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from ‘On the Road to Lviv’.


The faithful chanting in Armenian
At vespers in Ivano-Frankivsk, shaped
The way I posed for a photograph outside
The church—between a pair of Christmas trees
Festooned with lights, which framed a cross or khachkar,
Altar, and iconostasis sculpted
Out of a block of river ice. Natalya
Would add this photograph to her report
On my diplomatic mission, which would be filed
At the State Department upon my departure
And never seen again unless events
Of a political or military
Nature created a new aperture
Through which to view what I could not envision
On this or my next mission to Ukraine,
After the revolution: how the rise
Of forces independent of Kyiv
Would usher in a different understanding
Of the relationships between Ukraine
And Russia, autocrats and democracy,
NATO and all the unaligned pretenders
To crowns imagined, literal, and forgotten.
Nor did I register how many Jews
And educated Poles were murdered here
During the Nazi occupation of what
Was then called Stanisławów, not to mention
The Soviet shootings and deportations
To gulags in Siberia at the start
Of World War Two. As for Stepan Bandera—
Nazi collaborator, Russian foe,
And future Hero of Ukraine? I knew
Only that he was born near where I stood
And was extolled throughout the area.
Tight-lipped Natalya did not dare to speak
About his dream of pure Ukrainians
Born of selective breeding and the deaths
Of Jews. The KGB used cyanide
To murder him in 1959,
In Munich, where he had enjoyed the protection
Of former SS men, who had allowed him
To kill and kidnap undesirables
Until the authorities forced him to stop.
What Zagajewski foresaw in the final
Lines of his poem—so much death awaits you
Was true not only of his native city
In World War Two but everywhere in Ukraine
During the war of 2022.
His question—why must every city become
Jerusalem and every man a Jew?
Might have been on the lips of anyone
Awaiting the arrival of the missiles
Launched from the Sea of Azov or the air
Space of their ruthless neighbor to the east.
Not that I saw this coming at the church
Or anywhere I traveled in the region
After the annexation of Crimea—
To Moscow and Smolensk, to Yerevan
And Warsaw, Kharkiv and St. Petersburg.
Natalya ushered me into the van.
The night train to Kyiv was leaving soon.

CHRISTOPHER MERRILL has published seven collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and translations; and six books of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, and Self-Portrait with Dogwood. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages; his journalism appears widely; his honors include a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres from the French government, numerous translation awards, and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial and Ingram Merrill Foundations. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa since 2000, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries. He served on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO from 2011 to 2018, and in April 2012 President Barack Obama appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities. On the Road to Lviv was published by Arrowsmith Press in 2023.

Image credit.
Bust of Taras Shevchenko in foreground, Borodianka urban settlement, Kyiv region. © Celestino Arce Lavin/ZUMAPRESS/picture alliance. Courtesy of the Ukrainian Institute.

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