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Europe Letter: When poems are written in blood

From Flanders, to Gaza, to the frontline in Ukraine, poets foretold their deaths a century apart

The light streaks down from a vast grey sky on to the tilted grave markers, sodden earth and the splintered trunk of a tree.

Hanging in Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Heaven Weeping upon the Rubble by Jakob Smits shows a scene that was immortalised, above all, by poets: the ruined fields of Flanders in the wake of the first World War.

“We are the dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie, / In Flanders fields.”

These were the lines composed by the Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae after he buried a close friend alongside thousands of others during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium in May 1915.


Some poets wrote of their own deaths. Wilfred Owen imagined his journey into the underworld, encountering a man who tells him, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” He was killed in combat a week before the Armistice in 1918.

On Friday, a volunteer soldier in Ukraine, Maksym Kryvtsov, published a poem on his Facebook page.

“My bones / will sink into the earth,” he wrote, in a translation by Christine Chraibi. “My shattered gun / will rust”.

“How I wish it were spring / to finally / bloom / as a violet.”

A well-known figure in Ukraine, Kryvtsov had published a volume called Poems from the Battlefield last year, and had mused on whether death might bring him renown.

“I can become a classic / Only if I die in the war,” he wrote, in a translation by Yaroslav Trofimov. “I could win the Nobel / The Nobel Prize for dreams / That’s one thing I’ve got in plenty.”

Kryvtsov was killed on the frontline this weekend, aged 33, the literary organisation PEN Ukraine announced. His death was mourned as the latest loss in a young generation fiercely committed to Ukraine’s independent path, who have been cut through by Russia’s invasion.

A month earlier, another poet was killed 2,000 kilometres away.

“If I must die / you must live / to tell my story,” the Gazan writer and English literature professor Refaat Alareer wrote in a poem he posted on X on November 1st.

The sight of the shattered city skylines of Gaza and of Mariupol, with their appalling civilian death counts and mass graves, is a sign of a retreat from international norms

“To buy a piece of cloth / and some strings / (make it white with a long tail) / so that a child, somewhere in Gaza / while looking heaven in the eye... sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above / and thinks for a moment an angel is there / bringing back love”.

“If I must die / let it bring hope/ let it be a tale”.

Alareer was killed by an Israeli airstrike on December 7th at the age of 44.

The poem went viral internationally. A prominent voice from Gaza as well as an influential teacher of generations of students, Alareer’s death prompted an outpouring of grief around the world, where he had many friends.

Among them was Tony Groves, an Irish podcast producer who had corresponded with Alareer until shortly before his killing. The now-famous poem reflects Alareer’s playfulness with language, according to Groves.

“He loved puns and wordplay. So the repetition of “with a long tail” and “let it be a tale” was deliberate, instructive and a pun that he’d have enjoyed writing,” Groves said. “Refaat wrote that Gaza was only a story away, and now his tale is part of that story.”

Alareer was reportedly killed in his sister’s home along with this brother, sister, and four nieces and nephews.

The sight of the shattered city skylines of Gaza and of Mariupol, with their appalling civilian death counts and mass graves, is a sign of a retreat from the international norms hammered out to protect humanity in the ashes of the second World War.

The destruction of culture, whether the bombardment of ancient heritage sites of Gaza, the sacking of museums in the occupied cities of Ukraine, or the killing of long lists of artists and writers, indicates the encroachment of conflict into areas of life that those who survived the world wars had resolved to protect.

The International Court of Justice, established 1945, and the Genocide Convention, adopted by the Nations General Assembly in 1948, are both products of that aspirational time.

As lawyers representing South Africa and Israel face each other in court in The Hague on Thursday and Friday, to argue whether Israel has violated its obligations as a signatory of that convention, it will be a test of the endurance of those old ideals.