Thursday 6 June 2024

Review by Peter Raynard of "Still City: Diary of an Invasion" by Oksana Maksymchuk

There has never been a time of global peace; the nearest was the two hundred year Pax Romana (Roman Peace) at the crossover into the Common Era. Today sadly, after millennia of technological and social progress, wars still abound, whether in Sub-Saharan Africa, Myanmar, or Gaza, Syria, Yemen of the Middle East. Then there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine over two years ago and its continuation of almost WW1-like trench conflict, where unknown thousands of young men die in combat at the whim of the autocrat Putin.

The Polish American poet Czesław Miłosz criticised a vein of poetry that divorced the poet from society. Urging a poetic that was witness to history (which for him was the dehumanising effect of Soviet totalitarianism in Poland post-World War Two), he called it the Witness of Poetry, not ‘because we witness it, but because it witnesses us,’ inferring that because of his experience in Eastern Europe’s upheavals, he is both witness and citizen.

Oksana Maksymchuk is also both witness and citizen. By being so, the urgency and historicity of Still City: Diary of an Invasion (with no daily dates), punches the reader with each entry. There are many dimensions within the experience of modern warfare, for example being both a land war and a digital war.

Friends of friends have died
on the front line
locked up in cellars
buried alive
in their own beds

We mourn them online

There is a deep ricochet of disbelief in what is happening, not knowing how long it will last. Separation is a key theme throughout: ‘he sends a picture of his classroom, desks / abandoned in haste.’ The normality of the past is a haunting in the present, which changes the nature of time (another key theme): ‘was it / years or days ago / that we read our poems / in an underground gallery?’ Life becomes subterranean, so you lose sight of what is going on.

Of course death is ever present, in reality and fiction.

Some say it didn’t happen
others that it was staged
corpses from the morgue
laid out
for an exhibition

In the poem ‘Blank Pages’, she references Hegel’s ‘History is not the soil in which happiness grows. The periods of happiness in it are the blank pages of history.’ History is thus reduced to either a blank page marking peacetime, or in this case filled pages of horror and destruction.

So you cling to the idea of the old normality, when the present is trying to erase it, replacing it to the point where the invasion becomes ‘the unspeakable.’ So we must be glad that Maksymchuk, as witness and citizen, has spoken, and filled these vital pages of history.

About the Reviewer
Peter Raynard is a poet, and editor of Proletarian Poetry: Poems of Working Class Lives. His latest collection is Manland (Nine Arches Press, 2022). His debut poetry pamphlet, The Harlot and the Rake: Poems after William Hogarth, and academic essay on the poetry of Fred Voss and Martin Hayes, are both forthcoming in 2024.

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