Remembering the Forbidden


A Field of Foundlings: Selected Poems 
by Iryna Starovoyt 
translated from Ukrainian by Grace Mahoney
Lost Horse Press 2017  $18.00

by Marina Brown






“In a country younger than us but as old as the world,” writes Irina Starovoyt, “we are the next tenants – careless in our impermanence.” Aware of a deep past and an unstable future, A Field of Foundlings is strikingly clever, observant, and sharp-tongued.        

As an entire country fights for human rights, democracy, and the preservation of its cultural legacy, there has never been a better time for native English-speakers to read Ukrainian writers, who come from a culture which deeply values poetry. For example, there are many statues of famous poet Taras Shevchenko in Ukraine, and you will be hard-pressed to find a Ukrainian student who cannot recite at least one poem from memory.

The need for Ukrainian poetry is especially true with writing as global and relevant as that of Irina Starovoyt. A Field of Foundlings is the flagship publication in Lost Horse Press’s Ukrainian translation series. Presented in dual-language Ukrainian and English format, the book has been translated by Grace Mahoney, Ph.D., who took great care in preserving its tones and themes.      

“The blueprint doesn’t always become a building,” Starovoyt writes. “The forecast doesn’t always become weather.” With no holds barred, her collection teaches, describes, and reinvents the political line. Its first poem states: 

                    You see, our wars don’t happen in three days,
                    and people don’t have two lives.
                    We don't send the legislation of amnesia.
                    On the contrary, we remember with tenacity,
                    especially for the future.
                    I'm a refugee. I run, like blood, across my land.
                    I can’t get away, but I can spill it all.

A Field of Foundlings is also particularly conscious of technology and time – of the “little casualties of everyday life.” Starovoyt writes of all that is reflected and remembered – names, cities, and human choices – the tender and brutal moments that exist as “History tides over the shore. / And memory remembers all that is forbidden.” This is a citizen interested in the strange, violent, and even metaphysical ways in which events are documented. 

The poet speaks of the cultural and the personal, often without naming things directly. Yet, her phrases are pointed and deliberate. Consider these lines in the context of witnessing a large-scale tragedy: “someone is going to live, and someone shoots an arthouse film.” 

Or this short poem:

                    How our children turn grey,
	            How our cities burn like coal,
                    how the dead fall from the sky, 
                    how the living burrow in the earth. 

                    (The first angel covers his face).

                    How terrifying- 
                    ly comfortable it is 
                    to you on the other side 
                    of the screen.

The voices in this book think fast - planning, moving, and archiving. They sometimes even seem conscious of being watched. They are aware of their own mistakes and mythologies, and perhaps also yours: “Like biometric palm readers at the border of your country, / they have deciphered everything … your metadata is life after death.” 

Though as “The earth collapses on itself. We Westerners, return westward,” this book will allow you to slip into the margins of its histories as if through a gap between high-rise walls, from which you can see across the land and into an open sky, just as Ukrainians around the world do their best to look toward the future.  



Marina Brown is a poet, editor, and translator. Born in Ukraine and raised in Northern California, she studied International Relations and Russian at UC Davis and Creative Writing at San Diego State University. She is an Editorial Assistant for Poetry International and a recipient of the Graduate Equity Fellowship, Marsh-Rebelo Scholarship, and Savvas Endowed Fellowship.

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