Watching birds lift noiselessly after an explosion (Postcard with Ilya Kaminsky)

The house cracks with cold and I wake as if gunshot, veering from dream into thumping pressure on my eardrums. I am inside Ilya Kaminsky’s republic of the deaf watching birds lift noiselessly into the sky after an explosion.

The news coming from the Ukraine, from Odessa and Kharkiv and Lviv and Kyiv is uniformly terrible. Bombings. Disinformation campaigns. Mass evacuations. Civilians huddled all night in underground stations. Tanks driving over cars that have people in them. A reporter who walks 72 kilometres with a convoy of refugees from Lviv to the Polish border speaks of conscriptions and robberies along the road, of people breaking down, giving up, clutching odd handfuls of possessions “as if they’ve been thrifting.” The strangeness of this observation stays with me. It feels oddly out of place, like the note from our university president this week that directed all active faculty, students and staff to two online links to “wellness” services in Nova Scotia should we find ourselves overwhelmed by events unfolding in the Ukraine. I remind myself that Canada is home to a large Ukrainian diaspora–the third largest population of Ukrainian citizens after the Ukraine and Russia. Still, aren’t there other things that might matter more than a hyperlink band aid? What about an ear, or a chair and a cup of tea, something warm to hold, to keep a person’s hands from shaking? What proof is a hyperlink against a broken heart?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has given a speech in which it seems he threatens to use nuclear weapons.

Do you think he would? my love asks me more than once.

How do you answer a question like this? To say yes is to be cavalier (another word that comes to us from a history of war), or else to walk out into a damned and appalling future beyond the edges of imagination. To say no is to fail to listen, or to dismiss too readily how quickly the horrors of war escalate. I try to think: according to what sorts of calculations would such a devastating move make sense to Putin? But I do not know.

Or I know and I do not know. My mind veers sideways and I look away: I have already blinked and settled back into the sorts of complacency that only those who think they cannot be touched by war may feel. As if I am far enough away that Putin’s nuclear threat is not a problem. But of course it is a problem.

My problem. Our problem (whoever we are). I think I mean all manner of living earthly things.

Something more than a crack widens in the order of the world as we’ve known it. (That we again: a crack for whom? Those of us who have grown up in the global north and west, in the shelter of NATO? For “democracy”? For “the rule of law”?)

Markets shift and slide in every direction as if no one knows how to call this. (War is bad for business, right? War is good for business, right?)

Those of us who have been alive for more than a few decades tumble backwards in time, recalling other struggles and other disasters. Some remember the Anschluss; others combat, or the sounds of air raid sirens. I remember the nightmare years when the United States and Russia roared through an arms race that broke the back of the Soviet Union. How in cities across the north there were millions of marchers. How I spent anxious hours in military lock-up, guarded by boys with machine guns. How my friends and I stood outside of bomb shelters reserved for the mayor and his cronies, pointing to the nuclear shelter signs, wearing placards and singing. How the police guarded members of the Ku Klux Klan in white robes and pointy bonnets (slits where they should have had eyes), their dogs snarling and snapping as we punk rocked our opposition to nuclear weapons. How then we were arrested for disturbing the peace. How everything was emptied from our pockets so we had to beg for crackers and tampax. How in court the judge scolded us for worrying our mothers. How all of these things were signs of a time of peace. Of law and order. Of possible futures. Of deterrence. For some, anyway.

“This is a time of peace,” writes poet Ilya Kaminsky, formerly of the Soviet Union, formerly of the region now known as the country of Ukraine, now from the US. He writes with wit, precision and generosity. His Deaf Republic was published in 2019. It was always both history and prophecy. At the end of the last poem in that collection, “In a Time of Peace,” he writes:

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 (Deaf Republic 76).

He asks us to consider amid disaster how brightly life goes on; how it must go on; how going on is also turning away, getting lost in small things, in daily preoccupations and the blooms of the garden. How irony–and sudden delicious joys (the taste of a sun-warmed tomato)–are the other face of tragedy; how necessary they are to keeping hope alive, even as they also dabble in oblivion.

Nevertheless, there are also times for targeted attention, and tonight I wake along with so many others, haunted; tongue mangled; terrified to name our premonitions.

(How hunger will stalk in on long legs and howling winds, rifling refugee columns, lifting tent flaps to bribery and bitterness.)

(How after hundreds of thousands flee across the border into Poland they will no longer be greeted with blankets or donuts–as the “thrifting” journalist reported happened when he arrived at the checkpoint with the first few thousand refugees from Lviv.)

We think that bombs will not fall here. (By here I think I mean Canada. Or possibly North America. But maybe it is simply anywhere I might be.)

(That’s what the residents of Lviv thought too, before yesterday.)

(My heart is with those who did not fill their tanks with petrol before the bombs fell, not wanting to believe an invasion would roll over them.)

Bombs are falling around the world.

They slash through my dreams. They have fallen on Afghanistan, Angola, Libya and Iraq; they are falling on the West Bank and Yemen and Syria and Kyiv.

Why should I imagine I would escape?

I shake my head when I wake like a dog scattering water. Still, I am implicated.

And what I feel is not fear so much as heaviness, a hollow where my heart should be. How suddenly “normal life” becomes something else: the ache and exhaustion of night after night in a subway tunnel; of not knowing where to find safety, or what to feed now these now hungry little ones.

Meanwhile, where I live, ice in the treetops scatters rainbow coloured light and birds sing at the window as they gather seeds in their beaks.

How beautiful the world, and how broken.

I spend the morning gluing, and repair nothing.

Cited

  1. Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic, Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2019.
  2. Free-lance reporter speaking about walking from Lviv to Poland in a column of refugees, interviewed by Carol Off on As it happens, 25 February 20.

Images Forest after ice storms, Morin-Heights, Quebec, February 2022.

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