2 poems for Ukraine. by Janice Kulyk Keefer

Janice Kulyk Keefer


The village where my mother, her mother,
her mother's mother, were born
is no good to me.

The house where my mother was born,
the thatched house pierced
by the branch of a walnut tree:

torched in the war. Most of the village
was levelled, then—the remains
of my mother's childhood—church, schoolhouse,

cemetery—hold out no hands to me. I crave those
old-fashioned books of outlined images:water brushed
across the page, colours sprung from invisibility.

Skala lies to the north of my mother's village,
on the same river, the Zbruch, once the border
between Poland and Soviet Ukraine. Skala

has the ruins of a castle or fortress—it's hard
to tell which—and a street of shops, a market place
and a scattering of ancient houses along treed paths.

Corrugated tin in place of thatch, exposed wires.
Patchings of grimy cement the shade of asbestos:
regulation ugliness of the workers' paradise--

but what arrests me now is this strut of blue:
iron gates painted turquoise,|
the sleepy azure of stucco'd walls

and concrete windowsills. A slash of acid-blue
jilting fresh whitewash and, steeped in aqua tears,
the slats of wooden fences.

Stranded in Skala I would not last|
an hour: here for the weekend, a guest
on a guided tour of someone else's past,

I could stay forever. Everything
enchants me: grapevines smothering
chain link fences, improvised shutters

on a window stuck in a brick wall starved of mortar.
Shutters made of hoardings from a tailor's shop:
painted jacket, sketch of a fur-collared coat.

Kalyna grows wild along the roads of Skala.
In autumn's damp, mild air, women wear floral dresses
over sweaters and trousers, powder-blue plastic mules

or else men's shoes to navigate the mud. Geraniums pile
like refugees behind window glass, downspouts
overflow with tin flowers and prinked edging—like

the market vendor in her fog-grey jacket, lodged
between poles of onion, cabbage; lighting
the chrysanthemum's yellow fuse.

A Bellini in Kyiv


Bellinis belong in Venice,
or any other western-European habitat.
Are no oddity in Manhattan, or in any of the insanely
endowed Gettys in Miami or L. A. But what
miracle brought this Bellini to Ukraine; lodged it
in a Renaissance-style palazzo built
on syndicates, peasant sweat and sugar beets?
From the Urals to the Caucasus,
Petersbourg to Tashkent:
an empire of sweet tooths. And at the root,
Kyiv’s sugar barons, among them
the Khanenkos (Bohdan and Varvara)
with tastes beyond Worth or Savile Row.
Zurbaran, Velazquez,
Guardi, Bellini: crated and shipped
from Adriatic to Aegean; through
the Dardanelles, then north
to the Black Sea coast. Rowdy stevedores
loading crates marked fragile onto barges,
past the Dnipro’s rapids all the way to Kyiv.

Palazzo still smelling of sawdust and putty,
each window swagged with velvet heavy
as a baby elephant. Up a rainforest’s worth of stairs,
the servants tote them: a still life, an Infanta,
the Grand Canal, and a stern Madonna
with her sleepstruck son.

2. God and His Mother

Refugees, owning nothing
but the clothes on her back, the cushion
under his head. Banished
from a city built on salt to one
propped up by sugar. Kidnap victims, or even
slaves, you might say, dragged off
from the auction block.
Naked under a gauze of holiness:
the blindly sumptuous sleep
of a well-fed child. She holds him
the way you’d grasp a precious, borrowed thing:
too huge to carry, too delicate to drop. Behind them
crimson curtain, sword-edged mountains, storm-slashed sky.

 3. Damage
Imagine the Khanenkos
on winter afternoons in the snow-hushed house
conjuring Venice from gold-pricked
blue, or the splurge of spotless linen
round the Virgin’s face; trying to read
the future from fictive battlements round a
phantasmal city clinging to the mountains,
from the warmth of a child’s bare skin.
A world war, a revolution, a death.
In her husband’s memory, Varvara,
forced from her palazzo to the lodgings
of her maid, gives forty years of art-collecting
to the city of Kyiv in the new Ukrainian SSR.
Bitterness of loss feeds the cracks halving
the Virgin’s eye; splits her elbow. Wood, like faith
being prone to warp, and all too often flame-consigned.

4. mirabile dictu

Though its owners die, the palazzo remains:
a cloth of honour, backdrop
for the puzzle of this homebound stray.
No commissar flogged it abroad,
no prankster drew moustaches on it
in an Atheists’ Museum.
No gallery director or attendant, starving
on the Occupation’s sawdust bread
bartered it for horseflesh; no looters
molested it, no Nazi connoisseur
packed it off to Dresden or Berlin.
Still housed in Kyiv--that reborn nest
of oligarchs, some of them
sugar barons, still--this refugee Bellini.
The Khanenko’s palazzo still a museum, studded
with babushka’d dragons guarding the trance
of this child, this mother.  Trance 
of witnessing; withstanding;
embodying beauty scarred, yet undefaced.

Return to Journal

Janice Kulyk Keefer was born in Toronto in 1952, to Ukrainian immigrant parents. Among her publications on Ukrainian topics are two novels, The Green Library and The Ladies’ Lending Library, and a family memoir, Honey and Ashes. She is Professor Emerita at the University of Guelph, where she taught for many years in the fields of English and Creative Writing.


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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie's first novel, Stillwater, will be released in the spring of 2023. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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