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“Composing a Country”

“Composing a Country”

Here is a country. It remembers Chernobyl, the Holodomor,
Babyn Yar, dissidents, the light-up red star
—Iya Kiva, poet, living in Kyiv, from one of her war poems*

The Rus’ people came from the Norse
settling and ruling the river routes,
trade routes, fortresses, market
places, portages between the
Baltic and Black Seas. They spoke
Old Norse, they comingled with the
Slavic and other tribes, began speaking
an Old East Slavic tongue. The runestones
of Scandinavia tell the tales of these Viking
adventures, one inscribed  “he fell in battle/
in the east in Kievan Rus/commander of
the retinue/the best of landholders.” Then
came the Golden Horde of Mongol stock,
the Cossacks too, the Lithuanians and
Polish, the tug and pull of east to west
that suggest a possible meaning of its
very name, Ukraine, “borderland.”

Now they are the young couple insisting
to be married while sirens sound the invasion
all around, then as soon as they are wed, their pledge
together taken to the Territorial Defense Force,
Kalashnikovs in hand; the great grandmother
in Mariupol, ready she defiantly states to defend
my home, my city, my children. The comedian
turned president turned heroic leader who
stands steadfastly in a street in Kyiv
amidst resplendent structures there
declaring in a video selfie “I am here”
“our weapon is truth”—so too, the multitudes
who will spend yet another night sheltering
in subway stations.

*opening of a poem written August 29, 2014 the day of the battle of Ilovaisk in the Donbass region, during which 366 Ukrainian soldiers were killed; translated and published in Literary Hub. 

We all have a stake in this. My ancestral home is Riga Latvia some 600 miles from Kyiv (my paternal grandfather arrived in America from Riga at the age of 3 in 1886, and my maternal grandmother is from Priluki Ukraine). Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signals an ensuing struggle of autocracy vs. democracy, pax Americana, as pax Romana which preceded, seemingly a thing of the past. What makes a country, a nation? While not an easy question, common culture, background, language all certainly play their part. The idea of the nation-state itself is relatively new on the stage of history. Regardless of the complexities of defining nationhood, all must consider the ramifications of what happens in Ukraine on the world order. For further reading: “A New Cold War Emerging…”

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