Before the War, I Was
A couple of weeks ago, I logged into Zoom to join a poetry reading. A pair of US-based translators, whose tireless efforts to promote Ukrainian poetry have brought us together, titled the event “Before the War, I Was a Poet”. This seemed highly appropriate, considering that Ukrainian poets who were presenting their work there have scarcely had any time to write since the war’s recent escalation in late February of this year. Despite being displaced from their homes and in many cases facing imminent danger, most of them spent their days raising funds to buy military equipment for the Ukrainian fighters, coordinating the evacuation of civilians and helping them find new temporary homes, collecting and delivering humanitarian aid and medical supplies, and doing a myriad other things that left them with dark circles under their eyes and with exhausted, if genuinely warm, smiles now gracing their faces on the Zoom screen.
Many of them were now based in Lviv, a prominent cultural hub in the west of Ukraine, having relocated there from their homes in other regions of the country when it became too dangerous to stay. Others scattered around Europe, particularly in neighbouring Poland – “closer to home,” as one friend noted, “so that we can get back as soon as the situation improves”. For some of them, this was not the first time the war forced them out of their homes. Poets like Anna Gruver and Iya Kiva have previously had to leave their native region of Donbas in 2014, when it became the object of fierce contestation between the Russia-backed militias and Ukrainian troops. Now, they were fleeing northern and central Ukraine where they had built their new lives in exile as they were, once again, woken up in the middle of the night by the sounds of explosions and artillery shelling.
Looking at these familiar faces and listening to their voices, I felt a sense of confusion mixed with guilt. While my fellow poets were sitting in front of their laptops in Poland and Ukraine, I was across the globe, in my home in Nanjing, China, where it was already well past midnight. Unlike my colleagues, I was under no threat from Russian bombs (“An air raid siren might go off,” remarked one of our Lviv participants mildly, “I might need to dash off to the bomb shelter if that happens, so in that case, we will shuffle our reading order.”). Unlike their children, my daughter, by then sleeping peacefully in the room next door, was in no danger of having to flee her home hastily, leaving behind her favourite toys and drawings. This stood in stark contrast with the lived reality of millions of people in Ukraine. My friends, a young family of writers, who evacuated Bucha, were later sent videos showing their home vandalized by Russian troops. Another friend, an artist who fled to Poland with her daughter, cried looking at the pictures of their family house in Borodianka, where the invaders walked all over their beds in dirty boots and used children’s books and drawings to light the stove. In my cozy Nanjing apartment, a clock was ticking peacefully, and my cat was curled in my lap. My safety was priceless and precious. My safety was shameful and sickening.
I am far from being the only one feeling this way. Many fellow Ukrainians living abroad have experienced the same sense of helplessness and frustration, blaming themselves for being far away while their country is struggling with an unprecedented crisis. From the UK and Ireland to the United States and South Africa, my friends – writers, artists, and academics – would voice worries and fears identical to mine: the feeling that they were not doing enough to help their country and people (despite the fact that most -if not all- were volunteering remotely in one way or the other); deep worry about loved ones, family and friends, who could not leave Ukraine or decided not to do so, and hence remained in danger; a burning desire to disregard everything and travel back home, even if, for many years, home had been somewhere else; and, perhaps most commonly, a feeling of guilt for leading comfortable lives when so many people were having their world turned upside down. At the online workshop organised by the Fulbright Program in Ukraine, which aimed at helping Ukrainians abroad understand their experience of the war, psychologist Marta Pryriz described this complex mix of feelings as “survivor's guilt”. Enjoying simple things has proven to be a particularly difficult task: riding a bike in the park, laughing at a friend’s joke, taking a bite of a fresh baguette would immediately trigger the sense that feeling happy is wrong when, thousands of miles away, people endure unimaginable suffering.
When I speak about this to my partner who is now in Ukraine, I get a gentle but firm telling-off every time. “There is a lot to be done to help”, she reminds me, “even if one is far away from the events on the ground”. She tells me to keep writing my poetry and to keep working on my research, to take good care of my daughter and my cat, to remember to sleep and to eat. She, herself, is coordinating a vast volunteer network from her home and is earning new professional certifications crouched with her laptop in the bomb shelter. One of the most striking revelations brought about by experiencing war, either directly or indirectly, seems to be that life goes on no matter how the horrors of the conflict twist and warp people’s reality. My mother’s cousins in the constantly bombarded city of Kharkiv continue going to work every day. My father and brother, both volunteers in the local defense forces in Kyiv, play checkers with their buddies between the shifts. My friend reads goodnight stories to her youngest son before they go to sleep on the corridor floor of their apartment – it is the safest part in case of air raids.
I look out of my kitchen window and see Chinese boys, armed with toy guns, loudly pew-pewing their way around our compound. They are playing war.
Selected poems from the Kyiv - Nanjing cycle of poems
in my no-matter-what-country
a woman who shall remain nameless awaits spring and war
she pulls our common future from the closet tries it on in the mirror smiles
and only when the air-raid sirens go off in the background does her smile fade
she reluctantly lowers her hands takes off our future hides it in the closet sits out the airstrike on the bathroom floor
not the right season
4. wooden gods
what did you know my little wooden gods my cunning golden foxes
when my flight left behind the gray-black-red November field beyond Boryspil the mirror patches of autumn water
what did you see from your dusty place on my bookshelf when I brought you pinecones leaves pebbles to thank you for
I thought a new job a successful relocation the visa finally issued but apparently it was
for an evening without shooting for a city without tanks for the fact that my almost eighteen-year-old
won’t have to kill anyone won’t have to die
8. while you sleep
it’s easier for me when you sleep because it seems to me that while you sleep you can’t die
after all, asleep, you’re already so close to the other world where there’s no shooting anymore
and also because while you sleep I’m not asleep and so in some sense I’m standing guard
if not guarding you (you’re so far away) then this day this light
six hours ahead I carry this morning sun like a banner that waves
over the land of the living and the land of the dead
their border guards have hung their rifles in the trees and lie down lazily in the grass
these two countries have not yet severed diplomatic ties
10. a bun
by the river, a bun in my hands I pretend death doesn’t exist
spring is coming buzzing over plum trees spring is coming it’s already spring in nanjing the columns are moving toward kyiv military columns on the river, a bun in my hands I pretend death doesn’t exist
but death is coming and death is buzzing over plum trees over cherries and quince the ruthless stinging of metal bees spring is coming it’s already spring in nanjing the columns move toward kyiv military columns
I read the news feed cry straight into my bun
12. your own
at first glance every bombed house in the photo looks like your own
every child sleeping in the kyiv metro has the face of your daughter
the news doesn’t happen to us happens to us
the woman in the photo desperate palm covering her twisted weeping mouth
i don’t know this woman
i know this woman
The poems above were translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk, in consultation with the author and were first published on Literary Hub.
Iryna Shuvalova  is a poet, scholar, and translator. She has published five award-winning poetry collections and co-edited the first queer anthology in Ukraine. Her poems are available in 16 languages.