By Veronica Ashenhurst
—In memory of S.P., my grandfather
You’ve been pebbled grey ash in a box for years, while I’m a recluse, ill. We’re a quiet pair: displaced from the land, far from its gold wheat sea. But now, if you knew, you’d quake: the enduring country is a slaughter bench. Men of empire pitch villagers down wells. Near Yablunska Street, they shoot the bolting girl; shoot the woodworker pedalling a bike; shoot the restive man who left his basement. Soldiers, cramming ancestral velvet earth with limbs and blood and crime anew. I was a child, once, and you stood saturnine, in galoshes, presenting me your kingdom: summer squash, beans, yellow bees. Sometimes, you said: “Talk!” But words in the old tongue caught in my throat. So, you played that worn shortwave to vex yourself with Soviet periphrases. Of the famine in ’33 you wouldn’t tell, but in the kitchen, wrote ballpoint fragments on school paper — convoking ghosts. I’d know, then, about State-sent brigades, who, in the name of five-year plans, stole your grain, at gunpoint, and seized your cellar beets. Later, you hid a thin warm cow in your home; your belly swelled; you beheld bleak, glassy eyes. Today, under siege, the hunger starts again: dry mouths taste sewer water and dead stray dogs, fields awaiting maize and sunflowers lie mined. The Kyiv coroner shuts windows against all the flies. Bodies, their dreams, lie cold in his laden morgue, so against the smell of rot, he burns church incense, harvesting the day’s lament.
The Kharkiv Cellist
You sit down and hold grief between your knees. She leans against you, immense in carved wood, Her front the colour of a chestnut mare. You touch her four taut strings and sculpted sides, The bow is a bent light beam in your hand. Behind you stands the brick school, quiet, burnt — Number one hundred thirty-four, with blown Windows like open mouths. Your city, where Shells drop, rats dart through rubble, tigers starve, And a girl loses her eye to rockets. You play, and know what I still strive to learn: Grief, that stark beauty, is a fraught chasm. You hold her edges, hush your knocking heart, And coax her music, in a minor key.
Echoes of Bila Tserkva
The occupier called the people filth, Blitzed their homes by night. Now your apartment’s Hit: doors lie down, the pearl armoire holds a Heart-shaped hole, glass shards collect on the stairs While you find defiance and uncover Her line of ebony-ivory keys, Her bass and treble legs, her upright bearing. You’re still wearing a grey hat, while your wrists Travel, curious. The bared instrument makes Fractious sound, until — “давай!” — you prod Yourself, aloud. Cold hands decant Schubert, Then Chopin, in a cascade of lustre Audible outside. Loss stings your throat; the notes Of a deft étude ring one final time.
Veronica Ashenhurst’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming inStar 82 Review, Uppagus, and Wordgathering, among other journals. She has published articles on legal education in the Dalhousie Law Journal, the Ottawa Law Review, and the Canadian Legal Education Annual Review. She lives with severe Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS).
3 thoughts on “Borderland and Other Poems”
Breathtakingly beautiful poetry
How delightful and enchanting this imagery is! Love it 🥰