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War in Ukraine shapes writings of Romanian poet

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, we spent the last few days in Romania reporting on the effects of Russia's attack on Ukraine, especially the massive refugee crisis the war has caused. At times, it's been hard to find words to express what this country is witnessing. But one man is trying to do that - Claudiu Komartin. He's a celebrated poet here in Romania, and we visited with him to learn how the war has shaped his writing. When we spoke, he explained how he felt when he first learned that Russia had invaded Ukraine.

CLAUDIU KOMARTIN: Fright. Frightened. I was shocked because, of course, we've been aware of what was happening, the exercises. But I didn't think this would escalate to a war. I thought it was just a game, a geopolitical game.

MARTIN: Do you remember when the first people started coming across from Ukraine and what that felt like or how it - how you experienced it?

KOMARTIN: Yes. It happened very fast. I mean, after only a few days, it started, this huge wave of refugees. And my wife and my children were in the north of the country. She's from Suceava at the border. So she was telling me and sending me photos of what was happening there. Suceava is a relatively small town - 150,000 people - and there were tens of thousands of refugees in a matter of 10 days. But the people in Suceava and the whole - that part of Romania reacted immediately, and they were very welcoming and helped a lot.

MARTIN: Did that surprise you?

KOMARTIN: I have to say that it surprised me. I wasn't aware that Romanians are prepared for this kind of shocking event and that they will mobilize so fast.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is, that they were - that they did do it and that they were able to do it?

KOMARTIN: I guess it's a feeling of solidarity because we've had our share of sad stories with the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. So we know something about that, even if it's something that happened 80 years ago.

MARTIN: I'm imagining that this just brings up so many feelings. And I think that one of your gifts as a poet is that you give voice to feelings that people have that they don't necessarily have the words to express. What do you think this brings up for people?

KOMARTIN: It's a sense of anger, of hate, of course, of muteness because I have to say that I find my words very difficult. I mean, I even thought that after the last things we heard of, we might have to come up with new words. We might have to invent some new words for this.

MARTIN: You mean in part because of the atrocities that we're now learning about?

KOMARTIN: Because of the atrocities and the genocide.

MARTIN: It is disgusting, isn't it? It's just - you know, you want to say you're not shocked, but you are shocked, aren't you? I mean, don't you find yourself when you say, oh, well, we know what people are capable of because people are capable of atrocities. We've seen this. But it is shocking, isn't it?

KOMARTIN: It is more than shocking. But all these words from a certain point have no meaning anymore. You can say it's heartbreaking, it's shocking, it's monstrous. But these are only cold (ph) words from a certain point. And the reality is so biting and so violent, the atrocity, that you just feel it in your guts. And that's what's more difficult to express.

MARTIN: Do you feel that this experience will change your work?

KOMARTIN: I feel this experience will change me, and everything that changes me changes my work.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for talking with us. I would love to hear some of your work, if you would. There's a poem that I was particularly interested in, and you've been kind enough to translate it as well. So if you would just tell us the - does it - have you titled it? Does it have a...

KOMARTIN: Yes. It's called (speaking Romanian), which is "Poem For Those Who Follow." And it was written in Romanian, of course, and translated with a good friend, an American from Arizona who's living here, Andrew Davidson-Novosivschei, who did a very good job, I think.

MARTIN: Would you mind reading it first in Romanian and then if you wouldn't mind reading it in English?

KOMARTIN: (Speaking Romanian).

There is a war in the making. The blood hardening in veins soon will move slow as bus. And when its cursing through the streets we'll understand. There were decades of overproduction, of crude waste, of alienation and agony. Blood as precious as acid rain, as perspiration, as dirt refuse. Cheap blood, imperfect like Chinese toys. Blood for oil, hope, and the garbage collected and rolling in the eye. Weapons now are obsolete, and the hands gripping them cracked and dried. A kind of end, metastasis. Under radioactive clouds, false prophets. And when we know what we have to do, there will be nothing we can do. The word mercy will catch in the throat like a rubber ball used in bastard rituals. It begins and ends with us. With the mild and the lethal, us, piled in order of religion, gender, race, sore but proud of our art and atrocities which left only this behind, this carcass. Here lies man. You may admire his delicate hand. Try not to touch him. He isn't completely dead. Don't let him lick your hand. He's waiting for that so he can bite you. He thought he was immortal for having painted the Sistine Chapel. Like a good master, he separated the abject and the filth. Now he spends eternity with just a handful of flies. There's no good word to describe us in the dictionaries of those who follow.

MARTIN: That was Romanian poet Claudiu Komartin reciting his piece "Poem For Those Who Follow."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.