In their introduction to Words Without Borders’ “#Russophonia: New Writing in Russian” issue, Hilah Kohen and Josephine von Zitzewitz highlight several significant issues that “preoccupy Russian society and Russophone communities around the world. The first is the war in Eastern Ukraine.” Words Without Borders’ “Women Write War” issue of April 2016 featured the writing of two Ukrainian poets about this war, Lyudmyla Khersonska and Lyuba Yakimchuk, while Xenia Emelyanova’s anti-war poem “Destined from Birth” appears in the #Russophonia portfolio. “Destined from Birth,” written in the early days of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, addresses the war from a position of empathy, kinship, and condemnation on religious and humanitarian grounds. But Emelyanova, a Russian citizen who lives in Moscow, has never found herself in war’s direct path. Ukrainian poet Iya Kiva, on the other hand, has bitter personal experience of this war.
In February 2014, Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution saw Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych ousted from Ukraine’s presidency; soon thereafter, Russia forcibly occupied and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which had long been recognized as Ukrainian territory. On the opposite side of Ukraine, Iya Kiva’s hometown of Donetsk quickly became—and remains—a battlefield between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian factions. Kiva was born and raised in a Russian-speaking environment in Donetsk, and she graduated from the local university. Nevertheless, she and her family took a pro-Ukrainian stance in the conflict. Friends and friends of friends were wounded or killed; one committed suicide. In the summer of 2014, Kiva was forced to flee Donetsk, leaving everything behind. Since then, she has lived as a war refugee in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. According to Kiva, she began to write “completely differently” after these events. In wartime, she writes, “luxuriant metaphors seem superfluous to me. Difficult times demand simplicity in speaking. But that’s just formal minimalism. I don’t mean semantic simplification. I mean something like the inability to put on a beautiful, expensive dress if everyone around you is a beggar.”
Poetically speaking, Kiva is something of a contradiction: a poet of contemporary Ukraine who most often expresses herself in Russian (although she also writes in Ukrainian); a once-formal poet who now frequently employs techniques of free verse, collage, and montage; a war refugee who by her own account can’t seem to right herself, even far from the front lines. This untitled poem (“you think you’ve turned on Bach”) was published in Kiva’s 2018 collection Podalshe ot raya (Kyiv: Kayala), and appears here in my translation:
“you think you’ve turned on Bach”
you think you’ve turned on Bach,
in the speakers are military marches,
you think that’s Jascha Heifetz,
you hear the plaintive whistling of shells,
the violin sounds coarser,
the coloratura soprano of war
is an octave higher,
blood fills your ears,
the bow’s been killed
Not surprisingly for a poet who’s spent most of the last six years as a refugee, themes of memory, violence, trauma, and borders/transitions run through Kiva’s poems. She also explores states of alienation and separation, ways people fragment and become disconnected while paradoxically “connecting” via digits and pixels. Death is another of Kiva’s preoccupations: “[D]eath interests me not as ‘we’re all going to die, how terrible,’ but as a particular variant of violence. And as a complex psychological problem. That is, not as an ending, but as a breaking-off, an incompletion.”
Kiva is also known to Russian-language readers for her poems about the Second World War, including poems that explore the complex history of Ukraine’s Jewish population. She says wryly that many consider her poems “gloomy and depressing,” although she insists that’s not the case. One of her interests as an artist is precisely the moment when things deviate from perceived norms, from convention. Her life, she writes, is not typical, easy, or smooth: “My poems look very much like my life.”
Note: All quoted material was translated from Russian by Katherine E. Young.