Poems in Response to Peril: An Anthology in Support of Ukraine, eds. Penn Kemp and
Laughing Raven Press, 2022
At some point, I knew the war would call me forth, out of myself, and hold me, my poetry, my writing, my voice to account. The immersive experience of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (now in its one hundredth day at the time of this writing) has pushed well beyond the television screen, overwhelmingly filling up all the information networks I traverse, including neighbourhood flags, t-shirts, profile pics, bus top advertising, and so on. There was a moment, before the most recent wave of American mass shootings, when the Canada-sized Ukraine loomed as large in the global imagination as any nation. My local’s imagination certainly engaged heavily with the story. It was, I believe, on the same day that I saw the third yellow and blue cupcake sale in my neighbourhood that my friends posted clips of Ukrainian refugees doing TikTok videos about Tim Hortons in my Twitter Feed. The boundaries of this conflict had moved far beyond the abstraction of being over there. Its presence here, though, remained couched in the parameters of augmented reality. It was as if we (and by we I mean all those not there who were yet pulled into the vortex) had a layer of total destruction added on top of our reality, providing glimpses of shared precarity. This is a story for all underdogs who feel surrounded by wolves. Canadians have always whispered musings on the cause of the next American invasion, but this conflict, this imagined precarity, was not a musing,—even while Facebook videos of farmers stealing tanks was deeply amusing. It was an identification of a shared peril. This was Benedict Anderson’s imagined community writ large across all information platforms, and I felt within myself a peril from which I was, by all practical measures, entirely safe.
From a similar vantage and desire to engage despite the distance, Penn Kemp and Richard-Yves Sitoski have collected a range of poets writing in response to this peril. 48 poets in all appear in Poems in Response to Peril, writing from outside the war, struggling to make sense of our simultaneous proximity and distance from the conflict. In the poems, the predictable, heavily-mediated symbols of the conflict appear, such as the sunflower, the soldier cursing out a Russian warship, heroic moments of resistance, the detritus of urban architecture destroyed, and moments or echoes of the Ukrainian flag in various landscapes. The few poems of patriotic bravado and Calls to Arms (see, for instance, Jay Yair Brodbar’s call for more “ammo ammo ammo” instead of thoughts & prayers (27), or Celeste Nazeli Snowber’s poems celebrating “Captain Ukraine” and Putin’s anticipated death (94-5)) are also, in their way, predictable responses to conflict. “Right over might! / This is our land!” writes Canadian prairie born and raised Shelly Siskind (90). What strikes me about this book more than vicarious patriotism is the apperception by which this conflict becomes recognized as “our” fight, as simultaneously also occurring in Canada – whether by proxy, mediation, internalization, parasocial interaction, or some other mechanism. Many of the 61 poems in the collection wrestle with this paradox, the obvious distance and intense feeling of involvement. Some even claim poetry as the empathic bridge through which the association is made. Thus, R L Raymond concludes his entry, called “Apathetic Fallacy,” with an immersive image: “All around the fire ate the world / smug in its inevitability” (76). Is this smug inevitability through which we are drawn into association and involuntary involvement a fallacy, though? Or is it a condition of something else, 21st century media saturation, for instance? Peril, then, spreads from the initial conflict over there to the mechanisms of the vortex that pulls us into its violence.
Antoinette Voute Roeder draws a line between the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine and the anti-vax invasion and occupation of Ottawa (83). It’s an exaggerated if not insensitive comparison but her poem, “No Words”, ultimately addresses the failure of poetry, of rationale discourse, to stop a parallel descent into the unmitigated calumny of democracy. Armand Garnet Ruffo reaches a similar conclusion about the ineffectiveness of prayer (85). Kate Braid, too, laments the feeling of powerlessness: “What can any one person do?” (26). Her poem effects a turn, though, and declares “the force of our love” as a legitimate “power” to help “survivors”. Poetry is a vehicle for this love. This is a recurring theme of the book—not necessarily such declarative statements about poetry’s “power” but, in fact, the more pointed question of what power Canadian poetry might offer those in conflict zones. Katerina Vaughan Fretwell begins her poem “I can’t imagine” the atrocities over there before, well, proceeding to imagine them (35). Robert Girvan offers “13ish Ways Poems Make Something Happen”, as if poetry were a blackbird. In fact, by his logic, poetry might as well be a blackbird, as the vague, warbling creature he describes is “rarely surprised” yet feels “useless” against physical violence (36-7). His one concrete “something” is that “poetry shows the pity / and the horror of war.” The recurrent note across the collection is of poets seeking a role for themselves and their art in the conflict. Tanis MacDonald seems almost in despair at the disconnect between the affect of the war and its negligible impact on her daily life (54-5).
There is a particularly gripping sequence in the middle of the book that takes this discordance as its subject, starting with Karl Jirgens’ sketch of the passivity and distortions of the moment: “We read words, listen to reports, wonder. / Recognize. Blunder through half-truths. / Broken syllables.” (43). The anxiety of the conflict over there smashes the public discourse over here in a way that leaves his speaker gasping for what remains of a broken language. The anxiety of the conflict over there elevates the pre-existing anxieties of here: “frailties within our frailties, / echoing who/what we are” (44). Patricia Keeney attends to the fraught mediation of the war, and the “nullifying screen” that “compromises us” as we “cuddle” and “watch war” (45). She instructs her readers to turn off the screen and “listen to words”, offering poetry as some kind of remedy (against what, exactly, remains unclear as the violence persists). Editor Penn Kemp’s two poems draw out the absurdity of poems against war (“As / if words could work” (47)) while meditating on the intimacy of mediated participation: “What could be more intimate than / constant streaming on our screens” (49). The screen becomes a troubling extension of our bodies, an in-tension that internalizes the war and scars the body from the inside. She calls this “intimate intimidation”, a lovely play on words that highlights simultaneous passivity and participation of over-mediated environments. What is left to do? “Send money,” she shrugs.
The Dreadful haunts these poems. Images of violence and brutality speckle the lines, but the reluctance of these images reveals that, ultimately, this collection is not a series of poems by poets against the war, nor poets necessarily against war. Various poems draw lines between other conflicts from pogroms to Afghanistan, Sarajevo to Byzantium, recognizing Ukraine within the folds of personal and global histories, almost fable like as Gary Barwin’s contribution suggests. It is an inconstant meditation on what poetry has to do with war, particularly this war. Poetry is, as many of the writers remind, the moment between action, the bond of silence between cries. That bond, however intangible, is both a force and a bedrock of relation between distant people which language can bridge. This is, in the end, a book written, irrespective of war, “to the poets of Ukraine” (xiv), and a reminder of a wider community of creativity that assembles around the opposite of The Dreadful, which may or may not be the poem, itself.
Gregory Betts is an experimental poet with collections published in Canada, the United States, Australia, and Ireland. He is most acknowledged for If Language (2005), the world’s first collection of paragraph-length anagrams, and The Others Raisd in Me (2009), 150 poems carved out of Shakespeare’s sonnet 150. His other books explore conceptual, collaborative, and concrete poetics. He has performed these works hundreds of times in many countries, including at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games as part of the “Cultural Olympiad.” He is a professor of Canadian and Avant-Garde Literature at Brock University, where he has produced two of the most exhaustive academic studies of avant-garde writing in Canada, Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations (2013—shortlisted finalist for the Gabrielle Roy Prize) and Finding Nothing: The VanGardes, 1959-1975 (2021—winner of the Basil Stuart-Stubbs Prize and the 2021 Gabrielle Roy Prize), both with University of Toronto Press. His most recent book is Foundry (2021), a collection of visual poems inspired by a font named after a 15th century poet. He lives in St. Catharines, Ontario.