‘his passion will fill you with the spirit of the Maidan’
Dateline Feb 28 2022, Cleveland — Dateline anywhere, really. If you are an American poet motivated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and thinking of some way to ‘stand with Ukraine’ — ie write a poem, start up a poetry reading, contribute to an anthology — or if you are just an ordinary citizen moved by the current struggle of Ukrainians. Let me tell you about Bill Arthrell. William George Arthrell, Cleveland poet and activist, one of a long line of Cleveland poet/activists. William George Arthrell, a student protest organizer in 1970 at Kent State, indicted after the National Guard shootings. William George Arthrell, hitch-hiking world traveler, adventurer, educator, teaching inner city kids in his beloved rust-belt city on the lake.
Bill Arthrell, who back in 2012 when the Maidan Revolution happened in Ukraine, tossed caution to the wind, got up off his living room couch, and flew to the aid of that beleaguered country — first as an international elections observer, and then stayed on to witness the then-Russian backed regime’s brutal suppression of protests, the ‘slaughter of the Heavenly Hundred,’ and a bloody war waged against Eastern Ukraine by the Russians.
That Bill Arthrell, who returned to Ukraine nine times, moved by the courage, dedication and sacrifice he saw, and could not unsee. Compelled to visit soldiers in hospitals, feed the homeless, help out at refugee camps. And in return, reach his ‘greatest Reverence — his blazing dream’ at the crossroads of history, ‘the apex of the past…where the future begins.’
That Bill Arthrell. The one who wrote a book of poems about it entitled ‘Ukranian Heart,’ in 2019, to tell in his own way the story of a nation of poets which, for 800 years, has been a ‘killing fields for foreign invaders… from the Mongol Horde to the Ottoman Turks; from Poland to the German Nazis who killed 9 million and, of course, Russia, over and over,” and pledged to donate 50% of the profits to the Ukrainian soldiers of Donbas, those wounded at the Maidan, and to the families of those killed.
Cleveland is a city whose intersection of social commitment and practice of poetry is legend. Count among them the 60s provocateur and firebrand da levy. Count among them the Freedom Rider turned homeless advocate Dan Thompson. You can count William George Arthrell among them too. Described as a revolutionary, a historian, a teacher and a sometime international reparations representative, he was known and beloved locally as a vociferous and outspoken member of the poetry community, and was certainly possessed of a profound working class consciousness in a working class town.
In his poem “steel and sadness,’ a poem he contributed to the anthology ‘Heart’s Cargo’ back in the 80s, Arthrell revealed his allegiances, painting a portrait of a city of Eastern European immigrants ‘taking the first job on the first column of the first want ad they ever read, and ending up rollicking with the ‘sad eyed sons of Eugene Debs’ calling for industrial equality on this pitiful river.’
According to Chicago’s George Sajeywich, who wrote an introduction to Ukranian Heart (and whose family fled Ukraine ‘ahead of the reconquering Red Army’), the Cleveland poet was an idealist for whom ‘the highest values are truth, justice and freedom.’ And he encountered those values first hand in Ukraine. “Why this insane loyalty to Ukraine?’ Arthrell asks himself rhetorically, in the poem ‘My Testament,” a centerpiece of Ukranian Heart. “I’m not even Ukrainian. Not even Slavic.”
So? He ticks off the reasons in this grim and yet resilient voice. ‘My parents were so poor…my dad had one pair of pants, my Mom – things were worse.’ ‘I was in a massacre in America… a grand jury exonerated the homicidal Nat’l Guard and indicted the students…’ 40 years later, a retired teacher, watching in horror as protestors are gunned down halfway around the world and, he connects the dots from Kent State to Kyiv. “I wanted to do something spectacular with my life/before I die,’ vowed Bill Arthrell, in Ukrainian Heart. “I wanted to do something I have No Reason to do. Something that pierces humanity…’
So you want to write a poem about Ukraine? Why not. I did. But after you’ve done with your writing, take a moment and remember Bill Arthrell, who saw something he didn’t like happening in Ukraine, and went there nine times to do something about it. Yes, that Bill Arthrell. The one who vowed to pierce humanity through his actions. The one who the US government indicted after National Guard troops shot and killed his fellow students.
The Bill Arthrell who met his end on Oklahoma Highway 44 on Feb 1 of this year, dying tragically in a car accident at the tender age of 72 — but not before having demonstrated in his poetry and his life journey the capacity to make good on his vow to help his fellow man where he saw them suffering. In Ukraine.
(Please consider making a donation in Bill Arthrell’s honor to the Cleveland Maidan Association a 501(c)(3) charitable organization established during protests at independence square “Maidan” in Kyiv, Ukraine. Funds are used to purchase medical equipment for hospitals and basic necessities for families affected or displaced by armed conflict in Ukraine https://www.facebook.com/clevelandmaidan/)