Beauty and Resilience: Voices from Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry
On the night of November 28, 2013, Ukrainian poet Oleh Lysheha took to Maidan, the central square of Kyiv, to read his poem Song 551. In the background rang the haunting chants of the singers and artists who had converged on Maidan to protest Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement. For the reclusive poet who was banned between 1972 and 1988 under the Soviets, it must have been a surreal experience to find himself once again at the fulcrum of resistance and liberation. As Lysheha reads his poem, perhaps a call to courage for the Maidan protestors, it is evident that he is holding back a flood of emotions:
Before it’s too late - knock your head against the ice.
Before it’s too late,
Break through, look…
You will see a miraculous world.
It’s quite another thing with a carp -
It tends to plunge,
Escaping to the lowest depths,
Born to be caught…..Sooner or later
But you are human, aren’t you? - No one will catch you
In a 2018 interview, emerging Ukrainian poet, Volodymyr Bilyk, described the significance of Lysheha’s Maidan reading: “Song 551 caused a seismic shift in my mind. There was a notion that I’ve just entered another world and it was just right for me. I felt at home and things were never the same again. It shattered my mind - literally. Lysheha’s poem, centering around the possibility of breaking through an icy barrier, can be understood as a medication that might have manifested during his own years of exile of isolation.
As a writer who was silenced by the Soviet state, Lysheha’s presence at Maidan symbolized perseverance and resilience. Maidan protestors asserted Ukraine’s sovereignty through artistic expression, drawing on the literary past with readings from writers who had used poetry as a tool against oppression such as Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), Ivan Franko (1856-1916), and Lesya Ukrainka (1871-1913). As lead figures in Ukraine’s history, these writers contributed significantly to the iconography of Maidan, where poetry took center stage as a tool of resistance and agency.
As Ukraine’s first contemporary poet, Shevchenko, embodied the country’s national ethos. His continued relevance, as a figure central to Maidan, testifies to his permanence as a reflection of Ukraine’s unity, freedom and pride. The publication of his first collection of poems, Kobzar [The Bard] in 1840, was instrumental in asserting the beauty of Ukrainian as a literary language. For his contribution to Ukrainian culture, he was sentenced to a 10-year term in Siberia by Nicholas I, who himself stipulated that Shevchenko be kept “under the strictest supervision, forbidden to write and sketch.” The physical and psychological suffering it caused by this harsh sentence led to Shevchenko’s death in 1861. Although the imperial period resulted in terrible repressions against Ukrainian writers, artistic and cultural persecutions would be augmented to unprecedented levels during the ensuing Soviet period.
In the interim, a literary renaissance followed Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1917, signaling the development of several literary schools, including Ukrainian Futurism. In 1918, the flourishing of the literary arts gave rise to Knyhospilka, the largest Ukrainian publishing house in Soviet Ukraine. Ukrainian poets actively formed cooperatives, both among the intelligentsia in the cities and through literary organizations in the villages. These writers envisioned a residential artistic community, and they petitioned the government to provide housing. Between 1927 and 1930, during a period known as Ukrainianization, the Ukrainian Civil Construction Institute conceptualized and constructed the Budynok Slovo [Slovo House], also referred to as the “House of Writers.”
Unfortunately, their dream was short-lived. The Stalinist purges of the 1930s would directly target the Ukrainian literary world, as poets, translators, and writers faced censorship, exile, and execution. Residents of the Budynok Slovo were placed under surveillance, and regular searches of the 66-unit apartment building were conducted. In 1931, Knyhospilka was abolished as part of the Soviet campaign to enact conformity and stifle artistic freedom. Some writers chose to commit suicide as a form of resistance. Others withdrew to safer pursuits, such as the translation of sanctioned works into Ukrainian. Many faced death by execution.
In his book The Literary Politics of Soviet Ukraine (1990), scholar George Luckyj estimates that 254 Ukrainian writers, literary scholars, and critics were victims of Stalin’s purges, with very few surviving long enough to see the period of “The Thaw,” which followed Stalin’s death. These poets and writers are referred to as “The Executed Renaissance,” a term coined by Polish publisher Jerzy Giedryoc in 1959.
In the late 1980s, Mykhail Gorbachev instituted a new policy of glasnost, stipulating that “no blank pages be left in Soviet history.” In the ensuing years, Ukrainians were able to examine for the first time the era of the purges and its connections to the Holodomor, the artificial Soviet famine of 1932-1933.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian poetry has enjoyed a renewed renaissance, as previously silenced writers are free to publish, and new voices are raised in an independent Ukraine. Many contemporary Ukrainian poets, including Serhiy Zhadan and Lyuba Yakimchuk, draw on the legacy of their poetic forerunners, including the poets of “The Executed Renaissance,” who paid the ultimate price for artistic integrity in their contributions to Ukrainian literary culture.
Apricots of Donbas - Lyuba Yakimchuk
A poet, playwright, screenwriter, and journalist, Lyuba Yakimchuk was born in Pervomaisk in 1985. Her full-length poetry collections Iak Moda [Like Fashion] (2009) and Abrykosy Donbasu [Apricots of Donbas] (2015/2021) have won prestigious awards, including the International Slavic Poetic Award (Ukraine).
Written over a 10-year period, Apricots of Donbas focuses on Yakimchuk’s heightened observations as she witnessed the ramifications of occupation. Yakimchuk gives the reader an intimate description of how her family’s life changed when Luhansk became occupied in 2014: “In the evening, I talk to my sister. Anya is as scared as I. We use the same words to express our fears. And we use the same words to avoid talking about our fears.”
In the collection, the familiar images of the current invasion replay, from drones seen flying above in the poem “hiding together,” to a child witnessing the rape of her mother at the hands of soldiers, as in the poem “caterpillar,” to the donning of a bulletproof vest in the poem “prayer.” While the world has witnessed one year of the invasion through images and social media posts, Yakimchuk’s poems give the reader an intimate personal picture of the life of an average Ukrainian citizen under occupation. It offers vignettes of Yakimchuk’s day-to-day world, as a mother, a daughter, a sister; as a poet, an artist, and a Ukrainian.
he says that all shall be well
he says: your school’s been bombed out
he says: we’re running out of food and out of money
he says: relief supplies from the white trucks are our only hope
he says: the relief has just been shot at us like projectiles
the school is no more
how come the school is no more?
is it empty? is it hole-ridden, or is it not there at all?
what became of my photo on the board of honor?
what became of the teacher who sat in the classroom?
he says: a photo? who on earth cares about your photo?
he says: your school has melted—this winter has been too hot
he says: I didn’t see your teacher, don’t ask me to look for her
he says: I saw your godmother, she is no more
drop all you have and run—
leave your house, your cellar with jars of apricot jam
and pink chrysanthemums on the veranda
shoot your dogs so that they don’t suffer
dump this soil, go
he says: you’re talking nonsense, we dump soil on coffins every day
he says: all shall be well, rescue is coming soon
he says: the relief supplies are on their way
Songs for a Dead Rooster - Yuri Andrukhovych
Although a novelist, essayist, literary critic, and translator, Yuri Andrukhovych is best known in Ukraine for his poetry. Born in 1960 in Ivano Frankivsk (then Stanislav), he is a founding member of Bu-Ba-Bu (burlesk, balahan, bufonda), a group of poets formed in 1985 with fellow writers Oleksandr Irvanets and Viktor Neborak. Through community creation, the group developed a rebellious carnival spirit, not only as a means of undermining the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, but also as an antidote to any poetry espousing a serious, dogmatic form. While Bu-Ba-Bu’s work spanned more than a decade, the peak of activity occurred between 1988 and 1992, at the intersection of the twilight years of the Soviet Union and the nascent years of an independent Ukraine.
Songs for a Dead Rooster incorporates two distinct periods of Andrukhovych’s poetry. The first spans the 1980s through the early 1990s, during his involvement with Bu-Ba-Bu. The second reflects on 2004 forward, when he returned to poetry after publishing only prose for a number of years. At times, his poems are playful, often effortlessly juxtaposing the ordinary with the surprising, challenging the reader to look beyond the banal to excavate life’s muted intricate ironies.
we look for the most precise knowledge
on ladders we scale the highest floors of the library
we rummage through the stacks alongside spiders
raising chalk clouds under the ceiling
as if atop the steepest tower
we feel like aerial gymnasts
out of breath and barely keep our balance
we dive into the thickest volumes no longer hoping
to ever get out
the books consume us like the sea
we grip carved protrusions
barely able to stay afloat
and when we’re about to run out of strength
sneezing and covered in plaster
it feels like success to find
in the thickest of goatskin and leather
pressed tightly against the wall
the light and warm
a street swallow
Mountain and Flower - Mykola Vorobiov
Born in the Cherkasy region in 1941, Mykola Vorobiov is an established poet and artist who uses deeply expressive imagery to convey reality. Together with Vasyl Holoborodko, Viktor Kordun, and Mykhailo Hryhoriv, Vorobiov was a founding member of the nonconformist Kyiv School of Poetry. The School’s works ran counter to socialist realism, which was the only officially sanctioned “creative method” in Soviet literary culture from the early 1930s through 1985.
In 1967, Soviet authorities seized two collections of Vorobiov’s poetry, Bukinist [A Bibliophile] and Bez kory [Barkless], from poet Vira Vovk when she attempted to smuggle these works out of the Soviet Union. This event had tremendous consequences for Vorobiov, who was placed under KGB surveillance and declared “ideologically unreliable.” His works were banned from Soviet magazines and publishing houses for nearly two decades. As translator Maria Rewakowicz explains in her introduction to the volume, Vorobiov “chose inner exile rather than cooperation with authorities and a chance to be stained by propaganda-like publications,” as did other poets of the Kyiv School.
In 1985, Vorobiov’s first poetry collection, Pryhadai na dorohu meni [Remind Me for the Road], was released. He has since published over 12 volumes of poetry. In 1992, Wild Dog Moon, a collection of his poems in English translation, was published in Toronto. In 2005, Vorobiov was awarded the prestigious Shevchenko Prize in Literature.
Mountain and Flower (2020) represents over 50 years of Vorobiov’s creative output, bringing together poems from his earliest collections to the present. Vorobiov’s works are infused with metaphor and imagery, often focusing introspectively on life’s quiet treasures. Through exquisite vignettes that incorporate nature, plants, landscapes, campfires, and rainy days, Vorobiov reveals himself as a “master of the miniature.”
I look at the stove fire and it’s like I dream of cherries
That kind of cherry-like home hearth
a faraway land cannot embroider for me,
and it’s not something to be sent from home. No way.
The fire sighs. The fire quiets. Dusk
Only the leaves of palms shine,
Reflecting the summer sun towards evening
Nobody Knows Us Here and We Don’t Know Anyone - Kateryna Kalytko
Born in Vinnytsia in 1982, Kateryna Kalytko is an acclaimed poet, writer, and translator who has published multiple collections of poetry and prose. Her work has been translated into English, Polish, German, Hebrew, Russian, Armenian, Italian, and Serbian. She has been the recipient of many literary awards and fellowships, among them the Central European Initiative Fellowship for Writers in Residence (2015) and the Ukraine BBC Award for fiction (2017). Her poems were also included in the 2018 Words for War anthology.
Nobody Knows Us Here and We Don’t Know Anyone deals with separations and changes while hinting at the ongoing war in Ukraine. Translators Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna provide this contextualization of Kalytko’s poetry: “Beautiful images come together like puzzle pieces to create violent and shocking images of war and create an atmosphere depicting the sense of loss and pain that is experienced during a search for safety and identity in violent times. War colors the way we see images. It transforms them and turns them upside down.”
They were singing a folk song. The language broke at the folds and the shards sparkled like coal. The throat prickled, as if people were calling the someone who would not come, who had never come yet. And I wanted to cry and to join them, so that my lungs would break from my chest: two boats—let’s say, Tenderness and Longing, froze near the wharf. They could not sail off, moored to this chilly air by the larynx and trachea. I wanted to cry and to escape, to leave, not wasting time, far away, never to return, and when at the border they ask, “What is in your luggage?” I open the bag with ringing fragments and I cannot explain what broke. All the words have flown out into an enduring winter song.
Lost Horse Press Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series
Founded in 2017 by Christine Lysnewycz Holbert and series editor Grace Mahoney, the Lost Horse Press Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series brings Ukraine’s poetry to an English-speaking audience through side-by-side translation. As cities around the world welcome Ukrainian refugees fleeing the invasion, dual-language books provide an important tool for the preservation and dissemination of Ukrainian literary culture