Near Izium: A new poem by Paul Muldoon

The poet’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Shells and destroyed vehicles are seen at the former Russian storage, in Izium, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, 13 December 2022, amid Russia's military invasion. Kharkiv and surrounding areas have been the target of heavy shelling since February 2022, when Russian troops entered Ukraine starting a conflict that has provoked destruction and a humanitarian crisis. At the beginning of September, the Ukrainian army pushed Russian forces from occupied territory northeast of the country in counterattacks.
for Andrei Kurkov


Our bunker was deep, set far back in the Soviet era,
yet a rocket attack on the airport at Dnipro
came through loud and clear. Despite our video link
being decidedly on the blink
we knew the plain of Donbas was a sheet of glass
over which all hell would shortly break loose.
Since Putin has but one item on his agenda
there is but one on our agenda –
to see him strung up for his crimes
against Ukraine as the perpetrators of the pogrom
at Babi Yar were to be strung up by their heels.
We must believe the wheel
will come full circle now we try to regroup
near Izium, even if reconstituting the wizened grapes
after which the city is named means we boil
more snow for water. Our faces glow with gun oil
and blood. Our very artillery might recoil
from the task in hand had we not been offered a rare
opportunity to teach Putin the error
of his ways and refute
his Weltanschauung that is, if anything, pre-Soviet.
Refute his worldview. If anything, pre-Soviet.


For this is one time weall must heed the call to arms
and stand absolutely firm
against the threat to what is no less my homeland
than yours. If I stood firm on Snake Island
or against the convoy Putin first sent to Izium
it’s partly because my own Y chromosome
waves from the Pontic steppe. A body finds a seam
at which to burst. Whosoever will order
such a mass murder
will not only be strung up by his heels but his nose
cut off for good measure. I’ll spare you the minutiae.
The heels. The nose. I’ll spare you the minutiae.
Let’s just say that when a tank is bogged
down it takes a mere pocket
of resistance to consign that tank to the mire.
It turns out that if we must boil more
snow from the ditch
it’ll be to the accompaniment of Shostakovich.
Live by white phosphorus, die by white phosphorus.
An oligarch nudging through the Bosphorus
would do well to consider returning to the commune.
His penis-yacht is registered in Grand Cayman.


September, 1941. A fortnight after they threw a ring
of steel around Leningrad, the Nazis would fling
34,000 Jews into that ravine at Babi
Yar and cut them down. Toodle-pip.
No thought of offering a Jew a booby-
trapped chocolate bar with which they’d later reckon
on taking out Churchill. If all hell has again broken
loose over Babi Yar
it’s because that particular jar
of honey has kept fresh. Babi Yar. That particular jar
has kept fresh for almost a century.
In addition to bombing schools and health centers,
Russia’s desecrated the ravine Eberhard and Rasch
and Blobel first desecrated in 1941. Not Russia.
Putin. This is Putin’s war. That moan is the moan
of a slave taken by the Ottomans
from the Lawless Fields. A time-warp
in which Putin will scrub
the data on Gorbachev and perestroika.
When it comes to an air strike
on a school, not even his Ministry of Culture
has the nerve to suggest the damage is collateral.


To gaze out over the burning lake of Acheron
is to gaze at the ruins
of Liman and try to comprehend
how Putin has managed to overextend
himself so disastrously. He must believe the lance
is still used in battle given how his supply lines
have been disrupted. Nil aon smeara gan dealg
is a notion any ideologue
should commit to memory before thinking to deploy
a 40 mile convoy
of vintage tanks. It may well be that Bellerophon
rode Pegasus over the heads of orphans
and widows. To cut down 34,000 Jews in the ravine
of Babi Yar is one thing but to wreck
the memorial’s quite another. That’s why an oligarch
nudging through the Bosphorus will be hunted down
and ridden out of town.
Nudge-nudge. Hunted down. Ridden out of town
on his own mast. It’s not only over Donbas all hell
will break loose. Whosoever throws a body in a hole
and leaves one hand
sticking out must high-five it on the witness stand.


The idea that you can’t have “blackberries
without the bramble-barbs” is one we must impress
upon any despot entering the lists
with his outmoded lance. The constant missile-blasts
over Mariupol and Mykolaiv
were meant to grind us down but we now believe
we can give even an asteroid
a corrective push. Air raid after air raid
may be meant to grind us down but Nato
has afforded us the wherewithal to coordinate
our artillery units.
A soundtrack of Shostakovich’s quacks, hoots,
pants and gasps. We will score a direct hit
on whomsoever would descecrate
that memorial on the outskirts
of Kyiv. A sacred memorial. Always on the outskirts.
Though we’ve lived for months in a dank
basement while our anti-tank
guns have staved off Putin’s bombardment,
living in that basement
and sleeping under the filthiest of bedspreads
won’t ever dampen our spirits.


It may be that the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks
have reduced the risk that his own tinderbox
will blow up in Putin’s face
yet he continues to threaten to light the fuse
as he tries to recreate the court of Peter the Great
in Leningrad, a Leningrad
complete with troubadours. We launch kamikaze
drones against Pegasus as one Ivan flung a goose
insult at a second Ivan
in that story by Nikolai Gogol. There’ll be no haven
for those who’ve left a foot in a felt boot
sticking out of a pit.
Putin is destined to have one close call
after another as he strums his banjo-ukulele.
Let’s not forget it was Gogol
who invented the term poshlost for the all-time-low
that’s now our permanent state. Yet we’ll deal a blow
that will leave our would-be Tsar
in further disarray.
Our would-be Tsar. Poshlost. Total disarray.
He’ll find it hard to simultaneously strum and pick
with his hands tied behind his back.


Now Putin has had to abandon so much materiel
as he’s been ridden out of town on a rail
he’s taken notice. Putin. His name means both
“path” and “psychopath.”
Widows and orphans are gathering fuel
in a blasted vale
while Bellerophon’s given Pegasus free rein
to ride roughshod over Ukraine.
The grain loaded into a six-oar gig is the grain
the world’s bakers
mix with sawdust for bread. When he plays poker
with a nuclear plant, Putin forgets it’s Moscow
he’ll lay waste. His poker-face and his death-mask
will be one and the same. Death-mask.
Poker-face. One and the same for Vladimir Putin.
So many drones have been flown courtesy of Biden
against his Black Sea fleet
it goes without saying all those who’ve followed Vlad
to the Lawless Fields must end up in clabber
to the knee. He’s so low on missiles he uses Kalibrs
for any routine barrage.
He still smarting from having lost that Crimea bridge.


To live on an instalment plan in a pine wood
near Izium is to have a crash course in what’s what.
White phosphorus. Phosphorus. White.
It’s never too late to impress upon
a demagogue stockpiling chemical weapons
the wind can quickly take a nasty turn.
A combination of our jerry-rigged drones –
by which I may mean our jury-rigged drones –
and much superior artillery fire
will carry the day. The booby trap and the tripwire
may slightly impede us yet we’re emboldened
to search out Piltdown’s
willing executioners, the new Rasches, Eberhards,
and Blobels whom we’ll bury in a backyard
with our fallen countrymen. I myself will call it quits
when their faces, too, are eaten off by cats
and dogs. Whosoever
has ordained that Ukraine suffer
strangulation must himself be put in a chokehold.
For it’s time to call a complete halt
to Putin’s escapades, time for him to count the cost
of his ill-thought-out plan for global conquest.


That we’re now able to deliver a Molotov cocktail
by drone is an indicator of the scale
of our improvisation. We’ve learned to outmaneuver
Putin whilst living on the never-never.
That moan must be the moan
of one who’s fallen foul of an antipersonnel mine
somehow left on the slip
where an oligarch’s sloop
has put in. The supply line for Château Latour,
truffles, and caviar must be an artery
disrupted in the sense it’ll be unclogged.
As for Putin himself, may he fetch up in a gulag
wearing a triangular armband
that stands for “knackered.” I won’t belabor the point
but he mustn’t simply be put out to grass.
He must eat rat-rations. He must eat candle-grease.
Let his pillow be stuffed with gorse
And common broom.
Let him find no rest in the bosom of Abraham
but forever go off at half cock
across the Dnieper in a six- or eight-oared black gig.
Across the Dnieper. At half cock. A black gig.

Paul Muldoon has published more than 30 collections whose awards include a Pulitzer and TS Eliot prize. He was recently appointed Ireland Professor of Poetry