In the month of August 2009, right on schedule, the plane in which I was travelling landed in Lviv. The snowy white of the airport bedazzled me.
Erín Moure, the Canadian poet—who had decided one fine day to translate a book of mine into English and who has since become one of my best friends—wished to bury the ashes of her mother in the cemetery of her mother’s natal village, Velyki Hlibovychi. I wanted to accompany her and also visit the mouth of the Danube River where the channels of its delta enter the Black Sea. Destiny had chosen, and destiny’s name was Ukraine.
Europe? Yes, this too is Europe. From Europe, we’re always taking leave
Europe is a territory that, in the first half of the twentieth century, ruthlessly expelled its population (leftover?) toward the Americas. And so it is that two poets who reside on separate continents can meet in Lviv. The one who comes from Québec and awaits me in the airport is daughter of a woman who emigrated as a child from Austro-Hungarian/Polish Galitzia/Galicia—now Ukraine— and of a father whose grandfather emigrated from Galicia in Spain, where I live. Three of my grandparents were emigrants to Argentina and Cuba, and one is buried in Camagüey. Erín and I are the same age, born in 1955; both of us have ancestors born in one Galicia or the other. We are the result of this coming and going, this crossing and re-crossing of the Atlantic.
The distance between Lviv and Velyki Hlibovychi is about thirty kilometres, and we take the train. The nearest town is Bibrka. There, shortly after the arrival of the Nazis, 200 Jewish residents were sent to the Belzec extermination camp. Later, on April 13, 1943, 1,300 more Jews were shot dead on the road to Volove. Most Ukrainian Jews were murdered like that in the Second World War, thrown into pits outside their villages. The majority of Galician supporters of the Spanish Republic were murdered by Franco’s Falangists in the same way, shot and thrown into pits near their villages during the Civil War. There is a tendency to consider that places from which emigrants come are backward. Not only economically: they are also seen as isolated and outside History. I’d like to point out that enduring History by being treated as cheap exportable labour is one way of living it. I also want to add that families like those of our two poets— who meet up in what was once a capital of Austro-Hungarian Galitzia—have had and still have continuous contact with the Americas, as well as with European states where they emigrated in the 1960s; in all these places, they formed part of the proletariat that worked to rebuild after the Second World War.
Europe? Yes, Europe teems with peoples. We never take leave of peoples
A people—humanity—is a being that arises just like rivers do. It rises and, because it can rise, it can fall. It is indestructible, that is, can be sacrificed a million times over, but never destroyed. A people is unforgettable, that is, a living thing that does not need us as individuals in order to exist. It is never on the side of power, whatever the power; it is on the side of potential, of possibility, and answers to that possibility. It is not to be confused with its representatives nor with those who govern it, because it is not a representation, it is a presence on Earth.
A people has memory of many kinds of governments, and of all the modes of production that have traversed it, but its body precedes them all. It is a force that overthrows any ancient regime, and all regimes are ancient. It is the action of standing up, bursting forth, singing, of being defeated or of winning, but is never the act of governing. It is incompatible with government, with any kind of government.
A people is an intensity not to be confused with a state, or nation-state, or any administrative division. It’s a rhizome and grows and extends without taking any bureaucratic obstacle into account. A people always lacks papers. Institutions, any kind of institution, don’t thrill it, but it knows their fair price. A humanity is, presents itself, overthrows, can fall, is contemporary, moves forward.
Europe? Yes, Europe teems with thinking. We never take leave of thinking
Hope knows how to wait, but we, sapiens persons, are trained to despair.
We despair because at times we are unable to visualize a future different from today. We despair because we’ve been groomed for belief. Belief neutralizes uncertainty, but can’t prevent catastrophe. We’re used to living in catastrophe and all we know is that yet another catastrophe lies ahead.
In his essay “From the Future to the Time to Come: The Revolution of the Virus,” first published in the newspaper Le Monde, Jean-Luc Nancy contrasts belief to faith.
Faith, to him, is that virtue by which we admit that we can’t keep everything under control. Faith waits and hopes because it knows that risk is at the root of freedom. Faith is a thinking capable of the one act we can truly perform with our lives: the risk of living. It means opening ourselves to a future different from one of submission and catastrophe.
Faith moves mountains because it empowers us to act in ways that do not lead to the illusion of control and power. Perhaps we can see, from this, that democracy is that which lets us enter together into the future. What democracy offers us is a way to share, in equality, the burden of finitude and of ignorance, because we all face the same uncertainty.
“It is in foundering that we find ourselves anew,” concludes Nancy.
Europe? Yes, Europe teems with art. We never take leave of images
And so we will dream anew.
We will dream again of hope, dream of hope as depicted in Andrea Pisano’s engraving on the doors of the Florentine Baptistery. We’ll dream of it in the fresco of the Scrovegni Chapel where Giotto also painted hope, and here we will contemplate it again.
Utopia—hope—has wings but does not use them; she holds out her hands and does not know whether her work of waiting will one day be crowned with success. She lives in this uncertainty and waits.
I accepted the invitation to write this letter in August 2021. At that time, we were focussed on a plague. Now as I write this letter, at the end of spring 2022, we’ve seen the red horse of war emerge from the beautiful book of the Apocalypse.
The first war in my own memory was the Six-Day War. As a girl, I was magnetized by the images of tanks, in black and white because that’s how television was broadcast at the time. I found it impossible to relate those tanks to the names of the territories through which they rolled. Those names were ones I knew from the biblical history we studied in school. At that age, I had no words to describe what I was experiencing; today I can posit that one of the possible definitions of war is the fracture that occurs between language and territory. Language, regardless of what tongue we speak, is cleaved by war and can never again be what it once was. Bitter is Troy, and bitter the fury sung by the muse.
Earlier this year, on March 17, the Lviv airport was bombed. I think of white phosphorus bombs, and I think of the villages of Hostomel and Irpin, and what arises incessantly in my mind are memories of my trip to Ukraine in 2009.
Surely one of the most exciting moments of my life was heading to the port of Odesa down the steps on which Sergei Eisenstein had filmed some of the most unforgettable images of Battleship Potemkin.
From Odesa, we set off to Vyklove and the “Kilometre Zero” where one channel of the Danube enters the Black Sea. Igor, a local Lipovan, brought us in his small boat to this extraordinary demarcation line.
We stayed on Avhhustyana Voloshyna Street and we were happy in Ukraine, in Lviv.
Europe? Yes, Europe teems with empires that want to unite it, to keep West and East under their exclusive dominion. We’re always taking leave of empires, of schisms
I don’t need to remind you of any of this; we studied it in school. I only want to offer a thought—possibly foolish—and tell you a story.
The foolish thought is that Europe is dual: the West of Rome and the East of Constantinople/Moscow. West is a colony of the USA, East a colony of China. As long as West does not recognize East and vice versa, as long as the two halves of the symbol do not unite, Europe—Europa—will remain that young woman abducted by the lust of an ancient and patriarchal god.
Now the story. A young woman, who might have been Giotto’s model, arrives at a desert outpost. We know from her rags that she is a beggar. There, in that desert, Time showers its gifts on her. Alongside the two of them (Utopia and Time) is a man who each night scrawls his fury on a parallelepiped of wood. The man is old and has lived all his life in a country where trees grow easily; in his youth he was a woodcutter. The house where he lives has a garden, and on one of its walls, he’s installed a solid wood parallelepiped that he’d hewn while clearing forests. Every night he heads to the wall and scrapes at the block of wood with all his might. It’s his shock absorber. It’s his buffer. What he really wants is to bang his head on the wall until his skull cracks open so he’s free of the horror of life—despite this being a happy life. Scratching at the wood night after night lets him control his fury and not turn into a murderer.
The three extend their arms just as Hope—also known as Utopia—does, without knowing if they will ever satisfy their desire; they don’t know if they’ll be able to use their wings and fly happily. Their act will move mountains because they know how to wait, and know how to devise a future different from the one that subjugates them. They choose to live amid those who refuse to be counted among murderers.
May we all see a dawn in which Europe, Europa, does not suffer the whims of a patriarchal god, nor the jealousy of his divine consort.
May a thousand more springtimes come to these fields we share and to the languages still reviled today in which some of us write and speak, and in which we intensely love.
translated by Erín Moure