It was 1933. Twenty-five thousand kulaks a day
were starving in the streets of Eastern Ukraine
and children had begun to go missing. In a market
in Poltava, meat appeared where none had been
before. Mothers forbade their little ones to leave
the house. But they perished so quickly, some
slew their weakest and fed the flesh to other,
stronger, children. Better to serve your own
than have them hunted in the streets and sold
in place of bread.
With Elizabeth Bachinsky’s third trade poetry collection, god of missed connections (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2009), the Vancouver poet returns to some of the structural concerns of her previous Nightwood collection, Home of Sudden Service (2006). In this new collection, Bachinsky writes lyric poems that explore a series of small stories, moving from her earlier collection of small-town suburban teenage struggles to a series of threads that include her immediate British Columbia, Ukrainian histories and the histories of Ukrainian-Canadians, from Robert’s Creek to Chernobyl to work camps. Much like some of the poems in Home of Sudden Service, why do her small-town poems of working class people have so much anger in them? Where does this anger come from?
I HATE WORKING AT THE SUPERMARKET
Seven years. Fuck you, paper or plastic.
I see some girl come through the doors.
We went to high school together.
I don’t want to see her
seeing me in my smock. Is this a smock?
I don’t care. I stock the milk.
I hate working at the supermarket.
I hate the people. All of them buying stuff
they’re going to eat. I’m never hungry.
I make some money, I go home.
I like to drink. I don’t care what you think.
Last week the manager sent out an email
that said get happy or go home, more or less.
Did he mean me? What if I just went home?
On a hot day, I stand in the backroom
in the fridge where it’s really cold,
where the butchers keep the beef
and the chicken.
At the core of this collection is the author working through Ukrainian stories, from an author with her own Ukrainian ancestry. As Bachinksy writes in her postscript:
The history of Ukraine and of Ukrainians in Canada is fraught with tragedy, warfare, ethnic conflicts, racism, anti-Semitism, political intrigue, ecological disasters. There are stories of great bravery and bloodthirsty conquests, esoteric practices, and strange, strange rituals. It’s a history that goes back thousands of years and begins somewhere on horseback on the Pontic steppe, guzzling blood from the skulls of its enemies. Dig deep enough through the midden and you’ll hit burial chambers the size, shape and vintage of Egyptian pyramids. Cross the Atlantic and you see it through the barbed wire of internment camps in what is now Canada’s national parks system.Part of what makes this collection work is the series of loose threads that weave their way through, writing her stories and writing out histories, but has she gone far enough? Will there be a further book by Bachinsky to properly tell some of these basic histories that she touches upon, skims, references, telling stories out of context sometimes, and without any more information than a poem can provide? Where will she tell these stories that she, herself, says her people need to listen to, and to know?
By now, it is impossible to encapsulate all that is Ukrainian. It is an ethnicity that is, by its very nature, fractured, diasporic, transient; there is no one definition of what it is to be Ukrainian. It’s not a new story, nor an unknown one, but there are over one million persons who claim Ukrainian heritage living in Canada today, and I suspect many of them, particularly people of my generation, are unaware of some basic history about both the Old Country and the New.
I can say this because I was one of them.
[Elizabeth Bachinksy is currently touring, and reads Friday night at the Carleton Tavern in Ottawa]