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Stanzas for Ukraine – 15

Fall in Love, Dark Eyed Maidens’[1] by Natalka Fursa, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj.

The prelude of this war for me was the 27 June 2009, when my daughter brought her fiancé round so we could get to know each other. It was the same day that Poltava celebrated the three hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Poltava[1] and I couldn’t help but see an inauspicious sign in this coincidence. However, I buried my maternal foreboding deep, deep inside of course, and strived to be as welcoming to him as possible: Katrusya[2] was pregnant, the groom was Russian, and it was obvious she would be destined for a far away city in the North Caucasus. Her newly acquired diploma as a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature could be left behind in Ukraine. Although it was hopeless really, I hoped, of course, that this marriage would be happy, because the lad looked at my daughter with such loving eyes.

However, I suddenly felt ill due to the cognac we had drunk to mark the beginning of our relationship. Perhaps deep inside, my being rejected such a future kinship and would not accept these poisonous gifts. Or perhaps the spectres of Taras’s eternal Kateryna and Lesya Ukrainka’s  ‘Boyarynya’[1] roamed the apartment then, and pressed my subconscious? Together with that sacramental date on the calendar…

It transpired that I couldn’t even attend the wedding of my only daughter and would only visit her new nest on one occasion when she gave birth to a fair-haired, blue-eyed girl who, naturally, received her father’s surname.

I fell ill again there too, from the Georgian Cognac. The cognac, however, was not to blame – it was my favourite strong drink second only to the Zakarpattia variety.

I didn’t go there again, seeking both conscious and unconscious pretexts to reject the invitations to be their guest. Then the war began in 2014 and the territory across which the train bore me to Rostov and beyond, became the ATO zone. My daughter and granddaughter only occasionally made it to Ukraine through tortuous transfers, detours, and flights – it was prolonged, expensive and arduous travelling. My daughter would haul back suitcases full of Ukrainian books and, a contraband item, our Salo.[1]

My body warms up near the stove, I am throwing wood into its gaping square of a mouth and occasionally stirring the fire with a long sick. The fire burns stronger than the hot aroma striking my face. And I am burning not only memories, but pictures from the last few months. This is the time when memory holds sway because the conditions do not allow you to forget everything in work. Because there is no light due to another round of shelling. There is also therefore no internet. Even the candles have run out and the lamp’s battery is out of charge.

The morning of 24 February. The phone rings not for the first time that day. A scared voice almost choking with anxiety. Mum, how are you?

Mum, I’m ashamed that I am Russian. I hear my twelve-year-old granddaughter’s voice with my daughter Katrusya’s ear, sounding traumatised and scared. She already knows what has happened and understands that one of her native lands, her paternal one, has attacked her other maternal and native country. Attacked the country whose language she had imbibed from her mother from the first days of her life, a language she reads and speaks and sings. This language she had first spoken to her mother, it had to be so, at the end of February 2014 when those ‘little green men’, so polite and peaceful, first set foot upon the soil of Crimea. Mum, perhaps I will speak Ukrainian to you? It will be our secret.

I see Katrusya, in hysterics at Baku airport clutching her Ukrainian passport. It was at the beginning of March this year, the beginning of her flight to nowhere, the beginning of a new life – as yet unknown, how and where it will be lived. A refugee from Russia who does not have the right, she thinks, to be called a refugee.

Then she reached Istanbul, Antalya and finally, on 2 April, Warsaw and from there Lodz. Then weaving nets at a volunteer centre, attending language courses, and finally landing a job. A small, shaky, but sturdy clod of earth beneath her feet in a new, friendly country: but an impervious fog hanging before her eyes which longed to pierce the barrier of the future.

I refused the payment provided to refugees, I am ashamed to say where I came from, I am ashamed in the face of Ukraine, I feel guilty, that’s how it’s going to be.

She has already visited her homeland twice from her new location in Poland. Brief trips to the migration service, to formulate Ukrainian national documents for her daughter: the girl had consciously decided to adopt her mother’s citizenship. Her daughter had indeed let her go for this purpose, remaining in ‘rasha’ with her father and his parents (they were conscious that it was really dangerous for their daughter-in-law there, she had never concealed her pro Ukrainian views).
It was warm then and the electricity worked. It just rained all the time. However, the conversations were sincere and frank, perhaps for the first time in all these years. But also intermittent, painful, anxious. Because you can’t say and explain everything, because there is so much, and you can’t stand in the shoes of even the person who is your closest relative.

I moved to live in the village a year after she left for Russia. Working in the arts. That’s what my status has been designated as for 11 years now. In reality this means that I live in a shack, till a small garden and live, so to speak, on the fruits of my own hands, imbued with the philosophy of being at one with nature and all living things. Well, okay, I write too. There isn’t much time left for creative activity after all the household chores have been completed, but it’s still more than when all my time was spent tilling other people’s literary gardens because I earned money editing in a 24/7 regime when I lived in Poltava. I also do some remote editing here when there are commissions from publishing houses. The money I get from renting out my Poltava apartment only covers the bare essentials. That’s why I gave up using gas to heat my shack in favour of wood. So now, for the first time in all these years, I feel to be in an unabashedly winning situation: I’m not freezing like I would be in an apartment in the city. This might be the only plus in such a dire time but it’s real alright. I sit to the rear of the temporary front line, immersing myself in the warmth of the stove. Actually, all of my labour can be reduced to this, because proper work has finished: without a reliable internet connection and electricity my professional activity is practically paralysed. I cast my time, experience, memories, plans and exhausted emotions into the fire. Realising meanwhile that I must endure, for that’s the least I must do for a life that must persist. And I wait still. For the news. For trains. For a knock at the window. For emails (when the internet is working) Notifications on messenger.

Mum, he told me he won’t hand over our child. Katrusya’s voice speaks the smartphone and I feel physically how the darkness closes in on me.  The darkness of hate, for the country that enticed my child, for the ‘good Russians’ who ‘understand everything’. For the child’s father, a selfish coward who, being an educated person, is perfectly aware what awaits the child in an outcast country by contrast with a normal European country and is no less well informed about what is clogging up her brains and soul in the rascist[1] school right now. And he also knows that Kateryna won’t return.

I can’t hug my daughter at the moment, but I know that she is at last in a safe place. I don’t know when I will be able to hug my granddaughter… I am incapable of helping them in any practical way. I grit my teeth in the absolute darkness of a December evening, open the hatch of the stove wider and stare blindly at the fire. They say you can look forever at the flames. As at a photograph of a happy, smiling child whose soul has not yet been ripped in half.

I think about love, how cruel and omnipotent it is. About how the fire is triumphing now and that is how it should be. I throw firewood into the stove. And I wait for the next opportunity to donate to the AFU in the belief that it alone can sever all the tight knots on my planet.

Natalka with her daughter

7 December 2022

Poems, from the War Poetry of 2022 by Natalka Fursa


Заходь, братіку, маю для тебе дари:
любов, од якої ні дихання вже, ні сну,
і землю мою, що під танками зайд горить
і розверзається – на всю свою глибину!

І якщо ти не схочеш жерти цю землю сам,
Острів Зміїний мені у поміч і «молотов вячеслав» –
ляжемо в неї вдвох!…

                               А Господь розбереться на небесах,

чом роса не згоріла – хоча могла.

25 лютого 2022 року

Come in, Brother, I have gifts for you:
A love from which there is neither breath nor sleep,
And my earth which burns beneath the tanks of incomers
And is broken open to its utter depths!

And if you do not want to devour this earth yourself,
Then Snake Island will come to my aid and “Molotov Vyacheslav”:[1]
Let us lie in that earth together

                                  And the Lord

                              In heaven above will determine

Why, although it could, dew does not burn.

25 February 2022


Забирай із собою, жінко,
песика, котика, рибку,
герань, що якраз розквітла (знайшла коли!),
троянду, що вже заховалася в корінь –
забирай її корінь із дещицею мокрої землі,
бо учора прийшов дощ
і треба йти слідом –
і тоді спрага не так сушитиме горло.

Забирай із собою, жінко,
усі папірці, які стверджуватимуть:
ти є, ти жінка, у тебе є ім’я, вік і адреса,
і навіть обличчя –
воно змінилося,
але його впізнають
песик, котик і рибка,
і герань, і корінь троянди.

Добре, що ти забула лютерко –
уперше в житті забула люстерко! –
бо намагалася не забути
бо так боялася забути оті папірці,
без яких ти не згадаєш
ні свого імені, ні адреси,
ні дати свого народження…
Втім, остання змінилася теж –
про це тобі сьогодні сказав
незнайомий кремезний чоловік
із руками, схожими на ковші екскаватора:
він вийняв тебе з лона землі,
обтрусив од пилу й попелу
і так і сказав:
 Ти сьогодні народилася вдруге, жінко.
Як тебе звати?

І ти не згадала свого імені,
але подумала:
мабуть, саме час його змінити –
воно ніколи мені не подобалося,
і погукала:
– Барсику, де мій дім?
– Мурчику, де моя рибка?
І побачила над собою
червону герань сонця,
що падало в чорну вирву –
лоно твоєї троянди.

10 жовтня 2022 року

Take them with you, Woman.
The dog, the cat, the fish
The geranium that has just bloomed (when you found it)
A rose that has already concealed itself within the root:
Take that root with you together with a little wet earth,
Because the rains came yesterday
And you must follow:
Then the thirst will not dry your throat so.

Take it with you, Woman.
All those papers that will confirm
That you exist, are a woman, have a name, age and address,
And a face
Which has changed
Although it is still recognised
By the dog, the cat, the fish
The geranium and the root of the rose.

It’s good that you forgot your make-up mirror
Forgot that mirror for the first time in your life
Because you are trying not to forget
Dog, cat, fish, geranium and rose,
And you were so afraid of forgetting those papers
Without which you will not remember
Either your name or address
Or date of birth…
Although the latter has changed
You were told this today
By an unfamiliar sturdy man
With hands akin to an excavator’s bucket:
He drew you from the womb of the earth,
Brushed the dust and the ashes from you
And said thus:
You are born for the second time today, woman.
What are you called?

You didn’t recollect your name but thought:
Perhaps it is time to change that too-
I never liked it…
And you yelled:
Barsyk, where is my house?
Murchyk, where is my fish?
And saw above your head
The red geranium of the sun
As it fell into a black hole,
Your rose’s womb.

10 October 2022


Сьогодні – схованка в льоху. Завтра – передова.
Немає затишних місцин. Скінчились мирні слова.
Прокидаюся в тиші. Підхоплююся: жива?

Усе – як учора. Хіба що солі й хліба катма,
сірників, цигарок… і черга в ошкірений банкомат.
Заходжу ув інтернет: вибухи, смерть і мат.

Є ще зв’язок. Та не в зоні то той, то отой абонент.
Шукаю спільних знайомих, чужі знаходять мене –
і вже не чужі… Хтось Боженьку дякує, хтось – кляне.

Торкаю стіну: ти вистоїш? Пульсує у такт стіна –
із серцем, із сонцем, із вітром, із голосом – як струна,
а то – як труба єрихонська, яка посилає на…

Заходить сусідка, каже: в селі так багато чужих,
скільки живу, не бачила… і всім так хочеться жить.
Це скоро скінчиться, знаєш? Немає вже чим тужить…

На варту заходить повня. Шепчу до хмари: сховай.
Од мови лишилися вигуки і наказові слова.
Од мене лишилась ознака одна, головна: жива.

17–18 березня 2022 року

Today, the hiding place in the cellar. Tomorrow the front line.
There are no tranquil spots anymore. The peaceful words are over.
I wake in silence and catch myself thinking: Am I still living?

Everything is like it was yesterday: Even the lack of salt, bread
Matches and cigarettes the queue at the battered ATM.
I go on the internet: explosions, death, cursing.

There is another connection. But this or that subscriber
Is not in the zone. I search for mutual acquaintances,
But strangers find me…  strangers no more.
Someone thanks the Lord, someone swears

I touch the wall and ask: will you withstand? It pulses in rhythm
With the heart, with the sun, with the wind, with the voice
Like a violin string and then… like Jericho’s trumpet coming upon…

A neighbour drops in and says: there are so many strangers
In the village, I’ve never seen so many in my life.
And everyone so wants to live? Will it be over soon?
There is by now nothing more to long for.

The full moon now stands guard. I whisper to the cloud, “hide”.
All that remains of language exclamations, imperative verbs
All that remains of me is one, the chief sign: that I am living.

17-18 March 2022


Жалілася до саду: в нас – війна…
А він од мене затулявсь квітками!

Шептала в пíтьму саду: в нас – війна…
А він – вузли  зав’язував на пам’ять.

Кажу своєму саду: в нас війна!
А він – сливками, ябками, грушками
у землю гупа й віти нагина
так низько – аж потріскують кістками
старі дерева… й стогне глибина
під кожним плодом, що торкнувся долу.

Мовчу своєму саду: в нас війна, –
і падалицю,  мокру й нахололу,
збираю у корзини та подоли…

13–14 серпня 2022 року

I lamented to the garden, we are at war…
And it hid from me in flowers!

I whispered to the darkness of the garden, we are at war!
And it tied a knot to remember.

I tell my garden we are at war!
And it thuds plums, apples, pears to the earth
And bends its branches so low
The bones of the old trees crackle…
And the depths moan beneath each fruit
That touched the ground.

I am silent before my garden
Gathering the wet cold windfallen fruit
In a basket, in the hem of my skirt.

13- 14 August 2022


Колись, нескоро, а може, й скоро, бо час відносний,
ми з тобою зустрінемось, рідна моя, єдина,
десь під яблунею, під вишнею, під черешнею,
і ти розкажеш кожному хрущику, кожній бджілці,
і ти прошепчеш кожній квітці й листочку кожному –
до останньої титли, до слізки останньої, –
як утікала із лігва звірячого без сорочки,
розриваючи й душу навпіл…
і як Бог її зцілив!

І спита янголятко, сіпнувши за полу:
а звідки це? де це? –
і тільки старенький історик сивий
засвідчить у відповідь:
– Та була колись горе-країна – не пригадаю назви,
але, слава Богу, її вже немає, –
і перехреститься.

One day, perhaps soon or maybe not, because time for us is relative
We will meet again, my kin, the sole one,
Somewhere under an apple tree, under a cherry tree, a wild cherry tree
And you will tell every cricket, every bee
And you will whisper to each flower and the leaves each:
To the last title to the last tear:
How you escaped from the beast’s lair shirtless
Tearing your soul in half…
And how God made it whole!

And the little angel wriggling on the floor will ask:
From where? Where is that?
And only the old, grey-haired historian will clarify:
There once was a country of sorrow
Whose name I cannot remember,
And, crossing himself, he will say
Thank God it is no more.


Прийшов до мене дощ.
Од доні дощ прийшов.
Іздалеку прийшов.
Два дні шукав дорогу.
Налипла польська в’язь
йому до підошов
і галицька трава,
що обтирала ноги.

Ковтав столичний дим,
крутив у вирвах вир,
місив ірпінський прах,
студив вогню на скроні…
Натомлений прийшов,
аж чорний, ледь живий.
Ні, не кривавий вже,
та як ропа  солоний.

Прийшов, нечутно вповз
на ґанок од воріт,
постукав… розстеливсь
потопом на порозі…
– Ти вибач, я посплю,
бо вранці – йти на схід.
Я ж, власне, і зайшов
твої  забрати сльози…

Березень–липень 2022 року

The rain came to me.
The rain came from my daughter.
He came from afar.
For two days he sought the road.
The Polish elm stuck to his heels
And the Galician grass
That wiped his feet.

Swirled in the vortex
kneading the cremated ashes of Irpin
Cooling the fire in the temple…
He returned
Utterly dark and barely alive.
No he was no longer bloody
But salty as brine.

He crept from the gate to the porch
Inaudibly and knocked
Dispersed into a flood
On my house’s threshold:
Forgive me I will slumber
For in the morning I go east
And really I came here
To gather away your tears.

March July 2022

Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj. Follow him on twitter here:


Invitation to Write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

Stanzas for Ukraine: Let’s Write with Ukrainian Authors

In the manner borrowed from the Poetry School’s ‘Transreading’ practice, this blog series invites us to write in conversation with Ukrainian authors. Our close readings and our new texts are also gestures of our support and appreciation. As writers, we too can learn from our Ukrainian colleagues and their international translators.

‘I am silent before my garden’
Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

‘I think about love, how cruel and omnipotent it is,’ Natalka Fursa finishes her text, but not her reflection – it is being thought through in her poems. Let’s borrow the formal argument/arrangement from Fursa’s August 2022 poem to reflect on omnipotence and cruelty, or perhaps other characteristics. Imagine your poem’s speaker engaged in the following exchange:

I lamented to the garden: …
And it [did this]
I whispered to the darkness of the garden: …
And it [did that]
I tell my garden: …
And it [does this and that]
I am silent before my garden
[Doing what]

In your version the speaker might be figuring something out not with the help of the garden, but assisted by other spaces. What could they be? How would their enacted responses support the speaker, and you, in reflection?

You’re always welcome to invent your own writing games in response to the presented poems. Share your texts with our writing community here.

The fourteen previous invitations to write can be found here.

Invitation to Donate

This project aims to support refugees displaced by the conflict through raising funds for the World Central Kitchen. Please consider donating via their site here.


Natalka Fursa (1964-) is a poet and prose author from Poltava who has worked as a literary magazine editor and holds several awards for her writing. Her poetry is well crafted, accessible, laden with rich imagery and emotionally direct: it is an exploration of love – how ‘cruel and omnipotent it is’.

Poetry School is proud to have partnered with tutors Steve Komarnyckyj and Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, and PEN International’s Judyth Hill to publish Stanzas for Ukraine.

Every fortnight we publish a blog written by some of the most significant contemporary Ukrainian poets, who will reflect upon the more than 300 years of historical conflict their country has endured, the on-going struggle, and highlight poems and voices from the past and present. This will launch a new strand of Poetry School work, giving voice to those globally who are being silenced and providing a platform for those suffering forced migration. Future strands will include Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and more.

[1]   A sardonic reference to Vyacheslav Molotov (1890-1986) the Soviet politician whose name was adopted by the Finns for the term Molotov Cocktail to denote the petrol bombs they used against Soviet tanks. The poem can be read as a bitterly ironic address to the Russian people who created a discourse in which Russia was the ‘Older Brother’ of Ukraine and the two nations were ‘Brotherly Peoples’.

[1]   A compound term based on the words Racist, Fascist and Russian used by Ukrainians to describe the current Russian regime’s supporters. Russia’s education system is now very propagandised and militaristic.

[1]    A form of pork fat and a Ukrainian delicacy.

[1]    Boyarynya by Lesya Ukrainka (1871-1913) depicts the tragedy of an ill fated Ukrainian noblewoman who marries a nobleman from Moscow from a Russianised family and experiences

[1]    The Battle of Poltava on 8 July 1709 resulted in the triumph of a Russian army under Tsar Peter I, over combined Swedish and Ukrainian forces and cemented Russia’s colonisation of Ukraine.

[2]    Affectionate form of the name Kateryna

[1]   A phrase from a renowned Taras Shevchenko poem ‘Kateryna’ in which a Ukrainian girl falls in love with a Muscovite (Russian) soldier resulting in misfortune: you can read a translation here; The poet, in the manner of the folk ballads and poetry on which this poem draws, advises girls against falling in love with Muscovite soldiers who will frivolously cast them aside, but the story is also serves as a metaphor for Russia’s colonial abuse of Ukraine.  ‘Dark eyed’ is a common ideal of beauty in Ukrainian folk literature like ‘rose lipped’ in English ballads, and adapted by both Housman and Tennyson. The author’s own daughter shares her name with the heroine.

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