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words-for-war.jpgFebruary 24, 2023, marked one year since Ukraine was last invaded. I’m still trying to come to grips with this as a mental health professional who has spent his career working with combat veterans and other survivors of psychological trauma.
One can approach the reality of war from many perspectives, historical, geopolitical and psychological among them but, for the purposes of this column, it seems best to consider this war through the lens of poetry. 
In the preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth famously defined poetry as “… the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”  Less quoted are these words which follow in the same paragraph: In the process of writing a poem, “… the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” Poetry, then, can be understood as an act by which poets perceive and process intense feelings and then provoke those emotions in their readers. Few emotions are more evocative than those experienced in war. 
In approaching this column, my original plan was to share the work of poets from both Ukraine and Russia. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful in finding poems published within the past year that provided the balanced expression I was looking for. I am sure that such poems exist, but communication barriers imposed by the war have made them difficult to access. The voices of many Ukrainian poets have been stifled by disruptions in their electrical grids and internet connections.  At the same time, Russian poets are under pressure to either write in fierce support of the war (these are now known as the Z-Poets, so named because of the Z symbol associated with Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine) or risk prosecution and long prison sentences for disloyalty to the state.   
I have, instead, chosen poems that were included in the aptly named collection, Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine, which was first published in 2017 in the aftermath of the 2014 battles for Crimea and Donbas (it’s fair to say that the war in Ukraine has been ongoing for almost a decade). Edited by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky, Words for War is a co-publication of the Academic Studies Press and Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. Online versions are made free to the public at https://www.wordsforwar.com, while print versions are available for purchase. 

I have deliberately chosen works by poets who have been widely recognized in both Russia and Ukraine.  The first of these is Anastassia Afanasyeva. Born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in 1982, Afanasyeva has authored six books of poetry and is the winner of many literary awards, including two of the top honors in Russian poetry; the Debut Prize and the Russian Award. She is also a practicing psychiatrist.  Her poem, “She Says We Don't Have the Right Kind of Basement in our Building. . .” written in the aftermath of the 2014 invasion, speaks as clearly for today’s experience as it does for other times and other war zones:

she says
we don’t have the right kind of basement in our building
I had to leave, no one can hide in there
we couldn’t leave for a whole week straight
men elbowed us out
we were weaker, there was no room for us
in the past we thought about nice furniture
home improvements and such
now we think
our basement doesn’t work
it won’t protect us, it’ll collapse on us
it’s worse than sitting outside

we dragged our mattresses and pillows onto the floor
so that we could fall down as soon as it all starts
we fell down and lay there

my husband stayed behind
someone had to stay home
otherwise there’d be no home to come back to
there may be nowhere to go back to anyway
he watches the apartment
so no one moves in and takes our things
he calls once a week from some high-rise
where he magically gets cell reception
he says a few words and hangs up
I am alive
call back next Saturday

when a four-wheeler with a mortar
passed down the street
we didn’t ask who are you
whose side are you on
we fell down to the floor and lay there

on our way to the market
the bullets whistled over our heads
we arrived here with a single bag
there wasn’t enough room for people, let alone things

she speaks
as the August air
enters the room
in the yard
my coworkers are gathering overripe plums
last year those were perfect
this time around
we missed our harvest
now it’s too late

I listen, and I don’t know
if heaven and hell really exist
they must be separated by a journey
in a minivan, packed full of people
where plums ripen in silence
where people fall to the ground
and we’re experiencing these moments
after death

Translated from the Russian by
Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky
The second poem I’ve chosen is by Boris Khersonsky. Born in Chernivtsi, Ukraine in 1950, he is a psychiatrist who has served as chair of the Department of Clinical Psychology at Odessa National University. Khersonsky has published 17 collections of poetry and essays in Russian, and most recently, in Ukrainian. He was poet laureate of the Kyiv Laurels Poetry Festival and recipient of the Brodsky Stipend, the Jury Special Prize at the Literaris Festival for East European Literature and the Russian Prize. He presented in a webinar produced by the International Center for Multigenerational Legacies of Trauma, which was hosted by that Center’s Executive Director and ISTSS co-founder, Dr. Yael Danieli (a recording is available at https://icmglt.org/webinars/). His poem is entitled “My brother brought war to our crippled home. . .”:
My brother brought war to our crippled home.
War, a little girl, hair tied in bow — she can barely walk on her own,
my brother says, she can stay with you, we’ll go out, we’ll hit the road,
she’s so little, she can’t keep up, can’t roam around alone!
My brother left, but war stayed, and she really is small.
She tried to help around the house, she swept the floor and all,
but she is sort of weird, she pokes around in the corner,
takes junk out of grandma’s oak chests in no particular order.
At night she’s restless — and we have no peace.
She keeps silent — we’ve had no days worse than these.
The windows are broken. It is too cold to stir.
And my brother still hasn’t come back for her . . .
Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco
These two poems, along with others to be found in Words for War, provide modern proof for Wordsworth’s 1800 conclusions that, “Poems to which any value can be attached, were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a [person] who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also thought long and deeply.”


Maksymchuk, O. & Rosochinsky, M. (Eds.) Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine. (2017) Introduction by Ilya Kaminsky, afterword by Polina Barskova. Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University / Borderlines Foundation for Academic Studies / Academic Studies Press.

Wordsworth, William (1800). Lyrical Ballads with Other Poems. Vol. I (2 ed.). London: Printed for T.N. Longman and O. Rees.