Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2017)
Edited By: Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky
In the winter of 2013-2014, Ukraine’s capital Kyiv was filled with smoke. You could hear gunshots in the streets. Signs inside the protesters’ encampment in Maidan said “Fear Not Permitted.” While the vast majority of the protesters were committed to non-violence, there were some who found the peaceful measures slow and ineffective. They were often the ones featured in the images from Maidan: the young men in balaclavas mixing the Molotov cocktails, burning tires. What made those images beautiful was the spirit of power and hope they conveyed, a commitment to victory against all odds. These violent images made sense. They called to mind the words of Ecclesiastes: “Time to throw stones and time to gather them.” This was the time for “teaching stones to fly.” Our eyes were fixed on those stones, freed from gravity, almost invisible in their movement. When they fell down, hitting and injuring, we tried to look away.
In the spring, Maidan had ended, and the war started. The violence no longer made sense. This new violence was not of the liberating joyful kind that had accompanied the destruction of the oppressive regime with its lardy Matryoshka dolls of political leaders. The war was destroying something people valued: homes, schools, communities, friendships. People died violent deaths doing everyday things, like picking fruit in the garden or going to the store. There was massive exodus out of Ukraine’s eastern cities. Those most vulnerable – too old, too sick, or too poor to move – have suffered most.
The poems in this selection from Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2017) reflect the experience of war. The words and images create an impression of a shimmering landscape that keeps shifting and changing. It is these moments that move us most – the moments when things no longer make sense, but are about to start making sense again. Meanings change, old words acquire new connotations, language itself wrings out of the usual course and meanders. In principle, there is nothing strange about language evolving to describe the changing reality. What’s uncanny is how quickly this happens. It’s like watching a blossom burst out of a bud, open and close rapidly a dozen of times, wilt away, and disappear, all in a matter of seconds. War puts language change in fast-forward.
For many of the poets, the war is not some distant event one hears about in the papers. It is part of their personal history. Vasyl Holoborodko was forced to move to Kyiv, leaving all of his possessions in the terrorist-occupied Luhansk. Lyuba Yakimchuk helped her family escape to safety from the war-torn Pervomaisk. Borys Humenyuk is a poet-soldier fighting at the frontlines, who regularly dedicates his Facebook posts to friends he had lost in battle. Boris Khersonsky’s Odessa apartment was vandalized by a small explosion. Marianna Kiyanovska and Halyna Kruk make regular trips to the front, delivering medicine and books. Serhiy Zhadan has set up a charity organization to help restore schools and libraries in the devastated parts of the region. Yet in most of the poems, the war is not the focal point. It’s a blur, or more precisely, it is what blurs all of the other images, distorting them, changing them into something new and strange. The violence is outside the frame. We sense it, without seeing it.
Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky
I Fly Away in the Shape of a Dandelion Seed
I know that from here you cannot escape by plane —
you have to be able to fly on your own.
Cats in the house, so many cats,
gathered from the whole neighborhood
(how did they catch a whiff of my departure?)
not our cats but feral cats,
although there is no such a thing as a cat gone wild.
Cats as a warning and threat to my flight
as a bird,
they notice a red spot on my chest
like a linnet’s,
so I’m forced to take flight in the form of a dandelion seed:
I leave the house in search of wide open spaces,
past my garden and into the street
and float toward
a direction very remote —
now the wind gusts will
carry me away, away!
Translated from the Ukrainian by Svetlana Lavochkina
* * *
When you clean your weapon
When time and again, you clean your weapon
When you rub strong-smelling oils into your weapon
And shield it from the rain with your own body
When you swaddle it like a baby
Even though you’ve never swaddled a baby before —
You’re only nineteen, no baby, no wife —
The weapon becomes your only kin
You and the weapon are one.
When you dig trench after trench
When you dig this precious this hateful earth by handfuls
Every other handful reaches your soul
You grind this earth between your teeth
You don’t, you never will have another
You climb into the earth like into your mother’s womb
You are warm and snug
You’ve never felt this close to anyone before
You and earth are one.
When you shoot
Even when it’s at night and you don’t see the enemy’s face
Even when night hides the enemy from you and you from the enemy
And embraces each of you as her own
You smell like gunpowder
Your hands, face, hair, clothing, shoes —
No matter how much you wash them — smell of gunpowder
They smell of war
You smell of war
You and war are one.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky
this war isn’t war — it’s a chance not to kill anyone
this love isn’t love unto death — it’s as long as it lasts
to protect one another is all this occasion demands
and to look at the world through a steady rifle sight
and to look within ourselves through every microscope
and to look at you at every hour every minute at all times
to protect one another — and in keeping calm and carrying on
to burn down to the ground and to rise up as smoke
this war isn’t war — but a certain and fiery passion
this love is forever — just as moments pass forever
we hit bottom to get stuck in some new heaven
there is a string that binds us all together
that string between us is a safety fuse
Translated from the Ukrainian by Boris Dralyuk
* * *
This is a post on Facebook, and this, a block post in the East,
our losses: the five banned, six shipped back “in zinc coffins,”
the wounded, everyone: the Ukes, the Ruskis, Merkel, verses.
God himself had been mined somewhere on lofty heights.
This summer, without bulletproof vest, in September, no helmet,
the trolling “Kuban” battalion against our couch centurions;
I’ll make you a gift: a camouflage case for your tablet;
time is earwax, peddled in alleyways, under the table.
So when all is said and done, what did I do for this baby:
Stroked her nipples with a cursor, tickled her underarms?
‘Cause she so wanted to get married, and now in revenge,
she’ll suck off the recruiter and bring me my draft notice.
May the blessed relics rest in peace: her Lacoste t-shirt,
the high-speed Wi-Fi, all your likes and statuses reposted,
for the heroes never die. The heroes never die, this,
the very first roadblock at the besieged towers of Troy.
Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale
They were disliked on earth and forsaken among the clouds.
Mother, you haven’t sent me a single photograph
so I almost forgot what your face looks like.
You’ll cry, I know, I have caused you distress
but each trouble is just a tiny speck of blood
on a Sunday dress.
Life is a house on the side of the road,
old-world style, like our peasant house, divided into two parts.
In one, they wash the dead man’s body and weep.
In the other, they dress a bride.
Mother, I want you to have a dream in which I come
and sit in the part with more light.
You cry so much mother, you don’t stop sobbing.
I can’t see your face well, but faces don’t matter much,
Your hair, I still remember, smells of cornflowers.
They all want something from us and keep stirring
the anthill of the army, in which the country lies like a rotting fish.
I wrote to Andrew, a long soulful letter,
but didn’t get a reply, maybe I got the address wrong.
And before that Andrew wrote: how he remembers the taste of
the toffee that Dad used to bring from town, also the slippery ravine
behind our house. Peter, he wrote, if we ever return, it will be on stretchers.
Mother was right — we should have remained fishermen.
Rain drums loudly, mud covers the front lines.
We march hopelessly along rivers and under the clouds.
I’m forgetting everything, as if memories were leaking out of me.
. . . Mother, does that girl Hafiya still sing in the church choir?
Translated from the Ukrainian by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna
* * *
The whole soldier doesn’t suffer —
it’s just the legs, the arms,
just blowing snow,
just meager rain.
The whole soldier shrugs off hurt —
it’s just missile systems “Hail” and “Beech,”
just bullets on the wing,
just happiness ahead.
Just meteorological pogroms,
just the girl with the pointer
poking the map in the stomach.
Just thunder, lightning,
just dreadful losses,
just the day with a dented helmet,
just God, who doesn’t protect.
Translated from the Russian by Katherine E. Young
* * *
A country in the shape of a puddle, on the map.
Any country is an easy target in March,
in June, July, August, September, October,
as long as it rains
and maps litter the street.
Stop, who goes there, General Oaken Knees.
The Red Square of his naked chest shines the way.
And behind him, a half-shadow, half-man,
half-orphan, half-exile, whose mouth is as coarse
as his land —
double-land where every cave is at war.
Do you say there won’t be a war? I say nothing.
A small gray person cancels
this twenty-first century,
adjusts his country’s clocks
for the winter war.
Translated from the Russian by Valzhyna Mort
* * *
Buried in a human neck, a bullet looks like an eye, sewn in,
an eye looking back at one’s fate.
Who shot him there? Who gave the order, which man?
Who will bury him, and what’s the rate?
When it comes to humanity, war is the beginning and end.
Whoever attacks you, don’t turn your back.
Says the Lord: For my people are foolish, they have not known me,
they are silly children and they have no understanding.
But the children feel as strong as their machinery,
mass-produced, with plenty of seamstresses for repairing:
some ladies patch holes, others fix neck bones,
still more sew on buttons that were torn away from hands.
And the Lord says: They are wise in doing evil — but,
says the Lord — they do not know how to do good.
But the children, if they survive, say it was luck,
and if they die, they think that was yesterday,
today is another day,
and the seamstresses stand with a shroud, telling them, “Put this on.”
How long must we put up with the flags, the trumpets calling us into the fray?
What beast has awakened? Where did our special forces land?
Who shot that man in the back? Who gave the command?
Who will bury him, and what’s the rate?
Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco
* * *
people carry explosives around the city
in plastic shopping bags and little suitcases
they trample the cobblestone we learn their secrets
only the day after and even then it’s just checking the facts
how many windows shattered how many collapsed balconies
did anyone die or is everyone alive and kicking
only frightened that there is no more peaceful life perhaps
war happens and the laws of war are a cruel thing
or perhaps there are no more laws and explosions are now the norm
we don’t get up from the table just shiver and shed some hope
an enemy chooses weapons as a thief finds the pick for a door
when in fact the door is already open
Translated from the Russian by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco
* * *
we swallowed an air like earth
the kind of black
neighbors garden together
and in that black
as in a fleshy cherry
sweet and bitter
and in that sweet and that bitter
salt and flesh
we stored in our lungs many years beforehand
not the cherry plum
some of us exhaled cherry pits
stones bulged from their sockets
and became eyes
everything else became memory
Translated from the Ukrainian by Oksana Lutsyshyna and Kevin Vaughn
* * *
someone stands between you and death — but
who knows how much more my heart can stand —
where you are, it’s so important
someone prays for you
even with their own words
even if they don’t clasp their hands and kneel
plucking the stems off strawberries from the garden
I recall how I scolded you when you were small
for squashing the berries before they ripened
my heart whispers: Death, he hasn’t ripened yet
he’s still green, nothing in his life has been
sweeter than unwashed strawberries
I beg you: oh God, don’t place him at the front,
please don’t rain rockets down on him, oh God,
I don’t even know what a rocket looks like,
my son, I can’t picture the war even to myself
Translated from the Ukrainian by Sibelan Forrester
Sometimes even an exploding bullet
leaves only a tiny mark.
Likewise, all I remember from that war is
how one day, towards the end,
fell off a platform
when a train took a turn
and there was no one
to come back for him, no one
to pick him up from below the embankment,
kids gave him grass,
and he lay there
with broken legs and a dull eye,
like a sign left by the retreating
night to mark a path for the night
that was to come.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Anton Tenser and Tatiana Filimonova
Died of Old Age
granddad and granny passed away
they died on the same day
at the same hour
at the same moment —
people said, they died of old age
their hen met its end
and so did their goat and their dog
(their cat was out)
and people said, they died of old age
their cottage fell apart
their shed turned into ruins
and the cellar got covered with dirt
people said, everything collapsed from old age
their children came to bury the granddad and granny
Olha was pregnant
Serhiy was drunk
and Sonya was only three
they all perished, too
and people said, they died of old age
the cold wind plucked yellow leaves and buried beneath them
the granddad, the granny, Olha, Serhiy and Sonya
who all died of old age
Translated from the Ukrainian by Anatoly Kudryavitsky
this terrorist looks like a bush
he trembles in the wind and sheds his leaves
but breath escapes from his mouth —
that’s quite a disadvantage
for someone who wants to be a bush
this terrorist looks like snow
he is soft and white, but
warm skin is a disadvantage for someone
trying to look like snow
this terrorist looks like a pretty girl
she smiles at me
she hopes to entice me to kiss her
to seduce me into her terrorism
through carnal knowledge
she is also at a disadvantage:
I prefer boys
this terrorist is riding in a hearse
with a sign “mortuary services”
and it’s true, his services are ghoulish
he himself doesn’t enjoy the business
he lies in his coffin
pale as a corpse
cold as snow
breathless as a bush
he’s so perfect
he has trained his heart to stop at will
at a checkpoint and accidentally
stopped it forever
he’d be so perfect
if you could only convince yourself that
he’s just a terrorist, not a human being
Translated from the Ukrainian by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky
We speak of the cities we lived in —
into night like ships into the winter sea,
we speak of the cities that suddenly lost their ability to resist —
in front of our
eyes, like a circus show where every acrobat
dies, and so does each laughing clown; enchanted,
never turning away (and inconspicuously
on the circus set
you grow up).
* * *
Now we remember: janitors and the night-sellers of bread,
gray, like wrapping paper,
taxi drivers with klaxons instead of hearts,
children who grew up
among the old furniture
(furniture smelled of poplar trees and sea).
Our city of workers and ugly middle-men,
tearjerking market beggars
the autumn fog
with their shouts.
We got to soak in the rain
on tram stops,
old proletarian quirks, subway cars,
we got to soak in the rain
loaded with the unemployed
like magazines with cartridges
. . .
Translated from the Ukrainian by Valzhyna Mort
About the Poets
Vasyl Holoborodko was born in Adrianopil, Luhansk oblast, in 1945. In 1965, due to his alleged anti-Soviet views and refusal to cooperate with KGB, Holoborodko was expelled from the university. His work was banned from publication in the Soviet Union for the following twenty years. The indictment also meant that he had severely limited employment opportunities. From the time of his indictment and through the period of Perestroika, Holoborodko had worked as a miner, builder, and farmer. In 1988, with the change in the political climate, Holoborodko published several collections of poetry and was able to resume his university studies. His work has been translated into English, Portuguese, Polish, German, and other languages. Holoborodko is the recipient of several prizes, including the Shevchenko Prize, the top national literary award in Ukraine.
Borys Humenyuk was born in Ostriv, Ternopil oblast, in 1965. He is a poet, writer, and journalist. He has taken an active part in Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity of 2013. Since 2014, he has been involved in the anti-terrorist operation in the Ukrainian Donbas region. He now serves in a self-organized military unit composed mainly of volunteers.
Yuri Izdryk was born in Kalush, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, in 1962. He is a poet, novelist, and literary critic from Kalush. In 1986, Izdryk was deployed to the site of the Chernobyl disaster to help clean up the radioactive waste. Since 1990, he has worked as the editor in chief of the avant-garde literary journal Chetver. A prominent figure in Ukrainian alternative literature and culture, Izdryk is the author of four novels in Ukrainian: The Island of Krk and Other Stories (1993), Wozzeck (1997), Double Leon (2000), and AM™ (2004). The English translation of Wozzeck appeared in 2006.
Aleksandr Kabanov was born in Kherson in 1968. He studied journalism at the Kyiv State University. An author of eleven books of poetry and numerous publications in major Russian literary journals, Kabanov is said to be one of the leading Russian-language poets of his generation. He has been awarded a number of prestigious literary prizes, among them the Russian Prize, International Voloshin Prize, Antologia Prize, and the Novy Mir Literary Magazine Award for the best poetry publication of the year. His poems have been translated into German, English, Dutch, Georgian, Ukrainian, Polish, Kazakh, and other languages. Since 2005, Kabanov has been the chief editor of the journal of contemporary culture SHO (“WHAT”) and coordinator of the International poetry festival Kyiv Laurels.
Kateryna Kalytko was born in Vinnytsia in 1982. She is a writer and translator. She had published six collections of poetry and two collections of short stories. Her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies of Ukrainian literature, and her works have been translated into English, Polish, German, Hebrew, Russian, Armenian, Italian, and Serbian. Kalytko is an acclaimed translator who translates Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian works into Ukrainian, having translated works by authors such as Adisa Bašić, Nenad Veličković, and Miljenko Jergović. She received the Metaphora award in 2014 for her translation of Jergović’s works. She has been the recipient of many literary fellowships, among them the Central European Initiative Fellowship for Writers in Residence in 2015. Kalytko is also the founder of the Intermezzo Short Story Festival, the only festival in Ukraine exclusively dedicated to the genre of the short story.
Lyudmyla Khersonska was born in Tiraspol, Moldova, in 1964. She is the author of two books of poetry, Vse svoi, named one of the ten best poetry books of 2011, and Tyl’naia-litsevaia (2015). Her work has received several literary awards, and she has been named laureate and winner of the Voloshin competition. Her poems appear in many journals, including Novyi Mir, Znamia, Kreshchatik, Interpoeziia, and Storony sveta, and have been translated into Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and German. She gave poetry readings in Moscow, Kyiv, Lviv, Munich, and New York. Khersonska also translates English-language poets into Russian, including Vladimir Nabokov and Seamus Heaney. She has spoken about Russia’s war in Ukraine and read her poetry about the war several times on Radio Liberty. Her latest book, Tyl’naia-litsevaia, includes poetic reflections on Russian aggression in Ukraine. Khersonska lives in Odessa.
Boris Khersonsky was born in Chernivtsi in 1950. He studied medicine in Ivano-Frankivsk and Odessa. He initially worked as a neurologist, before becoming a psychologist and psychiatrist at the Odessa regional psychiatric hospital. In 1996 Khersonsky took on an appointment at the department of psychology at Odessa National University, before becoming chair of the department of clinical psychology in 1999. In the Soviet times, Khersonsky was part of the Samizdat movement, which disseminated alternative, nonconformist literature through unofficial channels. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Khersonsky came out with seventeen collections of poetry and essays in Russian, and most recently, in Ukrainian. Widely regarded as one of Ukraine’s most prominent Russian-language poets, Khersonsky was the poet laureate of the Kyiv Laurels Poetry Festival (2008) and the recipient of the Brodsky Stipend (2008), the Jury Special Prize at the Literaris Festival for East European Literature (2010), and the Russian Prize (2011).
Marianna Kiyanovska was born in Zhovkva, Lviv oblast, in 1973. She is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. She is the author of nine books of poetry and one collection of short stories. She had also translated six single-authored volumes of poetry (from Polish and Belarusian). Kiyanovska is a recipient of prestigious awards, including the Kyiv Laurels Literary Festival Prize (2011). In 2014, Forbes Ukraine named her one of the top ten most influential writers working in Ukraine today. She lives in Lviv.
Halyna Kruk was born in Lviv in 1974. She is a poet, writer of fiction and a scholar of Ukrainian medieval literature. She authored four books of poetry and collected some of Ukraine’s top awards for young poets. She also writes books for children and young adults. In 2003 Kruk was the recipient of the Gaude Polonia Fellowship from the Polish Ministry of Culture. She teaches literature at the Lviv University.
Ostap Slyvynsky was born in Lviv in 1978. He is a poet, translator, essayist, and literary critic. He authored four books of poetry. He was awarded the Antonych Literary Prize (1997), the Hubert Burda Prize for young poets from Eastern Europe (2009), and the Kovaliv Fund Prize (2013). Slyvynsky coordinated the International Literary Festival at the Publishers Forum in Lviv in 2006–2007. In 2016, he helped organize a series of readings titled “Literature Against Aggression” during the Forum. Slyvynsky’s translations had earned him the Polish Embassy’s translation prize (2007) and the Medal for Merit to Polish Culture (2014). In 2015, he collaborated with composer Bohdan Sehin on a media performance, “Preparation,” dedicated to the civilian victims of war in the East of Ukraine. Slyvynsky teaches Polish literature and literary theory at Ivan Franko National University.
Lyuba Yakimchuk was born in Pervomaisk, Luhansk oblast, in 1985. She is a Ukrainian poet, screenwriter, and journalist. She is the author of several full-length poetry collections, including Like FASHION and Apricots of Donbas, and the film script for The Building of the Word. Yakimchuk’s awards include the International Slavic Poetic Award and the international “Coronation of the Word” literary contest. Her writing has appeared in magazines in Ukraine, Sweden, Germany, Poland, and Israel. She performs in a musical and poetic duet with the Ukrainian double-bass player Mark Tokar; their projects include Apricots of Donbas and Women, Smoke, and Dangerous Things. Her poetry has been performed by Mariana Sadovska (Cologne) and improvised by vocalist Olesya Zdorovetska (Dublin). Yakimchuk also works as a cultural manager. In 2012, she organized the “Semenko Year” project dedicated to the Ukrainian futurists, and she curated the 2015 literary program Cultural Forum “Donkult” (2015). She was a scholar in the “Gaude Polonia” program of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage (Poland). In 2015, Kyiv’s New Time magazine listed Yakimchuk among the one hundred most influential cultural figures in Ukraine.
Serhiy Zhadan was born in Starobilsk, Luhansk oblast, in 1974. He is a Ukrainian poet, fiction writer, essayist, and translator. He has published over two dozen books, including the poetry collections Psychedelic Stories of Fighting and Other Bullshit (2000), Ballads of the War and Reconstruction (2000), The History of Culture at the Beginning of the Century (2003), Lili Marlen (2009), and Life of Maria (2016). His novels and collections of short stories include Big Mac (2003), Anarchy in the UKR (2005), Anthem of Democratic Youth (2006), and Mesopotamia (2014). The English translations of Zhadan’s work include Depeche Mode (Glagoslav Publications, 2013), Voroshilovgrad (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016) and Life of Maria and Other Poems (forthcoming with Yale University Press in 2017). Other translations of his work appeared in PEN Atlas, Eleven Eleven, Mad Hatters Review, Absinthe, International Poetry Review, and the anthologies New European Poets (2008) and Best European Fiction (2010). In 2014, he received the Ukrainian BBC’s Book of the Decade Award, and he won the BBC Ukrainian Service Book of the Year Award in 2006 and again in 2010. He is the recipient of the Hubert Burda Prize for Young Poets (Austria, 2006), the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature (Switzerland, 2014), and the Angelus Central European Literature Award (Poland, 2015). Zhadan lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
About the Editors
Oksana Maksymchuk is an author of two award-winning books of poetry in the Ukrainian language, and a recipient of Richmond Lattimore and Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender translation prizes. She works on problems of cognition and motivation in Plato’s moral psychology. Maksymchuk teaches philosophy at the University of Arkansas.
Max Rosochinsky is a poet and translator from Simferopol, Crimea. His poems had been nominated for the PEN International New Voices Award in 2015. With Maksymchuk, he won first place in the 2014 Brodsky-Spender competition. His academic work focuses on twentieth century Russian poetry, especially Osip Mandelshtam and Marina Tsvetaeva.