Essays On War

Yulia Stakhivska. Notes between the lines of poems

Notes between the lines of poems

It has been almost a year since I have not lived permanently at home. I think many people can say the same, regardless of whether their home is destroyed, damaged, occupied by Russians, or they simply moved to a safer place. Some people found it easier, some simply had no choice, while others have wanted to emigrate for a long time. I will not construct a scale of misfortunes here, although without any intentional toxicity, I believe it exists, just like shades of black and white. And the grayness currently lies in one moment – in February 2022, many Ukrainians were deprived of the opportunity to adequately assess the situation, receive some official information from the authorities, and not just read posts and articles about an increasing amount of enemy equipment near our borders and Russia’s bloody plans.

Whoever has eyes will see. Undoubtedly, there were many signs and pieces of information that could be put together like a puzzle, at least for oneself. Although it is natural for people to turn away from unpleasant topics and questions; it is a defense mechanism. But not in a situation when you see news that a pontoon bridge appeared and disappeared somewhere in the Pripyat area near the Belarusian-Ukrainian border. This was the starting point for me. Living in Bucha, near the Hostomel airport, I realized that this place must be „involved.“ On clear days, I watched the contrails of the Ruslan and Mriya planes in the sky, and on dark nights, fear pounded the walls of my heart like a small spoon. My loved ones did not believe me, and I admit that this annoyed me the most. Now I can say the classic „I told you so,“ but what does it matter now…

The landscape is the same, but a touch of cold paints it in a faint blue.

In the morning mist, there is an increasing sense of urgency.

Steel hawks take off – they are invisible, these fighters,

but they are there beyond the clouds. Ghosts.

In early February, I took a vacation and traveled around Ukraine. Flying abroad was not an option, so I wanted to at least not stay in one place. Still, some people would have advised me to take Corvalol. And then, between trips, on the evening of February 21, I felt it was time. For me, it was crucial to make my own decision „before“ rather than being squeezed by circumstances. It was my whim, madness – call it what you will. Of course, from the outside, it looked like another „anxiety attack,“ and I regret that my loved ones and friends did not take my actions seriously, as a warning is the only maximum available to us, but human pride always leads us to act „our own way“, unfortunately. Therefore, abandoning the attempt to save or convince anyone else, I encountered the war in Ukraine, but not in Bucha, and that was the key.

Anyone who was able to cross to the other side of the 

street, to step out of the looking glass, knows. 

Every captured thought now resembles an arrow caught in flight 

(were there ever times when words sparkled like fireflies by the evening lamps?).

Now you may ask, „Well, if you’re so smart, then tell us what’s next.“ But now it doesn’t make much sense because we have all seen through it, even the biggest skeptics or even „wait-and-seers“ have mostly switched to defensive reactions of „fight or flight,“ and the main thing is that it won’t save those who have already died under occupation. For example, those families who did not leave the northern part of Kyiv region. Who is to blame for their deaths? Only Russia. Everything else would be manipulation now. And as for the future, the message is simple and clear to everyone: Russia is not going to stop, and saying so is not just psychological warfare – those who have ears, will hear.

Watch, cracks still crawl on the surviving walls like snakes, like roads, like metro maps. Spelunkers grope for bottoms within frames, and their names emerge with watermarks, for a moment, and then darkness obliterates everything. From room to room, from cell to cell, these people who travel in caravans, lost and found, active – happy and terrified for no reason – have no home or haven.

Russian military rations on my kitchen counter, losing my job in March – all of this only elicited anger (they were in my personal, and psychologically more difficult years, unfortunately, and I am aware that 2023 may not be any easier), that is, the real fear was caused not by personal issues, but by the threat of losing the country that I have always identified myself with. I love working with other cultures, always choosing that type of work, but it is always focused through the prism of Ukraine.

And no one asked me about the beauty of the Ukrainian night,

it simply flowed through my veins like blood.

The white garden in the darkness was flowing with thousands of flower pe-, hundreds, -tals.

After drinking tea from my favorite cup in Bucha in November, returning books borrowed from the local library before the war, and walking in the park – which was always my ritual, a green office, and a place of strength – I realized that no one could take away my sense of home, that it is within me, damaged but not damaged. I do not look at Bucha from the outside, so I am not afraid of places marked by death (does not every park in our country have a difficult past?), the only reason why I have not returned there with my little daughter is because of shelling and the constant threat of a „revenge on Kyiv“, which in my opinion, despite all the jokes about „conquering Kyiv in three days“, has not disappeared anywhere. At least not for me. And only language, its shimmering cocoon, its paper bridge, the transparency of poetry, something beyond us lives and speaks in me all the time:

When an enemy comes into your home, they always live day by day,

as they have made a deal with what they are drunk on.

How elastically a swallow draws the sky with its wing, how it can build something out of nothing every time. I haven’t seen swallows for a long time. 

But they have passed on this ability to me.

P.S. Excerpts from poems from 2020–2022 are published in the text.

Translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan