Please join us in welcoming Ukrainian poet SERHIY ZHADAN to our pages—and look for more of his work forthcoming in our print journal.
All poems translated by Ostap Kin. With an introduction by Polina Barskova.
A Moveable Feast
We had already managed to forget him
when suddenly he died.
The relatives decided to inform his colleagues.
They have informed us.
And we, well what about us, how do we usually
behave at funeral receptions?
Someone was surprised he had died.
Someone was surprised he had died only now.
We read his books as children,
maybe that’s why we grew up so vicious.
At the funeral reception everyone discussed literature
and everyone read poems.
Someone ran out to buy champagne for the women.
Someone made a pass at the widow
and asked if she had a boyfriend.
Someone beat up a young poet
who wrote patriotic sonnets.
He lay on the floor
doused with champagne and widow’s tears
and his colleagues fiercely hovered over him
and demanded that he stand up and continue
the fight because they didn’t fight a man
who’s on his back.
Next to him
were scattered pages of sonnets and
dentures the oldest poet had lost
demanding the young man
get up and fight.
Before the widow could call
the police, we smashed the dishes
and the dead poet’s typewriter
while reading poetry
and talking literature.
Poetry is the last front for the unvanquished,
a heroic stand against public despair.
Poets stay together like the crew of a battleship,
and when the ship despondently goes down
they face into the wind and sing
hymns about brotherhood and fidelity
in clear, high voices.
But one, the whole time, from the very
first note, rants and whines
through his dentures.
irony the violinist
will touch the strings of your tendons
with a razor-bow
let the space be filled with
the red blossoming of
your nature’s melody
and the police officer will write in his report:
a steel barrier
blocked the way for the tram
with the tracks of your vessels
the guillotine worked
and the head of your hand
fell hard and rolled
along cold cobblestones
the body of your hand
like a butchered rooster
continued to convulse
were the least
(the hanged man)
you’re hanging there
like some tropical fruit
that has already managed
to go slightly rotten
in whose innards
the little fly of fright
you’re wriggling like a worm
on the hook of
your own death
to gleam as a stud
in its ear
how foul to watch
building of your body
the finger- and toenails
and finally some coroner
having split you in two
like an apple
will see your lung—
swollen with their last breath
the roof is seen from above
like a negative of Malevich’s black square
it’s night outside so it’s not surprising
that sleepwalkers are scurrying along the roofs
in search of a fifth dimension
roaches, just like people,
struggle to endure high altitude conditions
so there are none of them on the roof at all
the fine gravel reminds us of the days
when the ocean seethed
it withdrew and the white island
of roof rose from under the water
and the next sleepwalker
feeling the former power of water in the emptiness
(the drowned man)
and when you looked back
your footprints still remained on the waves
like dead fish
the road was too long
like a weighted net
you started sinking
under the water
and along with you
the lead ingots
of your footprints
fell to the bottom
only after spreading wide
over a thin film of water
held up by the surface
cross of cherry
recalled the mast
of a sunken ship
(And the smallest little girl in Chinatown)
And the smallest little girl in Chinatown,
and the old Baptists in the cold churches of Manhattan
don’t even imagine how the stars fell into our chimneys,
and how emerald leaves of garlic
grow on our soccer pitches.
This is ocean, without beginning or end,
flooding the shore where Chinese buffets stand
and a thousand sperm whales hide beneath sand and silt
separating me forever from the country
Here are black trees in cold snow,
like African women on white blankets,
and birds sit in every tree,
the vehement birds of emigration,
the melodious birds of exile.
And here I am
in my dream
I load my steamship with stars and wheat,
I fill holds with rum and water hemlock,
I warm up old engines
the way you stoke tile stoves.
Yet soon the Lord will summon us all,
will divert the oceans’ tides, will urge us into darkness.
Then weep for me,
sweet seaweed of America,
the way only you can do it,
the way only you can do it.
(Somehow you managed to grow up in this crack between states)
Somehow you managed to grow up in this crack between states,
shelters, monarchs, anarchists, Jewish communities, republics,
restraining your tongue with your teeth so it wouldn’t twitch so badly,
you’ve always seen conversation as a precondition for buying
and selling your fellow man, and at the first opportunity
you dared to break out of the shackles binding you,
in other words you exchanged the abyss of the East,
where you weren’t able to survive,
for the railway stations built far in the West.
Later, shot on the border,
you who should have drowned a long time ago
still held skies in your memory that seemed to be clear,
and well hidden golden ten-ruble coins weighed you down to the bottom
making it impossible for your train to escape the boundaries of your Motherland.
In fact, it was always a race, never an escape.
Only the border guards on both banks, having slowed down,
saw how the stream slowly turned you around
like a church—with your head towards the East.
To Live Means to Die
In summer, wedding rings and fingernails get hot
on the hands of men in hotels near railway stations,
and in the twilight children from the projects
press black soccer balls to their hearts.
In darkness, when pink wine is exhaled in wineries,
a Budapest-bound train slow as a snail and
dusty and fragile passes underneath the moon.
After dying one time, you continue your path
through backyards at night and notice how
death holds mint candies in its hands
and dispenses them to children
on the wasteland near a railway station.
In the summer, when the warm lining of life turns inside out,
when mini-cars the color of your lipstick crash,
an old pharmacist, who treats everyone with aspirin every day,
playing some bizarre game with death,
leaves his apartment.
Life won’t start without you—women laugh on the square,
to live means to die—the solitary messengers who carry
desiccated heavens in their backpacks will tell you.
Having died one time, you retreat into the shadows
and observe how your body helplessly looks for
itself among the stalks of dense grass;
having died in the middle of summer,
having fallen down from the tightrope drawn by postmen,
the souls of the dead like tenacious yarrow plants
thrust their vertical lines into the air.
Try, when you know how to,
try, snatch me from the nighttime viscera of the country,
from the invisible exhaust in the sky,
through which love comes down to us.
Little girl, who will impede and who will pry
insects and spirits from your body?
Under the summer sky our soil yours and mine
every summer smells so strongly of moon and bandages.
… After death takes a half-step sideways,
you see through seams in the air
how mysterious projectionists project
huge celestial cinema scenes
onto your body
so that the souls of the deceased
and emerald shadows of beetles
fly on your light.
SERHIY ZHADAN, AN INTRODUCTION
By Polina Barskova
Serhiy Zhadan, a Ukrainian poet and novelist, was born in the Luhansk region in 1974; today his name stands for both civic and cultural revival in Ukraine, a country in which literature—especially poetry—is acquiring a new, perhaps somewhat poignant, urgency. He belongs to the generation that witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Empire and its many consequences—the attempt, and failure, to build democracy, the revolutions, disappointments, and renewal of hope.
Just as the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud would not have ripened without the Paris barricades, Zhadan’s work depends on street life—the tender, mighty, and precarious life of Ukrainian society—in Kharkiv, Kiev, and other places. The paradox that, to my understanding, forms the crux of his uniqueness is that Zhadan writes about his own time intently, attentively, soberly, about its battles and zones of misery, and yet his diction is that of a Romantic poet—with strong symbolic innuendos, with that kind of sensory, almost sensual way of being in the world that borders on the tragic.
When Zhadan writes about current events in Ukraine, he manages to find a point of expression utterly remote from propaganda—his message is complex and humble, he pays attention not to the lofty ideas but rather to the actors of history, on both sides of the conflict, dignified or less so. And even when he does not write of history and its battles directly—when he writes about travel or erotica or just daily passing observations, his poetry strikes one as that of politeia—Zhadan is committed to individual lives within society.
I can think of yet another definition of Zhadan’s poetry (as if definitions can really help the poetry reader and lover)—he writes poetry as a journalist. That is a contradiction in terms, but, again, a productive one. He is detached from himself (a rare quality for a poet) and is dedicated to those whom he chooses to observe; he cherishes the minutiae of human existence; he does his best not to judge the subjects of his observation—his gaze is that of a journalist, his language, strong and lyrical, is that of a poet. We have here a curious kind of Romantic journalism, where the center of gravity is removed from the ubiquitous “I” to the lives of others.
In the collection of poems presented by The Common, we witness fragments of Zhadan’s reality watch, which, as always with him, is brutal, sarcastic, and heartbreaking all at once. The poems span two decades of his development as a poet and demonstrate his gravitation towards subjects macabre, sensuous, almost decadent. When he describes for us the loneliness of lesbian love (this could be any other variety) or suicidal despair, what strikes one is of course not the novelty of the subject or desire for shock value but how attentively, accurately, how camera-like he aims to observe the disaster of the human condition.
It can be argued that his almost hysterical intensity of lyrical emotion goes back to Ukrainian Futurism, a peculiar local shade of the global movement, one of the main voices of which, Mykhail’ Semenko, chose for himself an outré mask of Pierrot, constantly in distress over the offenses of modernity.
But the tone, the point of view, results from the workings of this very modernity at the beginning of the 21st century: Zhadan registers rather than weeps over; he manages (almost) total erasure of sentimentality. If this is an elegy, it is one that could be recorded by police-unit cameras brought to the scene of a crime.
Serhiy Zhadan is a Ukrainian poet, writer, essayist, and translator. He has published over a dozen books of poetry, novels, and short stories.
Ostap Kin has published translations in St. Petersburg Review and Krytyka Magazine.
Polina Barskova comes from Saint Petersburg and is the author of eight books of poems that have garnered national awards in Russia.