Art Despite War

But tell us why, why did they burn our city down? “Where are you coming from, dark caravan” Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps

When I saw Mariana Sadovska’s performance with Yara Arts Group “The Night is Just Beginning” at the Ukrainian Museum in New York City at the end of 2016, I began to think about the connection between art and war. Mariana and the Yara artists traveled to war-torn regions in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine to collect folk songs. Both of the poets, Serhiy Zhadan and Lyuba Yakimchuk, whose poetry Mariana wove into her musical performance are from the Donbas region.

Don’t talk to me about Luhansk / it’s long since turned into–hansk / Lu has been razed / to the crimson pavement – “Decomposition,” Lyuba Yakimchuk, translated by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky

I spoke with Mariana after the performance and collected her impressions about being creative during violent and uncertain times. I also spoke to one of the poets whose work Mariana included, Lyuba Yakimchuk, about the way her poetry was affected by the war and continues to be transformed.

Where are you coming from, dark caravan, you flock of birds

Mariana asks: “How can I create during wartime? And is it ethical? To create? And how are poems written as twentieth-century poet Pavlo Tychyna wrote, ‘instead of sonnets and octaves?’ Is it ethical to sing? Would it be better to go to the frontlines? Or, for example, do something practical to help at the frontlines? And what about those people who lost their lives, who lost their families, their health, who were forced to leave their homes and become migrants? And what about those who remain chained in their occupied territories…

I remain connected to my family over the phone/all of my family connections are wiretapped/they are curious: who do I love more, mom or dad? – “How I Killed,” Lyuba Yakimchuk, translated by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky

And where can I find the strength to, like Czeslaw Milosz in the times of darkness and ruin, to create poetry, full of love? I am holding onto Leonard Bernstein’s words as if they are a lifeline, ‘This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.’”

I remain connected to my family over the phone/all of my family connections are wiretapped/they are curious: who do I love more, mom or dad?

In April 2014, war began in the city of Luhansk. Luhansk is in the region where Lyuba was born. No one wanted to believe that it was a war. The Department of Defense in Luhansk and the Luhansk Administration building were occupied and soldiers stood over them with weapons. Lyuba’s family did not want to leave, but by February 2015, they found themselves caught in the crossfire. Luhansk is at the border between the occupied and non-occupied territory and suddenly, it became difficult to leave. There were corridors where people should have been able to escape safely, but in reality, that was not the case. A whole bus full of people was bombed there. Lyuba’s parents decided that they would wait it out. They hid in an underground shelter near their building. Food provisions like jams, potatoes, and vegetables were kept there and they hid there. They left on February 14, 2015. That day there was crossfire. They asked an acquaintance to act as a taxi driver. They were shot at. It was frightening. Lyuba says that it was also frightening to wait for their arrival in Kyiv, not knowing whether they would get there safely. But tell us why, why did they burn our city down?

But tell us why, why did they burn our city down?

At the Yara Arts Group performance at the Ukrainian Museum in New York City, Mariana performed her song “Fear,” portraying a common sentiment during war. She composed the song from the folk songs she heard in the villages of Donbas. The immediacy of fear was heightened by Ukrainian artist Waldemart Klyuzko’s projections that surrounded the audience when Mariana performed it and other songs of Donbas.

Where are you coming from, dark caravan, you flock of birds – “Where are you coming from, dark caravan” Serhiy Zhadan, translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps

The projections climbed up onto the ceiling like tree branches, but could also be imagined as traditional Ukrainian embroidery. Mariana’s goal was not only to perform the songs in the villages where they originated but to bring them to other regions of Ukraine and to international audiences, conveying news of culture flourishing despite war.

don’t talk to me about Luhansk/it’s long since turned into –hansk/ Lu has been razed/ to the crimson pavement When Lyuba returned to Luhansk for a visit, she did not understand how it

When Lyuba returned to Luhansk for a visit, she did not understand how it would be possible to write about the war. She had to search for some kind of new language. She began by using fewer metaphors. She tried not to use the word “war,” but rather to portray the war. She wanted to show the situation in such a way that readers would interpret it themselves. Then she noticed that more dialogue began to appear in her poems. There were different voices that all spoke about themselves. This was contrary to Bakhtin’s opinion that poetry is monologic. She tried to transfer what was happening in reality into language. It happened very spontaneously. She began to tear words apart.

he says: everything will be fine, salvation will come soon

Mariana sees a connection between Lyuba’s poems and the folk songs of the war-torn region that Lyuba comes from. They are alike musically. Lyuba agrees with this. She says that some of her poems are put together like a folktale or song. There are various folkloric forms that come through in contemporary poetry, in free verse.

We will never see our city again.

Lyuba’s poems now focus on the deconstruction of language, language is deconstructed as the cities of the Donbas region are. She twists the march [марш] that is associated with soldiers into the scar [шрам] it leaves. Her well-known poem “Decomposition” ends with the deconstruction of her own name. She is no longer Lyuba, but just “ba,” reflecting the way her life changed because of the war. The way that Mariana sings Lyuba’s poems reflects this deconstruction. She tears apart the sounds, lingering on them, “mmm…shshsh…rrr…aaa.”

and unedited lists of the dead/, so long that there won’t be time/to check them for your own name.

There are many options for what an artist can do during wartime. An artist, shocked by the war, can deny it. An artist can stop creating. An artist can put aside art and become part of the war effort. An artist can become part of the war effort through art.

I remain connected to my family over the phone/all of my family connections are wiretapped/they are curious: who do I love more, mom or dad? – “How I Killed,” Lyuba Yakimchuk, translated by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky

Mariana and Lyuba continue to create. Their music and poetry continues despite the war and is transformed because of it. Mariana created the show “The Night is Just Beginning” with Yara Arts Group that is a collection of songs influenced by the people living in regions affected by the war. Lyuba’s newest poetry collection “Donbas Apricots” includes a series of war poems, but her style of composition has also changed. Both have created beautiful pieces, but one can continue to ask: “Is this ethical?” Can anything good come of violence?

 

Olena Jennings

Olena Jennings’s collection of poetry Songs from an Apartment was released in January by Underground Books. Her translations of poetry from Ukrainian can be found in Chelsea, Poetry International, and Wolf. She has published fiction in Joyland, Pioneertown, and Projectti-le. She completed her MFA in writing at Columbia and her MA focusing in Ukrainian literature at the University of Alberta.

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