Strangely Rosy: Reading Poetry in Wartime

ASEEES Board President Joan Neuberger penned an article on March 16, 2022, that began:

I spent most of my life not reading poetry. Right now it’s the only language that makes sense to me.

But I can’t write poetry, so I don’t have the words I need to talk about the subject that preoccupies all of us: the vicious, criminal, irrational Russian war on Ukraine and the lies that the Russian government is using to justify its plunder and murder.

And my familiar historical voice – narrative, engaged, analytical – appears to have fled. As if it wants to escape the carnage, the need to understand and explain, the tangled complications that come with loving and identifying in some way with this whole region.

Some of my colleagues in History and Political Science do have words, though, and I am full of admiration for people who have managed to pull their thoughts together to say something important about these incomprehensible events as they unfold, something to counter the Russian government’s lies: Francine Hirsch on memory politics and war crimes; Mark Edele on Putin’s paranoia; Victoria Smolkin, Rebecca Adeline Johnston, and Matthew Lenoe on Putin’s and Medinsky’s nationalist-fantasy history; Rory Finnin on misunderstanding Ukraine; John Connelly on Ukrainian democracy and Russian empire; Nicholas Mulder on sanctions; Hilary Lynd and Adam Tooze on the view from Africa; Sasha Razor on the view from Belarus; Maksim Trudolyubov and Tony Wood on “how to lose a war by starting one”; Keith Gessen on “how we got here”; and the many daily observations and acts of witness appearing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Magazine, and elsewhere.

When I say I can’t write about this, I know it’s a dodge. It’s my job to explain things about Russia and its various incarnations of empire. I know how to do that, and I’ve been doing it for a long time. I consider scholarship to be as necessary as anything humans do, and I’ll defend the most arcane academic writing and the most accessible publicfacing scholarship. But, in this moment, analysis seems to me to be somehow incomprehensible and profoundly unsatisfying. This is, perhaps, not terribly surprising coming from someone who thinks that a troubled, and censored, and unfinished movie tells us as much about Stalin and Stalinism as anything else we have.

I’m not alone though.

Here is the prolific Ukrainian writer, Andrey Kurkov, in The Guardian:

“I have long since run out of words to describe the horror brought by Putin to Ukrainian soil. …It’s the time of year to prepare the fields for sowing, but this work is not being done. The soil of the wheat fields is full of metal – fragments of shells, pieces of blown-up tanks and cars, the remains of downed planes and helicopters. And it’s all covered in blood. The blood of Russian soldiers who do not understand what they are fighting for, and the blood of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who know that if they do not fight, Ukraine will no longer exist. In its place there will be a cemetery with a caretaker’s hut and some kind of governor general sent from Russia will sit and guard it.”

And on Twitter, Nika Melkozerova, the stalwart Ukrainian journalist, writes:

“I am one of 2 million people left in Kyiv, once a busy vibrant city of more than 4 million. Now it is almost empty. Ravens have become so loud. People are silent, sad and polite. It’s the 18th day of Russia’s war against Ukraine. And I can’t digest how the world let this happen.”

I have been reading about this region of the world since I was a teenager. Since February 24, I’ve been reading all day long and well into the night, what seem to be genuinely insightful essays by scholars I admire, and I still can’t digest how the world let this happen. Russia’s war on Ukraine feels both very close and very far away.

So poetry...

The remainder of this beautiful article, laid out to be read on a phone or smaller device can be found here.  For the entire March 2022 NewsNet including links to sources cited by Professor Neuberger, please click here