“to hold the water of a language on your tongue” (Iya Kiva)


This morning’s swim was under a blue sky swathed in cloud. Moments of sunlight. Swallows darting and gliding over the water’s surface. A few trout like silver commas. Before the swim I listened to an interview on the radio, in which Andrii Panshyn, a Ukrainian pharmacist in Fort Simpson, talked about his arrival in that village five years ago, his efforts to bring a few family members and friends from Ukraine, and his love for the place where he lives. I can understand that. I had the pleasure of visiting Fort Simpson in 2008 and I remember its beautiful location at the confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers (a traditional gathering place for the Dehcho people), the willows, the amazing man Steve Yarrow who took us on a little tour of the village, telling us something of its history (and something of his own: he came to the North from New England, I think, for a year of teaching and never left; he built himself an organ and learned to play Bach). This country is filled with stories, some of them newly-rooted, some of them older than time.

It’s 128 days since Russia invaded Ukraine. Every day I read the news and carry its difficult accounting with me as I water plants, think about what to make for dinner. I read poetry to try to understand how people survive in such circumstances. How they continue to grow gardens, tend to the elderly, sweep their kitchens, walk out for groceries while missiles strike apartment buildings, resorts, shopping malls, hospitals. I read poetry, hoping to understand something other than the statistics in the news.

We speak of the cities we lived in —
that went
into night like ships into the winter sea
   –from “Stones” by Serhiy Zhadan, translated from the Ukrainian by Valzhyna Mort

A hundred and fifteen years ago my grandfather left his village in Bukovyna to come to North America, first Franklin Furnace, New Jersey, and eventually Drumheller, Alberta. He left gardens, cousins, fields of sunflowers and wheat, possibly a sister (he kept a photograph of a woman who looks remarkably like him), and he kept his language, which he couldn’t write (as far as I know; every source I have for him describes him as illiterate), and so much I don’t know about him and never will. Sometimes he comes to me in unexpected ways. For example, looking at this old photograph from Drumheller, I am almost certain he is the man second from the right in the back row. I believe this is the Ukrainian Labour Hall or Temple.

ukrainian hall

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him to leave everything behind, to have no contact apart from two photographs worn almost to nothing, and I can’t imagine what it must be like now for people who are in the midst of the chaos generated by the Russian invasion. My grandfather never told my father anything about his life before he came to Canada. Was it language? He spoke a very broken English and my father knew only a little Ukrainian because his mother, who was Czech, wanted him to be Canadian.

to hold a needle of silence in your mouth
to stitch your words in white thread
to whimper while drowning in spit
to keep from screaming spitting blood
to hold the water of a language on your tongue
which leaks like a rusty bucket
to mend things that are still useful
     –Iya Kiva, translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk

He never told much. Was it a form of protection? If you don’t talk about your earlier life, maybe it will just disappear. Maybe the long mornings under silver firs and poplars, the sound of hens pecking and squabbling, the scent of turned earth as the potatoes were dug, the paska wrapped in its cloth beside the church, a candle beside it, as his mother must have done, and as my cousins still do, by the same green church, the road dusty under the spring sun, the same sky overhead as I swam under this morning, clouds forming and reforming, until everything becomes something else, faded as a photograph. Hold still, hold still, I want to tell the clouds. I want to hold the water of the language on my own tongue, the difficult consonants, the plangent vowels, finding my way back on the maps that are always changing, though the trees are the same, the old songs, our hearts.

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