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5 February 2023

The NS Poem: Creator, we need an answer

A new poem by the Russian poet Larissa Miller, translated by Rowan Williams, on the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine.

By Rowan Williams and Larissa Miller

Somewhere not far away is fighting to the death,
exchange of fire, battles and skirmishes;
here though, there is a canopy of blue,
and a bird flutters overhead.
Somewhere not far away, carnage, abuse,
blood, death, clashes, dismemberment;
here though, in the early morning hours,
people are still asleep, and snuffle touchingly.
Creator, we need an answer from you:
in this world, the world that you established,
was all today’s insanity always
part of the bargain with you?

In a smoky space in the middle of the battle,
some young man sprawls, a monster hole in his chest,
unmoving in the middle of the universe,
fulfilling somebody or other’s mad command.
And the crows racket over their bloody meal,
and worry away at the bloody hole,
they fly across a stretch of tortured soil,
inconsolable, sorrowful young souls.

But in the bombed house, there is a calendar
just like mine. It’s the same one I bought.
A calendar that blackened as the house was bombed,
turning all somebody’s delights to ash and cinders.
A calendar that hangs precariously on something –
some sort of rope or thread or fishing-line,
and what’s left of the coloured curtain plays
with a stray, casually regretful, sunbeam.

So, when the springtime noises are drowned out
by strident wailing from the sirens,
you, as you leave behind the walls you know,
take no more than you would be lost without.
Take it as you embark on unknown roads –
stuff from the medicine cupboard, a few clothes:
only, above all else, never forget to grab,
with all the other things, a final drop of hope.

A flock of the creator’s bird-creation
starts up the song at three a.m –
such a clapping of sound, a din so loud
you can’t sleep for the bird-noise.
And dawn is spattering my window
with a handful of trills and roulades.
So how come the Almighty sits back and permits
that somewhere not far away from the spring bird,
its song that runs in spate just like a brook,
there are charred eye-sockets of houses
looking out empty on the ashes of being?

I don’t want to know about all the horrors.
Sorry. There’s just no strength left
to cope with all the on-site details.
I am a passenger too on the same flight,
a plane inexorably headed for the plunge
into some gulf or other, into shadowed depths.
I too am terrified some lunatic
is going to break in, get at the ones I love.
And I too, I’m running through the night,
running from saturation bombing,
running from a baby with bloodstained clothes –
for some reason I can’t do anything about.

“How’s life?” they asked. This is how.
In a wild animal’s jaws we make ourselves at home;
in a wild animal’s jaws we build our nest.
The curtains rustle and the floorboards sing.
Flickering and muttering, but too tired to bother,
we let ourselves drift off into the clouds –
if there is space enough to see, through the gaping jaws,
the shining heaven, or at least a bit of it.

I live only one day, but an astounding one
that plays at ease with flames
of flying leaves;
morning to night, I live it through
amidst the blinding
leaves that protest against futility;
and, flying into darkness,
suddenly it hangs still
and, without meaning to, creates that beauty
that will save the world.

But victory comes, not with gnashing teeth,
it comes with sounds that will caress our ears.
Victory comes, not with voices wailing,
it comes in conversation between rain and grass.
Victory comes, not with the rattle of weapons,
it is the silent glitter of a river.
Not a wild howl, a roar, a yell,
but birdsong at first light.
And not a mob bogged down in grievance,
just someone breathing quietly, in and out.

The words have been domesticated:
“exchange of fire”, “explosion”, “bomb attack”;
they’ve come to sound almost like “cat”,
like “path”, like “grass”.
And if you want to warm your home,
then, in the gap between two raids
you need to give houseroom to hope,
so as somehow to prolong this life –
where day by day by day it is not
snow that sparkles outside the window,
nor is it leaf or bird that flies,
but the death-bearing missile.

Larissa Miller is a Russian poet. Her books include “Fate’s Little Pictures” (translated by Richard McKane, Arc Publications)

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak