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Arms and Muses: Poets from Ukraine

The previous post introduced a volume of Ukrainian poetry entitled Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine published before the 2022 Russia invasion of Ukraine.

Who are these poets? Let their poetry speak for them.

Born in Chortkiv, Vasyl Makhno left Ukraine in the late 1990s. Although he currently lives in New York chronicling a different scene with his poetry, he cannot help remaining one of the War Generation.

each generation must fight its own war
each in that generation bears his own guilt
you may live in New York but you are always
a soldier of your unit — your country — its troubles

Poet, writer, journalist, and fighter is no longer an unusual combination. Borys Humenyuk‘s poem about how young boys suddenly had to become men and grow up to the realities of war can never be more relevant than it is today. The backdrop to his poem An old mulberry tree in Mariupol is a city that has heartbreakingly become a household name, a town where the laughing boys, who smeared mulberry juice all over their faces, are pretending to be Hollywood movie characters, and sound like boys being boys, until reality hits:

RPGs, a machine gun, sniper rifles, helmets, bullet-proof vests
All laid carefully down.  

One cannot help feeling rage and grief at the same time for all those young lives lost in the war––on both sides. The author is now back where he started, fighting in the Azov Battalion.

Ostap Slyvynsky from Lviv brings the children into view, the many, many children who lost their homes, their parents, their grandparents, and their childhoods. In his poem Latifa,

The kid asks, of course . . . He asks
when we will head back home.

And so one time I told him. I said: our house
was taken up to the sky.

Parents with young kids fleeing their home that they lost overnight. How do you remain strong for your children? How do you explain so that they understand and process in their own ways?

Serhiy Zhadan from the occupied Luhansk oblast presents the reality of war from another angle. What is a difference there is between learning about the life-changing and mind-altering effects of combat experience from psychology books and from real life. Reading the science helps one understand to some extent what they have been through. Reading Zhadan’s poem a guy I know volunteered perhaps makes us more compassionate toward all those struggling––in this case, an average Ukrainian man. We may never understand what drove him to enlist, but reading the poem may help us get along with that guy.

A biosketch of one of the most acclaimed authors resonates all too well with any Eastern European. Born in the Luhansk province in 1945, Vasyl Holoborodko was expelled from university in 1965, due to his alleged anti-Soviet views and refusal to cooperate with KGB. At that time such expulsion also meant “silentium,” i.e. a complete ban from publishing anything in the Soviet Union and limited job opportunities for the following twenty years. A member of the underground Kyiv school of poetry, he never stopped writing, even though works of the “prohibited” authors during the Communist years were available only as Samizdat.

The poem I pick up my footprints starts with the same verb as the patriotic Red Viburnum song that went viral in its latest rendition by Ukrainian rock star Andriy Khlyvnyuk singing a capella on an empty square in Kyiv (and even inspired Pink Floyd to reunite for a performance in support of the Ukrainian people). In the song, the plant, bent over and low for the sorrow of the country, will rise up, cheering up the glorious Ukraine.

In the poem the narrator is bending over to pick up footprints so “that strangers don’t trample them,” as they are symbols of “something rooted in the past.” I wonder if the reader is reassured about a similarly upbeat ending when he concludes,

if I put them all in one row,
their path wouldn’t lead me home.

Or, was everything that happened, is happening, really for the greater good as Kateryna Kalytko from Vinnytsia asks in her Can great things happen to ordinary people?

Was everything, everything that happened, for a greater good
or would all the agony cause a tall tree to grow — bleeding
berries, pounding against apartment windows at night?
Where did you get this glistening moonlight skin, my love?
From starvation, despair, and milk, and mercury.

The poet who speaks to me perhaps most directly is Oksana Lutsyshyna. She lives in the US, but comes from Uzhhorod, 30 miles from the town where I was born in Hungary. As she writes of our shared homeland,

eastern europe is a pit of death and decaying plums
I hide from it in the body of america
but sooner or later I’ll slip from this light
back down into that other
and will start talking about death because that is our national sport
talking about death
sad yet beautiful
hoping that the world will hear us and gasp at the beauty and sadness

I appreciate the bilingual volume tremendously, especially after reluctantly brushing up on my Russian language skills (mandatory studies for twelve years in Hungary with “Soviet troops temporarily stationed there” for 45 years) and more enthusiastically returning to my favorite language, Polish, over the past two months. In the course of following various Slavic-language Telegram channels for news I’ve found that the Ukrainian language makes an indelible impression. Reading these poems in the original, one feels for the translators, while, in this case, also benefitting from the richness of both languages.

In the poem I am reading “pit” both as “grave” in English, bottomless, downward, and final, as well as an enclosed space, a hole-in-the-ground (gödör???), the destination of those plums, decomposing but transforming at the same time into their new stage: rest.

It leads us to the question: Why do we have to read war poems? Well, we don’t. But, similarly to a war correspondent who wants to reveal the true nature of the war, the librarian in me insists on doing so, while the reflective self can’t avoid it. The few examples above perhaps can help one understand the urge. The linguist in me adds that powerful poetry can communicate perceptions and feelings with the subject and object in the right place in the sentence, along with adjectives and adverbs that are just about right. We trust the poets, the recorders, holding the mirror up for us.

The volume indicates, even in translation, how Ukrainian poetry is different from what literary scholars and casual readers might be used to. The form and style are poetic, but its subject matter is far from idealistic, rosy depictions of love and life. Poetry as reflection does have a place in everyone’s life, so does poetry as resilience. Poetry as resistance? We should all work towards a world when that will no longer be necessary.

As a librarian I also applaud the initiative to provide open access to these poems. It sends a powerful message that any form of censorship toward these poets and their works would be unjust and undeserved. The past two months have sadly proven that these Ukrainian voices will never fade. On the contrary, they have just become stronger.


Library in Chernihiv reduced to rubble reimagined by #ReCreateUA

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