Note: I wrote this a week or so before the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year. So much has changed. But my joy at spending time in that country and finding relations in the village my grandfather left in 1907 is still at the heart of one of the essays in the book I was proof-reading when I wrote this.
As I proofread the galleys of my Blue Portugal, I am remembering the trip we took to Ukraine in September, 2019. In so many ways I am grateful we went then. I was ready to meet the relatives who drove for 2.5 hours to spend time with us up in the Carpathian Mountains, I was ready to try to imprint each tree, each river bank, every stone of every church, every stitch of the beautiful rushnyk we saw everywhere, draping icons in the churches, wrapped around the loaves offered as we arrived at events, even ready to drink horilka at every hour of the day because who knew when I would taste it again. And if we hadn’t gone that fall, well, it would have been impossible, wouldn’t it, to plan to go now. A few months after we returned, I wrote an essay, “Museum of the Multitude Village”, now part of Blue Portugal, though when I wrote it, I wondered if I might just keep writing about Ukraine until it turned into a book of its own. In a way it did. Just before the pandemic was declared, I made the essay into a chapbook to celebrate my 65th birthday, helped by my printer husband John (who printed cover labels on our old C&P letterpress) and my friend Anik (who put the document I sent her into a design file so that it could be sent to the local copy shop).
As I proofread the galleys, working back to front (“Museum of the Multitude Village” is the last essay in the collection and I am trying bpNichol’s proofreading technique — he was once John’s editor — which was to start at the end and work to the beginning in order to read the text freshly), I am swimming in the pool at the hotel up in the mountains on a late September morning, old folk songs in my head, the scent of spruce smoke, a far off barking of dogs at the farms we passed on our way up. I am holding my breath for Ukraine. It’s my breath I am holding, that smoke settled into my bloodstream, the horilka making my eyes water, and my two vyshyvanka hanging in my closet, red flowers in the darkness. I was told when I bought them that they were talismen, a protection and a reminder of the stories they tell with red thread, and black. A lucky person was one who was born wearing a vyshyvanka. I was lucky to travel to Ukraine in my 60s, lucky to meet far cousins, and to be greeted with bread and salt, with tiny glasses of moonshine flavoured with mountain herbs, and I am reading backwards to remember it all.
At each farm, someone is picking apples, by ladder, by filling a bucket with windfalls. A man, a woman with a child, a couple with a basket between them. Stooks stand in the fields. Horses graze, dogs sleep as though dead in the dry grass. There are pumpkins still in the gardens, heaps of watermelons, horseradish leaves lush by the houses. At the farm where we turn to climb the road to Sokilske, an old table is balanced under a pear tree and a family is seated around it. The man raises his glass. A horse lifts its head as our wheels spin briefly, gaining traction for the steep rise. We can almost smell the Cheremosh River. And listen—there are chickadees in the sunflowers. Chickens scatter at the side of the road.