Of Genocide, Popular Humour, and Poetry

From the Revolution of Dignity, 2014: memorial to the dead.

“They fire as the crowd of women flees inside the nostrils of search lights. May  God have a photograph of this…” – from “Soldiers Aim at Us”, By Odesa-born poet Ilya Kaminsky

April 1st has come and gone, and the war continues its brutal, hellish trajectory.

April 1st is the ‘day of laughter’ in Odesa, where they celebrate a festival called Humorina, featuring parades, outdoor performances, clowns. I’ve seen a video; it looks a bit like Pride, except with straight people. It is probably a secularized version of the pre-Lenten carnival. The Soviets were very good at creating fun alternatives to Christian holidays. Their New Years, now bigger than Christmas in Ukraine, is another such example. I’m reminded, too, of the great theorist Bakhtin, who coined the term ‘culture of popular laughter.’ in which the carnival becomes the opportunity for emotional release via a temporary inversion of power. The beggar is crowned king; the king becomes a fool.

In a similar vein, Ukraine, once the world’s underdog, has become heroicized. Zelenskyy trends on TikTok. Ukrainian flags are the new hot accessory.

Today, April 3rd, the Sunday New York Times arrives with its dreaded headlines. Odesa has been bombed. And not only that, mass graves have been discovered outside of Kyiv, in villages recently liberated by the Ukrainian army.

The unspeakable horror of it.

When I think of Odesa, I think of poetry. I did an interview there with a local poet, in 2014, for my film. It was just after the Revolution of Dignity, and she told me that her job was to bring poetry to the protest site each day. Dressed in an embroidered blouse, she recited one of her own poems as we filmed her as strolling down a wide, leafy avenue, alongside the Potemkin Steps. There was so much power in her walk, and her voice. 

I force myself to look at a video of Bucha, where one of the massacres took place. Intellectually, , I know it’s genocide. Emotionally I am starting to feel a little numb.

The Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky, quoted above, offers, in a recent interview:

“I ask how I can help. Finally, an older friend, a lifelong journalist, writes back: ‘Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine’.

In the middle of war, he is asking for poems.

But if I must put it in terms of this moment: The purpose of the state is to numb the senses. The purpose of a lyric poet is to wake them up”.