Can Poetry Halt the Invasion?

When we were pushed into exile over 30 years ago by the secret police of Romania, my father—who served 12 years in communist prisons—said: “Europe is sitting on a barrel of gunpowder.”  He learned about hatred, greed, and brain washing in prison, where victims became torturers and then victims once again, depending on how the power swung. The Iron Curtain, the propaganda mill and surveillance, together with my parents’ typewriter—their weapon against oppression—became the language of my identify, and the language of my poetry.

Time passes. We are taught to assume that a sense of reason and human decency must be involved in decision making, especially when going to war. We go about our lives believing that once a war ended, lessons were learned too. We conveniently forget that there are no winners in any war, that what takes place is an exchange of designations between the enemies: the accusers and the accused simply change place.  We try to ignore that fact that old rancor will resurface to re-settle scores. And then everything happens again.

So, when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, and the sound of mortar fire, war planes, and bombs filled the air, I felt the sting of history returning. Old wounds are open once again, the familiar words of provocation poison the air.  As a poet, I ask myself which comes first, the warring language, or the war? I believe that finding the answer to this question could give us the possibility to ask another: which comes first, the language of peace, or peace?

I find myself, decades later, “on the other side” of Europe watching the people of Ukraine seeking refuge in the country of my birth, and a sense of solidarity with those invaded resurfaces in me too. If this barrel of gunpowder explodes, it’s going to draw in more than Russia and Ukraine, and there is no way of knowing the future. It is now, more than ever, when I see how “disorder arises among people of a great city” that I wish for those words that will calm the tempest. I pray for the words that “command passions and soothe hearts” Virgil described in the Book I of his Aeneid. Part of me is embarrassed to ask if poetry can halt an invasion, because poetry works too slowly on the soul to make timely change, and much of it is written as a response to a crisis. But then I want to push the shame to the side: the plain truth is that we are creatures of language.

I watch the reporting from various sources, the experts sharing their opinions of what could, or should, and should not happen next, and I see that what falls between the cracks of language is human suffering, despair. There is a store of anger being built under the stomping boots of the invader. This falls through the cracks of headlines too.

I pray that, as a world community, we will find a language that respects the homes of each of us, that we will speak heart to heart, and that we will learn to deal with greed and dictators. The earth can only hold so many nuclear bombs after all, before one of us trips on a trigger. As a writer, I wonder if a poem can mend the space between the trenches, I wonder if thinking, not quick anger, offers more consolation. The truth is that this war is much bigger than Russia and Ukraine, much bigger than bickering over territory and assertion of political power: we are fighting for our very souls. It’s here, in the language of the soul, that we must look for answers.

Stony Brook, 27 February 2022

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