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Beauty and Resilience: Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Exhibit

Volume 5: A New Orthography

Translated by John Hennessey and Ostap Kin

Born in Starobilsk in 1974, Serhiy Zhadan is considered one of the leading literary figures of Eastern Europe and is recognized as the “voice of post-Soviet Ukraine.” He has published three novels, including Voroshilovgrad and Depeche Mode, and has written over 20 poetry collections. Zhadan has earned numerous literary awards, including the BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year award in 2006, 2010 and 2014.   

A New Orthography includes poems that are imbued with gentle yet tragic ironies, as Zhadan reflects on life in the midst of war. Through his poems, the reader witnesses that even amid stark realities and heartbreaking tragedies, life continues. In his introduction to the work, written before the onset of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Zhadan admits that his book contains many poems about the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war: “About the war that is happening on the other side of the Atlantic, one that an American reader doesn’t have much to do with in spite of all the geopolitics. How to read this war, how to understand its victims, how to treat their voices? Poetry can hardly explain much in this case.”  

Yet Zhadan also acknowledges that poetry, while not a substitute for news reports, has one advantage: “the immediacy of experience, open emotion, a sense of direct action which at times is more convincing than all of the speeches by all the politicians in this world.” In the end, he asks, “What really unites us?....The books we read unite us. And the voices we hear.”  

In 2019 translators John Hennessy and Ostap Kin received the John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation for the translation of Zhadan’s poems "A bridge used to be there, someone recalled” and “They buried their son last winter.”   

I imagine how birds see it

I imagine how birds see it: 
the black branch of a river, 
rooftops in winter, 
perplexed pedestrians on the sidewalk. 
I imagine it’s scary for birds to fly over the river. 
Still, they look at the city from above. 
At the depot beyond the station, 
the backyards, 
the library on the other side of the river, 
the full pages of the streets. 
They repeat this February poem, 
knowing it from gates to attics, 
knowing where it’s going to stop finally, 
and they know, by the way, how it’s going to end. 
The soil emerges 
the way facial features become clear, 
fish will arrive in the floodplains of the Dinets river, 
a bit of blackness will appear on the horizon, 
there will be happiness, 
there will be cattails. 
The point is to warm up among people, 
to love this artel work of winter, 
this inaudible breath of soil, 
its seal. 
You have to scream about it. 
And so they scream.  

Front Cover of A New Orthography

Photo of Serhiy Zhadan


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