Ukrainian literature has a long tradition that goes back to the 11th century. One of its best known poets is the 19th century Taras Shevchenko, who started off with romantic verse, before later moving to more sombre lines on Ukrainian history. Poetry and history-making are still intertwined in today’s Ukraine. A diversity of styles defines contemporary Ukrainian poetry, ranging from rhymed to free verse, and from print collections to slam and spoken word. But the country’s recent political upheavals, from the Maidan Revolution to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, have made bold, direct poetry particularly prominent in Ukraine today, with readings and performances often well attended. The selection below takes you on a tour from the personal to the political, and from literary superstars like Serhiy Zhadan to strong and promising debutants like Ella Yevtushenko.
So I’ll talk about it:
about the green eye of a demon in the colorful sky.
An eye that watches from the sidelines of a child’s sleep.
The eye of a misfit whose excitement replaces fear.
Everything started with music,
with scars left by songs
heard at fall weddings with other kids my age.
The adults who made music.
Adulthood defined by this—the ability to play music.
As if some new note, responsible for happiness,
appears in the voice,
as if this knack is innate in men:
to be both hunter and singer.
Music is the caramel breath of women,
tobacco-scented hair of men who gloomily
prepare for a knife-fight with the demon
who has just crashed the wedding.
Music beyond the cemetery wall.
Flowers that grow from women’s pockets,
schoolchildren who peek into the chambers of death.
The most beaten paths lead to the cemetery and water.
You hide only the most precious things in the soil—
the weapon that ripens with wrath,
porcelain hearts of parents that will chime
like the songs of a school choir.
I’ll talk about it—
about the wind instruments of anxiety,
about the wedding ceremony as memorable
as entering Jerusalem.
Set the broken psalmic rhythm of rain
beneath your heart.
Men that dance the way they quench
steppe-fire with their boots.
Women that hold onto their men in dance
like they don’t want to let them go to war.
Eastern Ukraine, the end of the second millennium.
The world is brimming with music and fire.
In the darkness flying fish and singing animals give voice.
In the meantime, almost everyone who got married then has died.
In the meantime, the parents of people my age have died.
In the meantime, most heroes have died.
The sky unfolds, as bitter as it is in Gogol’s novellas.
Echoing, the singing of people who gather the harvest.
Echoing, the music of those who cart stones from the field.
Echoing, it doesn’t stop.
Serhyi Zhadan is one of Ukraine’s best known poets and novelists, who gathers crowds of thousands of people at his book launches and events.
autumn begins with something trivial: keys forgotten in another city, silver coins of cough in the throat, a Turkish cup of tea,
copper coins, water in the battery,
I did not feel it, and it is already here, huddling a stray cat, rubbing its legs
leaving faded leaves on jeans
only on such a rainy night there can be a knock on the balcony door, only on such a rainy night can it be opened
but who will be behind it depends on whether the nut fell asleep on its guard under the window, whether the pines will reach the torn hem of the clouds.
and whether lightning repeats the pattern of veins on your temples.
autumn begins with something childish — it knocks on the door and runs away; I want to read all day in bed; you are wrapped like a mummy, damp gauze of mist —
and continues with something old: it does not take any alcohol, a diamond of cold pulsates in its knees
and so again — every time — and every time this is the first topic of conversation
as if there is nothing more important than this autumn, wet as a morning under a prematurely peeled crust
it steals airtime from work conversations, intercepts a wave of gossip, lies down with a stray cat on the balcony, where piles of secrets should gather.
autumn drives us to the kitchen and makes us put the kettle on
autumn begins with something trivial, but grows quickly like other people’s children
a penny of winter will roll out of its cold womb, the snow will cover the mummified us, frozen in half a word
then, no one knocks on the balcony window in the middle of the night any longer
and then there is a general risk of ceasing to exist for a while
Born in 1996, Ella Yevtushenko has published an acclaimed debut collection, Lichtung, and won multiple poetry competitions in Ukraine.
the sky is getting closer
when two-seater planes land on the water
in Vancouver Bay
dozens of little iron bumblebees seem to be talking to each other:
I saw the backs of whales jumping over the ocean
I pulled the snowboarder out of the gorge
I talked to the sail as it changed course
only you and I know nothing about the main thing
and huge albatrosses stole our breakfast
while we kissed on the fallen pines
peering into the foggy bay
the birds tore our food
for it is not bread alone
breathes in slow motion
not only french fries…
may be a continuation of compression
and a tattoo on your neck
I crossed out the tip of my tongue
and then we looked at the December volleyball players
here is a warm winter
so they are so flamboyant
remained only in colored topics
throwing jackets on the sand
and I watched every bouncing ball
pressing you harder
as the sun embraces the tail of a salamander
as the intoxicating gaze of the fisherman embraces the overdried nets
and marijuana smokers converged on magnolia bushes
to breathe breathe breathe
this cold ocean in which all answers sit on hooks
this calm wind
which pushes the islands closer to the shore
and the serious Chinese person tried to stop time
seeping between their sticks
and brown lights pushed the raccoons out of their nests
and at the gentle request of how to pronounce the name of my country correctly
first letter -
Dmytro Lazutkin is an author of multiple poetry collections, a winning slam poet, and a song lyricist. He works as a sports commentator and TV presenter.
More terrible is love in Kyiv than
Magnificent Venetian passions. Butterflies
Fly light and maculate into bright tapers –
Dead caterpillars’ brilliant wings aflame!
And spring has lit the chestnuts’ candles!
Cheap lipstick’s tender taste,
The daring innocence of miniskirts,
And these coiffures, that are not cut quite right –
Yet image, memory, and signs still move us…
Tragically obvious, like the latest hit.
You’ll die here by a scoundrel’s knife,
Your blood will spread like rust inside a brand
New Audi in an alley in Tartarka.
You’ll plunge here from a balcony, the sky,
Down headlong to your dirty little Paris
Dressed in a blouse of secretarial white.
You can’t discern the weddings from the deaths…
For love in Kyiv is more terrible than
Ideas of New Communism: specters
Emerge in the intoxicated nights
Out of Bald Mountain, bearing in their hands
Red flags and pots of red geraniums.
You’ll die here by a scoundrel’s knife,
You’ll plunge here from a balcony, the sky, in
A brand-new Audi from an alley in Tartarka
Down headlong to your dirty little Paris
Your blood will spread like rust
upon a blouse of secretarial white.
Natalka Bilotserkivets is an acclaimed poet, editor, and translator. Her poems have been anthologised and translated into a dozen of European languages.
Do not kiss me on the forehead like a corpse
say, almost twice withered, the glasses and eyes themselves.
Mixed medicines with sweets, the pages of the book as yellow as his skin.
He pours a few of his precious stories into the empty space.
I see all the protagonists as old acquaintances. KGB officers squatting on the same hospital bed, in shiny Hungarian shoes — for these he could kill. The look is mocking.
He said, these Beatles, this foreign languages department, would not do you any good.
All this is for the chosen ones, not for orphans, poor relatives.
And he hid like cheese in butter, quietly like a mouse.
We caught people like you in the alleys, cut the roots.
Respectable people liked it, this was respected.
It would be for his son. For a fighting pear, for live warm meat.
I also see that woman, her crooked, bright mouth. Her
spider legs, dotted porcelain, metal tools.
A musty apartment with ceilings that are too high.
But I see him the clearest of all — strong, with a guitar.
With eyes wide open and his thumbs in the pockets of his jeans.
With thousands of book pages stored in memory.
With a face open to the world. To the dark and deep water.
Not for a girl, not for a dispute -
for the free range of arms,
for a high wave, albeit not on the shoulder.
Yulia Musakovska is an award winning Lviv-based poet, author of four poetry collections, and translator of Ukrainian poetry into English. She works in the IT industry.
Surprising how feelings depend on blood pressure.
Electricity in my body prevents me from staying put.
And, still, I force myself not to move.
Fingers are nervously running across the keyboard.
Then the uneven verses turn into day dreams.
Your text messages follow me in my steps.
I do not wish to keep silent, but I have nothing to tell you.
The day is lost and no pill can bring it back.
Only an unpleasant fatigue left after the day is gone.
The night and the disturbing dream impossible to remember.
It seems to me I am happy
feeling your warm closeness
and your fingers so near.
Oh these rootless days like my poems
fill me with alcohol.
Today, the whole day is morning.
A cold mist, its drops hanging in the air.
The empty autumn space.
It seems to me I’m happy beside you,
I have never felt as confident and calm.
I hesitate if everything is going so well,
though, as these days will have passed,
I will recall them
as the best days.
- Close your eyes and relax, can you feel it?
- It is autumn and melancholy upon us.
- It is me with my temporary crisis.
Yury Zavaedsky is a poet, translator, literary critic, performer, noise artist, and publisher.