For the last few nights I have jolted awake every hour or so in panic and anxiety about the situation in Ukraine. My parents were Ukrainian refugees during the second World War and I grew up in England. Throughout my childhood I heard horror stories from my family about what they endured when they fled their home at short notice during the Nazi invasion not knowing where they would end up and carrying only the few belongings they could gather. Today I wept upon seeing footage of Ukrainian families having to run for their lives just like my own family did seventy years ago. I still have cousins living in Ukraine and God knows what is happening to them. I feel powerless to help. My mother’s home city of Dnipro was bombed today by Russia. I am glad she is no longer with us and spared the knowledge of this atrocity. She died three years ago. As a gesture of support and solidarity for the Ukrainians who are now homeless and terrified I am posting my poem ‘Heartland’. It is based on my mother’s story and is one of the poems in my recent book, The Rush of Lava Flowers available on Amazon.
The train is leaving but I am here in a yellow room with curtains of sky. The door is chained from the inside, the lock and the mirror are broken.
The train is leaving and you’re not here. The prints of army boots have scarred the wood I once polished on my hands and knees with melting candle wax.
The train is leaving, I can hear it’s wail. On the sunlit balcony above treetops where the birds have fallen silent, a young boy hangs from a rope.
The train is leaving to I know not where but my cat is hungry, my roses wilt, poor Mishka waits on the window sill and they will not fit in my suitcase.
Will I find you arched across wild waters? Will I see you in the sparks of burning pines? Will you shimmer like an island in an ocean of wheat? Will I smell you in the northerly like the promise of snow or grass that is limpid green? Will I meet you in the white lines in the middle of the road? Will I catch you like a ghost in a speaking mirror? Will I taste you in buttermilk pancakes or tea sweetened with cherry jam? Will I feel you in the blue fur of a cat? Will I discover you folded inside yourself like a secret at the back of my wardrobe? Will I fear you in my dreams of showers without water or scroll you on my screen as a drone follows the River Dnieper Mama once swam? Will I hear you in the trains as they scream through the night?
Shadows rooted in the sour grooves that framed her mouth. Invisible at first, they bloomed in the living map of her face, festered in the lines on her brow, in the web of crow’s feet perched on cheekbones and in every pore of once perfect skin. Within the purple moons beneath shuttered eyes darkness multiplied spread along the wrinkles of her neck, the valley between breasts, the soft folds of belly and genitals, filling hollows and dimples right down to the pink tips of her toes. Eventually shadows enveloped her like a miasmic cloak. In the mirror she saw memories of memories and not the shudder of dust she had become. In the street, folk saw a swirl of fog and not a woman named Margot. They walked straight through her and shivered. Her words became a wild keening of wind, creatures of night her only friends. Bats, moths, owls gathered safe in her twilight wake.
This post is a little different – not poetry but the first short story I’ve written for a long time. It’s loosely based on my family history. Any feedback or comments would be greatly appreciated.
The passenger sun deck was anything but sunny. It was deserted except for a man with two huskies sheltering beneath an orange cape. A casual drizzle swirled from a concrete sky. Alina realised for the umpteenth time since arriving in Scotland that she was inappropriately dressed in her chic wool coat and cloche hat. The world around her spun shades of grey. Glassy waves frothed by the railings leaving lacy patterns of spume across the deck and marking her boots. The wind pummelled her eighty year old body like an invisible giant.
Alina clung to the metal rail and gazed into a whirlpool of cloud and water. She managed to suppress her nausea. The Pentland Firth felt as hostile as the English Channel in 1947 when she first arrived in Britain clad in her refugee rags. She looked down into the churning troughs of waves and imagined the exhilaration of jumping overboard, the shock of the cold. How long would it take to drown? Would it be peaceful or would her lungs fight for breath despite herself? She hoped the cold would take her first. As a small child she witnessed a Jewish woman drown in the River Dniper before the Nazis invaded. It was a hot afternoon and her family were picnicking on the shore when her brother spotted a body floating near Monastyr Island, long black hair trailing in the water like a death veil. Papa swam out but it was too late. Afterwards, Papa wondered if it had been suicide. Rumours were circulating about what the Germans did to conquered cities but no one wanted to believe them.
Alina peered into the opaque void looking for The Old Man of Hoy in the same way she’d searched the horizon for the white cliffs of Dover exactly sixty years ago. She was haunted by Vera Lynn’s song ever since she learned her parents had been granted EVW status and that they would soon begin a new life in England. On the boat crossing the Channel the idea of beautiful bluebirds and white cliffs filled her with hope even while helplessly vomiting. Alina was the only one in her family to be sea sick. Her brother, Ivan stuffed his face with salami sandwiches like there was no tomorrow and raced around the boat exploring. Alina arrived in Dover stinking and humiliated without achieving a single glimpse of the famous cliffs or bluebirds. Years later she found out bluebirds did not exist in Britain and she felt cheated.
There was no sign of The Old Man of Hoy. She’d seen postcards of the sandstone landmark in the Hamnavoe gift shop and bought one for her husband Dmitri together with a small box of Orkney fudge. For herself she chose a block of handmade lavender and calendula soap coloured blue and yellow like the Ukrainian flag. The soap was called Forget-me-not. She was groping around in her bag for a handkerchief when the ship reared and bucked like a wild horse. She lost her balance and grabbed at the rail wrenching her arthritic elbow. Her heavy bag slipped from her shoulder spilling objects across the wet deck.
“Let me help”, said the husky man. His face was weathered and unshaven. He crouched down picking up her purse, powder compact, lipstick, hairbrush, a packet of Jelly Babies and a leather album embossed with gold lettering in Cyrillic script. The man carefully shook off droplets of water from each item and wiped them on his trousers before replacing them in Alina’s bag. He released the dogs who began sniffing her feet. One of them jumped up placing paws on her shoulders and tried to lick her face. Alina recoiled, lurched sideways and began screaming at the beasts. “Get away, get away!”
She was suddenly back in the camp, tangled in barbed wire with the fetid breath of a German Shepherd in her face and strange guttural cries echoing in the night.
“It’s okay,” said the man, “they won’t hurt you. They’re just saying hello.” He steered her toward a seat. “Take a minute”.
“I’m alright, thank you,” she said but she was trembling. Her hat slipped askew half covering one eye and she straightened it.
A woman appeared beside them. Her face was scrunched up like a ball of wet paper. She held two plastic cups of coffee.
“Here you go, love. Have one of these”, she said to Alina. “I think you need it more than I do”. The kindness in her voice was unexpected and she patted Alina’s arm.
Alina suppressed tears. “Thank you,” she murmured. The coffee was too sweet but it was hot and soothing.“My name is Moira, by the way and this is my husband Alastair. Our scary fur balls are Snowflake and River. They’re completely harmless you know.”
“I am Alina Stepanivna Kravchuk”, replied the old lady. “I am sorry, I am afraid of big dogs”.
“Wondered what your accent was,” said Alastair. “Where are you from?”
“I am from Yorkshire”, said Alina. She put the empty coffee cup down on the seat and the wind swept it away in an instant. One of the dogs lunged after it, barking. Alina pulled her hat down covering her ears which were pierced with tiny gold hoops.
“You don’t sound like a Yorkshire woman” said Moira. “But it’s a lovely accent whatever it is. So are you a tourist? It’s the wrong time of year for a holiday”. The woman laughed revealing a broken front tooth.
“I am not on holiday, I do not believe in holidays. I am looking for my daughter”, said Alina.
She produced a photograph from her coat pocket and held it out to Moira. It showed a teenage girl with long dark hair wearing a gypsy dress, strings of beads and a serious expression. She was perched on the bonnet of a vintage Land Rover surrounded by moorland. The image was over exposed and faded with age. “She’s called Vita. Do you know her?”
“Golly Moses! I doubt it. Don’t know anyone named Vita. Do you Alastair? That looks like an old picture. My mam had a similar dress when I was a kid. Whereabouts does your daughter stay?”
“I do not have her address”, said Alina. Her pale eyes suddenly brimmed with tears and Moira noticed her cataracts. “I only have this”. She unfolded a crumpled newspaper cutting.
“Disabled artist storms Scotland”, Moira read out loud. “Orkney based Vita Kravchuk launches solo exhibition ‘Making Waves’, An Lanntair, Stornoway, October 2005. Her abstract drawings are inspired by the dramatic seas of the Far North.”
Moira looked closely at the small publicity photograph before passing it to Alastair. “Is that her in the wheelchair?”
Alina’s face contorted. “Yes, she is a cripple. A disappointment but we did our best.”
“My brother is visually impaired,” said Moira, “and he’s just as good as anyone else. Your daughter is obviously talented”.
“It was always art, art, art with Vita. All that modern stuff and fancy ideas. She never wanted anything normal like babies or a steady job. Such a difficult girl.”
“Well, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”, said Moira.
“Pah friends! I do not believe in friends.” Alina rose abruptly and offered a pound coin to Moira. “For the coffee,” she said.
“No money required. The coffee is a small gift from a new friend,” said Moira. “Perhaps we can help you find your girl? We own a guest house in Stromness. You can stay the night with us and tomorrow we’ll take you to the art gallery where someone might know Vita. Alastair can carry your bag. It’s too heavy for a lady your age.”
The ship’s tannoy made a garbled announcement about their imminent arrival on the island. Moira grabbed Alina’s arm. The huskies were circling around and growling.
“No, no, no…” Alina protested, her eyes widening in alarm as she was escorted away.
Alastair interrupted, “Look, a puffin!” He pointed towards the stern.
Looking back, Alina saw a strange bird like a parrot, black and white with a curved orange beak and orange feet. It flapped extended wings in a menacing manner before landing on top of the ship’s emergency lifebuoy. The bird and Alina looked at each other for a long, frozen moment as it’s feathers slowly changed to blue.
“The poet’s job is to translate unspeakable things on to the page…”
“Poets don’t get into poetry for money, they do it for vocation – I feel like that anyway. Poets can touch hearts and minds; they can translate trauma into something people can face. Sometimes there’s a cost for the poet to do that as it takes looking at the trauma right in the face and then allowing others to bear the idea of trauma safely. That’s why I write poetry. Poems are empathy machines.
Racism is a system that keeps propagating itself. It wasn’t the bankers, millionaires or computer magnates we turned to in the crisis – it was the nurses, garbage cleaners, supermarket workers; I hope those people will be valued more.”
My therapist’s room has lofty ceilings and a view across rooftops to the sea. A row of potted geraniums line the sill and a tribal mask hangs over his desk. My therapist says I must remember.
My therapist likes to shop. He’s a snappy dresser. Today he wears orange trousers with a button down shirt in lemon. He sips tea from a turquoise mug. My therapist says I remind him of his dead grandfather.
My therapist composes poetry in his head as he walks along the seafront. He recites a poem about a man sleeping rough outside Habitat. My therapist suggests a poem about planting a seed of anger.
My therapist has green fingers growing houseplants with pink flowers. He displays a cactus with fuschia spikes that remind me of my dead mother. My therapist says I am a rose without thorns.
My therapist has cold sores and doesn’t feel like talking. He missed his train, feels stressed. I suggest homeopathy. He asks how I feel about him. I say he is amazing. We are both wearing yellow jumpers. My therapist says
we are synchronised and sends photos of tulips. My therapist suggests letting go, forgiveness and voluntary work. He says my perception is flawed like rippled glass in a old window pane. My therapist asks, are they out to get you?
Our last session he complains of food poisoning and a dodgy meal in Chinatown. I suggest ginger. My therapist says I have too much empty space in my head, sniggers at my leopard print hoodie. Perhaps you’ve shot yourself in the foot?
Everything is more beautiful in retrospect. Sometime between the sepia past, the grey today and the flash of tomorrow truth slips away unseen, a tangle of electric eels squirming in an underground stream.
We look back and see only clear skies and carefree picnics but never the cold. We look back and feel only tender kisses and the soft caress but never the blows. We look back and remember nothing.
There was nothing but the hunt,
the pain, the struggle, the dark.
She had to keep running. Run!
She could barely recall a time
before the breaking of branches.
She could barely recall her time
of being human, of skin
touching skin and naked picnics
when she gazed boldly at the sun.
In her upright days moss and wild
flowers sprang from her every
footstep, birds sang her every word.
Now she ran on all fours. Run, run!
Her cloven hooves were raw, spiked
by thorns. She was pierced by nine
arrows, fur rank with pus. Venomous.
Calculating. The forest was silent,
a lifeless zodiac of roots and branches.
She could no longer recall her name
or why she had to run. Her lungs failed
and she fell in the shadow of a crippled
tree. As she waited for her joyful exit,
forked lightning unravelled silver
threads of hope across the night sky.
Note:- this is an ekphrastic poem based on Frida Kahlo’s painting shown below.
When it happens, it happens quickly
without fanfare or farewell.
One minute you’re crawling
around the kitchen in search
of crumbs, avoiding His Doc Martens
and dreaming of better things.
to floating face down with tail
between your legs, guts protruding
a sad bloody mess
into the cat’s water bowl. You repeat
your last words in nine different
languages but still no-one hears. Que sera, sera, as Doris would say.
He watched smoke rise up to the winter
moon and realised they no longer
shared this same sky, this frosty air.
Her world was darkness now,
falling stars to catch and hold.
When it happened, it happened quietly,
like the tearing of soft tissue.
When it happened, the shock
was Hitchcockian without violins
or cutting away. A long shot
of detached suburbia zooming
into a shadowed interior.
Her pale face,
smokey eyes looking into a mirror
where no-one was looking back.