“Russia is a place without live apricot trees”

The coal, but now also the war and the Russian propaganda, have given Donbass an even grayer break than before – also in Ukraine, explains the Ukrainian poet Ljuba Jakumtyuk. Growing up in the coal-mining town of Pervomaisk in Donbass, in eastern Ukraine, apricots were “everything.”

— – We cooked everything with apricots – sweets – but we also made vodka.

When she wrote her collection of poems “Aprikoser i Donbas” it was with the motto “where Russia begins, the apricot trees disappear” which she describes as a direct reflection of reality. The wild trees were once planted as windbreaks on the steppe, now many are burned and charred due to the war.

— There are lots of apricot trees in this area but near the Russian border they just disappear, when I was a child everyone knew that Russia is a place without live apricot trees.

Ljuba Jakumtjuk experienced the war on the ground in Donbass in 2014; today, Russian soldiers live in her childhood home, they sleep in her parents’ bed, neighbors have told her, she says, asking rhetorically: “can you imagine that?”.

The poems that have been translated into Swedish are about this first war, and not about the large-scale invasion in 2021, which she also wrote about. While the prose writers have testified to the impossibility of depicting the ongoing war here and now, the poetry works excellently, she emphasizes. Today’s poetry readings in Ukraine are also well attended.

— Poetry is a short genre, you can experiment, work with language to find a new way to talk about war. It is not so easy when one’s friends are dead and when one’s home is under occupation.

“Only Decay”

“war has no poetry / only decay / only letters / and everyone just – rrrr” writes Ljuba Jakumtyuk, who belongs to a linguistically playful generation of Ukrainian poets. She started school in 1992 in independent Ukraine. Excited and energetic, she recounts how, unlike her parents, she was allowed to rediscover the Ukrainian Futurist poet Mychaijl Semenko, who was shot by Stalin’s regime in 1937 and whose books were purged from libraries and destroyed.

— He is, in a way, part of my family and my teacher. I studied his biography and have been researching the archives about him, he is very cool and I am trying to understand how his poetry works.

The war affects the vocabulary, she states. “Bledina” (big whore) is called Russian missiles, while “mopedy” stands for Russian drones that sound like mopeds. The very word “war” – “vijna” in Ukrainian – she has stopped using.

— It’s ruined – empty – it’s just a waste of people’s attention, she says and talks about one of her latest poems, which in English has the title “When the war was ended” but which in Ukrainian is called “Nern det konde” in short .

Only then will it also be possible to depict the total darkness of war and only that, she reasons. Now she feels she has an obligation to “not traumatize literature” but also to give glimpses of faith in the future.

Sharper feelings

Her poems about war also contain love and passion. Today’s Ukrainian reality makes the feelings sharper, she thinks.

— I had not experienced it before, if you have a strong relationship it becomes even stronger, bad relationships end during war. It will be an opportunity to start something new. Such is the Ukrainian reality now, when the war started in 2014, I was in a less than good relationship and I decided to divorce.

“Aprikoser i Donbas” was translated into Swedish earlier this year and is now published in seven languages. Ljuba Jakumtyuk does not think that it is the war that spreads her poetry around the world, but the Ukrainian struggle for independence. The previously objectified Ukraine is now seen as a subject, she reasons. It also increases the world’s interest in culture.

— Nobody likes losers.

Poetry readings in Ukraine are very well attended, says Ljuba Jakumtjuk, whose poetry collections are published in new editions.