September 2017 Poetry Feature

This month The Common brings you a selection from the anthology WORDS FOR WAR, NEW POEMS FROM UKRAINE, edited by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky, forthcoming next month from Academic Studies Press.

The armed conflict in the east of Ukraine brought about an emergence of a distinctive trend in contemporary Ukrainian poetry: the poetry of war. Directly and indirectly, the poems collected in this volume engage with the events and experiences of war, reflecting on the themes of alienation, loss, dislocation, and disability; as well as justice, heroism, courage, resilience, generosity, and forgiveness. In addressing these themes, the poems also raise questions about art, politics, citizenship, and moral responsibility. The anthology brings together some of the most compelling poetic voices from different regions of Ukraine. Young and old, female and male, somber and ironic, tragic and playful, filled with extraordinary terror and ordinary human delights, the voices recreate the human sounds of war in its tragic complexity.

ANASTASIA AFANASIEVA  |  “Can there be poetry after:”

BORYS HUMENYUK  |  “Our platoon commander is a strange fellow”

ALEKSANDR KABANOV  |  “He came first wearing a t-shirt inscribed ‘Je suis Christ,’”


LYUDMYLA KHERSONSKA  |  “When a country of — overall — nice people”

SERHIY ZHADAN  |  “Third Year into the War”



* * *

Can there be poetry after:
Yasinuvata, Horlivka, Savur-Mohyla, Novoazovsk
Krasnyi-Luch, Donetsk, Luhansk
Sorting bodies in repose from the dying
The hungry from those on a stroll
Long after
Poetry devolves to “autistic babbling”
Lips mating in the darkness
I ask
Is poetry possible
At the moment history stirs
Once its steps
Reverberate through every heart?
Impossible to speak of anything else,
Talking becomes impossible.
As I write this
Very close to me
Every hope is being ended.

Translated from the Russian by Kevin Vaughn and Maria Khotimsky




* * *

Our platoon commander is a strange fellow
When the sun rises over the battlefield
He says that it’s someone burning a tire at a far-off checkpoint
The moon to him is a barrel of a cannon
And the sea is melted lead
Why is it salty?
Because it’s made of our tears sweat piss blood
It flows through us.

A strange fellow, I say.
But today he outdid himself
In the early morning, he entered our tent and said
That’s it! No more war today!
That’s what they announced on TV —
War is done for three whole days.

Here at the front we’ve learned
There are two kinds of people: people, and TV people
We dislike TV people
They seem fake, they’re poor actors
Actually, we don’t even have TV
And if we did, we’d just watch cartoons (more truthful)
Or “In the World of Animals” (more interesting).

We were getting our weapons and ammo ready
When our weird platoon commander
Shocked us with this news.

The machine gun belt froze in the hands of gunner Vasyl from Kremenets
And his loader Sashko from Boyarka
Then it bristled, like the back of a prehistoric beast
The hand grenades peeking out of the pouch
Of grenadier Max from Luhansk
Dove back in like scared kittens.

Have you ever tried stopping a high-speed train
By placing a penny on the tracks?
Have you ever told the sun, wait, don’t move
I’ve so much to do today.
Have you ever begged a woman in labor:
We’ve been snowed in, the midwife can’t make it.
Hold on for three more days?

The child must be born
The train must reach its destination
The sun must keep rolling like a burning tire
And when it’s gone the moon will take its place
As a cannon barrel
And night will fall as ash.

On the first day of no war
We lost our machine gun loader
Sashko from Boyarka
And grenadier Max from Luhansk
The bullets came from the other side of war
Like angry hornets
Stung Sashko in the neck
And Max in the heart
Maybe the other side doesn’t have a strange platoon commander
Bringing weird news
Maybe they watch a different TV channel
Maybe their TV set is broken.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky




* * *

He came first wearing a t-shirt inscribed “Je suis Christ,”
a long-haired hippy, but in this Coming he was beardless,
on his neck, flowering like a December rose, was a hickey;
he’d developed problems with human relations, and nature.

He transformed the golden fish into black bread and wine,
and then again changed this new wine into moonshine:
in this way, a child who is not long for this world,
smashes the piggy-bank kitty for all eyes to see.

Like empty talk, the streetcar clangs off to the depot,
sounds throw shadows — longer, colder, more amorphous;
Indeed, Pasternak has risen, despite the weak Wi-Fi signal,
bringing us a joint for the road, heroin, and some morphine.

Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale




You are not just sleeping with this one man, but with his whole life,
and sometimes it wakes you up and snatches him out of your arms.
For, you see, war often comes along and lies down between you like a child
afraid to be left alone in the dark.

War, he says, involves many numbers, let’s see —
two relatives equal one sack of bones,
one thousand three hundred ninety-five days of siege,
three packages of humanitarian aid: butter, canned goods,
powdered milk, three bars of soap.

Four armed men come for you,
show you their orders and then escort you out into the night.
During the walk across the city
you hear missiles flying over your head — twice.

. . . Five times they take you out of the barracks
to a ditch where forty-three lay rotting
and each time you think: I will finally die
and tell God that it was a lame joke.

But they throw you face down into the dirt
and take their sweet time pressing a gun to your head.
Since then, he says, I don’t like to dream,
these kinds of memories, they aren’t fitting for a man.

You run through the woods, they shoot at your back,
a bullet hits your thigh but all you feel is this dirt on your face.
That’s when a leafless tree of pain grows
in your chest, pulsating.

And I don’t respond because what do you say to that
I just keep wiping the dirt off his face, over and over again,
even while he’s sleeping,
even while he’s away.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna




* * *

When a country of — overall — nice people
turns — slowly — fascist,
nice people do not notice this transformation all at once.

As when a person we know intimately
goes, next to us, through
an imperceptible process of aging. Imperceptibly, new wrinkles
slice the skin, frightening, deep.

Nice people nod when they run into each other,
and try, more and more, to lower their eyes,
until finally, raising them becomes an inhuman gesture.

Translated from the Russian by Valzhyna Mort





They buried him last winter.
Some winter too — not a snowflake, so much rain.
A quick funeral — we all have things to do.
Which side was he fighting for? I ask. What a question, they say,
One of the sides, who could figure them out.
What difference does it make, they say, same difference.
Only he could have answered, they say, now it’s he said-she said.
Could he? His corpse is missing a head.

Third year into the war, bridges are patched.
I know so much about you — now what?
I know, for one, that you liked this song.
I know your sister, I loved her once.
I know your fears and where they came from.
I know who you met that winter and what was said.
Three years of nights patched with ash and star light.
I remember you always played for another school.
And yet, who did you fight for in this war?

To come here, every year, to rip dry grass.
To dig the earth, every year — dead, heavy earth.
To see, every year, this peace, this ill.
To tell yourself, till the end, that you didn’t shoot
into your own. In the waves of rain — birds vanish.
I’d ask to pray for your sins, yet what sins?
I’d ask for the rains to stop — rains full of birds.
Some birds! It’s easy for them. For all they know,
there’s neither salvation nor soul.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Valzhyna Mort



Contributor Notes


Anastasia Afanasieva was born in Kharkiv in 1982. She is the author of six books of poetry and the winner of numerous major literary awards and prizes, including the Debut Prize and the Russian Award, two of the top awards in Russian poetry. Her poetry has been translated into English, German, Italian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian. In the US, her poems in translation have appeared in Cimarron ReviewJacket Magazine, and Blue Lyra Review. She is the translator of Ilya Kaminsky’s book Music of the Wind (Ailuros, 2012). The English language translation of Afanasieva’s poem about refugees won First Place in the 2014 Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize Competition.

Borys Humenyuk was born in Ostriv, Ternopil oblast, in 1965. He is a poet, writer, and journalist. He has taken an active part in Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity of 2013. Since 2014, he has been involved in the anti-terrorist operation in the Ukrainian Donbas region. He now serves in a self-organized military unit composed mainly of volunteers.

Aleksandr Kabanov was born in Kherson in 1968. He studied journalism at the Kyiv State University. An author of eleven books of poetry and numerous publications in major Russian literary journals, Kabanov is said to be one of the leading Russian-language poets of his generation. He has been awarded a number of prestigious literary prizes, among them the Russian Prize, International Voloshin Prize, Antologia Prize, and the Novy Mir Literary Magazine Award for the best poetry publication of the year. His poems have been translated into German, English, Dutch, Georgian, Ukrainian, Polish, Kazakh, and other languages. Since 2005, Kabanov has been the chief editor of the journal of contemporary culture SHO (“WHAT”) and coordinator of the International poetry festival Kyiv Laurels.

Kateryna Kalytko was born in Vinnytsia in 1982. She is a poet, novelist, and translator. She had published six collections of poetry and one novel. Her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies of Ukrainian literature, and her works have been translated into English, Polish, German, Hebrew, Russian, Armenian, Italian, and Serbian. Kalytko is an acclaimed translator who translates Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian works into Ukrainian, having translated works by authors such as Adisa Bašić, Nenad Veličković, and Miljenko Jergović. She received the Metaphora award in 2014 for her translation of Jergović’s works. She has been the recipient of many literary fellowships, among them the Central European Initiative Fellowship for Writers in Residence in 2015. Kalytko is also the founder of the Intermezzo Short Story Festival, the only festival in Ukraine exclusively dedicated to the genre of the short story.

Lyudmyla Khersonska was born in Tiraspol, Moldova, in 1964. She is the author of two books of poetry, Vse svoi, named one of the ten best poetry books of 2011, and Tyl’naia-litsevaia (2015). Her work has received several literary awards, and she has been named laureate and winner of the Voloshin competition. Her poems appear in many journals, including Novyi mir, Znamia, Kreshchatik, Interpoeziia, and Storony sveta, and have been translated into Ukrainian, Lithuanian, and German. She gave poetry readings in Moscow, Kyiv, Lviv, Munich, and New York. Khersonska also translates English-language poets into Russian, including Vladimir Nabokov and Seamus Heaney. She has spoken about Russia’s war in Ukraine and read her poetry about the war several times on Radio Liberty. Her latest book, Tyl’naia-litsevaia, includes poetic reflections on Russian aggression in Ukraine. Khersonska lives in Odessa.

Serhiy Zhadan was born in Starobilsk, Luhansk oblast, in 1974. He is a Ukrainian poet, fiction writer, essayist, and translator. He has published over two dozen books, including the poetry collections Psychedelic Stories of Fighting and Other Bullshit (2000), Ballads of the War and Reconstruction (2000), The History of Culture at the Beginning of the Century (2003), Lili Marlen (2009), and Life of Maria (2016). His novels and collections of short stories include Big Mac (2003), Anarchy in the UKR (2005), Anthem of Democratic Youth (2006), and Mesopotamia (2014). The English translations of Zhadan’s work include Depeche Mode (2013), Voroshilovgrad (2016) and Life of Maria and Other Poems (forthcoming with Yale University Press in 2017). Other translations of his work appear in PEN AtlasEleven ElevenMad Hatters ReviewAbsinthe, International Poetry Review, and the anthologies New European Poets (2008) and Best European Fiction (2010). In 2014, he received the Ukrainian BBC’s Book of the Decade Award, and he won the BBC Ukrainian Service Book of the Year Award in 2006 and again in 2010. He is the recipient of the Hubert Burda Prize for Young Poets (Austria, 2006), the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature (Switzerland, 2014), and the Angelus Central European Literature Award (Poland, 2015). Zhadan lives in Kharkiv, Ukraine. 


Alex Cigale’s own English-language poems have appeared in such journals as the Colorado Review, The Common Online, and The Literary Review, and his translations of Russian Silver Age and contemporary poets in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, New England Review, PEN America, TriQuarterly, Two Lines, Words Without Borders, and World Literature Today. In 2015, he was awarded an NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation for his work on the St. Petersburg philological school poet Mikhail Eremin, and guest-edited the Spring 2015 Russia Issue of the Atlanta Review, writing about it for Best American Poetry. His first full book, Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings is just out in the Northwestern University Press World Classics series. From 2011 to 2013, he was an assistant professor at the American University of Central Asia, and more recently, a lecturer in Russian literature at CUNY/Queens College.

Olena Jennings’s collection of poetry Songs from an Apartment was released in January by Underground Books. Her translations of poetry from Ukrainian can be found in ChelseaPoetry International and Wolf.  She has published fiction in JoylandPioneertown, and Projectile. She completed her MFA in writing at Columbia and her MA focusing in Ukrainian literature at the University of Alberta. 

Maria Khotimsky teaches Russian language and literature and supervises the Russian language program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has received her PhD from the department of Slavic languages and literatures at Harvard University in 2011. Her research focuses on the history and theory of poetic translation in the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, and on the cross-influences between translation and original writing. She has published several articles devoted to the poetics of translation, and she is a contributor and coeditor of an anthology of scholarly articles devoted to Olga Sedakova’s poetry: Olga Sedakova: Stikhi, Smysly, Prochteniia. Sbornik Nauchnykh Statei (2016). 

Oksana Lutsyshyna is a Ukrainian writer and translator, and lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the University of Texas in Austin, where she teaches Ukrainian language and Eastern European literatures. She holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Georgia. Oksana translates alone or in collaboration with Olena Jennings, Kevin Vaughn, or Daniel Belgrad. Her translations of poems and essays by Vasyl Makhno, Marianna Kiyanovska, Bohdana Matiyash, and other Ukrainian authors appeared in Postroad Magazine, The Wolf, Ukrainian Literature: A Journal of Translation, St. Petersburg Review, and other venues. Her original work includes two novels, a collection of short stories, and three collections of poetry, all published in Ukraine. Her most recent novel has been long-listed for the Ukrainian BBC award.

Oksana Maksymchuk is an author of two award-winning books of poetry in the Ukrainian language, and a recipient of Richmond Lattimore and Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender translation prizes. She works on problems of cognition and motivation in Plato’s moral psychology. Maksymchuk teaches philosophy at the University of Arkansas.

Valzhyna Mort is the author of Factory of Tears and Collected Body (Copper Canyon Press 2008 and 2011). She has received the Lannan Foundation Fellowship, the Bess Hokins Prize from Poetry, the Amy Clampitt Fellowship, and the Burda Prize for Eastern European authors. With Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris, Mort co-edited Gossip and Metaphysics: Russian Modernist Poems and Prose (Tupelo Press 2014). Born in Minsk, Belarus, she teaches at Cornell University. 

Max Rosochinsky is a poet and translator from Simferopol, Crimea. His poems had been nominated for the PEN International New Voices Award in 2015. With Maksymchuk, he won first place in the 2014 Brodsky-Spender competition. His academic work focuses on twentieth century Russian poetry, especially Osip Mandelshtam and Marina Tsvetaeva.

Kevin Vaughn is a poet and literary translator who is currently a doctoral student in English and creative writing at the University of Georgia. He also holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. Kevin is a former Fulbright fellow to Jagiellonian University in Poland and a graduate fellow of the Cave Canem Foundation. His poems and translations have appeared in Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Harpur Palate, Mississippi Review, Mythium, Naugutuck River Review, PANK, and the anthologies: Killer Lines: Poems about Murder & Mayhem and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia. He has been the recipient of artistic residencies all over the world, including The Millay Colony for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Performing Arts Forum in Picardie, France.

September 2017 Poetry Feature

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