Letters from Ukraine
The piece originally appeared on Poetry International’s website on March 7, 2014.
Letters from Ukraine
This week, Russian troops invaded Crimea. Putin claims this invasion is an effort to protect the Russian-language population of the peninsula from Ukrainian nationalists.
I was born in the former USSR, and my home town, Odessa, is now a part of Ukraine. I came to the USA when I was sixteen, but kept in touch with family and friends in the region. However, rather than using this space for personal reflection, I want to include some communications I have had with Ukrainians, and particularly poets, in the region, to give voice to those whose world is in turmoil, and to give English speakers a better sense of current events.
First, an email from my cousin Piotr in Odessa:
“Our souls are worried, and we are frightened, but the city is safe. Once in a while some idiots rise up and announce that they are for Russia. But we in Odessa never told anyone that we are against Russia. Let Russians do whatever they want in their Moscow and let them love our Odessa as much as they want–but not with this circus of soldiers and tanks!”
Hearing from him, I thought of these lines from the poem by Ukrainian poet Natalka Bilotserkivets, about fear, about knowing how “every day is your last chance” because:
at three in the morning, God like Bosch will come
to Hotel Central
with insects playing clarinets
with mosquitoes drinking submissive blood
with frogs and snails;
with fish, too; and all your love
is just caviar in the repositories of hell
…and every day is your last chance
and each night as though for the last time
and over the lily-flowered canals the bicycles
of anxious schoolgirls fly
Ukraine is divided between the Russian-speaking East and the Ukrainian-speaking West. Over the last twenty years, the country has been governed by both East and West, with every government united in one thing: corruption. And corrupt governments in Ukraine have always used the “language issue” to create an imaginary conflict between people, to distract their attention from real problems at hand.
The president Yanukovich who escaped to Russia was universally accepted as the most corrupt politician the country has known (he was also charged with things like rape and assault even back in Soviet times). However, Ukraine’s new “provisional” government is made up oligarchs, men who have CVs that read like Bernie Madoff’s.
Right now Putin is sending his troops into Ukrainian cities, saying he sends his soldiers to protect Russian-language minorities…
Do they need his protection?
I looked up my dear friend, the poet Anastasiya Afanasieva, who lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Anastasiya is a Russian language poet, awarded the prestigious “Russian Prize” for the best book by a Russian author living outside of Russia. This is what she has to say:
“In the past five years, I visited the Ukrainian-speaking Western Ukraine six times. I have never seen any nationalists there. I have never felt discriminated against because I spoke the Russian language. Those are myths. In all the cities of Western Ukraine I have visited, I spoke with everyone in Russian—in stores, in trains, in cafes. I have found new friends. Far from feeling aggression, everyone instead treated me with respect. When I spoke with my friends, we spoke in two languages—they addressed me in Ukrainian, I responded to them in Russian. I have participated in countless readings and festivals with Ukrainian poets; we translated each other’s poems, discussed each other’s literatures. I beg you, do not listen to the propaganda. Its purpose is to separate us. We are already very different, let’s not become opposite, let’s not create a war on the territory where we all live together. The military invasion which is taking place right now is the catastrophe for us all. Lets not lose our minds, let’s not be afraid of non-existent threats, when there is a real threat: the Russian army’s invasion.”
As I read Anastasiya’s words, I was reminded of lines from a poem by the Ukrainian poet Oleh Lysheha, whose images are filled with folklore-like intensity, and whose poetics reimagines the idea of home:
The lonely hut of the horseradish.
Yes, it’s here, the poor hut of a horseradish.
Is there a light on inside?—Yes, he’s always at home.
Knock at the door of a horseradish.
Knock on the door of his hut.
(Translated from Ukrainian by James Brasfield)
And here is the statement that arrived from a Russian-language poet from Odessa, Boris Khersonsky:
“I, Boris Khersonsky, work at Odessa National University where I have directed the department of clinical psychology since 1996. All that time I have been teaching in Russian, and no one has ever reprimanded me for “ignoring” the official Ukrainian language of the state. I am more or less proficient in Ukrainian language, but most of my students prefer lectures in Russian, and so I lecture in that language.
I am a Russian language poet; my books have been published mostly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. My scholarly work has been published there as well.
Never (do you hear me—NEVER!) did anyone go after me for being a Russian poet and for teaching in Russian language in Ukraine. Everywhere I read my poems in RUSSIAN and never did I encounter any complications.
However, tomorrow I will read my lectures in the state language—Ukrainian. This won’t be merely a lecture – it will be a protest action in solidarity with the Ukrainian state. I call for my colleagues to join me in this action.”
So: a Russian language poet refuses to lecture in Russian as an act of solidarity with occupied Ukraine.
I have met Boris; he is a thoughtful, considerate man. Here are a few lines from his work:
A Prayer (3)
And Thou art faithful to Thy promise
to raise the dead.
Blessed art Thou, God,
our Lord, of our Universe a King
who raises the dead,
who raises the dead,
if only, now and then, in our fragile memory.
(Translated from Russian by Ilya Kaminsky)
The one Ukrainian poet I especially wish I had translated is Oksana Zabuzhko. Here is a poem of hers that I first read in Russian translation years ago:
A Definition of Poetry
I know I will die a difficult death—
Like anyone who loves the precise music of her own body,
Who knows how to force it through the gaps in fear
As through the needle’s eye,
Who dances a lifetime with the body—every move
Of shoulders, back, and thighs
Shimmering with mystery, like a Sanskrit word,
Muscles playing under the skin
Like fish in a nocturnal pool.
Thank you, Lord, for giving us bodies.
When I die, tell the roofers
To take down the rafters and ceiling
(They say my great-grandfather, a sorcerer, finally got out this way).
When my body softens with moisture,
The bloated soul, dark and bulging,
Like a blue vein in a boiled egg white,
And the body will ripple with spasms,
Like the blanket a sick man wrestles off
Because it’s hot,
And the soul will rise to break through
The press of flesh, curse of gravity—
Above the black well of the room
Will suck on its galactic tube,
Heaven breaking in a blistering starfall,
And draw the soul up, trembling like a sheet of paper—
My young soul—
The color of wet grass—
“Stop!” it screams, escaping,
On the dazzling borderline
Between two worlds—
My God. At last.
Look, here’s where poetry comes from.
Fingers twitching for the ballpoint,
Growing cold, becoming not mine.
(Translated from Ukrainian by Michael M. Naydan and Askold Menyczuk)
I just learned that Serhij Zhadan, a Ukrainian poet, was attacked and beaten during the recent protests in the city of Kharkiv. He is currently in the hospital (see his image above).
I have always loved the wild energy in Zhadan’s poems. Here is a fragment from a poem recently included in Virginia Quarterly Review‘s symposium on Post-Soviet poetry, edited by Katie Farris, Valzhyna Mort, and myself:
“And now we speak of those who took away our cities,
dying off like house pets,
And now we speak of those who took our keys
we used to open the doors of the hospitals,
and walk between light
and dark of the morning pharmacies)
where every morning
was being set aflame
with all the little pills and painkillers this earth.
Who came to power in our cities?
Who are these
to break the hearts of our houses and let out their warm raspberry blood?
Now they come
together in their black suits, looking like chimney-sweepers
who have come
(Translated from Ukrainian by Valzhyna Mort)
Zhadan was assaulted in Kharkiv, the largest Russian-speaking city in Ukraine.
Here is a paragraph from a collective letter signed by Russian-language Kharkiv writers:
“We, the Russian writers of Kharkiv, want you to hear our voices: we are free to speak Russian both at work and at home, with everyone in our city, Ukrainians and others. In any case, we do not believe that a discourse about national language should be a cause for military intervention.
We, the Russian writers of Kharkiv, are citizens of Ukraine, and we do not need the Russian military defense to protect us. We do not wish that, under cover of rhetoric about the protection of our interests, another nation invade our country and endanger the lives of our relatives and friends.”
As I read this letter I think of the Russian writers who protested the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and also of these lines from a poem by the young Ukrainian poet Andriy Bondar:
The Men of My Country
the men of my country
give up their seats on the subway
to the handicapped the aged
and to the passengers with children
but mostly they go on sitting
…the men of my country
wonderful specimens for an entomologist
for they are fragile like exotic butterflies
pinned to a piece of cardboard
they acknowledge the value
of every move every sound
for life is an unending crime
that has no justification
…the men of my country
prematurely descend into the grave
and become weightless angels
and ideal raw material
for metaphysical speculations
and superfluous argument in favor of the existence
of god or what’s his name
(Translated from Ukrainian by Vitaly Chernetsky)
On Feb. 7th, I received an e-mail from Iryna Shuvalova, a lively, energetic Ukrainian-language poet who writes and translates. I first met Iryna several years ago when she attended a class I taught in Vilnius, Lithuania. She writes:
“Amidst the general unrest, including the recent riots in Kyiv, the current Ukrainian government has taken two notable steps in recognition of Ukrainian poetry’s importance in the affairs of our nation. The first step was to arrest a young Ukrainian poet together with his two friends and imprison them for allegedly ‘organizing mass riots.’ The second step was to shoot the Secretary of the Ukrainian National Writers’ Union in the head; thankfully, with a rubber bullet. In light of these two ‘accidents’ I feel the urge to brief the global community on the present state of literary affairs in the country, where it is obviously held in such great regard by Ukrainian officials.”
“Ukraine is a nation whose literary tradition is a couple of centuries older than its state,” Iryna continues, “This winter, one of the most popular hotspots for poets were the barricades built by anti-government protesters in the heart of Ukraine’s capital. However, it was not just poets who brought the poetry into the streets. In one of the most touching videos from Ukraine’s ‘Euromaidan’ events, Serhiy Nigoyan, a member of our Ukrainian Armenian community, recites the lines of Taras Shevchenko’s poem ‘Caucasus.’ On January 22, Serhiy was killed by members of the pro-Yanukovich armed forces.”
Watching Russian army jeeps entering Sevastopol, a city I visited as a child, a city where my family still lives, I think of these lines from Ukrainian poet Svitlana Bohdan:
When cars were still human beings,
They were raising their hands and pleading:
“Come, O Lord, enter into our hearts!”
And He entered, slamming the door
(Translated from Ukrainian by Anna Chukur)
Putin loves to talk about how exceptional Russian destiny is; what a great advocate of responsibility he is; how important family values are. Americans look at Putin and see a greedy, power-hungry misogynist. I see just another politician, using the same rhetoric as American politicians. Didn’t we send our troops to other countries knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction, claiming to protect freedom and democracy? Didn’t we, in fact, snuff legally elected democracies in Central America? Russia’s, Putin’s actions are abhorrent—and they closely mirror our own.
I have an eerie feeling of recognition as I listen to these Ukrainian voices, not so different from the voices of people in Afghanistan and Iraq, whose houses my own US tax-money has destroyed.
There are poets with history and there are poets without history, Marina Tsvetaeva once wrote.
It is March 4th, and it is snowing in Ukraine right now. I am thinking of lines by a young Ukrainian poet Bohdan-Oleh Horobchuk, translated by Amelia Glazer:
the dot on the i is a pigeon’s peck in the snow
the dot on the i is a solitary heel-print in snow
when the soles are invisible where they have sunk in
like a bullet wound when there was no shot fired
(translated from Ukrainian by the Amelia Glazer)
And, to end—here is an epistolary lyric by Oksana Zabuzhko translated from Ukrainian by Douglas Smith:
Letter from the Summer House
The land’s rusty again.
Acid rain: our blackened cucumber vines
Jut from the earth like scorched wire.
And I’m not sure about the orchard this year.
It needs a good cleaning up,
But I’m scared of those trees. When I walk
Among them, it feels like I’m going to step
On some carcass rotting in the tall grass,
Something crawling with worms, something smiling
Sickly in the hot sun.
And I get nervous over the sounds:
The day before yesterday, in the thicket, meowing,
The monotonous creaking of a tree,
The suppressed cackling of geese—all constantly
Straining for the same note. Do you remember
The dry elm, the one lightning turned
Into a giant charred bone last summer?
Sometimes I think it lords
Over the whole garden, infecting everything with rabid madness.
How do mad trees act?
Maybe they run amok like derailed streetcars. Anyway,
I keep an axe by the bed, just in case.
At least the butterflies are mating: we’ll have
Caterpillars soon. Oh yes, the neighbor’s daughter
Gave birth—a boy, a bit overdue. He had hair and teeth
Already, and could be a mutant,
Because yesterday, only nine days old, he shouted,
“Turn off the sky!” and hasn’t said a word since.
Otherwise, he’s a healthy baby.
So, there it is. If you can get away
For the weekend, bring me something to read,
Preferably in a language I don’t know.
The ones I call mine are exhausted.
Kisses, love, O.