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Poem of the week: Rocket in the Room by Oksana Maksymchuk

Poem of the week: Rocket in the Room by Oksana Maksymchuk

Rocket in the Room

what the rocket has in common
with the room full of children
is its current location

somebody thought the rocket
belonged to the room with children
and now it’s here

in time
someone else will come
and collect the pieces

of the rocket and of the children
weeping and shouting insults
at the sky

but for now
this rocket and these children
are an unsorted matter

a puzzle
awaiting a solution

Born in Lviv in 1982, Oksana Maksymchuk is a bi-lingual poet and translator, working in her native Ukrainian and English. Rocket in the Room is from her first collection to appear in the UK, Still City: Diary of an Invasion.

In Advice to a Young Poem, Maksymchuk warns, “Stay little, poem / fine and sharp like a charm // mysterious / a maker of no sense”. The “no sense” of destruction is always present in Still City, with minimally punctuated syntax reiterating the lack of safe boundaries between violent death and daily life. The portrayal of friendships, feasts, pets and other homely pleasures may be interrupted not only by violence but with shocked admission by the speaker of incredulity, guilt, self-questioning or denial. Both “the pity of war” (in Wilfred Owen’s phrase) and the psychology of war are substantially present.

Rocket in the Room approaches the concussion of realities in a more abstract manner than typical. For Sasha Dugdale, who writes an excellent foreword to the current volume, it references Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “pure joke”, which he interpreted as the “essential inner side of mourning”.

As the word “rocket” hints, for an English or American reader, at least, there’s a reminder of the “dark” nursery rhyme Rock-a-Bye Baby. But as it unfolds its simple, logical thinking the poem seems most of all to imitate a story told to, or by, a child. In the second stanza particularly, the attempted explanation heightens rather than lessens the strangeness of the encounter: “somebody thought the rocket / belonged in the room with the children / and now it’s here”. A sensible adult reader might express astonishment at the implication of a single perpetrator. They would say there was no single person responsible, the slaughter may even have been accidental, the motive not to kill children specifically. But the simpler story has its own rationality, which is sharpened if “translated” into the negative. No one thought the rocket did not belong in the room with the children, no one found the possible presence of children a check to its launch.

The brevity of the climax, “and now it’s here”, leaves the horror unspoken and, to some extent, unseeable. But as the poem continues it forces the reader to see just enough: “in time / someone else will come / and collect the pieces // of the rocket and of the children”. Maksymchuk temporarily cuts through depersonalisation, makes us hear someone “weeping and shouting insults / at the sky”. If the image of the scattered “pieces” that include body parts and rocket remains, hasn’t disrupted logic and stirred our pity and terror enough, this outcry surely takes us into the centre of the trauma.

Immediately, though, the even tenor of the first stanza is resumed. The relationship of the rocket and the children, what they had “in common”, was initially defined by their shared location: now together they form “an unsorted matter // a puzzle / awaiting a solution”. The word “matter” is double-edged, and suggests not only the situation but the reduction of live bodies to mere matter.

The image of the scattered puzzle reflects the child’s world: we can imagine spilt Lego or jigsaw pieces, and, in those contexts, we can imagine a solution. But of course the poem is saying that there’s no solution. The puzzle becomes that of the war and all its “unsorted matter”; this particular rocket and these particular dead children have become the problem of war itself.

Maksymchuk unsettles the English lyric. Her concise mastery of its idioms allows her to look deep into the radical estrangement war delivers, and take fresh poetic bearings. The 20th century established a strong tradition of central and eastern European poetry in English: many of Maksymchuk’s poems suggest that a new generation has begun to participate in this distinguished tradition.

Source: theguardian.com