Coloring the outlines of Ukraine: Conjuring images of beautiful humans like ourselves

The day– all shades of sand
Adornments– rusted beads
So as not to haggle with a beggar
about a pail from Thebes or the Mount of Kadam
you need to become a barbarian

This is the beginning of the poem by a wonderful Ukrainian poet, Olenka Huseinova. I include it in this blog post because of the sad, amazing, and brave events that are painting themselves into the image of Ukraine. On one level, the poem is a beautiful description of how the day begins in a city, any city in the world. On another level, it brings me, and I hope you too, closer to the Ukrainian culture and society. Let me explain.

I love to travel to new countries and get to know new cultures and the inhabitants of the universe we share. But until I get to know the people of a given country, it remains vague in my mind, as if it were drawn with delicate pastels and its sea of language whispered a mystery of sounds. But as soon as my mind is populated with a single person who inhabits the foreign culture and can communicate with me, the country’s outlines become sharper and its colors more vibrant. It’s as if the country would spring up to live in front of my very eyes because of a single kind soul who takes the time to unravel the mysterious ways of living in their native land.

I was fortunate that Ukraine is one of the countries whose outlines have become more pronounced over time and my understanding of the culture became more nuanced–I began to understand the shades of meaning and ways of knowing. And in the wake of the events that are shaping its present and future right now–the struggle for Ukraine’s political independence from Russia–I’d like to describe a composite portrait of the Ukrainian people I met, so you too can get beyond the vague outlines, drawn with almost imperceptible strokes, and let your mind conjure the images of real people who happen to live there (often not their choice but their fate’s–we could have been one of them–just a thought) .

Imagine the people who are traditional meat-eaters but who’d go out of their way to cook the most delicious vegan and gluten-free dishes for me. Mmmm, can you see how a woman is chopping the cooked cauliflower, mixing it with sliced pickles, adding olive oil, salt, pepper, and voila, a delicious salad graces the table. And do you see the older gentleman who’s telling us stories about the past, about the hard life during the time when Ukraine belonged to the Soviet Union? His voice is not tinged with anger or bitterness; he’s only trying to make sense of what twists and turns his young life had taken, thirty years ago, due to the circumstances he had to accept and live in. Oh, and we’re now hidden from view, as a group of people hugs us and wishes us well (we’ve spent a couple of hours together, at a lecture and at dinner, and they are so genuinely sweet and loving). No one knows when we’ll see each other again. And the poet, the poet! She takes my hand and we walk in the streets of Kiev where in two weeks the struggle will begin. We feel like long-lost friends who do not need many words to understand each other’s plight (as poets, as lovers of language, etc, etc, etc). As we walk, she reminds me shyly, “But what about the rest of my poem?”

“With pleasure,” I say, and paste the second verse, as the night embraces the cities everywhere, at some point.

The evening. People gather.
They sit where they please
It’s no longer necessary to look for shade.
Companions keep switching between
semi sweet red
and semi sweet white
Their wrinkles flowing,
like roads,
will sing
“Soon it’ll begin.”




Karo Caran, the Rainbow Poetess, is a poet and a non/fiction writer. Her novel, "Breaking the silence: A story in paintings" focuses on the censorship of art and gay relationships in the postwar, communist Poland. Her poetry-based memoir, "Life in a Footnotes" will be published this summer.
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

4 thoughts on “Coloring the outlines of Ukraine: Conjuring images of beautiful humans like ourselves

  1. So beautiful, Karo, and evocative. I had a strong picture of the Ukraine as you visited it – before I had nothing at all in my mind, of this place or the people. You are so right about how when we don’t know a place it is fuzzy, but getting to know one person can bring reality and life to our understanding. I was struck in what you wrote about fate bringing us to whatever life we have. Someone else’s struggles could easily have been our own. Separating ourselves from the humanity, even the pain, of others is a false belief that somehow we are above their life and suffering. Maybe we are just fortunate in having landed in a different time and space. I can’t say I have paid attention to what’s going on in the Ukraine, but after reading this post I will open my attention and heart.

    • See, for me it was always the opposite–when I was growing up in Poland, I often wondered why did I have to be born there and not some place where like seemed “easier.” 🙂 I don’t worry about this anymore as I believe that my childhood experiences shaped me into who I am today, plus I wrote my novel about Poland (I would not have had such an easy access to the knowledge of everyday life). So all’s good 🙂
      Thank you for your wonderful comment, as usual!!!

  2. I am half-way paying attention to what is going on in Ukraine as I live in a province that was settled in large part by Ukrainians. Also, several years ago, at the Edmonton Poetry Festival, I had the pleasure of getting to know one of Canada’s unsung heroines (in my view),and an up and coming poet, Elizabeth Bachinsky. She has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award as well as other poetry awards, and had just recently published “god of missed connections” which was about her own journey to Ukraine to research her roots. She knew her parents were from there but knew little of the history and her small poetry book is a glimpse into the horror that was Holodomor, the dream that was coming to Canada, the travesty of Chernobyl, and so much more…

Leave a Reply to JudyStoneGoldman Cancel reply