Ostap Slyvynsky

Poetry as a Sieve, or What Poetry Can Do During Wartime?


You see an error in the text - select the fragment and press Ctrl + Enter

The June issue of Indian magazine VerseVille, published in Kolkata, was completely dedicated to Ukrainian poetry of wartime. Iryna Vikyrchak, Ukrainian poetess and culture manager, director and curator of literature festivals, became a guest editor of the issue. At her invitation, Ukrainian poet Ostap Slivynsky wrote an essay on the way poetry functions in times of war, why we need it and its role in current circumstances, and Aneta Kaminska, Polish poetess and promoter of Ukrainian poetry, shared her experience in translating the poetry of such turbulent times. CHYTOMO was a partner of the project.

There was an air aid alert this night again. We have become accustomed to the few days without sirens. We took our time to find refuge in a corridor, where we had a special, relatively safe corner protected by the two walls on each side. I was slowly finishing some work at my desk. But this time it was different. We heard a very loud noise, which we had never heard in my town before. It seemed like a spring thunderstorm tolled just above our roof. I even peeked out of the window to check for the raindrops on the asphalt and whether the air aid alert was immediately followed by a storm. But no, it was not a thunderstorm.


Just half an hour after the explosions, my friend, poetess Kateryna Mikhalitsyna, who lives just a few buildings away from me, published on her Facebook this poem:


how’re the kids?

go to the shelter.

the thunder is not any more a thunder.

the sky is broken.

we believe we can protect them.

that the thread of life

will not break in the nameless parka’s hands.


we will be eternal – we say, before falling asleep to the dogs and the kids, who are searching affection,

looking in our eyes

still in a naïve manner,

as though their world of light

is still normal,

hasn’t gone crazy..

the country

of sirens and heroes.

blossom from the apple tree falling down.


I am ecstatic to see how easily literature emerges during bombings. That is what is supposed to take away your voice and handle it for you. This is a clear, absolute form of resistance. The word “absolute,” which means “completely invincible,” demonstrates the reverse dependence: the more terrifying and merciless the terror, the stronger the resistance.


“How interesting,” remarked one translator I know, who, like many others among his colleagues, from the very first days of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, began to actively follow and translate the most up-to-date Ukrainian literature. “Interesting, because you are expecting that the war poetry will be rattling with arms and saying loud words, but yours is barely a military one, it is a very humane one.”

As well as our symbols, I thought to myself. Instead of the war signs and aggressive bestiary, what we have is a little ceramic cock, which survived the bombarding, and a cute mine-searching dog. The symbols of those taking up arms to protect their home and of those who rise up to ruin what is not theirs will always be different. Their songs and their poetry will be different as well.


Do we need poetry at all in wartime, in the time of humanitarian catastrophes? It is not a rhetorical question at all, since the war is a special time when life sheds itself to the bone, leaving only the necessary to survive—simplification, lightening of the construction of life, which must become solid and easy to manoeuvre.


Does poetry belong to the necessary constructional elements? Is there a place for it in an emergency backpack? Poetry can’t prevent a war; poetry can’t stop it. One cannot speak with an enemy through poetry. But what can poetry do?


Having searched for a long time for an answer to the question, “What is poetry amongst explosions and ruination?” and amongst numerous diverse forms of suffering, I temporarily agreed to one metaphor. Poetry is a sieve. Yes, when images can be compared to the horrible reality and the reality itself becomes too intense, it appears to be a crime, and the only way out for literature remains testifying. But literature is not a reproduction of reality; it is not news headline or television footage. What it can do is to sieve the experiences in such a way that they acquire the meaning of a universal experience. This is what I call “a sieve”.

There is now a worse and more complicated situation for literature as a result of the reality of objective violence. Not only is there no adequate language for the violence (which is a good thing because “adequate” language for the violence would imply some cognitive legitimization, and the violence – particularly so-called extreme violence – would have to remain beyond the imaginative and expressive) but also because the basic principle of empathy is “there is no suffering which doesn’t matter.” It means we are torn between the inability to say at least anything and the necessity to say everything.


Literature can’t afford either. If silence for literature means its death, then the desire to cover as much suffering as possible with storytelling makes it not only unbearable but also weak; the intention of the story devalues the emotional power of a fact.


Despite Adorno’s gloomy assumptions, poetry survived Auschwitz; it survived Bosnian Srebrenica and Omarska; it will survive Bucha and Irpin. Although it will change, it is already changing.


From many of my colleague writers, I have been hearing during recent weeks the thoughts which generally make a row of classical symptoms of the survivor syndrome: do I have the right to speak about my personal experience if, compared to others, I haven’t suffered so much compared to others, if the level of my trauma is not comparable with the thousands of injuries and deaths, homelessness, and loss of dear ones? Regardless of how one “measures one’s suffering,” the fact remains: Ukrainian men and women of letters pass on the word to one another—to a victim, a witness to the most terrifying events, and their writing, even lyrical, becomes more and more a reportage.


I understand it very well: not being able to squeeze at least a word from myself after the 24th of February, I began to write down the words of others—the words of those who were running away from the shooting and those who were helping them, the words of those who lost everything and those who lost just one thing, but the most important one, and the words of those who, despite their loss, have found something. I continue to write down these stories, and I know that the war will be over and these stories won’t. I feel like this is the best I can do right now. At some point, when rereading the notes, I realised this is poetry.

And it is not just its right to be like this; it must be like this. When we are lacking words, you will be helped by those who themselves need help: the victims of the biggest war crimes. They come with their own words. By breaking through the wall of their own silence (for some, this happens immediately, for others, it takes days, weeks, months, and years; this is why these confessions will continue for a long time), they unconsciously lead the counterattack of language.


It might sound military, but it is not. It is a human need to return at the same time to the territories occupied by the aggressors to take back their ability to speak. With the very first mute “how is it possible?” we gradually master our impossible reality to tell others about it. At the moment, we are still stumbling, we are still getting stuck in the long silence or starting to speak confusingly and too emotionally, but all of this is ahead of us.


According to Michel Foucault, “the gods send mischief to people so that they tell about it; mortals tell the stories so that it never happens in their lives.” Let it be like this: we are going to tell our stories so that they never reappear in anyone else’s life.


Translated from Ukrainian by Iryna Vikyrchak