Zhadan and Betts: Poetry’s Transformative Power and Bearing Witness in Times of War
Yale historian Marci Shore recently facilitated a letter exchange between two unlikely dialogue partners—namely, between American poet Reginald Dwayne Betts and Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan. Before discussing and reflecting on the correspondence between these two poets (now published as “Holding a Gun” in The New York Review), I offer an introductory sketch of their respective lives and their creative as well as social and political work, which for both poets are not rigid categories but activities that mutually influence one another.
Betts became a poet while serving time for armed carjacking, which he committed at age 16 and was subsequently prosecuted and sentenced as an adult. Through the activities of reading and writing, Betts’ life was radically transformed. In fact, he credits Dudley Randall’s book, The Black Poets, as having opened up to him a world of poets that inspired him to believe that “words can be carved into a kind of freedom.” After serving his time, Betts earned several degrees including a J.D. from Yale Law School and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in law at Yale University. Not only is Betts a prolific writer, whose his poems, articles, and books have won prestigious academic and literary awards, but he also works as a practicing lawyer and devotes his time to serving as a social activist for prison reform. For example, Betts founded Freedom Reads, an organization whose mission is to empower incarcerated persons through literature so that they both “confront what prison does to the spirit” and “imagine new possibilities for their lives.”
Serhiy Zhadan is a Ukrainian poet, novelist, translator, rock star, and political activist, who has written poignant and moving accounts of the war in Ukraine in its various phases. Zhadan is also a prolific writer, having penned twelve books of poetry and seven novels. His works are internationally recognized, and he has been awarded multiple literary awards, including the Joseph Conrad-Korzeniowski Literary Prize, the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in Switzerland, BBC Ukrainian's “Book of the Decade” award, and the Brücke Berlin Prize (Wikipedia).
Zhadan has been active in Ukrainian politics since his student days and took part in the 2004 Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan protests that irrupted in various cities throughout Ukraine in 2014. Zhadan participated in the protests in Kharkiv, which is in the northeastern part of Ukraine and is its second largest city. The protests in both Kyiv and Kharkiv became violent, as protestors faced bullets in Kyiv and pro-Russian supporters violently attacked protesters in Kharkiv. Zhadan was among those who were beaten; he was hit in the face and head, resulting in injuries that he described as most likely a concussion and a broken nose. (Recounting the incident, Zhadan said that the pro-Russian rioters had demanded that he kneel and kiss the Russian flag, to which he responded: “Go f*** yourselves” and then the beatings came.) The Euromaidan protests—an event-complex later referred to as the Revolution of Dignity—played a decisive role in forcing the resignation of corrupt, Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. Since 2014 Zhadan has been actively involved in providing humanitarian aid to Ukrainians suffering from the War in the Donbass (part of the broader Russo-Ukrainian War), having visited the front-line cities multiple times. Zhadan has continued to provide humanitarian aid to Ukrainians in Kharkiv in the wake of Russia’s expanded, full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine, which started on February 24, 2022.
Turning to Betts’ and Zhadan’s correspondence, I offer a few ethico-hermeneutical reflections. Even though Betts’ time as an incarcerated person was, unequivocally, a dehumanizing and violent experience, Betts’ letter goes to great lengths not to equate his experience with Zhadan’s experience of war. At first, Betts grapples with how to enter into a dialogue with Zhadan about the latter’s experience of war, and this is quite understandable since the two men have never met. More than that fact, however, Betts shows incredible sensitivity to and respect for the particularity of Zhadan’s experiences of the horrors and tragedies of war. As he tries to find a connecting point, Betts writes: “Once I wrote the word bullet but intended to write the word believe. Some unintended slip of thought, a way to say bullets always threaten belief, a way to admit the ways that bullets have always threatened to give us space to ruin all we might love? Bullets weigh little, even the slugs that made the shotgun jump out of my hands. I went to prison for more than eight years and had never fired a weapon.” (“Holding a Gun”) Indeed, the bullets—not to mention the drones, missiles, and bombs—of an aggressor threaten not only belief, but also attempt to destroy hope and the possibility of imagining and creating a new society in which a plurality of humans can flourish and a world in which humans live in harmony with the natural world and non-human animals, respecting the integrity and dignity of human and non-human natural others.
Betts goes on to describe his experience of visiting a shooting range for the first time, which took place several years after his release from prison. This was, in fact, the first time he’d ever fired a gun. Rather than an empowering and transformative experience as certain masculinist narratives would stress, Betts found his visit to the gun range to be completely ordinary, routine, or as he puts it “quotidian”—a word he describes as feeling a bit on the “obnoxious” side "unless it’s true.” He then plays with the word “quotidian,” using it to describe prison-life and making astute connections about ways of performing masculinity and how they relate to violence. For example, he writes: “In prison, suffering was quotidian. People telling of how they’d been sentenced to thirty and forty years was quotidian. And we didn’t much talk about justice. At the gun range, the testosterone was the quotidian thing. The loud bang of gunfire. And I did not feel dangerous. Even with the stock of an assault rifle tucked into the crevice of an arm. And I do not need to say that a gun range is no war zone, no matter what I heard the men around me shout to themselves.” (“Holding a Gun”)
Betts recounts to Zhadan a time when he read the latter’s poetry to a group of friends who thought the poems were Betts’ own creations. As he explains, “I told them the words were yours because I wanted them to know you. Such a wild world we live in, to believe that words we lift off a page might reveal ourselves to others. And I thought, Damn, they could hear me in these songs of possibility that you’re writing.” (“Holding a Gun”) It is significant that Betts’ describes Zhadan’s poems as “songs of possibility.” Although Zhadan’s writings disclose worlds burdened with violence, corruption, alcoholism, and war with all its tragic loss and destruction—not only of human life but also domestic animals, wildlife, forests, rivers, and ecosystems. His poems are raw, taking the reader directly to the heart of the matter, revealing what we often don’t want to see about the human condition, its fragility and darkness.
Betts’ fitting description of Zhadan’s poems as “songs of possibility” signals that his poems are not only songs of lament, indignation, and despair (which, are, of course, appropriate and ethically sound responses to the tragedy, loss, and senseless violence that war inevitably brings with it). Yet, when one lingers with Zhadan’s words they also sound hopeful melodies; they attune us to nature’s beauty, human creativity, and resolute resilience in the midst of oppression and missile strikes; the rhythm of his poems move us—if we open ourselves to their movement, their reaching out to us—to care about, defend, and act in concert with others to build a world in which human dignity is respected and human flourishing is realized. As the war in Ukraine has shown us, our concerns must also broaden to include respect for and defense of the integrity and flourishing of non-human animals, forests, the soil, rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans, the air we breathe and take for granted. In short, we must speak out against not only the genocide unfolding in Ukraine but also the ecocide taking place. That is, in addition to human suffering and loss of life, non-human animals have also suffered and died owing to the cruelties of war. Countless dogs, horses, cows, as well as many other wild animals have been killed and maimed from bombs, missiles, and bullets. It has been reported that domestic animals have also been subject to the Russian military’s senseless brutality and torture.
Zhadan’s poem, “So I’ll Talk About It” (translated into English by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin) presents us with the harsh realities of war and yet within such realities the poetic word attunes us to the beauty, creativity, and social and communal bonding that one also encounters in times of crises. The poem sings of sorrow and hope, grief and dancing, fine arts and raining missile-fire, death and the music-making of animals. Let’s linger with and listen to a few stanzas.
The most beaten paths lead to the cemetery and water.
You hide only the most precious things in the soil—
the weapon that ripens with wrath,
porcelain hearts of parents that will chime
like the songs of a school choir.
I’ll talk about it—
about the wind instruments of anxiety,
about the wedding ceremony as memorable
as entering Jerusalem.
Set the broken psalmic rhythm of rain
beneath your heart.
Men that dance the way they quench
steppe-fire with their boots.
Women that hold onto their men in dance
like they don’t want to let them go to war.
Eastern Ukraine, the end of the second millennium.
The world is brimming with music and fire.
In the darkness flying fish and singing animals give voice.
In the meantime, almost everyone who got married then has died.
In the meantime, the parents of people my age have died.
In the meantime, most heroes have died.
The sky unfolds, as bitter as it is in Gogol’s novellas.
Echoing, the singing of people who gather the harvest.
Echoing, the music of those who cart stones from the field.
Echoing, it doesn’t stop.
“So I’ll Talk About It”; excerpts; you can read the complete poem here).
Having had a taste of Zhadan’s poetry and a glimpse of his life, let’s turn to his letter, written in response to Betts’ correspondence. Zhadan, living in the midst of a live war, immediately gravitates to Betts’ discussion of holding a gun for the first time. Holding a weapon, says Zhadan, is a “boundary experience.” The gun is both “an instrument of murder” and “an instrument of defense” that can save your life.
Zhadan then describes his first time to hold a gun, juxtaposing this life-saving-death-bringing weapon with books—books, which, as Betts’ emphasized, can open worlds, but which, in this time of active war where time is of the essence, lay closed, silent—one could even say, imprisoned, tied, and gagged—awaiting happier times of freedom, leisure, time to reflect, and peace-time. Thinking more about his own first time to hold a gun, he recalls the irony of the space in which it occurred—namely, in a former library in Kharkiv now serving as a military headquarters. He underscores the stark contrast between guns and books, highlighting how times of war can transform a space for learning, reading, imagining, and contemplating into “a space of war, a space at the very edge of death.” Zhadan recounts the scene as follows: “It was the second day of Russia’s full-scale offensive. My friends and I had arrived at the headquarters of a volunteer unit that we have helped a lot, where a lot of our friends were serving. February 25, low-hanging gray sky, the end of winter, the beginning of an immense bloody fissure. The headquarters was in the center of Kharkiv, in a former library. Bundles of books tied together with rope were heaped together along the walls in the hallways. Classical literature hadn’t impeded the war; reading would have to wait until later. Young men who had come to join the unit wandered through the rooms. Most of them were not professional servicemen and had never held a gun before. But then they received their assault rifles, touched them somewhat gingerly, seemingly making a transition from the past to a different space, the space of war, a space at the very edge of death. There were a lot of weapons; they lay there on the floor in a separate room, next to stacks of books.” The commander told him to pick up a gun and he did, as he puts it, “somewhat awkwardly.” It was a Soviet pistol, which he put in his backpack, along with a stack of old literary magazines which were too good to leave behind. Unfortunately, his commander was killed a month later in a battle to liberate the suburbs of Kharkiv. When Zhadan and the servicemen, whom he had not seen since the first day of the war, met again at the commander’s funeral, he noticed how much they had changed and how their weapons had now become, in a sense, a part of their body. “Their eyes had changed; their faces had changed. And they held their weapons in a completely different way. Like they were fused together. I haven’t used my gun at all, though.” (“Holding a Gun”)
Zhadan next discusses the difference between the experiences of civilians and unarmed noncombatants and soldiers. Civilians, not simply because they lack arms and training for combat, are obviously incredibly vulnerable. Many of them are elderly, sick, disabled, poor, or have nowhere to go or perhaps definitely refuse to go. These individuals are suddenly thrust into a situation where their day-to-day lives become a struggle to stay alive, to protect and feed their loved ones, and to navigate and calculate day-by-day, hour-by-hour how to survive amidst the shelling, trauma, and terror. They are, as Zhadan says, the “most vulnerable” and have an entirely different comportment with this “space of war.” As Zhadan explains, “people who consciously take up arms have reached a completely different agreement with life and death than civilians. Unarmed people see war in a completely different way and experience it in a completely different way.” These civilians and noncombatants understand in the most existentially profound way that their soldiers are “the shield separating cities in the rear from the enemy, from those who have come to murder [them], in the most literal sense: to murder, annihilate, take [their] lives.” (“Holding a Gun”)
Making the voices of these people heard is part of Zhadan’s calling. On this point, he waxes lyrical, movingly describing why the stories and lives of the unarmed, the poor, the vulnerable—residents just wanting to live in peace—must be heard and how both unarmed residents and armed soldiers support each other in relations of solidarity as they fight for a common cause and shared values. “Clearly, without these voices, without the ‘voices of poor people,’ as Miłosz once put it, we are not able to hear and interpret the sound of war, its bloody yet tremendously truthful polyphony. Since late February of this year, we, those living in a city under bombardment, have learned to be more attentive and trusting of others. I mean the residents of this city, people without arms, yet vested with the right to take action and speak with their own voice. We have learned to support one another and to treat the people bearing arms, protecting the perimeter of the city, the perimeter of the country, with respect. After all, it turns out that this division into armed and unarmed people may be significant, fundamental even, but it isn’t complete. Nonetheless something bigger than bullets brings us together. It may be our common faith. And common values.” (“Holding a Gun”) The pain, the intense feelings of hatred and anger toward the enemy for destroying their homes, robbing them of their loved ones, raping men, women, and children, torturing and inflicting permanent injuries on family members, friends, and pets—all of these experiences must be heard; what they have endured and witnessed demands a hearing, demands justice, demands reparations.
Listening to and speaking about the experience of war (and, of course, writing about them) are essential for both the healing and rebuilding of the individual and the community. That is, the activities of listening, speaking, and writing about war can facilitate a movement from pain to hope, or perhaps a more accurate description of these activities is to allow for the voicing of pain together with hope—hope for justice, freedom, and genuine peace. Zhadan puts it this way: “words matter and are the stitching of any community. What is more—this war, a war that has been tearing my country apart for over seven months, has shown in a very clear and compelling manner that, despite all the evil and violence one person is capable of inflicting upon another, despite the desperation and darkness that obstructs our vision at times, we still have the opportunity to speak: speak among ourselves, speak to the world, articulate ourselves, voice our pain and our hope. This is a right generously given to us at birth. There is this entirely separate voice inside each of us; language is like a complex secret talisman that saves us, even under the most bitter and trying circumstances.”
The mystery of language and our capacity as individuals to give voice, speak, and bear witness to our experiences saves us (or at least opens the space for such salvation to occur). Our capacity to listen to the other is also oriented to language, or as German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer would say, to linguisticality (Sprachlichkeit), which includes verbal language but extends to gestures, instrumental music, dance—in short, to any set of communicative relations and communicative bodily comportments. Here I am reminded of Paul Celan’s poetry. As a poet of catastrophe, whose works bore witness to crimes against humanity, death camps, the terror and trauma of war, and the ongoing struggle to regain hope in humanity, Celan understood that such liminal experiences are deeply fragmenting, destabilizing, and traumatizing. If they do not destroy you—through physical death—they nonetheless permanently wound lives. The why of such experiences can never be fully justified nor made fully intelligible. The violence of death camps, like the sexual and other bodily violence and torture that Russian soldiers are committing against Ukrainian men, women, and children is completely sense-less. The why is silent because there is no why. However, there is still the need to bear witness, to make these crimes known to the world and ultimately to prosecute those who committed them. Celan, as a poet of catastrophe, sought to create new sense from the non-sense that both language and reality had become—to find in and through language an open space of reorientation and reconnection. I see Zhadan doing something similar with his writings and his desire to give voice to the most vulnerable who are suffering in this unjust war.
Zhadan describes his relationship to language as one of trust yet with the recognition that language has its limits. “Language, like poetry, is incapable of stopping wars; however, it defines evil and injustice, and its resources help us, time and time again, to overcome our weaknesses and hopelessness, to extricate ourselves and offer our testaments and refutations.” (“Holding a Gun”) Again, we find hermeneutical resonances. For example, consider Gadamer’s famous claim, “being that can be understood is language” (Truth and Method, 490). Although this statement has been misunderstood and hotly debated, what Gadamer means is not that all being and experience is reducible to language; he is not claiming that everything that is, is language; rather, he means that whatever understanding we might achieve and be able to communicate to others will necessarily, intimately, and fundamentally involve language. That is, our repeated attempts and strivings to find the right words to better articulate the world, others, ourselves, and our experiences of various events—everything from the experience of art to the experience of war and trauma—come into focus and are made present via language. Hermeneutically speaking, our ability to make sense of and understand (even if only in part and never exhaustively) texts, art, other humans, non-human animals, our natural environment, war, and the list goes on—insofar as and to the degree that these can be understood, such understanding is achieved through language and understanding’s very ontology is linguistic (sprachlich). (Gadamer argues against the notion of a-linguistic concepts or thoughts.) Not only are we linguistic animals (as Aristotle claimed), but we are also, on Gadamer’s view, a living conversation, being shaped by and actively shaping language, which in turn, impacts how we live, move, and are in-the-world-with-others. Here again, we should stress Gadamer’s broad understanding of language as “linguisticality” (Sprachlichkeit). For example, in his essay, “Boundaries of Language,” Gadamer writes: “language is not only a language of words . . . [it] includes all communication, not only speaking but also gestures that come into play in the linguistic relations among humans [and I would add non-human animals].” There are, of course, subjective experiences of pain, hunger, and love that are pre- or meta-linguistic inner experiences (Erlebnisse); Gadamer does not discount or devalue these as such; however, his emphasis is on experience as Erfahrung, as accumulated in tradition, communal practices and customs, and, importantly, involves that which can be shared with others. That is, the distinction he draws between the two kinds of experience, which, no doubt, overlap in our lives “on the ground,” is between one’s personal, individual, singular experience and that which is shareable and able to be (at least in some meaningful way) intersubjectively and communally participated in. Hermeneutic experience and understanding needs others; it requires others for its very being; without some form of attuned sprachlich-engagement with others, the possibility of transforming our present understanding of ourselves, others, and the world is impossible. (And yet, attuned hermeneutical engagement does not mean uncritical engagement. There are always bad faith dialogue partners who make genuine dialogue impossible.)
To illustrate this ethico-hermeneutical point of language and poetry “calling out to an other,” let’s return to Celan. Celan’s poetry, as poetry of catastrophe, calls out for a You willing to listen, linger with, and receive its testimony. For both Gadamer and Celan poetry is dialogical (never monological) and “on the way” [unterwegs]; it calls out to an other and in that sense is incomplete without the other’s response. Celan describes this in his famous Meridian speech: “The poem is alone. It is alone and underway. . . . The poem wants to reach the Other, it needs this Other, it needs a vis-à-vis. It searches it out and addresses it” (“Meridian Speech” in Derrida’s Sovereignties in Question, 181). Similarly, in his Bremen Address Celan likens a poem to a message in bottle that awaits “a responsive You” [ein ansprechbares Du], a You that has chosen to be fully there and attentive to the testimony of the poetic word; a You open to the poetic word’s wounding. Celan, thus, sees his poems as being unterwegs to a responsive You. (Celan GW7:186; my translation). The poet, having been wounded by language (political lies, propaganda, hate speech) and reality (war, death camps, loved ones lost), nonetheless, returns to language—to the poetic word—in search of a responsive You. A responsive You that in receiving the testimony of the poetic word takes a step toward the estranged I and in so doing contributes to the possibility of re-building together a hospitable world for the wounded.
The correspondence between Betts and Zhadan not only embodies and enacts what Celan describes—a receptive You (on both sides) receiving the other’s testimony—but also shows us how language and the testimony of the poetic word can “give voice” to, remember, and recognize the dignity of the dead, the suffering, the poor, the tortured, the precious two-day old infant boy, Serhii Podlianov, killed by Russian rocket strikes on a maternity ward in Vilnyansk, a town in Zaporizhzhia on Weds. November 23, 2022. Language and the poetic word as testimony calls out to a receptive You—to me, to you, to the world; the witness of the word, as Zhadan puts it (recalling Miłosz), enables us “to hear and interpret the sounds of war, its bloody yet tremendously truthful polyphony” (“Holding a Gun”). The question is: now that we’ve heard and understood, how will we act?
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