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Beauty and Resilience: Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Exhibit

Volume 4: Pray to the Empty Wells

Translated by Olena Jennings

Born in Kyiv in 1986, Iryna Shuvalova is the author of five award-winning books of poetry with her debut title, Ran, appearing in 2011. Deeply rooted in nature and Ukraine’s folk culture, her poetry also captures the juxtaposition of the mystical with the mundane. Her poetry has been anthologized, and published in periodicals in Ukraine and beyond in nine languages, including Modern Poetry in Translation, International Poetry Review, Podium Literature, Radar. 

Of her poetry, Shuvalova states: “The essence of poetry is speaking in multiple voices through one voice.” The multilayered fears of her fellow citizens can be heard in these lines:  

I pretend death doesn’t exist 

but death is coming and death is buzzing 
over plum trees over cherries and quince 
the ruthless stinging of metal bees 
spring is coming  

it’s already spring in nanjing 
the columns move toward kyiv military columns 

Written when she first learned of the invasion, while en-route to China where she works as a college counselor, Shuvalova expresses the deep divide between safety and home, beauty and war. 

“Pray to the Empty Wells” (2019), represents Shuvalova’s first book-length translation in English.  Translated by Olena Jennings in collaboration with Shuvalova herself, the pair worked closely together, ensuring that the beauty of the poems are not lost, but are instead augmented by their heartfelt attention. Reflecting on the process of translation, Jennings explains: “The target language is slightly transformed by the source language. The soul is also capable of transformation within the poems….These poems are Iryna’s breath. They become my breath. Our breath connects and fills the empty wells, unleashing boundless echoes.” 


What can be done, when there is an ax in a pocket and a knife  

in a sleeve 

red flowers of hatred grow all over the mass graves 

it’s so easy to cross the line when the line has been nearly erased 

by so many crossing feet 

those who wave the flag know how to explain these things 

about friends and enemies, god’s own people and the devil’s spawn 

war is a large greenhouse where they grow emptiness 

for sale 

both us an them neatly mark up the snow in strawberry colors 

all wars start with brotherly love and end with nil 

girls and boys with exalted faces 

are busy making swords out of their selfie-sticks 

there is a where-are-you-from on everyone’s forehead 

the sheep on the right are “for” and the goats on the left 

are “against” 

but when you have a mouthful of dirt on both sides of the front line it has the exact same taste 

a poet is a hybrid creature and poetry is a balancing act 

between words and things, between facts and lies 

but there is no need to make up some stories, when right  

in front of you is history 

staring you straight in the eyes 


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