Ukrainian poets have long connected themselves to the powerful myth of New York, offering various takes on its aura of urban modernity, its problematic vitality. New York Elegies demonstrates how evocations of New York City are connected to various stylistic modes and topical questions urgent to Ukrainian poetry throughout the past hundred years.
Julia PikeNovember 2018 Poetry Feature: New York Elegies
My parents conceived me on a sofa in a department store. My mother worked in the underwear section and was a second-year nursing student. My father worked in the household appliances, hardware, and gardening section, and was a fifth-year social sciences student. They’d hardly been dating a month, and they’d never worked the same shift. Until that morning in May. No one saw them enter the warehouse holding hands—the store wouldn’t open to the public for another hour. No one heard them either, despite the fact that the sofa still had a plastic covering on the cushions to protect it from any stains. The sofa was more cream than yellow; it had solid wood legs and fit three people comfortably. Though my parents didn’t intend it, that morning there were already three of us.
I went out the back door, across the marble terrace and down into the garden, as I had done so many times before. I looked up at the two windows I had calculated as belonging to the locked room. There was nothing to see. As always, they were covered with blackout paper. Nothing had changed. Walking back and forth, I studied all of the protrusions on the back wall: window frames, downpipes. I couldn’t see any way of climbing up without a ladder. It wasn’t even possible to reach them from the window of another room.
The sea had depressed Huda ever since she was a schoolgirl, bent eagerly over a drawing of a Phoenician princess walking with her prince beside the sea, while their dog played with a shell. The creature that lived in the shell had dyed the dog’s mouth a purple color that clashed with the blue sea. She had written below the picture, ‘The color purple was discovered in the city of Tyre. Tyre is a Phoenician city situated on the Mediterranean Sea, like Beirut.’ Then she took her crayons and gave the prince and princess the most beautiful clothes, and colored the world around them like rainbows mingling with the blue of the sea, but instead of being happy that she had finished her homework, she felt a pain, different from when she had a toothache or grazed her knee: it began in her throat and descended into her belly, because the world and the colors she had drawn on the sheet of paper were what she longed for, unlike her house, empty of color and pictures and music. The pain attacked her throat and she felt as if she was suffocating because she would never walk by the sea like this prince and princess and their dog, never set eyes on its blueness or the lovely colors of the prince and princess’s clothes except in her dreams, and only then if she dreamt in color and not in black and white as usual.
Regardless of how it turned out, the situation certainly demanded a courageous decision. I could no longer bear the chaos that had spread to all areas of my life—a life that I was constantly striving to keep in the best possible state of order.
At the borderland between the desert and the plains, Emirate of Transjordan, early twentieth century
Two men sat near the round threshing floor in the western fields. Each with his rifle on his lap. “What a goddamn year,” Tafish said. He had a skull-like face. Small, sunken, deep-set eyes. Emaciated cheeks with protruding cheekbones. A broad forehead with dark blue veins at the sides. Skin like an aged tortoise. His hair and lower jaw were hidden behind a white keffiyeh, held in place by a black fleece cord around his head. His frame was tall, straight, lithe. He rubbed his nose with his hand, letting a low whistle out of his nostrils. By the time he lowered his hand, a pensive expression of disgust had formed on his face. Staring straight ahead, he spoke, as if to himself: “What a goddamn year.”
I sit on my old chair, scatter my multicolored toys around me, and start watching evening cartoons on TV. Cool Pancho shoots off through the streets in his car, feeling awesome. He’d bought the car back from the old lady living next door. Never mind that he’d paid too much, more than two thousand pounds. No problem. He slows down, speeds up, and finally stops at the green fields to go for a stroll. The episode ends, but I stay glued to the television, waiting for my truly favorite cartoon: The Adventures of Zaina the Bee. Zaina is a menacing creature; she has no other business but instigating pranks on her friend Nahhul. Nahhul, for his part, has no choice but to come crawling back to his bully-of-a-buddy every time.