March 7, 2022

Two poems, one perspective

I’ve struggled to process my emotional response to the Russian-driven war in Ukraine. Both of these poems were republished in The New York Times this month, and both capture some piece of my emotional puzzle: the relative privilege of observing a war up close but from afar.

It will be many years until we can fully understand the extent of human suffering this war has wrought. If anything, I’m grateful for the journalists and residents who have made it raw for all of us. And I hope that we can shift our expanded empathetic lens to include refugees from Syria and Central America, trans children in Texas, Uyghurs in China, and more.

We Lived Happily During the War

by Ilya Kaminsky

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

protested
but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house —

I took a chair outside and watched the sun.

In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

Musée des Beaux Arts
by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.