Becoming Shelter

Remaining human in wartime.

At first, it was the usual set of former pets in wartime––cats and dogs. She stayed with them as the shelling continued. The ground was shaking, she says, of her arrival. The dogs were tearing holes in the fence with their teeth.

Later, it became clear that there was no one else to watch the turtles, the peacocks––and who would feed the lion? They left a land mine near his cage. She tried bribes. They detonated. The lion lived. They locked her in a room, killed her dog.  She buried Jina under a tree. When they locked her in a room, they told her she would die if she tried to leave. She left the room. It was time to feed the animals. It is always time, she says. Always.

It haunts her, to imagine the noises the horses made, neighing in the burning stables she could not reach. The shelling continues, and she continues here. It doesn’t matter who you protect, she says. You rescue what you can to remain human when war would make you forget.

***

On the work of Asya Serpinska, a seventy-seven-year-old Ukranian woman sheltering over 700 animals in Hostomel, roughly twenty miles northwest of Kyiv.

Embodied Poetics

Years ago, amid a different terror, one concern was a sort of numbness. I remember what the poet said about attention to the senses. This is an act of resistance, he said. To survive the war and still do poetry, this is defiance of the death machine.

It can be done without a pen. You want to know what poetry in motion looks like? The poet asks.  A man walks to safety from an active bombardment zone. . . His two cows walk with him.

I am thinking of this as I am noticing how there comes a point of being saturated with images of shelled buildings, bodies in the street, and I observe the creep of a familiar numbness. I walk from the screen to put my nose in the fur of our cat, run fingertips across my daughter’s watercolor painting. Birds at sunset.  A mind can say live, but a body needs so many reminders, all of them in the senses: this is why, and this, and this.

When I return, it is to celebrate a mother who lost her father the day before the invasion, who drove with her husband under sirens and past tanks, making arrangements until it was time to leave with the children and the dogs. How they left the car to walk the last ten miles, how the walk was hard on the oldest dog, Pulya, who kept falling. How she carried Pulya, how he let himself be carried over her shoulder, with silent acceptance. How the husband stayed behind in a village with no water or food, using firewood to heat the home, tending for the old ones who can’t leave.

It is our love, this woman said, that gives me strength now.

***

Inspired by the wild love of those persisting in the face of horrific violence, and by poet Ilya Kaminsky’s recent observation about poetry in motion, italicized above. I first encountered the story of Alisa Teptiuk, who carried her dog to safety, in this article.

Go Down

Waiting in the dark.

When it came time to hide in the cellars again, in that dark damp we all feared, some would not go. One of the grandmothers said, I’d rather die in my perfectly decorated flat. Whatever moves in the dirty basement she will not enter, it does not scamper like the mice in the attic. What moves here is slow like the drips from the faucet. There are candles, flashlights. Faces glow against the screens before them. Some close their eyes, try to sleep. 

Do they dream? Fitfully. The cellar dreamer knows that the walls of the cellar are buried walls, with the entire earth behind them. Tell me, where is the fear that does not become exaggerated? The cellar becomes buried madness, walled-in tragedy. When they say take shelter, we wait.

***

The grandmother’s protest is a reference to Nika Melkozerova’s recent guest essay in the New York Times. Other italicized lines are from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.