Ukrainian poet Borys Humenyuk’s beautiful and heartbreaking words still ring true today

During the cold winter months of late 2013 to early 2014, gunfire and smoke filled the streets of kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. The demonstrators were greeted with violence. Many were fatally injured. This event became known as Ukraine Dignity Revolutionand from there arose a distinctive poetic style: one that perfectly captures the tragic and complex experience of war.

Borys Humenyuk fought in the Dignity Revolution and found therapy writing poems on his tablet, posting them on the internet whenever he had the chance. He mentioned in an interview with a local Ukrainian newspaper“Sometimes, instead of screaming or crying, I just want to shoot the skies. Some people do – shoot their automatic guns into the sky – I write verses. Now he’s a beloved artist of his country, affectionately nicknamed “The Ukrainian version of Ernest Hemingway.”

Today, the Ukrainian people mourn again as a result of the violence. Just before dawn on February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a series of missile attacks on the city of Kharkiv, and the invasion spread to central and eastern Ukrainian territory. One of Humenyuk’s most captivating poems titled “When You Clean Your Weapon” reflects his experience in a completely different war. And yet, even years later, words still carry weight. And they help us connect with those who are hurting, even (for some of us) miles and miles away. It doesn’t take away the pain, but art and empathy are always a healing balm in one way or another.

“When You Clean Your Gun” tells the story of warfare from the perspective of a young soldier, who treats his gun like a child, swaddling it and protecting it from the rain. This happens even before the young man has held a real child. He rises into the earth which welcomes him like a womb. For a moment, he remembers his connection to nature. But then he shoots. And never again will he be able to get rid of the smell of gunpowder. Because he and the war are one.

The poem captures how humanity is lost on the battlefield, even for those who survive. We become one with the weapon, instead of each other. Violence is repeatedly chosen as the solution, and yet perpetuates the same problematic cycle…trench after trench. The truth is, the gun is never clean when fired.

“When You Clean Your Gun” by Borys Humenyuk

When you clean your gun

When time and time again you clean your gun

When rubbing strong smelling oils on your weapon

And protect it from the rain with your own body

When you swaddle him like a baby

Even if you’ve never swaddled a baby before…

You’re only nineteen, no baby, no wife –

The weapon becomes your only parent

You and the weapon are one.

When you dig trench after trench

When you dig this precious hateful earth by handfuls

Every other handful reaches your soul

You grind this earth between your teeth

You’ll never have another

You rise in the earth as in your mother’s womb

you are warm and cozy

You’ve never felt so close to someone before

You and the earth are one.

When you shoot

Even when it’s night and you can’t see the enemy’s face

Even when the night hides the enemy from you and you from the enemy

And embrace each of you as his own

You smell like gunpowder

Your hands, your face, your hair, your clothes, your shoes —

No matter how much you wash them – gunpowder smell

They smell of war

You smell the war

You and the war are one.

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