Sharing the Darkness

Carolyn Forché

I wake with a start at midnight. A nightbird striking the window? A bat in the eaves? Maybe someone in the theater of my sleep gave me a nudge—someone I don’t know in waking life. It is cloudy and warm this night, so the waning moon isn’t visible through the window beside me, nor the bright star Antares to the right of it. There is no wind. There have been no sharp knocks on the door as I seem to hear sometimes, and no imaginary bell. A stillness has descended on everything: the pile of books on the bedside table, the water glass lit from within, and across the room, a gallery of people looking out from their photographs as if through windows in the past. Nothing moves. Something has happened, is what the darkness says. It had to do with the maps I had been studying in recent days, with the drawings of tanks and the arrows pointing at Ukraine. At one time, I would have reached for the Grundig shortwave radio and spun the dial through frequencies of music, languages and white noise. Now I reach for my cell phone and begin to scroll, tenting the light with a bedsheet so as not to disturb my husband’s sleep. At first the world seems quiet. Kyrgyzstan’s President has signed a decree banning the slaughter of cattle during funerals. Anti-war protesters have gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Berlin. Singapore reports a record number of Covid cases. I solve the Wordle puzzle and the mini-Crossword, and then I play the game of guessing how many words can be made from the same seven letters, using the same single letter in each of them. I learn that it will rain tomorrow. I hear the water heater turn on then off again. Car lights from the road pass over the walls. Maybe in the distance a racoon is opening a garbage can. It is all very normal, but something bothers the mind. This has to do with the war that is coming is what the darkness is saying, and it is right. The country on the map is now ringed by battalions and tanks, convoys with their missiles pointing at the clouds. The Russian military forces are arrayed along the borders of Russia, Belarus and occupied Crimea.

The air raid sirens sound just after dawn in Kyiv, and some minutes later in Lviv. Blasts are heard in the cities of Dnipro, Mariupol, Kramatorsk and Odesa. This has to do with a city near the sea, city of wheat and light, city of limestone soft enough to cut with a hatchet. Poems sometimes whisper in the dark like this. They sometimes appear in the dark like lights when the eyes are closed. Within hours, I would know what woke me up. In Kyiv it was already morning and it was clear that a full-scale war against the people of Ukraine had begun, a war to destroy kindergartens and libraries, theaters, farmer’s markets, hospitals, filling stations; a war on universities and maternity wards, factories and shopping malls, apartment blocks and playgrounds, a war on a language spoken for five hundred years, on the history of a people, on folk songs and dances, fairy tales, literature, and food; a war, as I saw it, upon an opera house, a madhouse, a ghost church with wind for its choir/ where two things were esteemed: literature and ships, poetry and the sea. These lines are from a poem I wrote for the Ukrainian-born poet Ilya Kaminsky after our journey to Odesa two decades ago, when it seemed fortuitous for him to go back, to see once again the city of his childhood, the city he left with his mother and father in the years just after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

This was not my first trip there. A decade earlier, I had driven through Belarus toward Ukraine to document the conditions for people living in the exclusion zones surrounding the damaged reactor at Chernobyl: the elderly people who refused to leave, and refugees from the war in Chechnya, who found safety in the peace and quiet of the place. In memory, the giant blue cabbages growing in their radiated gardens are visible through a scrim of acacia trees lining the streets of Odesa. The passage of time has caused these journeys to happen all at once, the images flickering like photographs in a kaleidoscope. We are walking in the cold wind toward the Potemkin steps when Ilya interrupts this reverie by playfully inviting me to dance, as instructed by the title of his first volume of poems, Dancing in Odessa. And so we waltz down Prymorskyi Boulevard, and later, over a samovar of black tea in the Hotel Londonskya, he tells me that emigration is death. “You must die when you board the plane and walk into your resurrection as you disembark in the new land. If you are unable to do this, you remain a corpse. I’m not sure I can say now that emigration is a good thing.”

That trip was the first of many for him. He even went back after the invasion this year, in part to visit his ailing uncle, to bring whatever aid and comfort he could to his relatives and friends, the poets he had come to know in the decades since that first journey, poets he had been translating and publishing, and now was trying somehow to rescue in whatever way he could. Most Ukrainian poets had chosen to stay behind when millions of women, children, and elderly men boarded the trains, piled into cars, or walked to the country’s borders. Like everyone else in the west, I was confined in my knowledge of this exodus to photographs and video footage: arms reaching through train windows, crowded platforms, children in snowsuits, house cats and small dogs tucked into winter jackets, roller boards, rucksacks, wheelchairs. Some had packed believing they would only be away a short time. I wondered what they had chosen to bring with them and tried not to think about all they had left behind. I did, however, understand that the images before me did not transmit how cold it was, how raw the air, how painful the boots and shoes, did not convey the desperate hope for a toilet, a sip of water, a place to dry out the mittens and socks. In the photographs, the black smoke pouring from burning apartment blocks doesn’t sting the eyes or burn the throat; there is no stench of cordite and no overpowering petroleum odor of war.

Soon after the invasion began, the writer Askold Melnyczuk asked me to join a Zoom gathering of Ukrainian poets, sponsored by the PEN-American Center. Despite our far-flung locations, in the computer screen, it was as if we were all in the same apartment house, looking out from our different windows. In Ukraine, it was already dark. The mood in our dimly lit poetry building was solemn. Vasyl Makhno was in New York, Ostap Slyvynsky and Halya Kruk were in Lviv, Oksana Lutsyshyna was in Austin, Texas; Iryna Shukalova in Beijing, and Oksana Zabuzkho tried to join us from Warsaw, but was unable to get the technology on her borrowed computer to work. Askold welcomed us. There were greetings and sad smiles, shrugs and knowing looks. I knew that I would share a poem I wrote for Ilya, titled “Exile,” but in the hours leading up to our meeting, I also composed a message in the form of a poem, an urgent message written quickly and read in its raw state. In the days that followed, the message was published, translated into Ukrainian, and letter-pressed as a broadside in both languages against a field of sunflowers.

If there is ink

If there is ink for this hour if there is
something to say to write that would
send the tanks the convoys and transports
into reverse on the roads they have rutted
send them back to the borders they crossed
send them back, and the hours too that have passed
since dawn on the twenty-fourth day of the second month
send those hours with them, and the enemy
soldiers dragging with them their crematorium
and the corpses of their fellow soldiers they have left
behind and their own wounded send them back if there is ink
if there is something to write that would raise the cities
from the ruins the apartment blocks hospitals schools
that would put the cities back as they were
I would give everything to fill my pen with it

Якби існувало чорнило

Якби існувало чорнило для цих часів якби існувало
таке що можна розповісти написати що би змусило
танки конвої транспорти
повернути назад на шляхи на яких вони залишили ритвини
погнати їх геть до кордону який вони перейшли,
і прогнати часи що минули
від світанку двадцять четвертого дня другого місяця
прогнати часи оці а за ними ворожих солдатів
що волочать свої крематорії
і прогнати покинуті трупи і прогнати
поранених гнати їх якби існувало чорнило
якби можна було словами написати таке що підніме міста
із руїн і будинки квартали лікарні і школи
щось таке що відродить міста відсотворить їх тими
що перше я віддала б усе щоб наповнити ручку таким чорнилом

tr. by Переклад Оксани Луцишиної
This was before Mariupol was razed to the ground, before its theater was bombed, killing six hundred people who had taken refuge within it; before the discovery of the torture chambers and the corpses of Bucha; the aerial bombing of Vinnytsia, Chernihiv, Kviv, and Izium, a litany of cities and towns; the siege of the steelworks; a child photographed lying dead beside a baby carriage; a mother in labor carried on a litter from a burning maternity ward. It was possible in those first weeks and months to imagine myself to be following “the news,” especially by reading The Kyiv Independent, just as it was possible to hope that the sanctions would work, that the courage of a besieged people could prevail against despotic aggression, that the largest land war in Europe in almost seventy years would not end in thermonuclear war; that Ukraine would somehow survive this onslaught against significant odds. After all, hadn’t the Russian warship been sunk off the coast of Snake Island? Hadn’t the farmer’s tractor towed the broken tank out of a field? Didn’t they put these on postage stamps? The warship and the tractor-towed tank?

I lie in the dark most nights, aware that at that very moment, on the other side of the world, a rocket had struck a power plant and the lights had gone out. In those hours, I was lying again on a basement floor in Beirut many years ago, listening to the thunderous shelling of Ras Beirut from the Maronite east. Almost every journalist posted to Beirut was in that hotel basement, along with a handful of people from neighboring apartments. There were thirty or so of us. Beside me was a young Lebanese girl lying under her coat, whispering to me about her life, and wondering if there would be anything left in the morning. “Of course, there will,” I reassured her, “they can’t destroy everything.” I wanted now to remember that particular fear: that our building would be hit and we would be crushed beneath it. “We have to sleep,” I said to the girl. In the morning we would wake up, and this would be over. I said things like that until she fell asleep, and then I lay there, keeping myself awake to keep the world intact. That is how one thinks in a make-shift shelter.

As I scroll through photographs taken in Kherson or Nikopol, I want to remember. not only the stench, but the deafening sounds of detonated ordnance, acrid dust and debris, the screeching of metal on metal, the coughing of the mortars and shattering of glass. In the morning, the streets of Ras Beirut were covered with broken windows, green, jagged scraps that made it look as though the streets were iced. It was hard to walk. And there is so much else one can forget: how for hours or even days nothing happens, and it seems safe to come out because after all it is necessary to find food and water, to prepare meals and wash up, to think about where to go next. I remembered the young boy who every day ran from doorway to doorway with a tall stack of pita bread he balanced like plates in a circus act. He sometimes had to dodge rifle-fire, but he never dropped the bread, and people watching from a slight distance cheered him on as if he might not die at any moment.

Sometimes in the early hours, I discover my friend, Edward, awake in Odesa. I ask him if he is somewhere safe, in a shelter or basement. “No,” he replies. Then: “Around 20:00 two heavy shots sounded right next door to our house. It was our defense firing. I now live not far from the restaurant where you and I dined. My wife and three animals and I do not lose heart. We are not afraid.” And: “A few hours ago there were ten shots, very loud, so my head ached but we are not discouraged. We think it will be over soon.” And: “Thank you for being with us. In Odesa there were several volleys from the sea and the air. In the city for a long time a siren and a distant cannonade were heard. My wife and I and our three pets—Santa, Puma, and Charlie—are calm and confident in our victory. We are waiting for the end of the war.”

Lying awake at night I insist to myself that yes, this is happening again, now, in the heart of Europe, a genocidal war to eliminate a people. What the Polish poet Czeslaw Miłosz wrote is true: “If a thing exists in one place, it will exist everywhere.” There is nothing that cannot happen. Nothing impossible where humanity is concerned. War is an old story. As for human survival and civilization, there are no guarantees. In our times, everything senses that an end might come, that annihilation is possible and, as the poet Nazim Hikmet wrote: This earth will grow cold one day /not like a block of ice/ or a dead cloud even/ but like an empty walnut it will roll along in pitch black space. //You must grieve for this right now / —you have to feel this sorrow now—/ for the earth must be loved this much/ if you are going to say “I lived.”

“The poetic act changes with the amount of background reality embraced by the poet’s consciousness,” Milosz also wrote. “…What surrounds us, here and now, is not guaranteed. It could just as well not exist—and so man constructs poetry out of the remnants found in ruins.” Awareness of that background reality demands vigilance, this very wakefulness, and is sustained through the faculty of the empathetic imagination, by our ability to respond to hidden forces, to disturbances in the cosmos, the way horses run back and forth across a pasture before a storm, or migratory birds sense an early winter. The background reality for those who live far from the war zone is the war itself. It shares the darkness with us, the moment of night.

Before the invasion the artist Ashley Ashford-Brown had begun a large painting in his studio in Basse-Normandie, France. He had been working on a series of interiors—rooms emptied and swept, no longer inhabited except by a palpable stillness, painted partly in pigmented concrete, the material he had used in the past when making paintings of dolmens and cairns.

One of these interiors he recognized as a room in Aleppo, Syria, where he’d had an exhibition of his work before that city was destroyed. He does not know what happened to the paintings, offering that they were now possibly somewhere under the rubble. Unlike most of Aleppo, the room in the painting is nearly intact, but for a cracked floor and some fallen plaster. Through the doorway, we glimpse the balcony, and beyond its arches, a city painted from memory.

In the painting begun just before the invasion of Ukraine, we are looking through a hole in a blown wall. It is dark. There is another wall blown open beyond it, with pieces of wall on the floor. Through this opening, there is another in the shape of a doorway with no door. The light enters here, washing over the floor to where we stand in a pile of fallen plaster. There is a tree growing in the distance, but it is leafless. He was puzzled by this painting at first, as it emerged on the canvas, and then realized that the room was in Ukraine, a place he had never been. A demolished room in Ukraine had come to him, presaging the invasion. “That is how it happens with painting sometimes,” he said.

Carolyn Forché
Homer, Alaska
Carolyn Forché’s recent memoir, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance (Penguin Press, 2019) was a finalist for the National Book Award in non-fiction, and her fifth poetry collection, In the Lateness of the World, (Penguin Press, 2020), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Featured Artwork: Rooms 22 by Ashley Ashford-Brown