February 2023 Archives

A Poem for Ukraine on the First Anniversary


With her left hand she plucks a clear
bass line, with her right brushes
plangent sounds from the fifty-
four strings of the bulky, asymmetrical
instrument in her arms.  Her fingers dance
octaves, delicate, precise, rich.
National instrument of Ukraine.
Bandura players, called kobzars,
many of them blind, carried
the traditional folk songs
of the Ukrainian people.  When
Stalin moved to crush Ukrainian
national identity, he rounded
up the kobzars for a "Congress
of Folksingers of the USSR"
in Moscow.  The train stopped outside
the Kozacha Lopan station.  
The bodies were buried in lime
trenches, the banduras burned.  
Two years later, the Holodomor,
Terror-Famine, starved millions.
So told Tatiana, proud
in her embroidered Ukrainian
blouse, as her exacting hands
lifted us from horror to beauty.  
My mother's father was a "German
Russian," invited by the Tsar
to Crimea.  His family
emigrated to the US when
the Tsar conscripted the German
guest workers.  Are distant relatives
of mine fighting the Russians now?
In Time I notice a photo
of Ukrainian youth in camo
in a classroom studying war.
Such a sorrow, I think,
remembering the Youtube video
of earnest young Ukrainians
taking up the magnificent old
instrument five years ago
in a peacetime no one dreamed
would fall victim to that revived
disease of Stalinist cruelty.
"A time is coming when there will
be no war, but that time is
not yet," says Tatiana
Riabokin, her hands calling
forth from the bandura's strings
full octaves of grief and hope.

(Note:  On January 12, 2023, I participated in a program of writers and musicians in support of the people of Ukraine, held at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis.  Other fine performers were poets Dougie Padilla, James Lenfestey, and Hawona Sullivan Janzen and musicians Madeline Fendrick, Brian Peck, and John Munson.  But perhaps most amazing of all was Tatiana Riabokin's performance on the bandura, the national instrument of Ukraine, of which many of us, myself included, had never heard before.  My poem is a tribute both to Tatiana and the resilience and bravery of the Ukrainian people.)