I spent last year living in Kiev on a Fulbright grant, and returned in July. Since, news of the conflict in Ukraine has pinned me to the grim headlines at all hours. Odessa’s conflagration struck an especially heartsick chord: this city of flaneurs, idylls, poems, and its own brand of off-color humor ought, I thought, to be immune from these harsh blows. The violence struck at my sun-drenched memories, at the literary heart of this seaside city, and frightened me into poetry.
I’m thinking about the fire in Odessa.
I’m dreaming about fire licking down the avenues
lined with lindens overlooking the sea.
And Count Richelieu waving
endlessly through flames. And Catherine the Great
outlined in smoke on her pedestal.
And the black-and-orange colors and the blue-and-yellow colors
consumed alike, and their bearers.
This is a city of jokes
told in their own ribald patois
under acacia trees —
Odessity have their own dialect
filled with dirty words homegrown and foreign,
and here Isaac Babel’s
legendary Jewish gangsters were born.
A city I fell in love with; which I loved in;
whose streets change names
again and again but never change cobbles.
Odessa has its own champagne: a lousy
brew, like bread; it leaves
sugar on your lips,
it leaves you wanting.
I’m thinking about those stones- on
Deribasovskaya Street – wrenched loose
and flung at heads and windows,
when better those same cobblestones should warm
feet that walk to the water; smooth as palms,
and silent about all they’ve seen,
and the blue Black Sea brocaded
at its north lip by lime-white cliffs
and willows with ashes in their hair.
Odessa had thought herself
too old for this, and put on airs,
a woman with a smile on her lips,
salt caking her feet.
But the old spirit hungers still,
the old violence, the moons
of bullet marks on the Potemkin steps.
Our new century adorns itself
in pearls of blood.