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There’s no poetry about war. There’s just decomposition, Lyuba Yakimchuk writes in a poem. And so she carves up words: ‘Lu-hansk’, ‘Do-netsk’—even, at the end of the poem, her own name: all that’s left of Lyuba in the last line is ‘ba!’ It is wrong, though, to say that she carves up the words; like the places and people they refer to, the words are already carved up—Yakimchuk only records what is happening. ‘Language,’ she says, ‘is as beautiful as the
world. So when someone destroys your world, language reflects that.’ Born in the Donetsk region, she sees herself as the literary heir of Ukrainian Futurists such as Mykhaylo Semenko, who brought deconstruction to Ukrainian poetry and, like so many poets, was shot in the years of Stalin’s Terror.

There’s no poetry about war. Just decomposition. Over the last months I’ve been trying to write. Not about the war, but at all. I’ve tried to fit it in around phone calls as I ring round in search of accommodation for people on the run—in search of medicine, inflatable mattresses, children’s shoes, swimsuits and trunks, the right kind of SIM card. When no one picked up on the Ukrainian Refugee Hotline, I ended up in the council phone queue, being endlessly redirected. A slow-motion version of ‘The Sunsilk Girl’ sawed away in my ear, and I stared at the blank page on my laptop, thinking, This would be a good time to get some writing done. Eventually, after almost two hours of waiting and asking and being redirected, I was put through to a man who gave the game away. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I can put you through, but my colleagues have been told to let it ring.’ I hung up and went back to staring at the blank page in front of me. Now, I thought, right now, I could be writing something.

Valeria was someone I was in regular touch with after her escape to Berlin. We went to her eight-year-old’s medical together; we sat together over registration forms—but we also sat in parks, eating croissants out of paper bags and talking about the beautiful city of Kyiv where she had moved only a short while before the war began to spread west. Valeria said that all those hours in the maze of German authorities hadn’t been wasted; she was learning the language. Her first words— Bitte warten Sie. Please wait.

There’s no poetry about war. I make another attempt to write on the train to Tatyana’s. Tatyana lost touch with her mother in the first weeks of the Mariupol siege and it was only after sixteen days of radio silence that she heard she’d been found: she had walked through the warzone and across the border to Russia—trekked from Mariupol to Rostov-on-Don. That’s a hundred and eighty kilometres, Google Maps tells me. Thirty-six hours on foot—if you don’t stop for breaks and if there isn’t a war on. Tatyana’s mother is seventy-three. She said the Russians at the entrance point had been helpful and welcoming—only one question had struck her as odd: ‘Did you see any crimes on your way here?’ Once she had answered their questions, they gave her tea and put her on an evacuation bus to Moscow. She made it to
Germany via Vilnius and Warsaw, and now she sits in Tatyana’s flat, saying that the Ukrainians shot at her and her house. The Ukrainians threw bombs at them, fired rockets at them, destroyed their garden. It wasn’t the Russians, it was the Ukrainians—she knows that for a fact; it’s what they said on the radio. The surface of the water quivers in Tatyana’s glass as she tells me this. ‘But you know,’ she goes on, ‘I can hold my tongue, but how’s Rita supposed to keep calm?’ Rita is Tatyana’s older sister. She fled from Zaporizhzhia a week before her mother, leaving behind a husband and son who had joined the city’s defence force.

And so, day after day the two sisters sit with their seventy-three-year-old mother who has walked over half-ruined bridges and across mined fields, and now tells her daughters that the Russians want peace…

Translation by Imogen Taylor

Read more at https://as.nyu.edu/