The train from Lviv to Kyiv arrived at six o’clock in the morning. As I stepped off the train, I was greeted by the song “Chestnuts are blooming again.” Soldiers on crutches stood on the platform. Thirty minutes later, I arrived at the hotel in Podil. At seven o’clock the air-raid siren went off. I headed down to the bomb shelter. My American colleagues were already there, so I attempted to translate a poem by the Kyiv poet Semen Hudzenko for them:
I feel like I’m a magnet,
that I attract mines.
An explosion – and the lieutenant gasps.
And death passes by again.
It came out a bit careless, especially the word “gasps.” The Americans praised it politely. Upstairs, blood was pouring everywhere with all its might. I sat and composed the note. I came up with the first two sentences: „Curfew. Podil by night“.
During a radio interview, a refugee artist responded to my question about the murals in the metro. “The first station I worked on was the Taras Shevchenko station,” they said. “I created an intricate design featuring a large portrait of Shevchenko on the side wall with chandeliers overhead. As a lighting specialist, I crafted Empire-style chandeliers for the Shevchenko Museum. The next was Respublikansky Stadium, where I incorporated a mosaic and reliefs depicting football and hockey players.”
While at home, I looked through a book of stories written by Julio Cortázar. He had a fondness for writing about the metro. One of Cortázar’s stories is romantic, depicting a hero who makes connections with pretty female passengers through smiles reflected in the dark window of the train carriage. Another tale takes a darker turn, exploring a secret society within the subway. This hidden nation can be identified by its pale faces, resounding yawns, and aimless travels along various metro lines. They are constantly in motion, their romances are ephemeral, and their journeys have no ultimate destination.
I also asked the artist: “Could you have imagined that these two stations would become bomb shelters when you designed them?”
„Of course not! The metro is meant to transport people. I know that some of my close friends have gone to these stations during air raid sirens and looked at my work. But I don’t think they look closely at them as works of art, as when a person enters a museum.”
In the first story, Cortázar conveys how one experiences a heightened sense of loneliness and isolation while taking the metro. On the other hand, my Kyiv acquaintances share that strangers in the metro experience an extraordinary sense of closeness and kinship during air raid sirens and missile strikes.
A refugee woman shares: “It’s difficult to rouse me from sleep, as I suffer from insomnia. I can never tell if I’m actually asleep or not, and I often have vivid dreams. So, when I heard what sounded like a celebration with fireworks, I thought it was just another dream of a festive gathering, like being in a city park surrounded by people, a wind ensemble, carousels filled with children… Luckily, there’s a metro station close to my home. I quickly grabbed Osiris by the wrist, and we were there within five minutes. As I ran, the cat scratched my cheek. I washed my scratch with water in the metro, and Osiris and I settled down. A portrait of Shevchenko was watching over us on the wall.”
Julio Cortázar wrote about the metros of Paris and Buenos Aires in the 50s and 60s of the last century. I am writing about the Kyiv metro in 2022.
In 1938, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry published the essay “In the middle of the night, enemy voices call out to each other from the trenches.” The time of action is four o’clock in the morning. The enemies speak one language–Spanish. They can kill each other, shoot at a cigarette light, but from time to time they call out to one another. This is their acoustic bridge, their shared past, undermined by war. Their voices are hoarse, their words are cracked. Each side has its own broad-chested crier with a loud voice. He takes a full chest of air and shouts:
“An-to-ni-o! It’s… me… Le-on!”
The night amplifies the echo, rolls it across the valley that separates the enemies, to the opposite trench. In five seconds, the echo returns, torn to pieces:
It seems like close people or relatives are talking.
And the voice lightning again:
“An-to-ni-o! What… are you… fighting… for?…”
“For… Spain… And you?…”
“For… bread… for… our… brothers…”
It is clear: this is a conversation between a socialist and a Francoist.
In the afternoon, Antonio and Leon will kill each other, but they will know for what.
Occupiers from another country came to Ukraine. Although they speak a familiar language, they are still strangers. Ukrainian soldiers know the cause they are willing to die for. Meanwhile, the enemies have no response to the question, “What are you fighting for?” They dare not reveal the truth: „We have come to loot and kill.”
Every September, poems are read in Chernivtsi–that’s how it’s done there. War gives a renewed meaning to half-forgotten words that were once confined to military dictionaries and old poems, like „frontline.“ The term „frontline“ refers to the territory close to the conflict zone, but it has a broader meaning these days. Those who go to sleep thinking about Ukraine and wake up reading war news, from Kharkiv to New York, are considered frontline people. This is how the territory near the front is determined. Whether we like it or not, the poems we will read this year have taken on a frontline quality. All classical poetry, even such lyrical lines as “The cherry orchard by the house” or “With the wheatfields and the cliffs / Of a plunging shore /In my sight, where I can hear / The booming Dnipro’s roar” are also now front-line poetry. Why? Because poetry is against death, and war is death. Yes, poetry does not have howitzers, cruise missiles, or cluster bombs, but it has high-precision words against which guns are powerless.
A German poetess recited her poems in Chernivtsi in the evening, with the assistance of a local German Studies professor who translated for her. Midway through the reading, the poetess broke down in tears, causing the professor to stand in silence, bewildered. The audience was also moved to tears. After the event, a woman approached the poetess to express her gratitude, saying, “Thank you for your tears.” In September 2022, German vers libre and Ukrainian lamentation converged in Chernivtsi.
Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan