Ukrainian Voices

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war have taken an enormous human toll, from loss of lives and injuries (on both sides) to destruction of homes and other property to creating millions of refugees.  One cost of war often overlooked is the devastation of a nation's cultural heritage. Ukraine is the home or birthplace of many fine poets, living and dead.

In recent days, urgent calls for translations of Ukrainian writers have been raised, as noted in the New York Times:

Though I can not translate, I can offer a selection of some fine poems. I present only a few examples; search the internet or your local library or bookstore and explore the richness of Ukraine's poetic heritage.

Any discussion of Ukrainian poetry must begin with the country's national poet, Taras Schevchenko. Born in 1814 in what was then part of the Russian empire, Schevchenko occupies a position similar to Alexander Pushkin's in Russia. "His literary heritage is regarded to be the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature and, to a large extent, the modern Ukrainian language, though the language of his poems was different from the modern Ukrainian language." Here is a passage from "My Testament," translated by John Weir:

"When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper's plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar."

Olga Livshin is a Jewish poet who grew up in Ukraine and Russia, now lives near Philadelphia, and writes poems in English, in addition to translating from both her languages. She has also been working tirelessly to promote and amplify Ukrainian voices. This poem exemplifies the love of the exile for her home country, its landscape and language:

Translating a Life
Someone spread a blanket of wild buckwheat
over a meadow. Someone tucked puffball pillows
in each corner of the purple-green sheet.
It is summer everywhere, except war.
War, where it used to be home,
and now, war by government, here.
And what does it matter that the meadow
seduces the bees in pollen, or me in lines
of a poem, or that I hear perfectly good
Russian names for plants and translate them
into You-and-Me-ish?

Another powerful Ukrainian woman poet is Natalka Bilotserkivets, born in 1954 and living in Kyiv. "Love in Kyiv" catalogs the beauties and dangers of the capital city:

"Magnificent Venetian passions. Butterflies.
Fly light and maculate into bright tapers –
Dead caterpillars' brilliant wings aflame!
And spring has lit the chestnuts' candles!

"Yet image, memory, and signs still move us…
Tragically obvious, like the latest hit.
You'll die here by a scoundrel's knife,
Your blood will spread like rust inside a brand
New Audi in an alley in Tartarka."
(tr. Andrew Sorokowsky)

Bilotserkivets' younger compatriot, Yuliya Musakovska, was born in 1982 and thus has been affected by war for a large part of her adult life. She speaks of war and conflict in "do not kiss me on the forehead like a corpse:"

"Do not kiss me on the forehead like a corpse
say, almost twice withered, the glasses and eyes themselves.
Mixed medicines with sweets, the pages of the book as yellow as his skin.
He pours a few of his precious stories into the empty space.
I see all the protagonists as old acquaintances. KGB officers squatting on the same hospital bed, in shiny Hungarian shoes — for these he could kill."
(tr. Yury Zavadsky)

Zavadsky himself is a poet, publisher, performer, and musician. One year older than Musakovska, he wrote and translated his poem "Communication" about living in a time of uncertainty, war, and
other peril:

"Surprising how feelings depend on blood pressure.
Electricity in my body prevents me from staying put.
And, still, I force myself not to move.
Fingers are nervously running across the keyboard.
Then the uneven verses turn into day dreams.
Your text messages follow me in my steps.
I do not wish to keep silent, but I have nothing to tell you."

For me, Iya Kiva is perhaps the most interesting of contemporary Ukrainian poets. A native of Donetsk, which has been racked by war since Russia's previous invasion in 2014, she now resides in Kyiv where she fled to escape the fighting. She is a contemporary of Zavadsky and Musakovska, having been born in 1984. She is reportedly fighting in defense of her city during the day, and coming home to write poems at night. Kiva writes in both Russian and Ukrainian. Some of her poems in Russian have been beautifully translated by my colleague and friend, Katherine E. Young, former poet laureate of Arlington, VA. One hopes for many more. Here is a passage from "A Little Further From Heaven.":

"is there hot war in the tap
is there cold war in the tap
how is it that there's absolutely no war
it was promised for after lunch
we saw the announcement with our own eyes
'war will arrive at fourteen hundred hours'
and it's already three hours without war
six hours without war
what if there's no war by the time night falls
we can't do laundry without war
can't make dinner
can't drink tea plain without war"

Finally, perhaps the one poet who is somewhat familiar to American readers is Ilya Kaminsky. A native of Odessa, he arrived in the U.S. in 1993 at the age of 16, his family having fled anti-Semitic violence in their homeland. He writes in English. His highly acclaimed book, Deaf Republic, has won numerous awards. It deals with exile, war, D/deafness-disability (Kaminsky has been deaf since the age of four), and injustices of all kinds. His poem, "We Lived Happily During the War" has become the contemporary equivalent of Auden's "September 1, 1939.":

"And when they bombed other people's houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war."

There are many more excellent Ukrainian poets, young and old, living and dead, who deserve to be widely known and read. The resources listed below are a starting point. Take some time and search in print and online for yourself. Such an effort will be repaid many times over.



Ukrainian Poets


Full text of Schevchenko and other poems and biographical information.


Olga Livshin


Full texts of Bilotserkivets, Musakovska, and Zavadsky, and three others.


Iya Kiva




Ilya Kaminsky


Kaminsky reading "We Lived Happily During the War"



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Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of four books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA. More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives

©2022 Gregory Luce
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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