Image: Collage by Ukrainian artist Grycja, grycja.tumblr.com
In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, the characters are depicted as trying to navigate a protected territory they call “The Zone.” Initially, the Zone seems to describe an ordinary countryside, abandoned due to some undisclosed past disaster and protected by barbed wire and armed guards. However, in the course of the film, we learn that the Zone is more than a peaceful landscape populated by uncanny signs of past human existence. It’s a living being instantiated in the particular physical location. Within the Zone, normal patterns of cause and effect get disrupted and the familiar laws of physics no longer fully apply.
Lyuba Yakimchuk’s poem “Crow, Wheels” is about her hometown turning into a war zone. It captures the transformation in slow motion: the graveyard is the only thing that’s left flourishing in the demolished city; the names of the dead are recited monotonously in the manner of an Orthodox priest and punctuated by gunfire; the familiar rituals of honoring the deceased family members turn into a macabre celebration of the ongoing catastrophe. The landscapes of one’s childhood begin to merge with heavy military equipment. One spots scavenging birds circling over unexpected areas: playgrounds, city streets. In a 2015 poem describing the same region, a different poet makes a chilling observation: the sea gulls here are tinted pink. Even beautiful things—the pink seagulls or, as in Yakimchuk’s poem, the colorful ribbons on the crosses—come to mean something sinister.
What is a home? It’s a place where you feel at home. This answer looks like a tautology, yet it’s oddly informative. What the idiom of “feeling at home” evokes is an experience that has a particular quality of familiarity, safety, comfort. You can feel at home in a lover’s arms, or floating on your back in an ocean harbor on a blindingly sunny day. You can also feel at home reading a text in a dead ancient language: you know the words, you understand the grammar, and the meaning of the sentences emerges with little conscious effort on your part. Yet the feeling is fragile and can be easily disrupted: your lover makes a surprising snide remark; you sense the vibrations of a large fish approaching; a word gets used in a way that doesn’t make sense. You’re still in the same place, but you’re no longer home. You’ve entered a different territory. The zone.
Unlike in Tarkovsky’s film, there usually isn’t a sharp distinction between home and the zone: no barbed wire to indicate the border, no bullets whistling over your head to confirm that you’ve crossed it. They merge into one another seamlessly. The tricky thing with the zone is that it may look and feel very much like home. To use a term from positive psychology, you can feel “in the zone” in it, immersed for a time, focused and energized. It is only retrospectively that you may be able to figure out that you entered the unfamiliar territory long before you became consciously aware of it: by retracing your steps, you can pick out the minor signs you were ignoring, things that didn’t quite make sense, disruptions of meaning you covered over through skilled hermeneutic maneuvers. The strangeness that you attempted to suppress eventually catches up with you and confronts you head-on.
Home has a certain semiotic structure, the structure that the zone resembles up to a point. This structure makes home intelligible. Home is something that’s ours, that includes us, that takes us in. It’s what we can read. By contrast, the zone gradually reveals itself as having a life of its own, the life from which we are excluded, that we don’t share. It resists us, it shuts itself off from us. The disruptions described above, the points at which one is made aware that one had crossed into the zone, are characteristic of the human experience of crisis: things that used to make sense no longer do. For people whose home turns into a place of war the experience is more radical: it is not just this or that relationship, this or that sentence, this or that instance of suffering that no longer makes sense. The world as one knows it becomes unintelligible.
Focusing on how the world is rendered intelligible and how it loses intelligibility helps us to comprehend the subjective perspective that we often lose sight of when we think about war and exile. Our approach to victims of trauma tends to be diagnostic, describing the transformations that take place in the subject from a perspective of a neutral observer. Indeed, victims of trauma are often encouraged to cultivate this self-distancing perspective themselves in order to counteract the default tendency to get absorbed in the traumatic events that happened to them or their loved ones and to experience those events as immediate. This approach focuses on how one’s psychology changes in response to the traumatic events one experiences—including the defense mechanisms that kick in and alter one’s ordinary patterns of thinking, the ways one’s beliefs and desires get restructured, and what one remembers or forgets. Yet there’s a downside to adopting this approach to the exclusion of other ways of coping and living with one’s past. A victim of trauma who comes to view herself merely as a site for the unfolding of various psychological processes—the location where defense mechanisms get activated and memories are stored—may come to feel alienated from her emotional life. She may come to see it as something that must be understood only in order to become manageable; not something that merits understanding in its own right.
Yakimchuk’s poem gives us the kinds of hermeneutical keys that invite the diagnostic approach. It begins with a description of the new world that the poet confronts in place of her hometown, and ends in a confession characteristic of a victim—or witness—of traumatic events: she strings some names together, sensing that they mean something, though she can no longer remember what. But to view the poem in this way, from the safe distance of an observer (whether clinical or theoretical), would be to miss its point. The poem is not about the poet’s psychology; it’s about the world that’s changing, rendering us speechless. In this changing world, meaning does not collapse; rather, it gets re-anchored. Like a foreigner mastering a language for the first time, the poet clings to etymologies, to snippets of signification that she can discern, to basic building blocks out of which meaning can be constructed. In this infant-like state, meaning becomes literal. The words Voronova (derived from “vorona,” the word for “crow”) and Kolesnyk (derived from “koleso,” the word for “wheel”) no longer evoke the people that the war took away; they’ve collapsed back into their lexical roots and now refer to the new wartime reality that has replaced the original name-bearers: crow, wheels.
In putting together our anthology of Ukrainian wartime poetry, Words for War, we have focused on these transitional moments, the no-longer-this but not-yet-that situations, snapshots of a process at its different stages of completion. In visual art, these situations may be aptly represented by the technique of collage. Two or more pictures merge slowly together, their distinctive elements entering into surprising semiotic relations with one another. Initially, the overall picture that results from such merging may seem incoherent, meaningless. These moments render the interpreter speechless. The experience that many of the poets writing about war report having is that of disorientation, dumbness, infantile babbling. In fact, it is as much a site of the disappearance of meaning as it is a site of its emergence. The zone is not a place that’s simply unintelligible. It’s a place that requires special effort and engages us in a special form of activity. It confronts us with our own role as creatures that don’t just discover meaning in the world, but constitute and confer it. Here we have to learn to speak anew. In the zone, we don’t simply find a home, but face the challenge of making it.