The Unmentionable Odour of Death

In his poem ‘September 1, 1939’ WH Auden (1907-1973) referred to the ‘unmentionable odour of death’. That was at the outbreak of the 2nd World War. But now we are into the second month of Putin’s war against Ukraine and the revelations from Bucha recalls Auden’s line, but sadly, even if the odour of death is unmentionable, we can well imagine it, all that way, away from the actual grim and unspeakable horror that is Bucha. Another name in the long list of place names, now forever associated with human despoliation and shame.

In the same volume of poetry Auden wrote a short poem ‘Epitaph On a Tyrant’ in which the protagonist was ‘greatly interested in armies and fleets’ and ‘when he cried the little children died in the streets’. We all know who the tyrant is and who is dying, who is being butchered at his calling. It is the proxy suffering allied as it is with powerlessness to restore some semblance of humanity in the tyrant’s chill-cold heart that is so troubling and distressing.

When Nikolai Vaptsarov (1909-1942), a Bulgarian who was executed by fascists in 1942 at the age of 32 years wrote about war, in a poem-letter to his mother, he said


            You search other women’s eyes,

            hoping to find comfort there-

            but they too are full of grief,

            tears well up, tears everywhere.

            Maybe a brother has been killed,

            maybe a loved one’s met his death,

            maybe the fragment of a shell

            has put an end to radiant youth.

            Maybe the woman, like myself,

            is waiting vainly for some news

            while all the time the humid earth

            already holds him in embrace …


Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), writing about Czechoslovakia, might as well have been writing about Ukraine. It is a warning of what might happen, what we might yet forfend:

            They took        quickly, they took       hugely,

            took the mountains and their entrails.

            They took our coal, and took our steel

            from us, lead they took also and crystal.


            Vary     they took and Tartras             they took,

            they took the near at hand and far away.

            But      worse than taking paradise on earth from us

            they won the battle for our native land


            But while our mouths have spittle in them

            the whole country      is still armed.

That’s what I hope for Ukraine. That whilst there’s still spittle in the mouth, the whole country is still armed.  

Irina Ratushinskaya (1954-2017) in her volume of poetry, Pencil Letter, written whilst she was exiled in labour camp at the behest of the Kremlin, has that questioning, almost perplexed tone, of disbelief at the inhumanity of the system. In the poem ‘I remember an abandoned church’, she wrote

            I remember an abandoned church near Moscow:

            The door ajar, and the cupola shattered.

            And screening her child with her hand,

            The Virgin Mother quietly mourning-

That the boy’s feet are bare,

And once again the cold is at hand

That it’s so terrible

To let one’s dark-eyed child

Walk off across the snows of Russia – forever – no one knows where –

To be crucified by his people, too…

Not that we need reminding but so many mothers’ children have been sent without shoes or food to do the tyrant’s bidding, far away from home without good reason. And many will return in body bags, radiant youth, extinguished! And Osip Mandelstam’s (1891-1938) poem ‘Poem to the Unknown Soldier’ speaks to this:


            Rain, bleak sower 

            of the air’s anonymous manna, remembers

            how the forest of little crosses marked

            the ocean of mud, the wedge of war.

            The freezing, ill people

            will kill, starve and be cold;

            And the unknown soldier will be laid

            to rest in his famous tomb.


Now to think of motives for war. Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012), writing of the 20th century in her poem ‘Hatred’:

            See how efficient it still is,

How it keeps itself in shape-

our century’s hatred.

How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.

How rapidly it pounces, tracks us down.


One religion or another-

whatever gets it ready, in position.

Our fatherland or another-

whatever helps it get a running start.

Justice also works well at the outsell

until hate gets its own momentum going.

Hatred. Hatred.

Its face twisted in a grimace

of erotic ecstasy.


I am led to Andrei Voznesensky (1933-2010), Russian poet whose humour like Guinness, reaches parts that other poems do not. In ‘Do Not Forget’ he wrote

            Somewhere a man puts on his shorts, 

his blue-striped T-shirt,

his blue jeans;

his jacket on which there is a button


and over the jacket, his topcoat.

Over the topcoat,

after dusting off, he puts on his automobile,

and over that he puts on his garage

(just big enough for his car),

over that his apartment courtyard,

and then he belts himself with the courtyard wall.

Then he puts on his wife

and after that the next one

and then the next one;

and over that he puts on his subdivision

and over that his county

and like a knight he then buckles on

the borders of his country;

and with his head swaying,

puts on the whole globe.


Keep that in mind whenever the recent populism or nationalism rears its head. Beware! Beware too of being the cause of ‘refugee blues’ as in Auden’s poem

            Say this city has ten million souls,

            Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:

            Yes there’s no place for us, my dear, there’s no place for us.


Once we had a country and we thought it fair,

            Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:

            We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.


            Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;

            It was Hitler over Europe, saying: ‘They must die’;

            O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.


            Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,

            A thousand windows and a thousand doors;

            Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.


 Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;

            Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:

            Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

If I might borrow, once again, from Kurt Vonnegut ‘So, it goes’.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

4 thoughts on “The Unmentionable Odour of Death

  1. We in the Russian diaspora were so wrong: we thought it was the Soviet Union, not Russia, that was merciless. We read Dostoyevsky when he said that the world would be saved by Russia and by Orthodoxy and thought it might one day come to pass. But now Russia has acted against its cousin Slavs with Old Testament ferocity. It will forever be remembered for the crimes its soldiers have committed and have been encouraged to commit. They come from the rose-scented incense of the church and to create a charnel house with the stench of putrescine and cadaverine, the diamines of death.

    1. Carolyn
      It’s Putin though & not the Russian people and even those who side with him are uninformed and their decisions are neither conscientious nor free. The tragedy is that the patterns of leadership behaviour runs true to form in the style of Stalin. It is sad to read the poetry and to see how much grief the poets had suffered over the past 100 years and that not much has changed in that regard.
      Thank you as ever for your comments.

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