Bob Dylan’s Ukrainian Uproots and the PEN America Happening

Yes, it’s true.  The Bard from Duluth is the byproduct of the genetic engineering love brought to his paternal grandparents, who were from Odessa. An early influence on Dylan’s career. The maternal oldies lived in the seaside city bathed in golden light, as they say.  Dylan’s maternal grandparents were from Lithuania, but that country’s not being invaded right now, so we won’t go there with our thinking. Now, the common account of the paternal grandparents’s need to flee Ukraine (part of  the Russian Empire then) was due to the Jewish pogrom of 1905.  Howard Sounes, in Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, tells us a familiar story:

Bob’s father, Abe Zimmerman, was the son of Zigman and Anna Zimmerman, Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Zigman was born in 1875 in the Black Sea port of Odessa and grew up in desperate times. As the power of Czar Nicholas II faltered, he blamed Jews for the problems besetting the Russian empire, and thousands were murdered by mobs. AntiSemitic hysteria reached Odessa in November 1905. Fifty thousand Czarists marched through the streets, screaming ‘Down with the Jews,’ and shot, stabbed, and strangled a thousand to death. In the wake of the massacre Bob’s paternal grandfather fled the country, telling his wife and children he would send for them when he had found a place to settle.

Then, as if that shit hitting the fan weren’t enough, the mutinous crew of the battleship Potemkin hit the town, crazies rioted, Cossacks shot in every directions, 1000 people died, and one poor mother watched helplessly as the carriage with her baby skipped down a long flight of stairs (Eisenstein, what a clown, right?), and the mother just flipped the fuck out.

This later inspired a hit for Dylan. “Baby, Let Me Follow You Down,” I think. It’s an unauthorized opinion. Anyway…

Putin must think he’s the Tsar. And in the noisy reports from Ukraine, you can almost hear people shouting at the invaders: Go back home, you Cossackers. That’s what it sounds like. And this from women (girls, really) called up for duty who’d had Russian soldiers hit on them through a dating app even before they crossed the line into Ukraine. Some of this vanguard was so shocked by this reception that they checked their GPS signal to see if they were indeed in Ukraine; it wasn’t what they’d been told about the local women.  Someone had told them that their arrival would be like the Yanks chasing the Nazis out of Paris and the women would be willing freedom fries for their catsup. Nuh-uh.

Dylan never wrote a song about the Potemkin. However, he did write about the Titanic in his later couched years, while watching the film on TV, Leo playing the artist Titian or something, as the band played on. Come to think of it, he didn’t write anything about 9/11 either, though a couple of his albums came out on the day and its 10th anniversary. So, I dunno. Kate Winslet was stunning in her I won’t be classbound role, although it did come in handy when they were lowering the boats and loading them with ladies. Afterall, the film is her flashback. No boat, no film, no song, no reference here, no reader-response from you. Dylan is just an association here, I’d remembered reading that he had roots here somehow, and you can see how troubled our national troubadour treasure turned out to be. So troubled they gave him the Nobel Prize — and still he went on with his troubles.

You wouldn’t believe it from the way this has begun, but it was meant to be a review of a video I recently watched and am about to push on you to take the time to view/listen to.  I got an email recently inviting me to watch a short production (75 minutes) from PEN America titled, Voices of Ukraine: Readings In Support of Ukraine.  It’s a presentation of the sort I’ve been hoping to do more of in the last light of my waning years: listen to poets recite poetry. The oral tradition is lost on us moderns in many ways. Language has become so banal. Everyone seems to speak at the same time, and either I’m slowing down in my dotage or folks are speeding up in their speaking, moving more towards auction-speed English with each passing day. Must be a quantum thing. I’m a sentimentalist: I miss the days of Homer. Shutting the fuck up while some lucid bard went on about the Trojan siege, beachside, waves, arms around your near-naked ‘lady’ as the flames licked the darkness away. Passing not a bone or a bong but a wine bladder filled with fermented grape mess.

Alright.  The PEN event is not a bad idea, but it feels hokey. All these handwringers come on and tell us how all minds are on the events in Ukraine, our hearts and souls with their plight, solidarity at this “unspeakable” time filled with “unbearable” events.  It was an opportunity to to hear people of Ukrainian or Ukrainian-American descent express their poetical feelings about the invasion of their homeland, and the ongoing aftermath, a new calculus developing with each new day.  Pen America tells us, “As Ukraine faces a fight the likes of which it hasn’t seen since WWII, writers across the US joined by their Ukrainian colleagues will read in solidarity with all Ukrainian people.” Pen America wants to “Defend free expression, support persecuted writers, and promote literary culture” and is good at it, keening interest with readings that draw attention to the plight of writers in conflict areas abroad and at home, including writers doing time in prison environments.

All of this is fine, but it sounds rehearsed, or like we’ve been here before, wringing our hands over the atrocious and inhumane incursions that war brings. America hasn’t stopped fighting somewhere since 1942.  Always somewhere.  Always bodies falling, family and friends wailing and gnashing their teeth. We’ve just seen it so many times. When I was a kid in school, we were always reading war poems — Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach,” the ignorant armies; the charge of the Light Brigade; Wilfred Owen, the poet in the trenches; TS Eliot’s Wasteland vision — the blood and treasure squandered. Oy! In America’s last and longest war — the Afghanistan conflict — we spent $2.3 trillion over 20 years and there were hundreds of thousands of casualties, and we began (and ended) by lamenting the fate of the green-eyed girls who just wanted a chance to learn and be free. Our hearts and minds went out. The war turned out to be pointless.  Now, we’re freezing their money in revenge for losing; and the green-eyed girls who didn’t make it out as future trophy wives are dying again.

Well, that’s just a grain of salt I throw over my shoulder as I prepare to dig into some poetry listening, which I quite like to do, but don’t do enough of.  The Voices of Ukraine: Readings In Support of Ukraine is set up so that there are opening comments by Askold Melnyczuk, a founder of Agni magazine and an academic in literature at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and a closing statement by Oksana Lutsyshyna, a Ukrainian writer and translator, who reads from work here.  Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s Program Director for Eurasia, acts as a kind of curator, briefly introducing each reader.

With his opening words Professor Melnyczuk, ehoes a famous speech, titled “The Ukrainian Question and its Importance to Great Britain,” given by Lancelot Lawton to the British House of Commons on May 29th, 1935. It’s a speech that delineates the long history of Ukraine’s existential crisis — torn at times between the Polish and Russian influences, coveted by Hitler and the Germans, but always an ongoing inconvenience for the Russians, who Lawtin says did their best to suppress Ukrainian nationality.  In his address, Lawton himself notes,

So successfully was this erasure effected that over the greater part of the world, Ukraine only survived in poetry and legend, and invariably it was thought that if ever it existed, it had long been buried in the cemetery of dead and forgotten nations.

Melnyczuk suggests that the world has only in the last few months become aware of this place called “Ukraine,”  which, strictly speaking, is not true.  The nation-state has been at the forefront of news since 2016, and beyond, for all of the wrong reasons — and all seemingly highlighted by the nation-state’s corruption.

Burisma Gas came along in the news. Hunter Biden and, by implication, his dad, our president Joe, scoured in the press for their own corruption.  It got worse, when president Donald Trump attempted to strongear Ukrainian president Zelensky into finding dirt on the Bidens before the 2020 election, leading to Trump’s first of two impeachments by the House, after a CIA whistleblower finked on DJ’s behavior. The second impeachment came as a result of DJ losing the 2020 election — arguably, given how very close the race was, because the first impeachment hurt him just enough to make him lose some MAGA voters. So Ukraine may have been a sleeping dogma, but, boy, when it woke up. Woof-woof America! Okay, so suddenly, Melnyczuk says we care. Fine. But why, if true? And for how long?

Those are open questions. I come here to celebrate with the Ukraine writers presented here, about a dozen, and though not enough, are at least a decent blend of that lyricism and wisdom we expect from humanity’s ancient bardic tradition.  In short, I really liked some of this stuff.

Paul Auster, a former PEN board member and author of The New York Trilogy (1987), kicks off the happening by reciting a WWI era poem by Georg Trakl called “Grodek”:

At evening the woods of autumn are full of the sound
Of the weapons of death, golden fields
And blue lakes, over which the darkening sun
Rolls down; night gathers in
Dying recruits, the animal cries
Of their burst mouths.
Yet a red cloud, in which a furious god,
The spilled blood itself, has its home, silently
Gathers, a moonlike coolness in the willow bottoms;
All the roads spread out into the black mold.
Under the gold branches of the night and stars
The sister’s shadow falters through the diminishing grove,
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, bleeding heads;
And from the reeds the sound of the dark flutes of autumn rises.
O prouder grief! you bronze altars,
The hot flame of the spirit is fed today by a more monstrous pain,
The unborn grandchildren.

One of my favorite readers was Carolyn Fourché, who said, “ I would like to read one poem I wrote for Ilya Kaminski, who was born in Odessa, and we traveled there together 20 years ago.”

She read “Exile”:

The city of your childhood rises between steppe and sea,
wheat and light,
white with the dust of cockleshells, stargazers, and bones of
city of limestone soft enough to cut with a hatchet, where the
unfurls and acacias brought by Greeks on their ships
turn white in summer. So yes, you remember, this is the city
you lost,
city of smugglers and violinists, chess players and monkeys,
an opera house, a madhouse, a ghost church with wind for its
where two things were esteemed: literature and ships, poetry
and the sea.
If you return now, it will not be as a being visible to others, and
you walk past, it will not be as if a man had passed, but rather
as if
someone had remembered something long forgotten and
wondered why.
If you return, your father will be alive to prepare for you
his mint-cucumber soup or give you the little sweet called
bird’s milk,
and after hours of looking with him for his sandals lost near
the sea,
you visit again together the amusement park where
your ancestors are buried, and then go home to the apartment
built by German prisoners of war, to whom your father gave
which you remember surprised you. You take the tram to a
where it is no longer possible to get off, and he walks
with you until he vanishes, still holding in his own your
invisible hand.

And then an untitled poem she’d written on the day that went something like this:

If there is ink for this hour, if there is
something to say to write that would send the tanks,
the convoys and transports into reverse on the roads,
they have rutted, send them back to the borders they crossed,
send them back and the hours too that have passed
since dawn on the 24th day of the second month,
send those hours with them and the enemy soldiers dragging with them,
their crematorium and the corpses of their fellow soldiers they have left behind
and their own wounded to send them back.
If there was ink, if there was something to write or say that was raised,
the city’s from the ruins, the apartment blocks, hospitals, schools
that would put the cities back as they were.
I would give everything to fill my pen with it.

Dream and reality merged in a kind of murky memorial separating past and present.

Next up was Jennifer Haigh, whose grandparents had emigrated to the US from Ukraine.

She is a PEN/Hemingway award-winning novelist, who read, in translation,  “The End and the Beginning.”

After every war, someone has to clean up.
Things won’t straighten themselves up, after all.
Someone has to push the rubble to the side of the road
so the corpse-filled wagons can pass.
Someone has to get mired in scum and ashes,
sofa springs, splintered glass and bloody rags.
Someone has to drag in a girder to prop up a wall.
Someone has to glaze a window, rehang a door.
Photogenic, it’s not, and takes years.
All the cameras have left for another war.
We’ll need to build the bridges back and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged from rolling them up.
Someone, broom in hand, still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby starting to mill about
who will find it dull from out of the bushes.
Sometimes someone still unearths rusted out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.
Those who knew what was going on here must make way
for those who know little and less than little.
And finally, as little as nothing.
In the grass that is overgrown, causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth, gazing at the clouds.

Another fine reading comes from the Ukrainian writer, translator, and poet Oksana Lutsyshyana.  Originally from Uzhhorod, Ukraine, she is currently a lecturer in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches the Ukrainian language and Eastern European literatures in translation.

Here, she reads a translation from an unknown Ukrainian poet that seems to catch the zeit vibe:

Who is on my side, you ask who is on my side?
This tree here as if it could be against you,
as if trees could be against people,
a whole park of trees, a whole forest, you could say,
and all are on your side, all of them.
And the cat is the cat against, you know, the cat is on your side.
This cat and all the world’s cats are on your side.
All your army, nimble, yellow eyed and God’s,
yours and others and everyone in the world.
Wouldn’t they help you? Of course they would. They are on your side.
How could they be against you?
And that teacher who said, Thoughts are everything.
What’s his name, Swami Dayanand? Is he against you? Why waste his time?
Of course he’s on your side, on your side.
And the sea — what, you think the sea is against you?
All its waves and pebbles and beaches, visible and invisible.
Everything is for you. Don’t doubt it.
Every day and every minute, do you hear the sea roars?
It says to you, I am on your side. On your side.
And music, which of the notes are against you, which of the melodies,
Mozart, rappers, pianists, the Academy, Orbison, Tina, Paul McCartney, no.
What are you thinking? Everyone is on your side, on your side. And there is no one
against you, and there will never be. And so love, keep on loving. Don’t be afraid

So there are four readers that I enjoyed listening to as part of the PEN America happening to lure our attention away from the necessary politicization of the Russian incursion into Ukraine, which can abstract and objectify the events happening there, to a session like this that serves to restore a sense of the humanity that suffers, while bringing us witnesses and resistance and the fuller range of human emotions beyond pointing fingers. It’s important to escape the finger-pointing of reactionary politics. It’s one of the reasons why the Bard from Duluth by way of Odessa knocked back the precious mantle of the folkie Left. He’s just a singer in a rock and roll band. His poetry and music are all he has to offer. Let the Zelenskys of the world rise from their stations to be kings of pain, as Sting would say.

It’s always a good idea to spend some time listening to poetry being recited. It reminds us of our oral roots going all the way back to the start of human civilization.  It’s a great break from the endless streams of keyboard clickety-clack that now makes up so many social lives on the internet. And this is a worthy cause — even if it is yet just another set of war laments that humans don’t seem eager to let go of any time soon. I recommend a listen,if you can spare an hour away from Twitter that’s as good as tossing a busker an ear-minute and a coupla bucks.

NOTE: Line breaks offered up are guesstimates, but look about right. There might be one or two typos due to phonetic messaging problems.


Here is a long helpful list of further Ukrainian reading/listening resources put out by the Yara Arts Group from the MaMa Experimental Theater in New York.

And also, Oksana Lutsyshyna talks feminism and modernism in Ukraine is a podcast called The Slavic Connexion. In addition, she is one of six poets featured in a piece that has poetry in Ukrainian and English in the Loch Raven Review. Plus, she has a just published novel ready for collection: Persephone from Arrowsmith Press in Boston.


Full PEN America: Ukrainian Voices Happening

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.