Poet's Corner VIII: Ukraine
Updated: Apr 26
with Audrey Ardern-Jones
A new audio recording and crop of poems and images from Audrey Ardern-Jones drops into The Hub's in box. This time on a subject, no doubt, we are all struggling to deal with.
The war in Ukraine with its senseless loss of life, displaced refugees and destroyed communities is a tough watch. As Audrey says, the scenes recall past invasions by Soviet troops on European soil we hoped never to see again. The Warsaw Pact invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Audrey presents three poems to reflect this sad moment. White Roses (for my mother) is a deeply personal account of Audrey's Lwów-born mother's Second World War experience. The poem charts a traumatic response to sudden displacement, loss of family and refugee flight to a new life in England. Poet's Corner VI: January contains another tribute to Audrey's mother.
Lwów was annexed from Poland by the Soviets following The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in August 1939. A one-two punch invasion of Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union followed, triggering the Second World War. Now called Lviv, the city is in western Ukraine 70km from the Polish border. Lviv was struck by Russian missiles on Easter Monday, 2022.
I Will Live and Survive is by Irina Ratushinskaya, a Soviet poet born in Odessa, Ukraine who was sentenced to seven years hard labour in the 80s merely for writing poetry. Testament is a statement of nationalist pride by nineteenth century Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko. His literary heritage is regarded as "the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature and, to a large extent, the modern Ukrainian language".
You can read the three poems, and The Hub's background info, and listen to Audrey discuss and read her choices, below.
(for my mother)
Image: A painting of Lwów/Lviv bought by Audrey on a 2018 visit /
Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
She never spoke about her early life in Lwów,
She told me about shocks that numbed the pain,
how she left at midnight, a last minute tip-off,
escaping under sheets in pelting ice-cold rain.
She told me about ECT that numbed the pain,
she left without giving a kiss to her mother,
escaping under sheets in pelting ice-cold rain
fearful about the fate of her missing brother:
She left without giving a kiss to her mother,
rushed outside by her father, no time to pack,
fearful about the fate of her missing brother,
a young trainee doctor who never came back.
Rushed outside by her father, no time to pack,
She fled a flowerless city where thousands died,
a young trainee doctor who never came back,
she said a rosary at night, lit a candle and cried.
She fled a flowerless city where thousands died,
she’d high cheek bones, blue eyes, blonde hair,
she said a rosary at night, lit a candle and cried
no mementos of her family to help the despair.
She’d high cheekbones, blue eyes, blonde hair,
she said a rosary at night, lit a candle and cried,
no mementos of her family to help the despair,
she never spoke about her early life in Lwów.
by Audrey Ardern-Jones
Published in 2019 by Indigo Dreams in Doing the Rounds
I Will Live and Survive
Picture: The front cover of "No, I'm Not Afraid" by Soviet poet Irina Ratushinskaya
/ Credit: Bloodaxe Books
I will live and survive and be asked: How they slammed my head against a trestle, How I had to freeze at nights, How my hair started to turn grey … But I’ll smile. And will crack some joke And brush away the encroaching shadow. And I will render homage to the dry September That became my second birth. And I’ll be asked: “Doesn’t it hurt you to remember?” Not being deceived by my outward flippancy. But the former names will detonate my memory — Magnificent as old cannon. And I will tell of the best people in all the earth, The most tender, but also the most invincible, How they said farewell, how they went to be tortured, How they waited for letters from their loved ones. And I’ll be asked: what helped us to live When there were neither letters nor any news – only walls, And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. And I will tell of the first beauty I saw in captivity. A frost-covered window! No spy-holes, nor walls, Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain — Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass, A cast pattern- none more beautiful could be dreamt! The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed Those brigand forests, campfires and birds! And how many times there was bitter cold weather And how many windows sparkled after that one — But never was it repeated, That upheaval of rainbow ice! And anyway, what good would it be to me now, And what would be the pretext for the festival? Such a gift can only be received once, And perhaps is only needed once.
by Irina Ratushinskaya
Picture: Taras Shevchenko photographed in April, 1858
When I am dead, bury me In my beloved Ukraine, My tomb upon a grave mound high Amid the spreading plain, So that the fields, the boundless steppes, The Dnieper's plunging shore My eyes could see, my ears could hear The mighty river roar. When from Ukraine the Dnieper bears Into the deep blue sea The blood of foes... then will I leave These hills and fertile fields— I'll leave them all and fly away To the abode of God, And then I'll pray.... But until that day I know nothing of God. Oh bury me, then rise ye up And break your heavy chains And water with the tyrants' blood The freedom you have gained. And in the great new family, The family of the free, With softly spoken, kindly word Remember also me.
by Taras Shevchenko Translated by John Weir, Toronto, 1961
Source: Taras Shevchenko, Selected Poetry and Prose, p.198. Published in 1977 by Progress Publishers.
Listen to Audrey
Picture Gallery: Lwów/Lviv - Left: City centre;
Middle: Audrey (right) with her brother Oliver and sister Nicky outside their mother's home /
Right: The building where Audrey's mother lived / Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
White Roses (for my mother)
A three-part poetic reflection on the Russian invasion of the Ukraine begins with Audrey recalling the Second World War experience of her mother, from Lwów in then eastern Poland.
On 23 August 1939, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop signed a non-aggression pact. Dubbed The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the accord was signed in the Kremlin, Moscow in the presence of Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.
On 1st September, 1939 the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland from the west. The Polish army retreated, regrouping east, near Lwów, in eastern Galicia, attempting to escape relentless German land and air offensives. Only to be met by the Red Army invading from the east.
A secret clause of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that became public in 1990, gave the USSR a chunk of Poland’s eastern region. The “reason” was Russia came to the aid of its Slavic “blood brothers,” the Ukrainians and Byelorussians, who had been annexed by Poland after the Polish-Ukrainian War (1918-1919).
On 22 September 1939, Lwów capitulated to the Red Army.The Soviets occupied three-fifths of Poland, including Lwów, and 13 million of its people after the invasion. In September 2021, the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted the Soviet's actions were a "march of liberation".
Picture: German and Soviet soldiers meeting during their joint invasion of Poland
/ Credit: Soviet news agency TASS, October 1939
On 22 June 1941, Hitler abruptly broke the German-Soviet accord, to Stalin's profound surprise and shock, by launching Operation Barbarossa, the Third Reich's invasion of the USSR. On 30 June 1941, Lwów was taken by the Germans. The departing Soviets killed most of the prison population with the Wehrmacht finding evidence of mass murders by NKVD and NKGB secret forces.
Ukrainian nationalists organised as a militia by the Germans, and the civilian population, were "allowed to take revenge" on the "Jews and the Bolsheviks". Resulting in the deaths of 4,000 to 10,000 Jews in Lwów and the surrounding region.
It is against this terrifying backdrop of the turmoil of war that Audrey's poem White Roses (for my mother) charts the personal drama of her mother's abrupt departure from the family home in Lwów. Inevitably, the departure would have a lasting impact on her mother's emotional wellbeing.
In the audio below, Audrey says white roses reflect a Polish tradition of giving flowers particularly for someone who has died. The poem is written in the form of a pantoum - a Malaysian verse form adapted by French poets and occasionally imitated in English.
Pantoums comprise a series of quatrains, with the second and fourth lines of each quatrain repeated as the first and third lines of the next. The second and fourth lines of the final stanza repeat the first and third lines of the first stanza.
I Will Live and Survive
Picture: "Obit - Irina Ratushinskaya in 1982. In her prison poetry she was able to capture the atmosphere of the (Soviet labour) camp in a remarkable way, finding joy in the simplest experience." / Credit: Jane Bown/The Observer
In 1982, Irina Ratushinskaya (1954-2017) a Soviet-era poet born in Odessa, Ukraine was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp and 5 years of internal exile for “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime”. Her crime, says Audrey was "simply to write" and publish poetry.
Ratushinskaya was allowed to defect from the Soviet Union in 1986 under the relaxed regime of Mikhail Gorbachev. A 1987 interview with Christian Science Monitor details how Ratushinskaya wrote poetry in a labour camp:
"Irina Ratushinskaya whiled away the hours in a Soviet women's labor camp scratching out poetry with a matchstick on a bar of soap. She committed the verse to memory, then washed it away. After all, writing poetry was one of the offenses that led to her imprisonment in the first place - especially because some of the poems were about God, freedom, and the consequences of the denial of both.
Through freezing winters, months in isolation cells, and the numbing regimen of prison-camp life, the poetry sustained her. During more than four years in confinement, she wrote - and remembered - some 150 poems."
Ratushinskaya travelled to the UK in the early 90s when Audrey recalls being "lucky enough to hear her read" at the Albert Hall, London. For this episode of Poet's Corner Audrey has chosen a "powerful and beautiful poem from a wonderful book", I Will Live and Survive from No, I'm Not Afraid published by Bloodaxe Books in 1986.
Image: Taras Shevchenko 1814-1861 / Credit: Idler Book of the Week
Time determines how we perceive a piece of writing. These words are posted on the website of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko Museum in Toronto, Ontario. Written before the Russian invasion of the Ukraine the words have an additional significance in the midst of war.
"Shevchenko dreamed of a Ukraine that would be free of the stifling rule and censorship of the Russian Tsarist Imperial government. Some of Shevchenko's works were also censored by the Soviet Union.
Now that Ukraine has been independent since August 24, 1991 does Shevchenko's poetry still hold any interest for the modern reader? Indeed it does, because Shevchenko was not only a national poet of Ukraine he was also a universal poet. He defended the rights of all peoples to freedom, of human dignity, of women, of Jews, and stressed the importance of education, tradition and heritage.
In addition, the renaissance of the Ukrainian language now in progress since 1991 is a tribute to Shevchenko's role as the founder of the modern literary Ukrainian language. "
The museum's Short Biography of Shevchenko begins and ends:
"Taras Hryhorovych Shevchenko, the great Ukrainian poet, writer, artist, and public and political figure, was born on March 9, 1814, in the village of Moryntsi, Kyiv gubernia, in the Russian Empire (today Ukraine). His parents, Kateryna and Hryhoriy, were serfs on the land of Vasiliy Engelhardt.
His grandfather, who had witnessed peasant uprisings, had a significant influence on the young boy. Taras's literate father, sent his son to apprentice with, and be educated by, a deacon. In 1823, his mother died, followed by his father in 1825. For some time, little Taras served as a houseboy and was already showing a talent for drawing. At fourteen, he became a domestic servant to Pavlo Engelhardt who had inherited the estate from his father, Vasiliy...
Image: Taras Shevchenko Receiving Release from Serfdom,
an oil painting by Petro Sulimenko / Credit: www.shevchenko.ca
...The poet was first buried at the Smolensk Cemetery in St. Petersburg. Immediately, his friends undertook to fulfill his wish expressed in Zapovit (Testament) to bury him in Ukraine. The coffin with Shevchenko’s body was taken by train to Moscow, and then by horse-drawn wagon to Ukraine.
Shevchenko's remains entered Kyiv on the evening of May 18, 1861, and on May 20 they were transferred to the steamship Kremenchuk which took Shevchenko's remains to Kaniv where on May 22, 1861, Taras was buried on Chernecha Hill (now Taras Hill) by the Dnipro River.
A tall mound was erected over his grave, and has become a sacred site for the Ukrainian people."
Describing Shevchenko's poem Testament, Audrey says it is"a love poem to the Ukraine. It makes me want to cry when I read it." You can listen to Audrey discussing and reading three poems reflecting Russia's invasion of the Ukraine by clicking on the link below.
A Poet with an Artist's Painterly Sensibility
Audrey Ardern-Jones at the summer 2021 unveiling of the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial in Epsom's market square where Audrey read her poem 'Tattenham Corner' about Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison's last moments / Credit: Audrey Ardern-Jones
“Ardern-Jones is a poet with an artist’s painterly sensibility, a musician’s fine ear, a nurse’s affinity for strangers and their plight. Poems for the ear, poems of language – Polish and Bemba, Portuguese and English. An intelligent, finely crafted poetry of curiosity and caring, of listening and loving, of humour and hope.” Paul Stephenson, an award winning poet and blogger, podcaster and co-curator of Poetry in Aldeburgh and teacher at the Poetry School, who interviews poets on their first collections.
Audrey Ardern-Jones spent her childhood in Africa (Lusaka, Zambia) where her English father and Polish mother were posted. She’s enjoyed a wonderful nursing career, specialising in cancer genetics. Audrey has always loved the Arts and founded The Poetry & Music Ensemble in 1984.
Her poems are widely published and have won prizes or been commended in international competitions. Currently, she is Artist in Residence at The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and is an active supporter of poetry projects in her community of Epsom & Ewell.
Credit: Indigo Dreams Publishing Ltd.
The publisher's link takes you to Doing The Rounds, Audrey's collection of poems. "This collection touches on the poet's childhood memories of living in Africa - her feelings of being in awe of so much and yet uncertain about many of the happenings. Most of her travel poems in India relate to incidents that have made her question herself - some of the poems about her Polish mother and her suffering post WW2 echo throughout the collection."