Reading the Open Wound of War:  A Review of Westheimer’s, A Sword in Both Hands

February 23rd revealed the one-year anniversary of Putin’s war on Ukraine. I remember well its start, the sound of bombs dropping on faraway cities over the airwaves of NPR, CBC, BBC.  It was a year ago this day that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s name began to roll off our tongues and appear in social media memes that ultimately hinted not only of his personal and charismatic strength, but wide support of his country’s sovereignty. I remember my own anguish at this unjust act of aggression at the heels of the world weathering Covid and just beginning to emerge from the controlling grip of the pandemic. Simply unfathomable.

As is the way of poets and readers, we seek the trail of words that will offer us greater understanding of not only ourselves, but the greater world around us.  It was with great anticipation that I awaited publication of Dick Westheimer’s poetry collection A Sword in Both Hands:  Poems Responding to Russia’s War on Ukraine (Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2022).  And was well worth the wait.

I’m struck first by the beauty of the cover created by Ukrainian artist Olga Morozova.  It captures the blue and yellow tones that have surfaced widely in the support of a country whose flag sports these very colors of field and sky.  It’s a lovely accompaniment of color and energy to the book’s poems and represents the strength, beauty, and spirit of those under siege.

The book is dedicated to “the people of Ukraine and refugees and truth-tellers everywhere.”  In fact, a visit to Westheimer’s blog will not only walk you through news articles that inspired the writing of his poems, but acknowledges that all proceeds from this collection will go to the Ukraine Trust Chain which is a network of volunteers that works to move people from war-torn areas in Ukraine to safe zones.

“Holodomor” leads the collection, unveiling a methodical listing of disappearance and death in the shade of year of war:  Fish, songbird, the good, the generous, “the prostitutes [that survive] their johns.”  As the poem moves outward, it ends with the idea that we all too often share, “that it can’t happen here.”  Poems following document the everyday:  Shuffling the cards for Durak, a long-played card game, the baking of bread, scouring of pots and pans, the trash collector going about his business of lifting and emptying cans, while young clubbers stumble their way home.  War is at the edges, but not yet trampling upon the moment.

One of the clear news to poetry connections is that of the poem, “A Ukrainian Woman Confronts a Russian Soldier in Henechesk.”  This, widely reported on at the time, recalls the occasion of a woman asking an enemy soldier to carry sunflower seeds in his pocked so that they may sprout upon his death in her country.  The poem begins with the question, “What seeds will you carry?” and ends with the reflection, “What will grow from the breakdown of your life / depends on the seeds you carry when that time arrives.”

As is the way of war, the innocent bear the brunt of destruction.  Neither children nor animals can escape the brutality of conflict and often surface in the poems gathered here. In his poem, “An Open Letter to the Poets, Editors, and Redditors Who Have Moved on from War,” Westheimer calls to task those whose duty is to stay the course, to continue writing about the conditions and consequences of the war, to not leave it to chase the story of the day, “billionaires in space” as example. His final stanza in this poem reads,

So here’s your prompt for next week’s poem: war

never ends.  The dead speak in blank verse.

The dispossessed scatter like bitter alyssum seed.

It is with a poet’s eye that I appreciate Westheimer’s exploration of form.  “Demi-Sonnet for the Dead” is just that, a half sonnet that reveals not the living, but the burying of those made victims of war. The speaker has a preference for pine-box or ash-urn burials, but never ditch or pit, and that burial, when done properly, requires “…one sifted fistful at a time, / dirt mixed with tears.  Sometimes blood.”  The collection’s concluding poem is “Ghazal for the Trees,” a fitting end that offers some hope that war is like seasons, that as it comes it also goes.  This ghazal hints of peace, of the song to be sung to trees.

Poet Dick Westheimer reminds us that while the war may not physically be outside our door, we nonetheless bear witness to these events and the stories that emerge. Overall, A Sword in Both Hands is a superb collection, and one to add to the shelf of keepers.

A Sword in Both Hands can be purchased from Sheila-Na-Gig Editions.

Author: kerstenchristianson

Kersten Christianson is a raven-watching, moon-gazing, high school English-teaching Alaskan. She serves as poetry editor of the quarterly journal Alaska Women Speak. Her latest collection of poetry is Curating the House of Nostalgia (Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2020). Kersten holds an MFA from the University of Alaska. @kerstenak

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