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“Poetry as witness during a time of great atrocity”

A review of Babyn Yar: Ukrainian Poets Respond. By: Ostap Kin, ed., translated by Ostap Kin and John Hennessy and published by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute.

August 18, 2023 - Nicole Yurcaba - Books and Reviews

Memorial to the murdered Jews near what was known as the Babyn Yar ravine in Kyiv. Photo: Malaha / Shutterstock

History, and those who these days dare to remember it, know Babyn Yar as the mass murder site of between 100,000 and 150,000 people during the German occupation of the Kyiv region during the Second World War. Some 33,771 Jews died as a result of the massacre, which took place during September 29th and 31st 1941. Others murdered at the site included communists, Soviet prisoners of war, intellectuals and Romani people. However, Babyn Yar is not merely a place which resides in the annals of world, European, and more specifically, Ukrainian, history. Even today, during Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the site holds great significance. On March 2nd 2022, Ukrainian authorities reported that a Russian missile struck in the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial’s vicinity, killing five people. The strike at the sight weighed heavily on many across the globe, and for Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, sparked significant ire. At the time, the president tweeted: “To the world: what is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least 5 killed. History repeating…”

Edited by Ostap Kin and translated by Kin and John Hennessy, Babyn Yar: Ukrainian Poets Respond collects responses to the massacre from Soviet and post-Soviet Jewish and non-Jewish poets. The collection highlights more than 20 poets and spans the years between 1941 and 2018, and it curates a collective thread which responds to the suffering and destruction of Babyn Yar’s victims. Despite their historical context and their portrayal of historical events, the poems eerily parallel current events – like the discovery of the mass graves in Bucha – unfolding in Ukraine. Therefore, the collection quickly develops an immediate voice, one reminding readers that glimpsing the day’s headlines can be a surreal, albeit painful, reminder of the past.

Poems from Arkadii Anin open the text, and Anin’s poem “Monologue of the Monument” is an all-too appropriate poem to include as part of the book’s initial verses. It opens with form-defying tabbing and stacking:

                        I’m allowed
                                                 to sleep
                        I got cold lying in the storage yard.

The defiant form combines with the speaker’s defiant tone to establish the poem’s overall voice. That defiance continues, and not only does the form contribute to it, but also the poet’s utilisation of a different font and spaced letters for phrases like “All my people” and “here was a complete genocide!” However, the poem concludes with two distinct lines: “Just no more war. / Just no more war.” The repetition emphasises the speaker’s plea, and the plea resonates with current calls for peace in Ukraine.

Another pivotal, poetic stopping point is Hryhorii Fal’kovych’s “On the eve of the holy Sabbath.” Fal’kovych’s poem relies on a more traditional form, condensing a clear voice into four stanzas consisting of four lines each. At the end of the initial stanza, the speaker observes, “On the border of our sorrow / The year forty-one rests.” Thus, for the speaker, Babyn Yar’s personal, cultural and national legacy is utterly inescapable. The event’s legacy permeates the poem even more as the speaker questions, “Is anyone going to help us not to / Forget but at least soothe the pain?” When one considers Ukraine’s current state of affairs, Fal’kovych’s lines reverberate loudly, especially as Russian politicians and authorities continually claim that the impetus behind the full-scale invasion is the need to “de-nazify” Ukraine. The claim, as Omer Bartov explains in a May 2022 Wall Street Journal article, is spurred on by Vladimir Putin’s obsession with undoing Ukraine’s modernity. As Bartov explains, Putin is obsessed with Russia’s role in the Second World War, and as Bartov further explains, Putin laments the 1920s, when an independent Ukraine came into existence as a place where “Jews and Ukrainians experienced a cultural renaissance, often working together and celebrating their respective heritages.” With this in mind, the final stanza in Fal’kovych’s poem gains even more significance:

                        We all came out of Babyn Yar.
                        It’s frightening to go back there, God!
                        Chase away specters and clouds
                        And don’t judge us on earth…

In this stanza, a collectiveness forms from the speaker’s usage of the universal, unspecific “We” and the necessity to not forget the massacre is imperative.

This necessity to remember Babyn Yar is the crux of Sava Holovanivs’kyi’s poem “Melnyk Street”. The poem opens with the lines “On the road that goes past Babyn Yar, / they’re laying asphalt.” The asphalt represents the present overtaking the past. The speaker continues:

                        From now on, thanks to the efforts
                        of this celebrated city’s council,
                        here will lie, without potholes or pits,
                        a road, arrow-like and solemn.

The street’s name also bears a historical significance in not only the poem, but also Ukrainian history. Andriy Melnyk was a Ukrainian military and political leader associated with the outrightly antisemitic Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists. Melnyk was one of two nationalist leaders who, until his death, supported Adolf Hitler. Recently, as Ukraine continued its “de-Russification” process and began renaming Kyiv streets using the names of prominent Ukrainian figures, controversy emerged when authorities suggested naming a street after Melnyk. With this frame of reference, the message of Sava Holovanivs’kyi’s poem bears even more emotional and philosophical weight. First, it reminds readers that no amount of modernisation can hide history’s atrocities. Next, when considered in conjunction with more immediate events, it ultimately asks contemporary audiences to consider the consequences, and the marginalisation, that occur when authorities and societies glorify figures like Melnyk and overlook or ignore the horrible ideologies associated with them.

Tackling the same issue as Holovanivs’kyi’s “Melnyk Street” is Dmytro Pavlychko’s “On the edge of Babyn Yar they raised”. Again, the speaker observes a present which attempts to overshadow the past: “On the edge of Babyn Yar they raised / a TV tower to the heavens.” The speaker states that the TV tower brings a “strange radiance” to the area, one that is “Like the flame of ash trees in the fall”. The peaceful, nearly bucolic setting is abruptly disrupted by the speaker’s bold interjection, “But wait!” The interjection jars readers, and from this point the poem shifts to more intense imagery. A mother’s “tears shine / Through layers of bloodsoaked clay.” Oceans “gleam with human pain”. The TV tower stands, symbolic of human progress. Nonetheless, the violence which permeated Babyn Yar cannot be erased, despite humankind’s progressive technology: “Where does this shining lead? Where are / The stars that return to their screens / The imperishable thoughts of murdered souls?” Again, readers attentive to the news will experience a moment of surrealism while engaging with the poem. The target Russian missiles struck in the attack on Babyn Yar’s vicinity in March 2022 happened to be the TV tower standing opposite of Babyn Yar.

Babyn Yar: Ukrainian Poets Respond features other prominent Ukrainian writers like Maksym Ryl’s’kyi, Iurii Scherbak, and Pavlo Tychyna. It pairs well with another Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute must-read, Marianna Kiyanovska’s The Voices of Babyn Yar. Thus, during a time when antisemitic incidences are on a dramatic rise across the globe and the war in Ukraine rips open historical wounds, poetry collections like Babyn Yar: Ukrainian Poets Respond emerge and remind the reading public of not only the necessity of remembering history and taking a stand against evil, but also about the necessity of poetry as witness during a time of great atrocity.

Professor Nicole Yurcaba is a Ukrainian American poet and essayist of Hutsul/Lemko origin. She serves as adjunct poetry faculty at Southern New Hampshire University and Humanities faculty at Blue Community and Technical College in the United States. Her articles regarding Ukrainian literature appear in such publications as Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press and the US’s Seneca Review and Tupelo Quarterly.

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