I love the way this poem is both timely and outside of time. The butterflies are both real and printed on cloth, in danger of extinction and preserved, even as the dress is both made and unmade. I love the way the poet imagines the garment workers as well, who make the dress and stitch into its seams their care for the one who will wear it.
Betsy Sholl, Maine Arts Journal Poetry Editor
The Ukrainian Crash Sequence
I. The Fragility of Butterflies
There are enough butterflies on her dress
to replace at least some who won’t return,
the monarchs, astonished blues. They are left
now, in a Ukrainian field. We earn
our prevalence. They have not. You would think
if you spent one day counting them, how
few there are now, compared to then, this brink
of extinction they are on, wind which now
picks them up, swirls them around. If this were
just dance but it’s not, if the dress she wore
a reminder of seduction, the lure
of summer nights, not death, a dress now torn.
Fragility in butterflies still takes
lifetimes to protect, like us, in that way
II. Butterflies on the Dress
Butterflies sewn onto a dress are meant
to influence the future, make what
is bad, better, cherish small, innocent
mundane things. Some cultures believe that just
these gestures are like prayers that said often
protect. Even garment workers assume
when every stitch is sewn on, they soften
the unknown. Om mani pad me hum.
With that they turn their tasks aside and make
their noonday lunch. They’ve done their part to keep
the one who wears the dress, the one who takes
life’s hazards on, safe, butterflies unleashed.
Freed ambassadors, the butterflies take
care if she’s ripped from it, blown up in air.
Note from the poet:
The event that stuck with me in writing these poems was over Eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014, the crash of a civilian Malaysian airplane coming from The Netherlands to Kuala Lumpur. The New York Times (18 July 2014) had a picture of a woman in a dress with butterflies on it. There were no survivors. There were also many Malaysian textile workers. Russian missiles were suspected but the local separatists denied any involvement because they didn’t have weaponry that could go that high.
From The New York Times (18 July 2014): “That was certainly the case in a cluster of tidy houses with concrete walls, metal gates and messy gardens in Grabovo, a village where most people were coming to the opposite conclusion. Rebels are part of the fabric of society here. They are people’s friends, relatives and neighbors, and few residents seemed willing to believe that they were capable of such a high-precision and monstrous act.
Katya Ivanovna, 62, who was milking her cow when the plane came down, scoffed at the idea that the rebels had done it. “Ha, they barely have clothes,” she said, referring to their often threadbare existence. “They can’t even protect us.”
Susan Cook is a psychotherapist, practicing in a small Maine coast town, and a poet and essayist. Her manuscript, “The Mental Health of Edna St Vincent Millay” was a semi-finalist in the 2017 and 2019 Two Sylvias Press Wilder Series Poetry Prize. She writes and produces a series “The River Is Wide” on PRX.org, available for review to public radio producers. The series includes essays: “A Department of Poetic Justice” which includes lyrics suitable for singing to tunes from “The Great American Wrongbook.”
Image at top: Alan Fishman, Alchemy, acrylic on paper, 30 x 22 in.