Letters from Kilburn. fiction by Vanessa Gebbie

Vanessa Gebbie

LETTERS FROM KILBURN

901 Essex Heights
Kilburn
London
United Kingdom
October 15

Dear Your Majesty,

     I hope you do not mind that I am writing. It is about the water pipes at Essex Heights.  The water is brown and I am worried. I have asked the Immigration Office many times but they say the pipes are old.
     I am still worried.
     I have seen you in the newspapers and on TV. I hope you can help me. Please forgive my bad writing.                              

     I am yours,                         
     Karim Hussein (Mr) (Aged 18)

Buckingham Palace,
3rd November

Dear Mr. Hussein,

     Her Majesty has asked me to convey her thanks to you for your recent letter.  
     As you will appreciate, she is unable to respond personally to the many hundreds of letters that arrive every week, but she is always most interested to receive them.

     Yours faithfully,

Sarah Williams
(Deputy Secretary, Correspondence.)

901 Essex Heights
Kilburn
London
November 7

Dear Your Majesty,

     I am very pleased to receive today a reply to my letter about the water pipes from Sarah Williams Deputy Secretary of Correspondence. I am deeply affected that you are most interested to receive letters.
     That is why I am now writing again. It is still about the water pipes. The water is still brown. I am still worried.
     The water is brown sometimes in water pipes in my country, Iraq, but not always. Sometimes, since the fighting, there is no water at all and we have to wait.

     It is very hard to be clean for prayers in brown water,

     I am yours,
     Karim Hussein (Mr) (Aged 18)

                                                                                                                                          Buckingham Palace,
19th November

Dear Mr Hussein,

     Her Majesty has asked me to convey her thanks to you for your recent letter.

     As you will appreciate, she is unable to respond personally to the many hundreds of letters that arrive every week, but she is always most interested to receive them.

     Yours faithfully,

     Sarah Williams
     (Deputy Secretary, Correspondence.)

901 Essex Heights,
Kilburn
November 24

Dear Your Majesty,

     I am humbled to have two replies from Sarah Williams Deputy Secretary of Correspondence.
     There is still brown water in the pipes at Essex Heights. However, I now buy clear water in big plastic containers from a shop. I use this clear water for cooking, drinking and washing before prayers, so I have finished with one problem. The containers are expensive, (£3.75p) but I will no longer bring my pipes.to your attention.
     I have travelled a long way to arrive in your country. I have arrived because I want to be a medical doctor. It is not possible for me to learn to be a medical doctor where I live at the moment. (Please see PS).
     I have see you on TV. There is not a TV here at 901 Essex Heights. You were on TV in the window of a shop in Kilburn High Street. You were putting red flowers on the ground, and were wearing a black hat. I think you looked very nice.

     This letter is too long. I must not waste your time as you have many hundreds of letters to read. I hope it is not a burden, and I hope it does not make you tired.

     I am yours,
     Karim Hussein, (Mr) (Aged 18)

PS
     Our University Medical School is not in very good repair since the fighting.  

Buckingham Palace,
1st December

Dear Mr Hussein,

     Her Majesty has asked me to convey her thanks to you for your recent letter.

     As you will appreciate, she is unable to respond personally to the many hundreds of letters that arrive every week, but she is always most interested to receive them.

Yours faithfully,

Sarah Williams
(Deputy Secretary, Correspondence.)

  1. Mr Hussein –

I would also like to add my thanks for your letter. SW.                                                                                                                                  

901 Essex Heights
Kilburn
December 7

Dear Your Majesty,

     It is also a great honour to receive a Post Scriptum from Sarah Williams Deputy Secretary of Correspondence.
     I have attended two meetings about medical school, and I am very hopeful. But it is easier to write English than listening and speaking English. I have a friend here who is helping me write. You have many different accents, I cannot hear the words sometimes. I  am learning, however, in two books from Kilburn Library (Mrs Anne Fitzpatrick, Chief Librarian).
     This morning I attended a third meeting about medical school. I do not have qualifications, and certificates. (Please see PS 1). This is another problem, but not for Your Majesty.
     Your newspaper face today is tired. I hope it may be permitted to observe this. If I am your medical doctor, I would tell you to have a holiday. (Please see PS 2)

     I am yours,
     Karim Hussein, (Mr) (Aged 18)

PS 1.
     I did not carry any papers. My brother Hassan had a wallet round his waist with our papers and my examination certificates. They are all lost. 

PS 2.
     My last letter speaks of our University Medical School. I must say now it was used by soldiers from my country, then by American soldiers. Some rooms were used for sleeping, and some for eating. There were two good operating rooms but now one is a cinema And has pictures of ladies on the wall.
     The other is made like a prison room. I have seen excrement and blood on the floor. I do not wish to offend you, saying ‘pictures of ladies’ and ‘excrement’
     There are no books there, now and the laboratories are full of broken glass.

                                                                                                                             Buckingham Palace,
December 11th

Dear Mr Hussein,

     Her Majesty has asked me to convey her thanks to you for your recent letter.

     As you will appreciate, she is unable to respond personally to the many hundreds of letters that arrive every week, but she is always most interested to receive them.

     Yours faithfully,

     Sarah Williams
     (Deputy Secretary, Correspondence.)

Ps. Dear Mr Hussein,

     Thank you once again for your most interesting letter. May I wish you every good fortune in your search for a place at medical school.                                                                                                                  

Best wishes,
Sarah Williams

901 Essex Heights
Kilburn
December 20

Dear Your Majesty,

     I am very happy to receive good fortune from Sarah Williams Deputy Secretary, Correspondence.”
     I am reading medical books at Kilburn Library, found by Ann Fitzpatrick, the Librarian. So I can show my seriousness at the meetings about medical school arranged by the Immigration office. But
     I have a problem here. I talk to them about my examination certificates and they only ask questions about my journey to come here. (Please see PS 2)
     I am sad today.  901 Essex Heights has two beds. I have one. The other is empty.
     But Your Majesty, I am also very honoured indeed. In my letter I said for you to take a holiday. Now, I read in the newspaper, you will be going to another palace in your beautiful English countryside, Sandringham, for your Christmas.
     Please accept my wishes for a restful holiday.

     I am yours,

     Karim Hussein (Mr) (aged 18)

P S 1
I send my good wishes to Sarah Williams in addition.

PS 2.
My father is dead in the fighting. He was a gentle man, and my little brother Mansur died with him. He was six years.
My mother gave money to Hassan, my older brother, for us to travel to your country. I will be a medical doctor and. Hassan can make things work with electricity.
A man helped us, but he needed most of the money for the official arrangements. I do not know where this man is, he must tell the Immigration office about my official arrangements.

My brother Hassan is now lost and the wallet and examination certificates also.

Buckingham Palace, 
January 2nd

Dear Mr Hussein,

     I have been very touched indeed to read your letters addressed to Her Majesty, and by your kind concern for her despite your own troubles.

     I am extremely sorry to hear of the deaths of your father and brother at home. Where is home? Has your brother Hassan been separated from you somehow?

     I do hope you find him, and your certificates, very soon.

     I send you my very best wishes for a Happy New Year,

     Sarah Williams.

901 Essex Heights
Kilburn
January 12

Dear Your Majesty and Sarah Williams,

     I thank Sarah Williams for her very generous message.
     My last meeting about medical school took place yesterday. Two men asked questions again, not about my qualifications but about my journey to come here. (Please see PS 1).
     Your country is most splendid and good. In Kilburn Library I am now reading medical books every day to help me be a good student. I read the newspapers as well. I also read, to learn about your food, a book by J. Oliver Esq.

     Outside the library there is always a man and a dog. The man is shaking, his face is grey. If I was a medical doctor I could help him, but now I just buy his magazines.
     Please also see Post Scriptum 2.

     I am yours,
     Karim Hussein (Mr) (Aged 18)

PS 1.
Losing the wallet.

There was a big building with no windows. Other men drank alcohol and laughed. Then they were playing, pushing me and Hassan and pulling our clothing. They saw the wallet round Hassan’s waist and they took it. They then laughed again when Hassan asked for it back.

They took the wallet, and the money and my school certificates.

PS 2.
Losing Hassan, my brother.

There was a train and it was not black but white and shiny. We had to go underneath it to find a small ledge, and hold on tight for the train would be going very fast. It took days to succeed due to men trying to stop us.
It hurt my legs, and it hurt my back. My hands were hot and my fingers were numb and cut from holding something sharp. I think I broke one finger.

I could not see Hassan but I heard his voice. “We are nearly there. Hold on, my little brother…”

The noise in my ears was like a very great wind, like dying. The wind was s a great hand to sweep me away to Allah.

I was getting tired, I could breathe only in my own armpit because of how I was lying. I was not clean, but I still prayed.  I would let the wind take me to Allah if it was his wish.

Sometime the train slowed, and I heard my brother. “Karim. You will be a medical doctor. Remember…”

I could not see my brother. My eyes saw nothing because of the wind. But I could feel the metal rails close like a knife. The knife made the wind.

At home there is a butcher who has a circular sawing machine. It has teeth, and I see this sawing machine under the train.

And when I arrived in London, and they took me out,  I could not move. Hassan my brother was gone. 

Buckingham Palace,
20th January

Dear Mr Hussein,

     I am so very, very sorry, and saddened, to hear about the terrible time you had on your journey. It is impossible for me to begin to imagine what it must have been like for you. I believe your brother Hassan was a very brave man.

     I would like to try to help you, so I enclose some information leaflets from people and organisations here in London who might be able to help you, both about your immigration status, and also (hopefully) about finding a place at medical school.

     With warmest wishes,

     Sarah Williams.

Heathrow Airport.
January 20th

Dear Sarah Williams,

     I am a little frightened so it will help to write once more.
     At 3.00 this morning two men opened the door of 901 Essex Heights Kilburn, and took me away to a car. They packed a small bag for me.

     I must return home because were no official arrangements. I am waiting now for an aeroplane.

     I did not like to tell untruths to your Immigration people. I did what Hassan told me to do. But also,  I did not like to tell untrutha to you, who are so kind.  I have told you one untruth only, and I ask you to forgive me. I am not aged 18.

     I thank you and Your Majesty and I wish for you both a very

long life. 

     I am yours,

     Karim Hussein (Aged 15)

P S:
It is Hassan who was aged 18.

Bhazra.
February 15th

Dear Sarah Williams,

     Please forgive me if I am trouble again for you.

     In my bag packed by the men there was a book from Kilburn Library, called English Usage. It is in this parcel. Please could you give it back to Ann Fitzpatrick, Chief Librarian.

     It was three months from Bhazra to Kilburn.  It is two days from Kilburn to Bhazra.

     I heard from my friend at Essex Heights Kilburn. He says a gift of money is come from someone not known. And the money is expressly for new water pipes. Essex Heights Kilburn now has clear water.

     Here, the water is still brown.

     Allahu akhbar.

     I wish you again long life.
     I am yours,

     Karim Hussein

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Vanessa Gebbie is an award-winning Welsh writer, teacher and editor. She has several books to her name –  among them a novel, and various short story, flash and poetry collections. She is also commissioning and contributing editor of Short Circuit, Guide to the Art of the Short Story (Salt Publishing). Her work has been supported by grants from the British Arts Council.  She has been a Hawthornden Fellow, a Gladstone’s Library Writer in Residence, and her work has been translated into several languages, including German, Greek, Italian, Vietnamese, and Punjabi. 

“Letters from Kilburn” appears in a slightly longer form in Vanessa´s collection Storm Warning. Salt Modern Fiction. 2010.

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Revisiting 1990s Russia: Biznes in the Wild East. editorial by Olga Stein

OLGA STEIN89

Olga Stein’s May, 2022 editorial

Revisiting 1990s Russia: Biznes in the Wild East

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes one of the biggest, gravest assaults on national sovereignty and human rights in decades. How does one explain it? Is there a political context one can parse well enough to make sense of decisions that have led to the displacement of millions, the destruction of historic cities, and the murder of countless civilians. True, there has been an on-going war in the Donbas region since 2014. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March of that year. Nevertheless, Russia’s current aggression — indeed, its apparent effort to seize all of Ukraine — is not self-explanatory, given the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s into 11 independent Republics and three Baltic states. For something like a decade after, didn’t it seem as if Russia had relinquished its neoimperialist ways?

          Perhaps now we must attribute a different, less benign significance to developments in the 1990s. The two wars in Chechnya, and two particularly vicious battles in Grozny, surely take on even more ominous meanings in light of Russia’s current assault on Ukraine and the growing list of its military’s war crimes. The official line, one that Russian citizens are being scrupulously served by state-owned media, continues to be that Russia is intervening only for the purpose of denazifying Ukraine. We mustn’t forget that the assaults on Chechnya were at that time described as ‘counterterrorist operations.’

          Revisiting the 1990s can be instructive if one is trying to make sense of a number of disconcerting matters. One of these is the rigged 2020 election in Belarus, which resulted in mass demonstrations and arrests. Alexander Lukashenko was first elected in 1994. Since then, he has been independent Belarus’ first and only president (his presidency is the longest in all of Europe). What accounts for Lukashenko’s uninterrupted and patently autocratic management of a supposedly democratic country, and what explains his increasingly pro-Russian orientation?

          Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in Russian oligarchs being given considerable air time. Their immense wealth can be traced to the privatizations of Russian state assets in the 1990s. These same multi-billionaires have recently been accused of influence peddling outside of Russia — that is, of using their wealth to shape the domestic policies of European countries, especially in England, where many of them have taken up residence after receiving “golden visas.” Rupert Neate and Aubrey Allegretti’s article, published in the Guardian on March 30, stated that “the UK government said sanctions had been imposed on 18 Russian businesspeople [with ties to Putin], with a combined worth of £30bn, since the invasion began. Hundreds more have been added to the list since.” It should be noted that Strabag, an Austrian-based construction company that won a $750-million contract for tunnelling Toronto’s Scarborough subway extension in 2021, is partly owned by oligarch Oleg Deripaska. It’s troubling to say the least that capital amassed from looting Russia’s publicly owned assets and resources in the 1990s is now being parlayed into ownership of corporations and property in Canada as well.

          I must report that Googling the subject, Russian spies, was a productive exercise. Alexander Kouzminov is the author of Biological Espionage: Special Operations of the Soviet and Russian Foreign Intelligence Services in the West, a tell-all book that was published in 2006 (readers should watch the documentary Navalny to see why this is relevant). Kouzminov, who is a former Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) officer, revealed that a major reorganization of the KGB began in the late 1980s. The Foreign Intelligence Service replaced the KGB in the 1990s, and began to create “a second echelon” of “auxiliary agents in addition to our main weapons, illegals and special agents.” What were some of the outcome of its operations? In the 90s, a series of events triggered an investigation into the activities of former high-ranking CIA officer, Harold James Nicholson. Nicholson was convicted as a spy for the SVR in 1997, and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Clearly, the SVR was undeterred. In 2010, the FBI arrested ten deep undercover Russian agents living in the United States, and by 2016, 60 alleged Russian spies were expelled from the country. None of them were as colourful, or managed to get as much press as Maria Butina, however. This particular gun enthusiast and would-be Republican Party infiltrator went so far as to have a “romantic” liaison with Paul Erickson, a man twice her age and a prominent though shady member of the GOP. Butina spent 18 months in jail, and was deported to Russia in October, 2019.

          Finally, a declassified report released by the Director of National Intelligence on March 16, 2021, asserted that Russian intelligence agencies use numerous proxies “to launder influence narratives” by using media organizations, U.S. officials, and Trump supporters to fabricate allegations against Biden. Apropos of all this, in their article, “True romance? The intriguing tale of the Russian agent and her Republican lover,” published in the Guardian on March 27, 2019, Lucia Graves and Peter Stone wrote: “Even if special counsel Robert Mueller found no collusion between Trump and Russia, here at least is one small example of collusion of the most intimate sort. And it’s one that offers a window into a mess of complicated relationships between Kremlin-connected officials and America’s conservative elite, or at least elite-adjacent.”

 

          In hindsight, it’s clear to me that when I reviewed Vodka, Tears, & Lenin’s Angel, I wasn’t sufficiently appreciative of Jennifer Gould’s insights. The book was published in 1997, after Gould’s three-year stint as a journalist in Russia. Gould, who was a very young journalist at the time, proved to be unusually canny and prescient. Given current events, I recommend Gould’s book all over again. I commend her descriptions and analyses of the 1990s in Russia. My review of Vodka, Tears, & Lenin’s Angel  is below.

 

Review: Biznes in the Wild East
by Olga Stein

It’s a small world, so it comes as no surprise that relations of mine had known Jennifer Gould as an adolescent. Gould is the author of Vodka, Tears, & Lenin’s Angel: My Adventures in the Wild and Woolly Former Soviet Union. She was described to me as a super-precocious teen, sporting sophisticated two-inch pumps when other girls her age were just beginning to outgrow braids and pigtails. At a community fashion show, she is remembered to have strutted down the runway with the poise and confidence of a mature young woman, striking in her “attitude” as well as her appearance.

          Reading Gould’s book, a journalistic account of her life and travels in the “Former Soviet Union” from 1992 to 1996, anyone would gather that the author, who was only 25 years old in 1992, must be an unusual individual — smart, determined, and very ambitious; after all, not many North American women would choose to move to Russia alone and without a word of Russian, taking up residence in post-Gorbachev Moscow — as chaotic and dangerous as any developing world city — no matter how it might benefit their careers. From what can be intuited about the adult Gould, it isn’t hard to imagine that the very same qualities — self-assurance and determination — were already conspicuous when she was a mere adolescent.

          From 1992 to 1996, Jennifer Gould is living in Moscow, initially reporting for the Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper, then freelancing for a number of major North American publications. With admirable energy and resolve, she sets out to document the effects on Soviet life brought about by economic and political liberalization. She is interested in both the winners and losers in this “new” society.

 

          The winners, she discovers, are the biznesmeni. Some of these are ex-Communists who managed state-owned factories under the old regime; with Perestroika, they are transforming themselves into capitalists, becoming private or part owners of the factories they had managed. Other entrepreneurs, Russian and non-Russian, are making fortunes through import-export. Some are legitimately capitalizing on the needs of an enormous market, a population that has been starved for almost every kind of consumer good; others engage in illegal and semi-legal smuggling of art objects, arms, oil, and other resources that continue to be state-owned, but are mismanaged or have come under the control of corrupt officials and bureaucrats, who are eager to benefit personally from kickbacks or a percentage of the sales profits.
          These biznesmeni or YILGs (Young Ivy League Gangsters), as she playfully calls them, are young, impeccably dressed, and unabashedly interested in money. They pursue Gould as energetically as she does them. She gets to know them over lunch or dinner. Such sessions are up-close and personal. Consequently, her interviews with them are detailed, effectively conveyed, and often fascinating. This type of intelligent journalism characterizes Gould’s book as a whole. Even brief portrayals of the men and women she encounters are vivid and never seem out of context.

          The biznesmeni live like princes, even by Western standards. They reside in posh, fully renovated apartments, employ housekeepers, private cooks, and bodyguards. Their girlfriends and wives dress in Versace from head to toe, and vacation in Paris, London, and New York several times per year. Gould remarks: “They live lives they may not have had the imagination to dream of.” And there are plenty of them. In the year after her arrival, Gould describes how Moscow transforms itself in order to meet the needs of this new jet set, from a vast capital with “only a handful of decent restaurants and night clubs,” to a city replete with exclusive restaurants and one-hundred-dollar-entrance-fee clubs.

          The losers are almost everyone else: ordinary Russians, those who do not successfully engage in entrepreneurism, are not living but subsisting. Savings are wiped out by hyper-inflation. “Inflation will be twenty-five to thirty percent a month by the end of 1992,” writes Gould. She adds: “An average monthly pension can’t buy butter and sausage for a week: Basic food prices shoot up as much as 500 percent when state controls are lifted in January 1992.” Inflation is so severe that families, having flown to Moscow to visit friends and family, get stranded in airports because they can’t afford the flights back home. To make matters worse, unemployment becomes a reality for the first time since the Russian Revolution, and workers who are still employed by the cash-strapped government in sectors like construction, transportation, agriculture, mining, military, and education do not receive their wages for months.

          In January 1993, Gould flies to Vorkuta, a coal-mining town located one hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. Under Communism, workers were enticed to Vorkuta by salaries which by Russian standards were spectacularly high. Working conditions were harsh, but in fifteen years a miner and his family could save enough to “fulfill a Soviet dream, retire in the south, and buy a home, even a car.” With Perestroika and subsequent inflation, families on the verge of leaving Vorkuta watch their life savings become worthless. About forty thousand people are stranded because they can no longer afford to relocate. The cost of relocation, according to Gould, is about 350,000 rubles (350 USD), while monthly salaries are only 50,000 rubles (50 USD).

          Back in Moscow, Gould visits state-run orphanages or “internats.” Conditions are appalling. Many children are abused by staff and older children. The slightest misdemeanour can cost a child a stay at a psychiatric institution, where he or she is placed in restraints and drugged or tranquillized until left in a stupor for days at a time. She interviews the homeless as well, describing how entire families live in underground subway stations because the government does not provide shelters; there is nowhere else for them to go. All of this is difficult to imagine. No one has starved in Russia since the Revolution (unless it was expedient for the government to let them starve). Food and other staples, subsidized by the federal government, have always been cheap. Subsidized housing, even if this meant communal apartments, guaranteed every citizen a roof over their head. Fifteen years ago, one would not have encountered homeless children, as Gould does, living on Moscow streets and prostituting themselves. The old system along with its social safety nets is breaking down, and there is nothing as yet to replace it. These unfortunates are, as Gould reasons, “democracy’s disenfranchised. Freedoms gained also include the new ‘right’ to be homeless, hungry, sick, unemployed — and no longer the moral or practical responsibility of the Benevolent State.”

          In the four years that Gould lives in Russia, she travels to every distant corner of the vast FSU, often at considerable risk to herself. Her goal is to produce timely documentation of what has transpired in ex-Soviet Republics since they have achieved independence. On one trip to Central Asia, she notes the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and intensified Turkish and Iranian interest in the region. Turkey and Iran are hoping for political and economic gains in an area that is rich in oil and natural gas. Gould also reports the emergence of cult-like figures; these are mini-dictators like Turkmenistan’s President Saparmurad Niyazov, formerly a supporter of Gorbachev. More telling still are Gould’s observations during a second visit to Central Asia in December of 1992: “Some Central Asian countries, like Uzbekistan, are already in their second phase of ‘independence’. Flirting with democracy is over, if it ever began. The suppression of human rights, thought to have relaxed with the collapse of Communism, increases. Political opponents, activists, Islamic leaders independent of the state, and journalists are beaten and jailed.”

          In January 1993, Jennifer Gould visits Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. She witnesses the drilling of oil on the Caspian Sea. Five months later, Russia stages a coup that completely disposes of the governing National Front of Azerbaijan, a nationalist-democratic party, headed by Abulfaz Elchibey, which was just about to “sign a contract with British Petroleum, negotiate with some American oil companies, finalize a new pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, establish an Azeri currency, and leave the ruble economic zone.” Such steps towards complete economic and political independence from Russia are, it appears, unacceptable. Elchibey is replaced by Heydar Aliyev, who had been the first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan until 1988. According to Gould, “Career Communists like Aliyev are replacing Soviet dissidents turned into democratic nationalist presidents in ex-Soviet republics as Yeltsin begins to implement his Greater Russia policy, classifying ex-Soviet republics as the ‘Near Abroad.’”

          Particularly compelling and well-crafted are the sections on Georgia and Chechnya. This is partly due to the fact that both regions are at war. People whom Gould encounters have suffered or are traumatized by what they have experienced at close range. Gould’s writing in these chapters is only occasionally marred by hyperbole or exaggerated metaphors. For the most part, it is appropriately sympathetic but unsentimental, clearly conveying the drama, tragedy, and the irony inherent in the circumstances she depicts.
          In August of 1993 Gould is in Georgia. The largely Eastern Orthodox Georgians are fighting an ethnic war with the Abkhazians, a Muslim people. Georgia is also in the midst of a civil war. On one side is Eduard Shevardnadze, the country’s head of state, allied with the Mkhedrioni, or Horsemen, a paramilitary organization established to fight for Georgian independence. On the other side is Georgia’s former leader, Gamsakhurdia, a Soviet-era dissident, Georgian nationalist, and a democratically elected president who was violently overthrown in January of 1992. Gamsakhurdia’s supporters join with the Abkhazians, who are being unofficially aided by the Russians. The Russians are doing this in order to undermine Georgia, which has refused to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and its ruble economic zone. Georgia, Russia fears, is also moving too close to the West. As Gould puts it, “Independent Georgia was one thing, but an independent Georgia with its own currency, foreign policy — and control of Black Sea ports, especially now that Ukraine controlled the Crimea —was quite another.” A weakened, less economically stable Georgia, may be more inclined to accept economic and political ties with Russia.

          To make matters more confusing, the CIA is involved. Fred Woodruff, officially listed as a regional affairs officer with the American embassy in Tbilisi — but actually a CIA agent — is murdered execution-style, though the identity and purpose of the perpetrators are a mystery. The CIA, it turns out, has been training Shevardnadze’s security troops in the USA and in Georgia. This represents the first act of direct intervention in FSU affairs since the Cold War. Who, Gould attempts to find out, is responsible for Woodruff’s murder? Was it a random act of violence, as is claimed by both the Georgian and American governments? Or is the US being warned by Russia not to play in its back yard? Gould never sees the question  answered.

          Toward the end of 1994, Georgia is losing the wars with Abkhazia and Gamsakhurdia’s troops. Shevardnadze capitulates to Russian pressure and Georgia joins the CIS. Suddenly, Georgia gains the upper hand in the war with Abkhazia, and Gamsakhurdia dies under mysterious circumstances. But Georgia’s internal politics remain complex. It is not clear who is de facto running Georgia. Gould informs us that “Shevardnadze was the democratic front for a group of political thugs led by a feared demagogue, Jaba Ioseliani” (a democrat always comes handy when there’s need for Western political and economic support). Ioseliani, 67 years old, a known criminal, had run a powerful organized crime gang for seventeen years from a prison cell. It is he who is actually in charge of the Mkhedrioni. This suggests that he may be the man who runs Georgia.

          Gould interviewed Ioseliani in September, 1994. She asked outright whether he is the one who’s in charge of Georgia. He answered: “There’s no doubt about it. Frankly, I am the one who brought Shevardnadze to power. He would not be president without me.” She confronts him about the out-of-control criminal activities of the Mkhedrioni. These soldiers terrorize Tbilisi’s denizens, engaging in theft, extortion, and the torture and murder of individuals not willing or able to hand over property or money demanded of them. One traumatized Westerner claims that “the violence, the savage barbarism” is worse than anything he has ever witness anywhere in the world.

          “But there was war,” explains Ioseliani. “There were no laws. There was economic hardship.” He concedes, furthermore, that he would “never punish soldiers for minor offenses because we need the soldiers.” This response is a doozy — pure Machiavelli  — and a fact that is not lost on Gould, since she quotes him elsewhere in her book. If a choice must be made between soldiers and ordinary people, then by all means, argued Machiavelli in The Prince, gratify the soldiers. As he saw it, to succeed a statesman must avoid disaffection amongst soldiers, the group that is most crucial to the maintenance of political authority or power, even if this perpetuates the military class’ persecution of other subjects.

          Despite everything, Ioseliani lands in jail by the end of 1995. He is put there by Shevardnadze, who has won the November presidential election with a campaign that promises to “put an end to the era of legalized gangsterism.” Shevardnadze is eager to punish Ioseliani for a car bomb explosion that he’s convinced was an assassination attempt against him by the 67-year-old demagogue. We might conclude, then, that Machiavelli’s tactics either have no place in a state with any rudiments of democracy, or that Ioseliani has failed to follow Machiavelli’s rules of statecraft assiduously enough.

          In April 1995, Gould makes her way into Chechnya. In Samashky, a small farming village twenty miles west of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, at least two hundred people have been murdered by Russian troops in what is tantamount to a massacre. Survivors from Samashky tell Gould of small children hung by Russian soldiers from nooses in the centre of town. Some have witnessed civilians being run over by tanks, or doused with gasoline and set on fire. Many of these refugees speak of soldiers with “glazed eyes and slurred voices, injecting themselves with mysterious substances.” Russia’s Interior Ministry later concedes that the soldiers’ emergency kits contain Promodol, a narcotic, and Dimetrol, an anti-shock tranquillizer. Mix painkillers with alcohol, and you get a recipe for “extremely aggressive” anti-social behaviour.

          Grozny, first attacked in December 1994, fared no better. More than 40,000 troops invaded Grozny. An article written for the New York Review of Books makes a comparison with Sarajevo’s experience: “There were thirty-five hundred detonations a day during the height of the shelling in Sarajevo; in Grozny, there were four thousand detonations an hour.” In her effort to relate the scope and scale of the destruction, Gould does some of her best, most eloquent writing:

“Nothing, though, prepares me for the city center, which looks like a late-twentieth-century version of Dante’s Inferno after a nuclear attack. Buildings are blasted beyond recognition, reduced to rubble. Others look like skeletons, Swiss cheese, so bullet-blasted they resemble intricate lacework patterns sewn by Russian babushkas….Striking in its defeat, like the city itself, is the charred corpse of the once-grand presidential palace, where men used to dance religiously each week; where Dudayev [the Chechen president] displayed the bloody heads of the three men who, backed by Moscow, tried to topple his government in the summer of 1994….Each person we meet, each phrase uttered in passing, becomes a clue to understanding the incomprehensible: the old man coming to find the body of his son; the young man searching for his brother, who may be prisoner of men he once fought beside….”

          What could have provoked such an onslaught? What did Chechnya do to merit such massive, draconian retaliation? True, Chechnya’s self-declared independence was never recognized by Russia. True, there has been a certain amount of — even a great deal of — organized crime, and contraband trade of arms and narcotics with Central Asia, Turkey, and the Middle East. It is also a fact that Chechnya has oil and was a “strategic centre for oil refining. A valuable oil pipeline ran through Chechnya, from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Sea and Kazakhstan’s Tenghis field to Novorossisk.”

          Obviously, there are a number of possible explanations for Russia’s invasion of Chechnya. It’s possible that Russia, tiring of Chechnya’s unruliness, decided to clamp down on people it regards as miscreants, and finish them off once and for all. Let’s not forget that the Chechens are Muslims, and that ethnic Russians, like many other East European nations, are ethnocentric, if not downright xenophobic; distrust of other nationalities — racism too — is culturally ingrained. Still, the majority of Chechens are not criminals; they are women and children, poor villagers and professionals, and some are ethnic Russians who have settled there many years ago. The scale and severity of Russia’s reprisal — not to mention its savagery against civilians — is far off the mark. It is also politically crude, but this wouldn’t be a first for Russia.
          There is more that boggles the mind about what takes place in Chechnya. There is the selling and buying of weapons; the Russian army sells and the Chechen fighters buy. The weapons, Gould writes, “are bought directly from the Russians. The sales involve such large quantities of weapons, it is difficult to believe the corruption does not reach up to the highest echelons of the Russian army.” One Chechen fighter boasts, “We can make any deal we want with the Russians and OMON [Interior Ministry] troops, as long as we have the cash. Sometimes, they even come to us.” This is theatre of the absurd, a tragicomedy reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s satirical novel Catch 22. One of the characters in the novel, Milo Minderbinder, an American master deal-maker who is completely devoid of moral sensibility; he sees nothing wrong in literally selling the enemy the bombing of his own airbase. By 1995, 30,000 people are dead because of the war in Chechnya. Meanwhile there are those — generals, bureaucrats, biznesmeni — who are a great deal richer than they were before the start of the war.
          One of the chapters on Chechnya is structured around the search for an American, Frederick Cuny. President of the Dallas-based Intertect Relief and Reconstruction Corporation, Cuny was on assignment for the Open Society Institute (OSI), a private foundation funded by George Soros, a Hungarian-born American billionaire who is dedicated to bolstering nascent democracies and financing the “infrastructure and institutions necessary for open societies.” Cuny, a humanitarian with backgrounds in engineering and urban planning, is a specialist in crisis prevention and management, and an expert on refugee problems. He disappears in early April 1995. His disappearance, unlike Fred Woodruff’s, creates a sizeable commotion. According to Gould, by May 1995, “everyone — including Yeltsin, Clinton, and Dudayev — will have vowed to help find Cuny.”
          Interestingly, efforts to find Cuny and the speculation about what has happened to him expose a great number of ties to Washington. Ultimately, the mystery proves insoluble because it isn’t known, or it’s never made publicly known, what Cuny was actually doing in Chechnya. He could have been murdered by Russian soldiers, by Chechens fighters in league with Dudayev, or by a breakaway band of Chechens opposed to Dudayev.
          Workers in the Soros medical program tell Gould that Cuny had “his own agenda which was separate from the medical program.” In New York, however, members of the Soros Foundation maintain that Cuny had been merely dispensing medical aid in Chechnya. Thomas Pickering, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, is quoted in the New York Times Magazine as saying, “Governments have found that non-governmental institutions can be useful.” Meanwhile, an official from neighbouring Ingushetia tells Gould that Cuny gave “military advice” as well as humanitarian assistance to the Chechen rebels. Cuny himself had earlier written an article for the New York Review of Books in which he “highlighted military techniques of Chechen fighters with uncanny — and unusually specific — detail.” As Gould concludes, the mystery of Cuny’s disappearance may, in the final analysis, come down to the question of what the American government and the Soros Foundation were trying to do in the Caucasus. But this likewise is difficult to determine.
          The U.S. operates on many levels and attempts to integrate varied and often conflicting objectives. Officially, it is interested in helping Russia maintain stability in the Caucasus because that will stabilize Russia’s new democratic government. “And yet,” Gould observes shrewdly, “while Washington claims to want a stable, peaceful Russia, maybe a weak Russia, consumed by war, is also in America’s interests.”
          The politics of post-Cold War, post-Soviet U.S.-Russian relations are inscrutable, if not bizarre. Ideological conflicts largely overcome, there may well be a race to exploit regional economic opportunities. Chechnya has oil. One Chechen, previously part of Dudayev’s foreign ministry, reveals that before the war American diplomats were advising American oil companies who were already doing business in Chechnya. They were also advising Dudayev as to which companies he should deal with
          Not surprisingly, Russia, too, says one thing, but does another. Officially, it is neutral towards American humanitarian aid and relief agencies (although it forbids humanitarian assistance to Chechen fighters). Unofficially, it attempts to counteract what it suspects are unofficial U.S. objectives (in Russia, Gould informs us, a parliamentary commission accuses the Soros Foundation of being a front for the CIA). Yeltsin promises Clinton that Russia will assist in the search for Cuny, but as American search parties continue to look for him, Russia frequently fails to ensure their safety at Russian checkpoints. Some members of the search parties are actually fired upon, and one car is blown up.

 

          Russia’s social and political landscape has always given rise to oddities, in terms of institutions and individuals. It continues to do so despite its very dramatic transformation in the last ten years. One such institution is curious and titillating; it is the KGB-run school of sexpionage which Gould uncovers while on an assignment. The school turns out “swallows” or “honeypots,” women who use sex to turn Westerners into informants. Surprisingly, despite the passing of the Cold War, Russian spying is alive and well. Westerners are still targets, if not for what they know about military technology, then for they can reveal about the activities of industrial competitors. Sexpionage is serious work. Swallows supervisors must take a two-year training course to study, among other things, the psychology of sexual entrapment and seduction techniques.
          Another oddity is the leader of the so-called Liberal Democratic Party, the presidential candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Regarded by many as a madman for his undignified public conduct and his neofascist political ideas, he is nonetheless a sophisticated political organizer and campaigner. For the sake of conducting a series of interviews with him, Gould joins Zhirinovsky on a campaign cruise down the Volga river. The interviews make evident that his thinking on politics and political power, love, and women, are intellectually speaking next to worthless. Zhirinovsky also shows himself to be depraved; transparently manipulative, he uses absurd, simple-minded arguments to try and persuade Gould and her young translator to engage in group sex with his bodyguards. But as Gould observes, he sure knows how to win over a crowd; he has the razzle-dazzle of political showmanship down pat, especially as concerns backward, politically untutored Russians, those made even poorer by the new capitalism.
          In the parliamentary election of December, 1995, Zhirinovsky’s party succeeds in having elected the second largest parliamentary bloc. Ironically, Gorbachev, the man who achieved the impossible, altering the politics of the Soviet colossus, wins less than one percent of the vote (his campaign effort is itself a sad, extremely low-budget affair, which elicits almost no public acknowledgement). “The Russians hate him,” Gould writes. This is understandable: having lived a good part of their lives under communism, many are experiencing separation anxiety. Russians are used to hardship but not uncertainty. For many of these regimented souls, unaccustomed to the wild vicissitudes of the free market, Russia’s new political economy is too different, and for now too burdensome to be welcomed.

 

Olga Stein emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1971. She has lived in Canada since 1975.

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Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.

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Alla Gutnikova’s Speech from Court

Alla Gutnikova

Alla Gutnikova and three other editors of the student magazine DOXA were tried in court in Moscow on Friday 8th April and on 12th April were sentenced two years of ‘correctional labour’ and a 3-year ban on administering any websites. It is as yet unclear what correctional labour entails – they may have to live in special camps. They were accused of encouraging minors to take part in demonstrations in support of Alexei Navalny last spring.

Doxa (from the Greek word for ‘opinion’) is a magazine about university and student life and often writes about the pressures being put on teachers and students by the authorities.

Alla and her fellow editors have been under house arrest for almost a year since April 2021, only able to leave the house from 8-10am. There have been many calls for harsher measures against them. Their crime, in this case, was simply to say to students, during the period when there were demonstrations against the incarceration of Navalny, ‘Don’t be afraid, and don’t be bystanders! It is our legal right to express protest by any peaceful means.’ (‘Не бойтесь и не оставайтесь в стороне! Это наше законное право — выражать протест любым мирным способом.’)

The other editors besides Alla Gutnikova are Armen Aramyan, Vladimir Metelkin, Natalia Tyshkevich. None of them plead guilty to the charges.

This is Alla Gutnikova’s stirring and beautiful speech from court last Friday. Rich in references and quotations, it is a reminder of the progressive and international outlook of many young Russians. Her speech is being read widely in Russia: Alla is a voice of hope and enlightenment, in this darkest of times.

Gutnikova’s Speech:

“I won’t talk about the case, the searches, the interrogations, the tomes, the trials. It’s boring and pointless. Recently I’ve joined the school of tiredness and frustration. But even before the arrest, I managed to join the school of being able to talk about truly important things.

I would like to talk about philosophy and literature. About Benjamin, Derrida, Kafka, Arendt, Sontag, Barthes, Foucault, Agamben, about Audre Lorde and Bell Hooks. About Timofeeva, Tlostanova and Rakhmaninova.

I would like to speak about poetry. About how to read contemporary poetry. About Gronas, Dashevsky and Borodin.

But now is not the time or place. I will hide my little tender words on the tip of my tongue, at the bottom of my larynx, between my stomach and heart. And I’ll just say a little.

I often feel like a little fish, a little bird, a schoolboy, a baby girl. But recently I found out with amazement, that Brodsky was also put on trial at 23. And in that I am also part of the human race, I will say the following:

In the Kabbalah there is the concept of Tikkun Olam — the repairing of the world. I see that the world is not perfect. I believe that, as Yehuda Amichai wrote, the world was created beautiful, for the good and for peace, like a bench in a garden (in a garden, not in a courtroom!) I believe that the world was created for tenderness, hope, love, solidarity, passion, joy.

But in the world there is a terrible, unbearable amount of violence. And I don’t want violence. Not in any form. Not teacher’s hands in schoolgirls’ knickers, not the fists of a drunken father on the bodies of his wife and children. If I decided to list all the violence around, not a day, not a week, not a year would be enough time. In order to see the violence around, you just need to open your eyes. My eyes are open. I see violence and I don’t want violence. The more violence there is, the more I don’t want it. And the greatest and most terrible violence is the one I don’t want most of all.

I love to study. And so now I will speak with the voices of others.

At school, in history lessons, I learned the phrases: “You may crucify freedom, but the human soul knows no chains” and “For freedom, yours and ours.”

In secondary school, I read “Requiem” by Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova, “Journey into the Whirlwind” by Yevgenia Solomonovna Ginzburg, “The Vacated Theater” by Bulat Shalvovich Okudzhava, Children of the Arbat by Anatoly Naumovich Rybakov. From Okudzhava, most of all I loved the poem:

Conscience, nobility and dignity
Here it is, our sacred army.
Hold out your palm to it.
No fear for him, even in the fire.
His countenance is imposing and wondrous.
Dedicate to him your humble age:
Maybe you won’t become a victor,
But you will die like a man! [from “Sacred Army” — “Святое воинство”]

I studied French at MGIMO and learned a line from Edith Piaf: “Ça ne pouvait pas durer toujours” (“It couldn’t last forever”). And from Marc Robin: “Ça ne peut pas durer comme ça” (“It can’t go on like this”).

At nineteen, I went to Majdanek and Treblinka and learned how to say “never again” in seven languages: never again; jamais plus; nie wieder; קיינמאל מער; nigdy więcej; לא עוד.

I studied the Jewish wise men and most of all fell in love with two bits of wisdom. Rabbi Hillel said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” And Rabbi Nachman said: “The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.”

Then I entered the School of Cultural Studies and learned a few more important lessons. Firstly, words have meaning. Secondly, you need to call a spade a spade. And finally: sapere aude — that is, have the courage to use your own mind.

It is ridiculous and absurd that our case has been associated with schoolchildren. I taught children the humanities in English, worked as a nanny, dreamed of being a part of the ‘Teacher for Russia’ programme and going to a small town for two years to sow seeds of reason, kindness, and the eternal. But Russia — through the mouth of state public prosecutor Tryakin — considers that I involved minors in life-threatening acts.

If I ever have children (and I will, because I remember the central commandment), I will hang a portrait of the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, on their wall so that the children grow up to be decent people. The Procurator Pontius Pilate standing up and washing his hands — that’s the kind of portrait it will be. Yes, it is now life-threatening to not be indifferent in one’s thoughts and way of life. I don’t know what to say about the essence of the charge. I am washing my hands.

But now it is the moment of truth. The time when the books are interpreted. Neither I nor my male and female friends can find a place that is away from horror and pain, but when I go down into the metro, I do not see tear-stained faces. I do not see tear-stained faces.

None of my favourite books — neither children’s book nor books for adults — taught indifference, disinterest, or cowardice. Nowhere have I been taught the following phrases:

we are insignificant
I’m a simple person, everything is not so clear, no one can be trusted, I’m not really interested in all this
I’m not into politics, this does not concern me, nothing depends on me, competent authorities will sort it out what could I do on my own

On the contrary, I know and love completely different words.
John Donne, via Hemingway, says:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Mahmoud Darwish says:
As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you wage your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace).
As you pay your water bill, think of others
(those who are nursed by clouds).
As you return home, to your home, think of others
(do not forget the people of the camps).
As you sleep and count the stars, think of others
(those who have nowhere to sleep).
As you express yourself in metaphor, think of others
(those who have lost the right to speak).
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: If only I were a candle in the dark).

Gennadii Golovaty says:

The blind cannot stare in anger, the dumb cannot cry out furiously. Those without arms cannot hold weapons, those without legs cannot take a step forward. But- the dumb can stare in anger, But — the blind can cry out furiously. But – those without legs can carry weapons. But — those without arms can take a step forward.

Some people, I know, are scared. They choose silence.
But Audre Lorde says: Your silence will not protect you. In the Moscow metro they say: Passengers are forbidden to travel on trains going to dead ends. And St. Petersburg’s “Aquarium” adds: this train is on fire. Lao Tzu says via Tarkovsky: the main thing is that they believe in themselves and become helpless, like children. Because weakness is great, and strength is nothing. When a person is born, he is weak and flexible, and when he dies, he is strong and hard. When a tree grows, it is tender and elastic, and when it is dry and hard, it dies. Brittleness and strength are the companions of death. Weakness and flexibility express the freshness of existence. Therefore, what has become hard will not be victorious.

Remember that fear devours the soul. Remember the character in Kafka, who saw “how they set up a gallows in the prison yard, mistakenly thought it was for him, escaped from his cell in the night and hanged himself.”

Be like children. Don’t be afraid to ask (yourself and others) what is good and what is bad. Don’t be afraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. Do not be afraid to scream, to burst into tears.

Repeat (to yourself and others): 2+2=4. Black is black. White is white. I am a man, I am strong and brave. I am a strong and brave woman. We are strong and brave people.

Freedom is a process, in the course of which you develop the habit of being insusceptible to enslavement.”

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Translation by Clem Cecil

Clem Cecil is a writer and journalist specializing in Russian culture. Director of Pushkin House, London, 2016-2020. Former Moscow Correspondent for The Times; Co-founder of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society; former Director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage and SAVE Europe’s Heritage. Co-editor of four books on Russia’s threatened architectural heritage

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The Aliens Created by Nation-States: A Review of Voices on the Move: An Anthology about Refugees. by Alina Stefanescu

The Aliens Created by Nation-States: A Review of Voices on the Move: An Anthology about Refugees

Domnica Radulescu and Roxana Cazan, editors, Voices on the Move: An Anthology by and about Refugees. Solis Press, September 28, 2020. ‎ISBN 978-1910146460

*

“The alien is even more animal than the animals,” Brandon Shimoda wrote in his hybrid memoir, The Desert. The legal terrain occupied by refugees and stateless persons is not human. The intractable exclusivity of citizenship as conferred by modern nation-states ties one’s rights to the blessing or curse of birthplace. Every citizen should be haunted by this.

The world’s most vulnerable, at-risk humans are the displaced, the refugees, the migrant laborers, the stateless, as anthropologist Ruth Behar reminds readers in the foreword of Voices on the Move: An Anthology by and about Refugees, edited by Domnica Rădulescu and Roxana Cazan. How we treat the vulnerable depends on how (and whether) we view vulnerability. The anthology arose in the context of Trump’s travel ban, his zero-tolerance policy for undocumented persons, an explicit, tactical dehumanization and abuse of humans on the run. The editors (both of whom identify as Romanian-American immigrants) begin by invoking the names of Black Americans killed by police. Insisting on the moral obligations of bystanders, the editors take listening as a form of action.

Anchored firmly in hybrid aesthetics and polyphonic palettes, the anthology combines lyric poetry, historical vignettes, memoirs, plays, and documentary art. Geographic location, itself, becomes a blur, a liminal, uncertain space that requires navigation. Khaled Al-Maqtari’s photographs of life inside a Yemeni refugee camp in Djibouti shook me—the images of children fishing with their fathers on pieces of wood, or sitting in the desert sun at school desks combined hope with privation. As a resident of this camp, Al-Maqtari uses the lens to reveal that these children are dreaming; they are waiting for a future that can hold them.

Bilingualism recurs as a formal strategy to engage the divided self. Poet Marjorie Agosin, for example, writes from inside the bilingual body in “Tristeza / Sadness,” “Confiar / Trust,” and “Mujeres / Women,” a triad of poems that read like tone-paintings, defining abstractions in tiny brushstrokes and visual impressions where the borders of hue bleed into each other.

In her play, “J’y suis, j’y reste / Here I Am, Here I Stay,” Cristina Bejan uses bilingualism as a site of tension and a kaleidoscope of silences, offering a chronology of scenes in which the immigrant decides to leave the homeland, and the dialogue takes place in Romanian, with English translation in parentheses. Across the biographical chronology spliced into scenes, one notices the world changes in its expression, or in its primary language. In North Carolina, the immigrant’s daughters ask in English for Romanian bed-time stories. This exile from language, this revision into American, takes place in every immigrant body that comes to the US. Few are fortunate enough to live in communities that sustain their first languages; usually, we lose ourselves to the demands of the market and performance of visa-worthy behavior.

Catalina Florina Florescu’s bilingual play, “Chalk/La Tiza” is dedicated to her “DACA students at Pace University,” to the dreamers and the people whose lives have been politicized by xenophobia. The characters include Alegrias, two social workers, ICE officers, and the parents Alegrias left behind. Here, the social workers are agents of cultural erasure and assimilation who help deport the parents and place the protagonist in foster care. After being naturalized, the speaker wants to return and get his parents, only to discover they were killed in a car accident. The conflict hinges on preserving one’s name, one’s language, and one’s self from disappearing. “Write the word you are most scared of and then give the chalk to someone else,” Alegrias tells himself—and then writes his given name on the chalkboard.

“We cannot talk about refugees and not / talk about war or water,” Lee Peterson warns in her poem, “The Language of Water.” The ocean is a geography, an in-between land, a symbolic rendering of limbo. Leila Chatti dedicates her poem “Upon Realizing There Are Ghosts in the Water” to the memory of refugees who drowned when crossing the Mediterranean. Oceans are “tombs for refugees” rather than tourist cruises. As I read it, my pulse rose, realizing there is no past tense. Although the poem gives us the hauntedest of a poet looking in past tense at this water, the drownings continue. The deaths accrue. The turkeys stay seasoned for football and consumerism.

Juxtaposing images and historical facts enables Florinda Ruiz’s essay, “Human Cries Keep Falling Like Summer Rain,” to build a chiaroscuro of intolerance in the air. In the finger outstretched to test the air, to sample the seasons of intolerance. We learned about the Roman seizure of Iberia, and the Moors, or Spanish Muslims, who were expelled from their Spanish Homeland in 1609. Ruiz gives us the facts and then brings famous artworks and paintings to bear on the conversation, leading us to the present, where the missing migrants project tracks death and migration since 2014. Open Arms, a Spanish NGO, continues to aid immigrants at sea with rescue boats. Ruiz gives us the district’s, but she knows that they are not enough, and she argues for dialogic presentation of poems and visuals, foregrounding the role of aesthetic engagement in softening bigoted hearts and minds (see Spanish photographer Santi Palacios).

*

Where are you from? Where are you doing? Who deserves to be placed and displaced? These questions animate the anthology. In the poem, “Alien Resident,” Mihaela Moscaliuc ends with the mother – “her jars of preserve / ticking under the mattress like hand grenades” – but she begins “In the Promised Land” with the American dream as a site, as a location in the mind’s book of longings. “Each border-crosser bleeds. / On parole from the American dream, / I daymare;” Moscaliuc neologizes the word she needs for the endless intrusiveness of traumatic memories, a word to hold the flashbacks of famine.

Experimental form is a way off the official route of immigrant stories – one that more closely mimics the uncertainty of migration routes and journey. Eric Garcia’s cartoons reconfigure the American icons of Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty as threatening stone-hearted statues who keep the doors closed; Lana Spendl essays the child “cradling the memory of Bosnia through tough Florida high school nights.”

Diasporas have their own politics and hierarchies. Barbara Mujica layers proper nouns, pop-culture, and Yiddish in her story about growing up Jewish in the Spanish immigrant part of town—she writes about the most illicit subject, namely, the hierarchies among diasporas competing to belong in the US, and how this competition leads them to dehumanize other immigrants. This aspect of the struggle for status and acceptance plays out in the private sphere, in the particular ethnicity that parents chose to position themselves above. I valued Mujica’s honesty about ethnocentrism and racism in immigrant communities, and I realize this may be less applicable to wealthy immigrants who are privileged enough to cross borders with their status assured.

The problem of translating the self across borders and languages appears again and again. In Eugene Garcia-Cross’s short story, “Miss Me Forever,” a young Nepalese male emigrates to the United States, but the story returns to the UN camp where he left his sister. The story ends in the memory of struggling to translate his farewell.  There is no closure following the act of disclosure here. There is no entire self.

Symbolic objects are used to carry the pain of exile and rejection. In “That’s Not Nostalgia,” poet Olga Livshin returns to the site of immigration as a Russian Jewish refugee—encountering the old resistances at the gate where a symbolic bird carries the dehumanization of not being “a face.” D. A. Lockhart’s poem, “Swallows Sing the Night to Sleep …”, gives us a map of how a space become settled – and ends in a sort of mixed diction (“With / rain shall come unseen shoots.”) With water shall come new immigrants.

The one who leaves is guilty of abandoning the family, the kin network, the language. In “Montage: Iran Present Tense,” Elizabeth Eslami layers the mistrust among Iranian diaspora members with the American images of Iranians that don’t distinguish the people from their government. “I am a liar,” Eslami insists, “I told my grandmother in Iran that I’d come to visit her before she died. That I’d leave this America that swallowed her son, that I’d be the one, finally, to return.”

I returned to Claudia Bernardi’s essay,”La Bestia / The Beast,” again and again—it is a model for pedagogy, a powerful exploration of the role art plays in the artless, inhumane treatment of children who cross the US southern border.  Subtitled “A Visual Investigation of the Journey of Undocumented Unaccompanied Central American Minors Crossing the Mexico-United States Border,” Bernardi’s essay combines images of the mural created by “undocumented unaccompanied Central American incarcerated minors” fleeing on the roof of “La Bestia,” the train that forms part of the Mexican crossing. Unlike passengers on an Amtrak or Eurorail ride, the Beast’s passengers were often killed, raped, robbed, or pushed off. Stories by survivors illustrate various “windows” of the mural.

Speaking of hauntedness, the editors of this anthology make no secret of their own. Combining poems and prose, Roxana Cazan’s “When the East and West Collapse” uses the essay form itself to collapse distance between genres—to locate her own flesh and corpus as the hybrid polyphony of marriage to an Iranian-American man, and the mother of a infant with so many spaces, traces, and histories. Domnica Radulescu’s play,”Bienvenus à la Jungle de Calais/Welcome to the Jungle of Calais,” invokes Maria Irene Fornés’ influence. Fornés’ opera libretto, “Manual for a Desperate Crossing,” was culled from interviews with Cuban refugees who fled on rafts and small boats in the early 1990s, reappears. In Radulescu’s play, intertextuality transcends time—the play is set somewhere between “dream and reality”—and the use of a Chorus plays with the ancient Greek fatalism while also subverting our acceptance of it.

American academia has its own silences. One thinks of tenured professors who extol dictators while refugees who fled those dictators learn how power works, which is to say–they are instructed in which to tell about the homeland they fled. Can one speak about reality without being drawn into the ideological fetishes of American political binaries? Can one acknowledge the complexity rather than be conscripted for the ideology? When will immigrants and refugees not be commodified for the superpowers’ bombs, sacred dicta, and endless wars?

We are responsible for the harm our country visits on its Black and POC residents–we are complicit in the systemization and institutionalization of those crimes. And we are guilty of murder we permit when turning the vulnerable away from our borders – when screaming at them to get out of our yards, when calling the border police to report the presence of unwanted persons, we are guilty of the insularity, bigotry, and entitlement that these institutionalized silences require. We sustain those silences by choosing to pretend they have nothing to do with us.

“Memories are a commemoration against forgetting,” Claudia Bernardi writes. “Each border-crosser bleeds,” Mihaela Moscaliuc reminds. In literary conversations about hyphenation, the dominant discourse becomes that of the powerful, or those who insist on redefining “American” to include everyone. But some humans don’t want to lose their language; some don’t desire the semantic branding of literary assimilationism; some prefer to stay broken, divided, with one foot on many sides of the superpowered maps. We are listening.

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Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize (April 2018). Alina’s poems, essays, and fiction can be found in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, World Literature Today, Pleiades, Poetry, BOMB, Crab Creek Review, and others. She serves as poetry editor for several journals, reviewer and critic for others, and Co-Director of PEN America’s Birmingham Chapter. She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.

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Kapo, by Aleksandar Tišma. a review by Livi Michael

Aleksandar Tišma. Kapo, New York Review Books, (2021) £11.99

The term ‘Kapo’, as David Rieff explains in his illuminating afterword to this novel, refers to a prisoner in the concentration camps who has been selected by the Nazis to work for them.

Lamian, the protagonist of this novel, has served as a kapo in Auschwitz. At the start of the novel he is living in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, where he has a job as a superintendent in the railyard. The opening sentence sets out the premise of the plot: ‘He had found Helena Lifka.’

We begin, then, in media res. We are not initially told who ‘he’ is. The perspective remains close to Lamian’s own myopic view, intensifying the sense of claustrophobia that remains with us from this opening sentence. The verb ‘found’ has particular resonance, an ironic ambiguity pointing to a deeper paradox, because there is no sense at this point that Lamian has been looking for Helena Lifka, a prisoner he repeatedly raped in Auschwitz. As the narrative unfolds we see that Lamian has not ‘found’ Helena Lifka, rather, he is being haunted by her. The opening sentence represents a moment in which his past actions, always inescapable, have found him.

This paradox, or ambiguity, pervades the book; its language, structure and themes. And it is particularly expressed in the portrayal of Lamian. Lamian might be said, for instance, to have systematically denied his origins, divorcing himself from his parents, (who encourage this, because they love him, and want him to survive). But it might equally be said that he has been systematically cut off from his origins, and divorced from his parents. This is the apparently unresolvable conundrum of Lamian: is he victim or perpetrator?

As readers we are not invited to extend our sympathy to Lamian, to see him as victim, but neither do we see him as perpetrator in any simplistic sense.  Rather, the reader is presented with the recurring paradox. For instance, on p.262, we read:

In that darkness and stench they (the rapes) offered him the possibility of arousal and power, which was the only thing in the camp that could bring him exultation. The other power, the power of the club, though he obediently used it, could not make him exult, because he did not wield it with desire – because he had become Kapo Furfa by freezing beneath the coat of ice which Corporal Sommer had put on him, but beneath that ice, beneath the Kapo’s insignia and red triangle, he was really Lamian, a Jew with no yellow star sewn on him, whose heart quaked in fear and horror as he beat those to whom he secretly belonged.

The ‘coat of ice’ mentioned here refers to an incident in which, in the bitter winter of Auschwitz, Lamian has taken a sweater from a corpse to keep himself warm. As punishment, General Sommer orders him to stand still, for a full day, while icy water is poured over him and SS officers double up with laughter at the spectacle.

Are we meant to despise Lamian, or view him with an appalled sympathy?

Rieff points out that ‘Kapo may be the only major literary novel to have a perpetrator rather than a victim as its main character,’ but the exploration of the unresolvable perpetrator/victim conundrum gives the novel a haunting power, and Tišma manages to sustain the tension of this paradox to the (appropriately) bitter end.

Unlike Primo Levi, Tišma doesn’t find hope and glimpses of goodness in the camps. Nor is Kapo like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which ends in a kind of redemption. There appears to be no moral grey ground in Kapo, just a rigorous examination of the darkest terrain of the soul, (or, to quote Rieff again ‘hell’s 9th circle’).

Perhaps the closest comparison to Kapo, therefore, would be Marlowe’s Faust. On p.115, for instance, it is hard not to be reminded of Mephistopheles’ bleakly ironic statement, ‘why this is hell, nor am I out of it.’

He lit a cigarette and looked out at the fields, above which a pale, washed-out sun peeked from behind the clouds. Again he had the feeling that he was travelling as a prisoner, though without handcuffs and without the crush of other sweaty, frightened bodies…

Throughout the novel the prose moves fluently between past and present as we realise that, internally, Lamian has never left the camps. The evil of the camps travels with him, because of his participation in it. There is no attempt to rationalise or justify this evil, to explain the phenomenon of Nazism, perhaps because such evil cannot ultimately be explained. In Faust, of course, we are offered hell itself as the source of evil, in Kapo no such supernatural dimension is posited. What the two anti-heroes, Faust and Lamian, have in common, however, is a willingness to trade.

The style of Kapo is spare, the action is conveyed in factual statements with few complex clauses. Rieff refers to the ‘implacable harshness’ of Tišma’s writing, but there is also beauty in the lean prose, which is urgent enough to drive the novel from its opening sentence, when Lamian’s quest is launched, to its devastating conclusion. The forensic quality of the writing is consummately rendered in the translation by Richard Williams, which does full justice to the complexities that exist within the apparent simplicity and clarity of the style.

In his afterword, Rieff states ‘I know of no work in European literature so unrelenting in its despair.’ A striking claim, since ‘European fiction’ must include the works of Zola, Dostoevsky and Camus. Kapo is not, then, an easy read. We understand that there is no hope for Lamian, a man who is haunted by himself, and tortured by his past. The novel ends, as Rieff says ‘in a few terrifying sentences’ that aptly describe the utter desolation of his condition.

Aleksandar Tišma. Kapo, New York Review Books, (2021) £11.99

The term ‘Kapo’, as David Rieff explains in his illuminating afterword to this novel, refers to a prisoner in the concentration camps who has been selected by the Nazis to work for them.

Lamian, the protagonist of this novel, has served as a kapo in Auschwitz. At the start of the novel he is living in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, where he has a job as a superintendent in the railyard. The opening sentence sets out the premise of the plot: ‘He had found Helena Lifka.’

We begin, then, in media res. We are not initially told who ‘he’ is. The perspective remains close to Lamian’s own myopic view, intensifying the sense of claustrophobia that remains with us from this opening sentence. The verb ‘found’ has particular resonance, an ironic ambiguity pointing to a deeper paradox, because there is no sense at this point that Lamian has been looking for Helena Lifka, a prisoner he repeatedly raped in Auschwitz. As the narrative unfolds we see that Lamian has not ‘found’ Helena Lifka, rather, he is being haunted by her. The opening sentence represents a moment in which his past actions, always inescapable, have found him.

This paradox, or ambiguity, pervades the book; its language, structure and themes. And it is particularly expressed in the portrayal of Lamian. Lamian might be said, for instance, to have systematically denied his origins, divorcing himself from his parents, (who encourage this, because they love him, and want him to survive). But it might equally be said that he has been systematically cut off from his origins, and divorced from his parents. This is the apparently unresolvable conundrum of Lamian: is he victim or perpetrator?

As readers we are not invited to extend our sympathy to Lamian, to see him as victim, but neither do we see him as perpetrator in any simplistic sense.  Rather, the reader is presented with the recurring paradox. For instance, on p.262, we read:

In that darkness and stench they (the rapes) offered him the possibility of arousal and power, which was the only thing in the camp that could bring him exultation. The other power, the power of the club, though he obediently used it, could not make him exult, because he did not wield it with desire – because he had become Kapo Furfa by freezing beneath the coat of ice which Corporal Sommer had put on him, but beneath that ice, beneath the Kapo’s insignia and red triangle, he was really Lamian, a Jew with no yellow star sewn on him, whose heart quaked in fear and horror as he beat those to whom he secretly belonged.

The ‘coat of ice’ mentioned here refers to an incident in which, in the bitter winter of Auschwitz, Lamian has taken a sweater from a corpse to keep himself warm. As punishment, General Sommer orders him to stand still, for a full day, while icy water is poured over him and SS officers double up with laughter at the spectacle.

Are we meant to despise Lamian, or view him with an appalled sympathy?

Rieff points out that ‘Kapo may be the only major literary novel to have a perpetrator rather than a victim as its main character,’ but the exploration of the unresolvable perpetrator/victim conundrum gives the novel a haunting power, and Tišma manages to sustain the tension of this paradox to the (appropriately) bitter end.

Unlike Primo Levi, Tišma doesn’t find hope and glimpses of goodness in the camps. Nor is Kapo like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which ends in a kind of redemption. There appears to be no moral grey ground in Kapo, just a rigorous examination of the darkest terrain of the soul, (or, to quote Rieff again ‘hell’s 9th circle’).

Perhaps the closest comparison to Kapo, therefore, would be Marlowe’s Faust. On p.115, for instance, it is hard not to be reminded of Mephistopheles’ bleakly ironic statement, ‘why this is hell, nor am I out of it.’

He lit a cigarette and looked out at the fields, above which a pale, washed-out sun peeked from behind the clouds. Again he had the feeling that he was travelling as a prisoner, though without handcuffs and without the crush of other sweaty, frightened bodies…

Throughout the novel the prose moves fluently between past and present as we realise that, internally, Lamian has never left the camps. The evil of the camps travels with him, because of his participation in it. There is no attempt to rationalise or justify this evil, to explain the phenomenon of Nazism, perhaps because such evil cannot ultimately be explained. In Faust, of course, we are offered hell itself as the source of evil, in Kapo no such supernatural dimension is posited. What the two anti-heroes, Faust and Lamian, have in common, however, is a willingness to trade.

The style of Kapo is spare, the action is conveyed in factual statements with few complex clauses. Rieff refers to the ‘implacable harshness’ of Tišma’s writing, but there is also beauty in the lean prose, which is urgent enough to drive the novel from its opening sentence, when Lamian’s quest is launched, to its devastating conclusion. The forensic quality of the writing is consummately rendered in the translation by Richard Williams, which does full justice to the complexities that exist within the apparent simplicity and clarity of the style.

In his afterword, Rieff states ‘I know of no work in European literature so unrelenting in its despair.’ A striking claim, since ‘European fiction’ must include the works of Zola, Dostoevsky and Camus. Kapo is not, then, an easy read. We understand that there is no hope for Lamian, a man who is haunted by himself, and tortured by his past. The novel ends, as Rieff says ‘in a few terrifying sentences’ that aptly describe the utter desolation of his condition.

Return to Journal

Livi Michael has published nineteen full-length works of fiction for adults, young adults and children, as well as a number of short stories in magazines including Granta. He has a PhD in Literature and leads the MA in Publishing Programme at Manchester Metropolitan University.

www.livimichael.co.uk

Livi Michael

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Emergence and Renewal. a review of books by Gordon Phinn.

GordonPhinnPhoto

Emergence and Renewal

Books Considered:

Maybe It’s Me – On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman, Eileen Pollack (Delphinium Books 2022)
Artful Flight, Susan Glickman (Porcupine’s Quill 2022)
In the Writers’ Words, Laurence Hutchman (Guernica 2022)
Music, Late and Soon, Robyn Sarah (Biblioasis 2022)
The Swan: A Biography,  Steven Moss (Square Peg 2021)
A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers,  Pratibha Castle (Hedgehog Poetry Press 2022)     
Stars in the Junkyard, Sharon Berg (Cyberwit 2020)
Screw Factory,  Edward Anki (Anxiety Press 2022)

 

     Mandate free and making the best of that sluggish season, winter into spring, I settled into a very fine cache of those collections of the printed word we have come to love as books.  Blustery afternoons were made benign by the likes of Eileen Pollack’s essays Maybe It’s Me, On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman.  Frosty evenings were chivvied into cosy by the stimulating literary opinion-making of Susan Glickman’s Artful Flight.  Laurence Hutchman’s interviews conveniently packaged under the rubric of In the Writers’ Words insinuated themselves into many a bright blue sunny morning, while Robyn Sarah’s musings on her mid-life return to music and performance, Music, Late and Soon made for a chatty companion to Mozart’s piano trios and Prokoviev’s violin concertos.  Steven Moss’s venture into the enigmatic and paradoxical world of swans, The Swan: A Biography, chastised me back into the nature worship of emerging green as I stared longingly into the drab wet garden, and when I rose to wander about the house with a pretense to the elegant rearrangement of the archive, poets Berg, Castle, and Anki  reminded me, in stanza after stanza,  why books do, as Anthony Powell insisted, furnish a room.

     The storytelling abilities of Eileen Pollack, mostly delivered in autobiographical memoir/essays, were previously unknown to me, but the subtitle ‘On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman’ stirred my rebel soul.  And if I mention that among her other thirteen titles there is The Only Woman in The Room: Why Science Is Still a Boy’s Club, perhaps you’ll catch my drift.

     Pollack’s evocations of her childhood, home, parents, home town and schooling work well as an in-on-the-ground floor understanding of this very 20th century American woman and scientist and her struggles with ethnicity, relationships and the world at large in all its ugly insanity.  She makes coming to terms with herself and her square-peg-in-a-round-hole life as amusing as it is confrontational.  You come to see why she subtitles her memoir ‘on being the wrong kind of woman’, even if, as this reader did, you fail to find her anything but a fascinatingly feisty and fitfully neurotic, over-educated urbanite who cannot take either fools or egomaniacs gladly, and rarely, if ever, fails to call a spade and spade.  Nothing wrong with Eileen, just a parcel of politically incorrect and socially unacceptable attitudes seeing her place as the iconoclast sweetening this circus of sour with comedic jabs of irony and satire.

     Whether railing against the fanatical extremists on either side of the Israel/Palestine divide whilst on a tour of a homeland she could never live in, detailing the seemingly endless list of excruciating encounters derived from the lies of dating apps or describing the hospital from hell in Krakow, where, misdiagnosed while on vacation with her beloved Polish American partner, she is forced to spend a few nights whilst awaiting an unnecessary surgery, she remains quite capable of laughing at her lousy luck, knowing, with plenty of evidence that shit happens to all and sundry, and that the best one can do is pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and ready yourself to tilt at some more windmills.

    It is a challenge of obdurate proportions, not to feel educated, cultured and intelligent when succumbing to the charms of Susan Glickman’s reviews and essays, such is the poise with which she positions her analytical powers and witty observations throughout the wondrous compendium which is Artful Flight.  Both her wide range of subject matter and trail of observations do indeed artfully mirror the other.  For example, in her twelve-page deep dive into the impressive output of Don Coles, All in War with Time she observes that “Cole tries for a balance between his two voices, giving equal time to the two prosodies of American modernism: the T.S. Eliot line of retrospective, if experimental, formalism and the W.C. Williams line of idiomatic revolt against convention.  His aesthetic is defined by the area between his versions of these two – a fairly small one to be sure, with eloquence as the common priority of both styles.” 

    In her exploration of Bronwen Wallace, Angels Not Polarities, she observes, in comparison to Wordsworth’s ‘a man talking to men’ that “women are less likely to speak in generalities and abstractions such as ‘the child is father of the man’; they are more likely to focus on how the boy’s childhood habit of picking the chocolate chips out of his cookies and counting them to see what the average number was foretold in his adult career with Statistics Canada.”  With such witty and incisive commentary and a seemingly bottomless ability to quote from any era of English literature to bolster a point, Glickman canters along smoothly and sometimes merrily, always maintaining a respectful attitude to the work and words of the poet, extensively quoting the lines themselves.  A verse from Robyn Sarah should suffice:

“with a child asleep in her lap, saying loudly
Here’s how it is,
if I can’t spend a year on a houseboat
on the rivers of China, I want at least
to throw out all my clothes
and get a good haircut.”

 

     If the extended deliberations of the essays seem too steep a climb, then the occasional essays of the section “The Self in the World” might just be your cup of tea: “There are a heck of a lot of opinions out there.  Some days they come at you thick as blackflies over Lac Ouareau on a July afternoon. (…) You can swim out to the dock to work on your tan, you can bury your head in an Agatha Christie novel so venerable that it has lost its cover and smells not of paper but wood smoke and mildew, but unless you stay under water holding your breath, you just can’t escape the plague of modern opinions. (…) I should know, I trace my descent from givers of advice both requisitioned and unsolicited, a wiggly conga line of doctors and social workers and other avatars of professional wisdom.”  Artful Flight feels to me like some boundless lake of meditation and reflection, in which I continue to take refreshing plunges after all these weeks.

 

    A similar sustained immersion in literary pleasure is to be derived from Laurence Hutchman’s collection of conversations with Canadian poets in The Writers’ Words II, a sequel to his first such venture from 2011.  And these really are conversations, most of which catch fire.  George Elliot Clarke’s is a perfect illustration.  Long known as a live wire with provocative opinions on just about everything, he does not disappoint here.  Lively?  You got it.  His rhapsodizing on Pierre Elliot Trudeau really has to be read to be believed.  Not to mention his enthusiastic effusions on almost everything else. 

     Bruce Meyer follows a close second in the field of passionate declaration and while his devotion to the art and practice of literature is laudable and indeed inspiring, his vexacious manner in what I might call the chastising diatribe remains problematic.  Some opinions are better reserved for the barstool.  Brian Barlett and A.F. Moritz manage to maintain a pose of civility in detailing their journeys through inspiration and its exposition, while John B. Lee charms with his declaration that The Beatles’ joyous vocalizing in 1964 turned his soul towards poetry.

     I was pleased to be reminded of Brain Barlett’s extensive contributions in many forms while his assertion that “ a day without listening to music often felt like a day without reading” gladdens the heart.  And pleased also to become better acquainted with poets such as Roo Borson and Colleen Thibaudeau, whose work had somehow escaped me until now.  Thibaudeau in particular rang up the curtain on history when she reminisced about that “summer of 47 in Montreal” and later, invoking Robert Weaver, that doyen of the short story, back when it was considered in some CanLit circles the holy writ, telling her she had “an interesting style…but you don’t have anything to write about.”

     Such compilations of reflections on the life and work are not only important but essential to the further study of CanLit in the 20th century, an epoch rapidly evaporating in this instant digital universe of a million writers convinced their every heartfelt utterance is somehow relevant while the likes of Shakespeare, Dante, Chekov, Stevens, Munro, Eliot and Woolf are increasingly relegated to the sidelines of streamed video.  While this volume will doubtlessly be read and quoted by students and scholars of the era, it also deserves a parking spot on your night table, perhaps peeking out beneath the thrillers and biographies.

 

   With a fond recall of various poetry titles by Robyn Sarah over the years, I was intrigued to come across the memoir Music, Late and Soon. A keen musician in youth and once again in middle age the poet plays out her life in reminiscence and careful reexamination.   The aimiable tug of war between music and poetry is a piquant one and Sarah delineates the contrary impulses competing for her focus with the care that a poet can bring to suck a task.  Her relationship to music, its performance and reception, is one of profound and mystical resonance, particularly in her youth as first clarinet in a conservatory orchestra.  “Beautiful sounds are all around me and I’m entwined in them, I’m part of them, we’re one! (…) Then I’m playing again, flooded with a sweet, strange exaltation, and an unreasoning conviction that everyone else is feeling this too, that we’re part of one another, dependent on one another, moving together, mystically connected.”

     A nervous performer, she makes a cautious return to the fray in a noisy bistro where her notes can duck beneath the din, then a quiet artsy café where applause is often a possibility and a century old Chickering grand beckons from the shadows, leading to a magical opportunity to play one of Glenn Gould’s pianos after a Governor General’s Award ceremony, where she was herself one of the winners.  Not too shabby I’d say.

      While the memoir unfolds in an appealing manner, shifting with ease from 1969 to 2009 and back again, populated with affectionate memories of colleagues, friends, mentors and not forgetting the transcendent experience of performance itself, the repeated use of contemporaneous journal entries seemed superfluous to this reader, bulking up the text unnecessarily.  Overall, an enjoyable read for all us artsy types, convinced that all genuine creative enterprises deserve a place on the shelf and in the archive.

 

     Moving right along, as one in a hurry might say, but not I, so in love with the word and its endless applications, we come to Stephen Moss’s The Swan: A Biography.  Much more than a cornucopia of fascinating facts and observations of this most graceful creature, Moss’s peregrinations around the species and its seasonal habits, delivered in a supple and easy-going style with an abundance of illustrations drawn from many sources, delights the casual reader perhaps seeking a refuge from the disturbing traumas of the daily news.  A naturalist himself, the author supplants his own on-site research with much more drawn from ornithologists, both amateur and academic.  It was an educative delight to have my years of pleasure in casual observation so increased.

 

     It would be hard to convince me that the arrival of Pratibha Castle’s A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers that same month was anything less than divine intervention, but perhaps the rationalists among you might rise to the challenge.  This debut by a London based poet displays a devotion to the traditional lyric, yet not so traditional as to appear trite, cute or flowery, the customary traps of the genre.  Scenes from several areas of the author’s life, from childhood to maturity, are evoked with care and control, the kind of control that prevents that slide into sentimentality when fondly reminiscing.

Heartsease

They swoop in
a whimsy
of long tailed tits.

Do they sense
from afar
spider hatchlings
swarming over terracotta pots
seed stash pansies
forsythia tipping yellow

My heart hankering
for their cabrioles
of joy.

 

Canadian poet and editor Sharon Berg’s Stars in the Junkyard is a book of reminiscence, both celebratory and regretful, admittedly not an uncommon combination.  Family, friends, colleagues, lovers: all are remembered and reinstated to life, that life of words winding itself about us as we age and ache for what might have been done or said in moments of radiance or rapture, when the goal of living seemed the living itself.  The author trawls through her past for such pinnacles of seeming perfection amidst the detritus of imperfect and oft-times shattered relationships.   “…it wasn’t you that I mourned, but the dream we two had built together that I grieved.”

     The poems evoking Al Purdy and Robert Billings are particularly touching, but the ache of life’s tragic antics spans many of these pages, serenading the reader with melancholies reaching for those stars of joy, often visible but resolutely out of reach.

 

Rapture

mid-September
a night breeze stirs the curtains
every touch on our skins
rekindling
the chatter within
–  muscles, hormones memory  –
our bodies till shivering
with the tongues of love making
we lay magic and dumb
our faces beaded and magnificent
the coal of your cigarette
like a torch to something
each of us had lost
and rediscovered

 

Edward Anki’s Screw Factory, a first for this author, aims to confront and shock.  The uglies of the world are often front and centre, with the uglies of human relations not far behind.  Anki remains stoic about all the petty cruelties humans heap upon one another.  He’s one for keeping his powder dry and living to fight another day.  Situations are rendered with rigor and comments are brief.  No fat here I’ll tell ya.  None of that poeticising the impregnable.  Snapshots of the real, not selfies of vanity.  Details pared down to essentials.  As I perused his litany of the grim, unable to sport what seemed like the required grimace, I thought he’ll get over it but I hope he keeps more notes like these, these sharply carved epitaphs to the real.

 

Farewell

A few days before she expired
I visited my grandmother
at the hospital

It was a suffocating
summer afternoon
and she was seated
by an open window

We sat together,
not saying too much.

I witnessed cars
on the street below.

A seagull
in the sky above.

We endured the inescapable
by an open window

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Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit.  Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.

Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Words for War. selected poems. Oksana Maksymchuk & Max Rosochinsky

WordCity Literary Journal gratefully acknowledges editors Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky and the following poets for partnering with us on this issue. For more on this collection, please visit https://www.wordsforwar.com and consider purchasing from your favourite bookshop.

Contents:

Anastasia Afanasieva – from The Plain Sense of Things
Vasyl Horoborodko – I fly away in the shape of a dandelion seed
Borys Humenyuk – An old mulberry tree near Mariupol
Yuri Izdryk – Make love
Aleksander Kabanov – Fear is a form of the good
Kateryna Kalytko – Can great things happen to ordinary people?
Lyudmyla Khersonska – I planted a camellia in the yard
Boris Khersonsky – My brother brought war to our crippled homes
Marianna Kiyahovska – we swallowed an air like earth
Halyn Kruk – like a blood clot, something
Oksana Lutyshyna – I dream of explosions
Vasyl Mokhno – Febraury Elegy
Maryana Savka – We wrote poems
Ostap Slyvynsky – Alina
Lyuba Yakimchuk – Eyebrows
Serhiy Zhadan – Village street- gas line’s broken

Anastasia Afanasieva
from THE PLAIN SENSE OF THINGS

1
Of simple things — whisper, whisper — not touching the ear of another —
believe — in another’s — eardrum. So February opens, opens —
The time
whistles in a straw
as if a child sips from a glass of sparkling water.
Mouth opens, opens before each word.
And the “o” of the mouth is quiet
with want. Wide, and restrained, want.

3
And the snow comes as if no one knows about us and no one needs us
and there was no breath, no failure
and no earth that takes us inside.

9
Of simple things — in whisper, whisper. So gives us to our bodies, time.
So the hands are held in hands, the bodies drop into us.
So, the flame —
which comes from this evening which is in our stomachs.
Our stomach, a city where we
are not yet persons. And no longer a breath, us. And we — we want to go back to that breath, us. We remember, us.

12
Of simple things whisper, whisper. Whisper us. Us, time.

Translated from the Russian by Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky

****
Vasyl Horoborodko
I FLY AWAY IN THE SHAPE OF A DANDELION SEED

I know that from here you cannot escape by plane — you have to be able to fly on your own.
Cats in the house, so many cats, gathered from the whole neighborhood
(how did they catch a whiff of my departure?) not our cats but feral cats,
although there is no such a thing as a cat gone wild.
Cats as a warning and threat to my flight as a bird,
they notice a red spot on my chest like a linnet’s,
so I’m forced to take flight in the form of a dandelion seed: I leave the house in search of wide open spaces,
past my garden and into the street and float toward
a direction very remote — now the wind gusts will carry me away, away!

Translated from the Ukrainian by Svetlana Lavochkina

****
Borys Humenyuk

An old mulberry tree near Mariupol
Has never seen so many boys in her life
Boys picking her fruit, boys dancing in the branches, And the smallest boy climbing
To the very top.

RPGs, a machine gun, sniper rifles, helmets, bullet-proof vests All laid carefully down.

The boys laughed, gave each other piggyback rides, Smeared mulberry juice all over their faces Sometimes on purpose — to look
Like characters from Hollywood movies.

RPGs, a machine gun, sniper rifles, helmets, bullet-proof vests All laid carefully down.

Beyond the horizon some mortars went to work Making a funny noise: “one, two, three,” “one” Like a young lover knocking on a girl’s window. A flock of ravens rose into the sky with a shriek But maybe those weren’t ravens, maybe
Those were airborne clumps of earth, tilled by the explosions.

The boys abandoned the old mulberry tree Left it whirling in a solitary dance Changed into grown men.
They sped off to assume their positions
Beyond the horizon, where the earth cried out to the sky And the sky shook.

The old mulberry tree
Is waiting for her boys by the road But nobody comes to pick her fruit.
It falls to the ground like bloody tears.

The grass that was pressed beneath
The RPGs, a machine gun, sniper rifles, helmets, bullet-proof vests All straightened out.

And when the moon rises in the sky The old mulberry tree
Gets on her tiptoes, like a girl Tries to peek over the horizon Where are you, boys?

Translated from the Ukrainian by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky

****
Yuri Izdryk
MAKE LOVE

this war isn’t war — it’s a chance not to kill anyone this love isn’t love unto death — it’s as long as it lasts to protect one another is all this occasion demands and to look at the world through a steady rifle sight
and to look within ourselves through every microscope and to look at you at every hour every minute at all times
to protect one another — and in keeping calm and carrying on to burn down to the ground and to rise up as smoke
this war isn’t war — but a certain and fiery passion this love is forever — just as moments pass forever we hit bottom to get stuck in some new heaven there is a string that binds us all together
that string between us is a safety fuse

Translated from the Ukrainian by Boris Dralyuk

****
Aleksander Kabanov

Fear is a form of the good, an angelic portion.
Peter’s cotton ball shadow loses consciousness.

Bald, with a funny moustache, he drinks plum brandy
until he finds his true self, becoming — a dead man.

Sparrows read the last rites. Mole crickets do the honors. Horror — a symbol of love — reeks of leftovers.

Like an explosive blast,
join the kids in the basement. Life gets to all of us,
each one will catch a shard.

Glue sticks explode in the sky. Oil tankers make us high.
Was it all worth a try, wasn’t it worth it?

Translated from the Russian by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky

****
Kateryna Kalytko

Can great things happen to ordinary people?
The rotting boards of knowledge creak underfoot. Now you know, for example, how in wartime lights pulsate on Christmas trees in squat homes, how the deadly wind blows from a burning field burrowing like a stent between aorta walls
how Gaspar, Balthazar, Melchior
rush in an ambulance with a bullet-riddled headlight
how the thick magic forests appear out of compassion for the
prisoners of war and spread in a layer of peat over the darkened souls.
Daylight, a clawing puppy, whimpers by the pillow, the light is faint and snowy, snow will cool the faces and capture them turning into icon-like images
that cut through the heart of the earth.

If there is no warmth
until spring, let this shroud remain.
Was everything, everything that happened, for a greater good or would all the agony cause a tall tree to grow — bleeding berries, pounding against apartment windows at night?
Where did you get this glistening moonlight skin, my love? From starvation, despair, and milk, and mercury.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna

****
Lyudmyla Khersonska

I planted a camellia in the yard.
I wanted to be a lady, not a war-ravaged rag, to cast down my lashes, let fall a light glove, put on red beads, patent-leather boots,
I listen: are there explosions,
does someone stomp the earth . . .

Translated from the Russian by Katherine E. Young

****
Boris Khersonsky

My brother brought war to our crippled home.
War, a little girl, hair tied in bow — she can barely walk on her own, my brother says, she can stay with you, we’ll go out, we’ll hit the road, she’s so little, she can’t keep up, can’t roam around alone!

My brother left, but war stayed, and she really is small.
She tried to help around the house, she swept the floor and all, but she is sort of weird, she pokes around in the corner,
takes junk out of grandma’s oak chests in no particular order.

At night she’s restless — and we have no peace.
She keeps silent — we’ve had no days worse than these. The windows are broken. It is too cold to stir.
And my brother still hasn’t come back for her . . .

Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco

****
Marianna Kiyahovska

we swallowed an air like earth the kind of black
neighbors gardened together

and in that black
as in a fleshy cherry sweet and bitter
and in that sweet and that bitter salt and flesh

we stored in our lungs many years beforehand not the cherry plum
another tree
some of us exhaled cherry pits some bullets

stones bulged from their sockets and became eyes

everything else became memory air, fire

Translated from the Ukrainian by Oksana Lutsyshyna and Kevin Vaughn

****
Halyn Kruk

like a blood clot, something catches him in the rye
                                                 though in life
what is fair?
so he is annoying with his limping through the hospital courtyard missing a limb, as if he’d been limbless
in those unmiraculous fields,
so saturated with blood, no foot can fall without grasping its own absence, entered into war’s tedious register where limbs, faces, bodies are rejected like blood from mismatched donors —
his unit’s all scattered throughout the rye fields —
he begins to gather them up when he closes his eyes . . . the women bring food, clothes, medicine
and, as is their habit, sit at his feet

Translated from the Ukrainian by Sibelan Forrester and Mary Kalyna with Bohdan Pechenyak

****
Oksana Lutyshyna

I DREAM OF EXPLOSIONS

someone sets a lighter to a bush of living fire invisible
with an invisible hand

there’s no place on earth that’s safe there’s no earth anymore
there’s nothing
how can we begin with the words:
“Nothing exists”?

the whole body becomes an organ of sight finds a foothold
for true vision
you fall out of the world as out of a sieve and you see: it’s not there,
it’s an illusion

so why does it still hurt so bad

Translated from the Ukrainian by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky

****
Vasyl Mokhno

FEBRUARY ELEGY

today the muse is the nurse who is shot through the neck in Maidan’s winter winds
in the war now upon us
for which we are given wings

the student who now lies murdered wrapped up in heavenly blankets muse, please give us some advice and hold tight onto the forceps
for the hour of death is nigh

in hearts that are shot right through in ripped open stomachs and lungs my muse, you, too, are bruised
an angel of death holding nails
while recording the names of the slain

who drags all the wounded aside who strikes matches until they blaze I see how he keeps up the fight ripping asunder his greatcoat —
two-hundred-year-old Shevchenko

Translated from the Ukrainian by Uilleam Blacker

****
Maryana Savka

We wrote poems about love and war, so long ago
we could have gone grey three times over— in the days before we had war,
it seemed love would never burn out and pain was in the offing
Yes, there were wounds there,
not just cracks in a chocolate heart, but they managed to heal
and we went on living. It wasn’t mocking,
or some deliberate game.
We read the signs
on palimpsests of old posters,
on the walls of blackened buildings, in coffee grounds.
What changed, my sister?
Our hot-air balloon turned into a lead ball. The metaphor — died.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Sibelan Forrester and Mary Kalyna with Bohdan Pechenyak

****
Ostap Slyvynsky

ALINA

She danced, since evenings were still warm, and the world was being rolled up like
a carpet after a city festival,
and lights sparkled above red leaves.
She danced, because she wanted to turn back and
she knew you couldn’t resurrect things by imagining them. She danced, because it’s better to remember with the body: how she woke up, fell asleep
on the wet deck, waited for things to be loaded. How she ran
after a floppy-eared dog, not wanting to leave it to them.
She danced, because there are no more places, stamps, return
addresses, banks, municipal headquarters, no more street, water pump, half-painted
fence, soap dishes, brushes. Everything is in a single moving point, so compressed,
as a wrist where all the blood has gathered.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Anton Tenser and Tatiana Filimonova

****
Lyuba Yakimchuk

EYEBROWS

no-no, I won’t put on a black dress black shoes and a black shawl
I’ll come to you all in white — if I have a chance to come
and I’ll be wearing nine white skirts one beneath the other
I’ll sit down in front of the mirror (it’ll be hung up with a cloth) strike up a match
it’ll burn out and I
will moisten it with my tongue and draw black eyebrows over my own, also black
then I’ll have two pairs of eyebrows mine and yours above them
no-no, I won’t put on a black dress I’ll put on your black eyebrows
on me.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Svetlana Lavochkina

****
Serhiy Zhadan

Village street — gas line’s broken.
Accident site. Danger.

Emergency crew isn’t coming —
no one wants to be out during shootings. When you call them — they’re silent, don’t say anything,
like they don’t understand you.

In the store next to the day-old bread, they sell funeral wreaths.
There’s no one out in the street — everyone’s left.

There are no lines. Not for the bread, not for the wreaths.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Bob Holman

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WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Reskinned Moloch. a poem by Mansour Noorbakhsh

Reskinned Moloch
             To: Ukrainian children after Russian invasion 
has raised again his shadow
with opened arms 
to burn the children, 
though has changed, reskinned, 
this time

his arms are open 
to embrace the world, 
Ukraine, Europe … 
what else would be the next?

perhaps still I am an immature child 
who dreams maturity of a lovely world 
in every poem 
innocent
unaware of
plentiful pollen of immature cruelty
growing under the skin of 
this mushroom-shaped cloud
 
perhaps i am a child who 
has learned and believed 
Moloch is untrue 
but had not known that 
it can be emulated-reskinned
or it’s nothing but a skin

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Mansour Noorbakhsh writes and translates poems in both English and Farsi, his first language. He tries to be a voice for freedom, human rights and environment in his writings. He believes a dialog between people around the world is an essential need for developing a peaceful world, and poetry helps this dialog echoes the human rights. Currently he is featuring The Contemporary Canadian Poets in a weekly Persian radio program https://persianradio.net/. The poet’s bio and poems are translated into Farsi and read to the Persian-Canadian audiences. Both English (by the poets) and Farsi (by him) readings are on air. This is a project of his to build bridges between the Persian-Canadian communities by way of introducing them to contemporary Canadian poets. His book about the life and work of Sohrab Sepehri entitled, “Be Soragh e Man Agar Miaeed” (trans. “If you come to visit me”) is published in 1997 in Iran. And his English book length poem; “In Search of Shared Wishes” is published in 2017 in Canada. His English poems are published in “WordCity monthly” and “Infinite Passages” (anthology 2020 by The Ontario Poetry Society). He is a member of The Ontario Poetry Society and he is an Electrical Engineer, P.Eng. He lives with his wife, his daughter and his son in Toronto, Canada.

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Sirens of Death. a poem by Alexia Kalogeropoulou

alexia_kalogeropoulou_BW

Sirens of death 

Listen, listen to the drums of war
how they beat
like human hearts in agony
listen to the sirens how they scream
like human voices
mourning the future deads
look at the fear on the faces of the children
an hecatomb of deaths is being prepared
for justice, they say, or for freedom
for their own interest, I say,
so to count money with dirty palms
to fill greedy pockets
from the death trade.

The war is called crisis now.
The truths are hidden like ostriches behind the words.

And the children are uprooted.
And souls are engraved.
And people are divided.
And life is shrinking.

Listen, listen to the drums, the voices as they approach.
They are not so far, do not mock yourself.

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Alexia Kalogeropoulou is a poet, author, and journalist. She has studied Psychology at The School of Philosophy of the University of Athens and holds an MA in Cultural Studies and Human Communication from the University of Athens. She has published the poetry collections Words in the Sand (24grammata publications, 2019) and After celebration customs (24grammata publications, 2020). In 2014, she created the website BookSitting.gr for books, arts and ideas. Poems of hers have been translated in Italian and English.

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we’ve held our breath. a poem by Josephine LoRe

Josephine LoRe

we've held our breath

through seven hundred pandemic days
waiting to awaken into normal

but this morning
images careen across the screen
tanks thunder through streets
seven hundred thousand flee from the beast
mouths agape in silent scream

a continent away
my students cautiously approach me
and ask in a hush

Madame
will the world erupt 
in war again?

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a pearl in this diamond world …  Josephine LoRe’s words have been read on stage and in global zoom-rooms, published in literary journals and anthologies in eleven countries and four languages, put to music, danced, and integrated into visual art. She has two collections, Unity and the Calgary Herald Bestseller, The Cowichan Series. She is a member of the League of Canadian Poets and numerous virtual and in-person poetry societies. Josephine is grateful to live and create on land traditionally inhabited and traversed for centuries by the Piikani, Siksika, Kainai, Tsuut’ina and Nakota peoples, their antecedents, and their descendants. 

https://www.josephinelorepoet.com/ 

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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