invasion but because of his 2019 book, Deaf Republic, that creates the horrifying “isness” of war in an imagined and un-named Eastern European city under invasion.

In a painful irony it is now, in real life, Ilya’s beloved Ukraine under that attack. But also notice, please, how Ilya tries to balance in his poem above and and in his life, a critical eye on our cultural and violent shadows with a lyric expression of love for this world. Please see, his three paragraph article below for how he explains the importance of this balance. Yes: How bright is the sky (forgive me) how bright.

In my review of Ilya’s Deaf Republic I noted that the poems of war in an imagined country were book-ended by two poems set away from there, most likely in what is now Ilya’s home country, the United States. These two poems, We Lived Happily During the War and In a Time of Peace (featured above) feel like a call to arms. Not physical arms like guns and bombs but a call to arms metaphorically against complacency. About the need for us here in the West to really wake up to the perils not just overseas but at home. To hear Ilya in a March 2nd interview, talk about his poem We lived Happily During the War and his personal reflections on the war in Ukraine please click here.

Ilya reminds us of the violence close at home. In his case, the obvious racial violence in the U.S. In the case of Canada, the violence against our indigenous peoples and other racially motivated violence. In his poem above I so appreciate how Ilya plays devil’s advocate. As the violence goes on around us we go about our daily lives as we must. We see and feel beauty, as we must. But then what do we do about the violence not so far away and now, what do we do with the violence in Ukraine?

How do I balance despair, at war at home and abroad, and beauty. Despair and the gift of living a peaceful life among loved ones. We may not call violent acts against minorities a war but what about what we blithely call the “cultural wars. They are getting downright dirty and nasty these days. So much so that there are a number of Americans supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine partly because of Putin’s politics of supporting supposed traditional values. And in a Guardian newspaper opinion piece published today, click here, it states that in January of this year Putin had a higher approval rate among Republicans than American president Biden.

And I wonder what do I do in the face of greater antagonisms in my own country. What do I do about the Trucker Protest that shut down my capital city for three weeks in the name of freedom. But what is freedom, but a empty rallying cry,  without responsibility? What do I do about the folks arrested in Alberta, as part of the Trucker Protest, with an alleged cache of weapons according to the RCMP? This is my way. Sharing poems and celebrating poets who dare to look fiercely at our social and corporate and individual dark shadows.

But to end on a happier note I want to celebrate life’s complexity and a short article by Ilya!

First, life’s complexities! Ilya has been trolled in a nasty way in U.S. social media for some of his poems and social media posts but he has also been recognized with major U.S. poetry awards and in July 2021, along  with thirty-three others, with a prestigous “Great Immigrant Award” from the Carnegie Corporation.

At a time when immigration policies have been so contentious in the U.S. and some elements of the U.S. population decry immigration it is encouraging to see immigrants honoured in this way. What they add to the cultural richness of the U.S. and Canada. I am grateful to Ilya, not just for his poems, and his even-handedness as shown in how he is not afraid to talk about the shadow side of Uktainian politics, since its independence, but also because of his open, generous and kind-hearted nature I have personally experienced at a number of his workshops. Thank you Ilya.

Second, to give last words to Ilya from an article in July 2021 in an on-going series sponsored by his university, Georgia Tech. Note: that the war Ilya refers to is the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and occupation of parts of Ukraine before the latest all out invasion:

In Our Own Words: Ilya Kaminsky 

My native country, Ukraine, is currently at war, partly occupied by Russia. The country in which I am alive right now, the U.S.A., is in a crisis of its own. For years, it seemed like many Americans kept pretending that history is something that happens elsewhere, a misfortune that befalls other people. But history is lying there in the middle of the street, behind yellow police tape. Showing us who we are. How do I address this, as a lyric poet? Do lyric poets address such things? What is silence? We speak against silence, but it is silence that moves us to speak. I am not a documentary poet; I am a fabulist. And, yet, the world pushes through, the reality is everywhere. 

At the end of the day, the artists witness the world around them, its crisis. But it is also important to remember that true witness isn’t just about violence and war. To only notice those things is to witness only a part of our existence. But there is also wonder. I see it as my duty to report this lyricism in the whirl of our griefs. It is a personal responsibility for me: My father was a Jewish child in German-occupied Odessa, during World War II, who not only suffered, but also learned to dance. The Russian woman who hid him, Natalia, hid him for three years. She taught him how to tango. And so they danced for the three years of that war, in a room where the curtains were always drawn. Once, he escaped outside to play and the German soldiers saw him, so he ran to the market and hid behind boxes of tomatoes. All my friends tell me there are too many tomatoes in my poems. They say there is too much dancing. Is there enough? I don’t know.

Is it foolish to speak of little joys that occur in the middle of tragedy? It is our humanity. Whatever we have left of it. We must not deny it to ourselves. I am a love poet, or a poet in love with the world. It is just who I am. If the world is falling apart, I have to say the truth. But I don’t stop being in love with that world.

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