Two Deep Breaths: Donetsk
By Caitlin Dwyer Young
Do you ever read about a place online, or hear some city mentioned in passing, and wonder where is that? Maybe you can’t quite catch the pronunciation, or the name is so unfamiliar it startles you.
That’s how “Donetsk,” by Keetje Kuipers, begins. She hears the name of a Ukrainian city on the radio and because it is foreign and hard for her to pronounce, she immediately begins to associate it with other sounds: her daughter’s voice, birds, a waitress at the diner.
Her poem moves so far, and so quickly, it’s easy to forget what she’s comparing these things to. By the time she gets to her neighbor’s knuckles cracking as he chops wood, and her baby soiling the bathwater, I had almost forgotten that the poem began with a “tragedy on today’s radio.”
But that’s Kuipers’ point, I think. Donetsk has been a site of violence and separatist activity since 2014; as I write this, it’s been formally recognized by Russia as an independent republic, perhaps in a pretext for war. But for Kuipers, “on the other side of the distant world,” it’s far removed from her daily life.
Which doesn’t mean that Kuipers doesn’t care. Indeed, I think she cares deeply, and struggles as we all do to come to terms with how to stay present with tragedies that do not affect her directly. The poem’s real question is not ‘what’s happening in Ukraine?’ but how we stay mindful of difficult circumstances in far-off places, when what’s happening here and now wraps us in our own consuming, personal context.
What I love about this poem is how indirect it is. Kuipers clearly wanted to write about what she heard on the radio. But she doesn’t give us scenes of political violence in Ukraine. Instead, we follow the poet’s mind through Cracker Barrel pancakes and memories of childhood pets. Everything is like something else, taking her farther and farther away from that original tragedy — and she can’t quite square what she’s heard on the radio with the sun, the warmth, her daughter reading a picture book.
How do any of us make sense of tragedy? How do we acknowledge that something terrible is going on elsewhere, when what’s right in front of us is okay? It’s a difficult set of questions to answer, but in a time of huge, almost inconceivable global concerns — the pandemic, climate change — Kuipers’ questions feel like the right ones to ask.
The tragedy on today’s radio sounds like my daughter
trying to say “donuts” for the first time,
or like the chirp of the two lovebirds I loved for just
a year when I was fourteen, their eager
hiccup when I took them from their cage
and placed one on each shoulder. It could be
the voice of the waitress at Cracker Barrel,
a pen in the corner of her sour pucker,
asking if I’ve finished with my plate of soggy
pancakes, or the pop and crack of my old
neighbor’s knuckles as he grasps the axe
and takes a swing. Or maybe it’s the hushed
suck when I pull the plug from the tub drain
after the baby’s shat in her bathwater
and I have to wash it out and start all over again.
It sounds far away, the way everything does
here where it’s always warm, always unseasonably
sunny, where I’m always somebody’s mother
turning the pages of some forgettable picture book
on the other side of the distant world.
Writer and editor Keetje Kuipers is the author of three books of poems: Beautiful in the Mouth, Keys to the Jail, and All Its Charms. Keetje has taught at universities across the country, including as an Associate Professor at Auburn University where she was Editor of Southern Humanities Review. Keetje was appointed Editor of Poetry Northwest in 2020. Keetje lives with her wife and children in Missoula where she is Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Montana. She is currently at work on a fourth book of poems, as well as a novel set in Wyoming and a memoir about the seven months she spent living alone and off the grid, two hours down a dirt road from the nearest human being.