The Innkeeper of Kyiv
Poets have always responded to war by writing poetry — it’s what we do. Following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia on 24th February this year people started sending The Friday Poem their poems about the war — poems about resistance, poems of protest, and poems about specific individuals affected by the fighting. These are stories of courage, grief and hope. We have decided to publish some every week as Friday Poems for Ukraine. Here’s ‘The Innkeeper of Kviv’ by Christopher James, inspired by the story of a bar owner who’s decided to keep his bar open in central Kviv, no matter what happens. The last three lines are taken from the poem ‘Testament’ by Tara Shevchenko, the 19th century national poet of Ukraine, who wrote them in the context of oppression of Ukraine from the Tsar of Russia. Horlika is a type of vodka, and Segodnya, is the word for Today, the name of the largest newspaper in Ukraine. Slava Ukraini!
The Innkeeper of Kyiv
I will keep open the doors to my bar
on Khreschatyk Street, and leave the lid
unscrewed on the horilka. While Kyiv shakes,
I’ll let its bottle-light of honey and amber fall
across the page of Segodnya that tells
the story of how our world has changed.
This is where our heroes dream; where they
drink with the ghosts of those that came before:
the ones who fought the night of the long fire,
or rode to Kaffa, where the land meets the sea.
I will press a glass into the hand of any man
or woman who still calls themselves free.
What hopes, what hands, what hearts have
been won in this place? I’ll fetch the phonograph
from the back room and play loud the songs
of Bilash; Dva Kolyory will fill our hearts again.
We have genius to spare. But let me be
the first to drink to the god that ordained
a man from Ukraine should invent the helicopter,
those damselflies of steel and death.
Igor Sikorsky how could you have known?
Let them take wing back to the rivers of Russia.
And Mihkail Gruschevsky, where are you tonight?
I’ve left a place by the window, with pen
and ink, and paper enough for you to write
the next chapter of our history. For once, and I
do not say this lightly, I will even allow poems
to be read, with a glass, spilling over, for anyone
who can summon the words of Taras Shevchenko:
‘Such is our glory, sad and plain,
The glory of our own Ukraine!’