The Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky’s collection Deaf Republic opens on a piece called “We Lived Happily During The War”, an acknowledgment of how the speaker’s immigrant family were safe – and indeed, content – during a time of turmoil in their country of origin. It is a poem that can be read as an indictment of selective amnesia, or as a confession of survivor’s guilt. Those who survive have a right to thrive; disengagement can be rightfully understood as a traumatised or healed response, and not only as indifference.
This poem has been shared widely on social media in the last few days, due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has also been widely misunderstood, with numerous bad faith interpretations. Kaminsky’s history of having been granted political asylum as a small child, and his disability and framing of deafness in this book as an act of resistance (“Our country woke up next morning and refused to hear soldiers… “Our hearing doesn’t weaken, but something silent in us strengthens.”), are ignored in favour of a facile misconstruing of what it means to be “happy” while others cannot be.
Kaminsky himself Tweeted something interesting: upon asking a friend in Odessa what he could do to help, he received this response: “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.” Kaminsky added this comment: “And, that is in the middle of war. Imagine.” I could imagine it both ways: the necessity of art, and that life doesn’t change much for some people no matter what happens (which is usually a function of privilege). But why imagine the second, at this time? Why not focus on the first?
Does everyone know that art is necessary? No, they do not. They do ask what art costs, before they even consider it. Does everyone know that war is unnecessary? No, they do not. They do not care to ask what war costs, except perhaps later.
Another poem, by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, has also been shared widely in the last few days. It is brief: “The war will end, / The leaders will shake hands. / The old woman will keep waiting for her martyred son. / The girl will wait for her beloved husband / And those children will wait for their hero father. / I don’t know who sold our homeland, / But I saw who paid the price.” As some pointed out, many who circulate this poem now – displaying their empathy for the “civilized European” people of Ukraine (as political commentators who let their racism slip said) – do not extend the same to the Palestinian people, out of whose circumstances this poem and its poet emerged. True – even though the reality of those words can be applied anywhere, no matter how specific their inspiration.
We need words, and art, to shape experience and to remember it. We also need it for that which is indelible to those who experience it, but which is so wilfully forgotten at large, as Darwish wrote elsewhere: “Forgotten, as if you never were / news, or a trace… forgotten”.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express in March 2022. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.