Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 196– a podcast by Quentin Bega for lovers of music, poetry, and the Crack- that most Irish of nouns which may encompass, news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Quotidia is that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
There are lots of countdowns going on everywhere on earth and beyond. Let me start with an inconsequential one: some time ago I decided to halt the publication of these letters at number 200 to allow me to reflect and, perhaps, re-cast the letters in a different format. And I find that plan is becoming more and more difficult as countdowns elsewhere exert tidal forces on the Letters, threatening to tear them apart, as, for instance, a black hole might cannibalise a passing star, at its leisure.
Those forces have been at work since February 24, the date of the latest Russian invasion of Ukraine. I’ve read and viewed so much distressing material on that crisis over the weeks that I have decided to devote this letter to one poet from Ukraine. I ordered from Amazon last week, Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine published by Academic Press and Harvard, which features, among others, Borys Humenyuk. He was born in Ostriv, Ternopil oblast, in 1965. He is a poet, writer, and journalist. He took an active part in Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity of 2013 and since 2014, he has been involved in the anti-terrorist operation in the Ukrainian Donbas; that is, resisting Russia’s proxies in this region. He now serves in a self-organised military unit composed mainly of volunteers.
He and his comrades now face enhanced threats as Russia re-organises its forces to focus on eastern Ukraine having been driven back from their northern assault on the capital, Kyiv. Followers of this podcast know how highly I value poetry and music and I hope I can demonstrate this, now. While I wait for the book of poetry to be delivered from the US, I have read a few of his poems online and I will try to do justice to this brave poet’s verse- and by the way, I have no way of knowing if he still lives, as the poems in translation I have access to, are four years old. But I hope and pray he survives. The first is set in a seaport we all have learned the name of over recent times-Mariupol. It is called, An old mulberry tree near Mariupol. . .
The first verse sets the scene, 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.// This is followed by lines that punctuate the poem throughout, RPGs, a machine gun, sniper rifles, helmets, bullet-proof vests/All laid carefully down.// But war comes to interrupt their idyll and, 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.// In a powerful ellipsis the poem ends, first with the lines that punctuate the poem, 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?// There is an echo here of Morning Dew from the last letter- Where have all the people gone?
Next, are lines from his poem, Our Platoon Commander is a Strange Man. Our platoon commander is a strange man/ When the sun rises over the battlefield/He says that it’s someone burning/a/tire/at/a/far-off/checkpoint/The moon to him is a barrel of a cannon/And the sea is melted lead/Why is it salty?/Because it’s made of our tears sweat piss blood/It flows through us.// He has no time for the falsity which is part of the whole media circus, Here at the front we’ve learned/There are two kinds of people: people, and TV people/We dislike TV people/They seem fake, they’re poor actors/ We in the West only gave our precious attention to the Ukraine crisis when it appeared as headline news whereas Borys and his comrades have been living a different reality for years, as the ending of his poem explains, On the first day of no war/We lost our machine gun loader/Sashko from Boyarka/And grenadier Max from Luhansk/The bullets came from the other side of war/Like angry hornets/Stung Sashko in the neck/And Max in/the/heart/Maybe the other side doesn’t have a strange platoon commander/Bringing/weird/news/Maybe/they/watch/a/different/TV/channel/Maybe/their/TV/set/is/broken.//
Now, I will present here an entire poem from Borys Humenyuk. The poem’s title is A Testament. When I saw the title and read the poem, I became aware of the power of the word, testament, or, in its verb form, to testify. To return to my peaceful, quotidian world for a moment, my wife has been reminding me for a while, now, that we need to re-visit our wills and tidy up our affairs as we are, in the words of a song that I featured in Letter 192, too old to die young: unlike so many in countries torn by conflict, alas. Here is Borys Humenyuk’s moving poem, A Testament:
Today we are digging the earth again/This hateful Donetsk earth/This stale, petrified earth/We press ourselves into it/We hide in it/Still alive//We hide behind it/Sit silently in it/Like little children behind their mother’s back/We hear its heart beating/Its weary breath/We/are/warm/and/comfortable/Still/alive//Tomorrow/we/will/die /Maybe some of us/Maybe all of us//Don’t take us from the earth/Don’t tear us away from our mother/Don’t gather our remains from the field/Don’t try to put us back together again/And — we beg you — don’t erect crosses/Monuments or memorial slabs/We don’t need them/Because it isn’t for us —/You erect these monuments for yourselves.//Don’t engrave our names/,Simply remember: On this field/In this earth/Ukrainian soldiers lie/And — that is all.//Don’t return us to our parents/We don’t want them to see us like this/Let our parents remember us children/Naughty little boys/With slingshots and bruised knees/With failing marks on their report cards/With shirts crammed with apples from the neighbour’s orchard/Let our parents believe that we’ll return one day/That we are somewhere//Don’t return us to our wives/Let them remember us handsome/As men well-liked by women/Who belonged to their wives alone/Let them remember our warm kisses/Our loving embraces/Don’t let them touch our cold foreheads/Our cold lips//Don’t return us to our children/Let our children remember our kind eyes/Our kind smiles/Our kind hands/Don’t let our children’s lips/Touch/our/cold/hands//In/these/trenches Today/our/temporary/homes/Tomorrow our graves/Bury us//We don’t need eulogies/In the silence that follows battle./They always seem odd —/Like punching a dead soldier/Then ordering him to his feet//We don’t need funerals/We know where our place is/Simply cover us with earth/And move on//It would be nice if there was a field/Where rye is swaying/A lark flies overhead/And — the sky/The endless sky —/Can you imagine/the/grain/a/field/Where warriors are lying will yield?//To remember us, eat the grain from the field/Where we laid down our lives//It would be good if there were meadows there/And many flowers/And a bee under each flower/And lovers who come in the evening/To weave wreaths/To make love till dawn/And during the day, let new parents/Bring their young children/Don’t keep children from coming to us//But this will be tomorrow/Today we are still digging the earth//This cherished Ukrainian earth/This sweet, gentle earth/And with a soldier’s spade we write as one/On its body/The last Ukrainian poem of the last poets/Left/alive//
I’ll finish with an Irish folk song that echoes the poet’s desire to be buried under a field of swaying rye; written by Robert Dwyer Joyce (1836–1883), a Limerick-born poet and professor of English literature, The Wind That Shakes the Barley quickly became a trope for the Irish quest for independence from Britain. Wikipedia has this to say,
The song is written from the perspective of a doomed young Wexford rebel who is about to sacrifice his relationship with his loved one and plunge into the cauldron of violence associated with the 1798 rebellion in Ireland. The references to barley in the song derive from the fact that the rebels often carried barley or oats in their pockets as provisions for when on the march. This gave rise to the post-rebellion phenomenon of barley growing and marking the “croppy-holes,” mass unmarked graves into which slain rebels were thrown, symbolizing the regenerative nature of Irish resistance to British rule. As the barley will grow every year in the spring this is said to symbolize Irish resistance…and that Ireland will never yield and will always oppose foreign rule.
Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney, in his 1962 poem Requiem For the Croppies references the phenomenon of barley growing out of the unmarked graves of the Irish rebels, who were known as Croppies because of their very short hair. The poem ends with these lines, Until…on Vinegar Hill, the final conclave/Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon/The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave./They buried us without shroud or coffin/ And in August…the barley grew up out of our grave.//
This poem, like The Wind That Shakes the Barley, refers to the 1798 rebellion by the United Irishmen, who had a famous victory at Oulart Hill which is mentioned in the song as Oulart Hollow, where the rebels vanquished a force of militia sent from Wexford to stamp out the uprising. But it was ultimately put down by superior British forces with the loss of 30,000 rebels. The parallels between the Irish and Ukrainian experience are obvious. Here is my version of The Wind That Shakes the Barley [insert song]
And that concludes, Letter 196 I hope that the doomed 1798 resistance of the valiant United Irishmen against the overwhelming forces of an adjacent imperial power is not paralleled in Ukraine but I note, with increasing dread, the build-up of huge forces poised, as I write this, to strike at the southeast and coastal regions of the beleaguered state. I also note the sickening reports of yet more atrocities against the civilian population, to say nothing of the reports of chemical munitions having been used in Mariupol. This letter is published here in Australia, on Good Friday, and- a naïve hope it may be- but I pray that the message of Easter, which is all about renewal and peace, comes to pass in Ukraine. So, until next week, take care and thanks for listening to LFQ.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.