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Stanzas for Ukraine – 25

The Heat by Fedir Mlynchenko, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

My flight from the war, launched by Moscow against Ukraine, is similar to the stories of millions of other forced exiles. It’s still too painful to even think about and especially to share my recollections.
Despite having traversed thousands of kilometres, I still couldn’t rid myself of the fear when, in San Sebastian rather than Kyiv, I was hit by the sound an air raid siren. It was a learning experience. I was completely stunned, not knowing why the Spaniards were smiling rather than running headlong in the direction that, even in an unfamiliar city, would have told me where the threat from the sky could be survived.

San Sebastian has everything except bomb shelters. When I heard two fighter jets thundering in Lisbon I also experienced a panic attack, as had happened more than once in Ukraine. The Portuguese baby nearby squealed happily, and I reflexively buried my head in my shoulders, waiting for an explosion.

The fear is stuck in me. And I can’t do anything about it.
Just like there is nothing to be done about my hatred, which, I have observed, is evolving into contempt and loathing for everything related to Russia. Not only with Putin’s Russia…

And when I say this, believe me, I am still expressing my attitude towards the enemy in mild terms. Because that’s how sometimes I forget about the innate mildness inherent in Ukrainians. After all, a reminder of the war, even in the form of a benevolent expression of sympathy or of sincere support, will suddenly spring up when you least think about that war. As once happened in the car park of one of Lisbon’s supermarkets.

The heat. The unbelievable heat.
Ten-year-old Artemij, messing around, had climbed through the hatch onto the roof of the car. The wind was blowing just slightly. And for no particular reason, because there is no more interesting way to waste time, he’s watching the police at work, someone is being fined for something.

It takes quite a while. If it weren’t for some papers that the policeman filled out, leaning over the hood of the perp’s car, the process of issuing the fine would have looked like a meeting of two acquaintances, exchanging a few polite words.

The patrol vehicle starts moving. But the policeman stops, having slowly driven past us.
He calls out to me, opening the side door of our minibus fully, and pointing to the side of our car.
Artemij had a face like a cat caught getting up to mischief. That’s because a moment ago he was bursting with laughter, and now he is frozen like a Chinese statuette, nodding his head. He is anxious. But he doesn’t climb off the roof.

I was also uncomfortable for some reason. Because I was smoking, apparently, in a prohibited location, although I had tapped the ashes from my cigarette into a small pocket ashtray. My smoke is not factory produced, but a roll-your-own. The same as you would skin up to smoke cannabis with.
The policeman, on hearing that I am only a passenger, gets out and thrusts towards us with his mountain of a physique. The vast majority of these police, I note, are, if not Atlanteans, very persuasive and not only for law-abiding citizens, such as myself, just by means of their stature.
The policeman draws my attention to a small puddle under the engine. Even in the shade it is almost forty degrees. And it is simply hell in the sun. So where could that puddle have come from?

“Problem?” he says speaking to me in English.
I say thank you and tell the driver.
The wet spot came from the condensation that slithers off from the car’s air conditioner. The Portuguese, committed to saving fuel, consider such air-conditioned comfort to be excessive.
“From where?”  he asks, pointing to the number plate.
“From Ukraine.” I reply.
“From Kyiv.” Artemij clarifies.
The policeman sighs bitterly, and says: “Putin…”
Then, without pathos or anger, but as something clear and indisputably certain, he adds: “The killer.”
Meanwhile, although unable to see properly without my glasses, I fiddle with my phone in an attempt to ‘immortalize’ this meeting with a photo.
“The killer!” Artemij says.
The policeman, extending his right hand, touches Artemij’s fist with his fist.
And then turning to me the policeman says: “Killer!”
Xujlo” I say.
I feel as if I am probably hearing this word for the first time.
Allow me to explain that this Russian term is a very, very uncouth word that Ukrainians have used to refer to Putin in the recent past.
Kh u-u-u-u-u-lo? – the policeman, having swallowed that ‘j’, stretches the word out in a questioning intonation.

“Prick…” I say, mentally choosing something at least close to finding a corresponding word to the well-known chant of the Kharkiv Spartacus FC fans.
“…from shit.” I add.
“Oh! So. Prick-hu-hu…” the policeman says, holding out his hand to me.
And already heading to the patrol car, he looks back, and advises us to stay in Lisbon until victory or even longer, because Portugal is the best country in the world.
“The best” whispers Artemij, “is Ukraine.”
Meanwhile I, avoiding swearing in Ukrainian because I’m a little embarrassed in front of Artemij, say in Ukrainian: “Penis from ordure. In English – prick from shit”.
“Prick… Khujlo!” – the police officer nods affirmatively.
“Shit!” – Artemij shouts, catching us up.

Poemsby Fedir Mlynchenko, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

Пестить хвилями світ Чорне море,
Як перлинка на глобусі – Крим.
Море наше, таке неозоре
Хочуть зайди прозвати своїм.
Чорне море оманливо-синє,
Назву важко його зрозуміти,
Може б нам підказали дельфіни,
Та, на жаль, їх вже важко зустріти.
Жовте сонце сміється над Кримом,
Додає кольорів у блакить.
Це наш символ, як стяг України,
Жовто-синє в серцях майорить.
Як васал, наш-не-наш Севастополь,
Флібустьєри з хвостини у флот,
Ми на грудях пригріли цей клопіт,
В бочку меду вкраплили турбот.
Ковила геть поїджена міллю,
Шлях Чумацький лежить в будяках.
Нащо їхати в Крим нам за сіллю,
Як і так сіль сльозиться в очах?



The Black Sea caresses the world with its waves
Crimea is like a pearl on the globe
Our sea is so vast
That all who come from elsewhere
Wish to name it theirs.
The Black Sea is so deceptively blue
Its name is difficult to comprehend
Perhaps the dolphins whispered it to us,
But it is already difficult to encounter them.
The yellow sun laughs above Crimea
Adding colours into the blue,
This is our symbol, like the flag of Ukraine
Yellow blue flutters in our hearts
But, like a Vassal, ours not ours Sevastopol
Fillibusters from the tail to the fleet
We have warmed this trouble in our breasts
Our anguish dropped into a barrel of honey.
The feather grass almost utterly moth eaten,
The Salt Vendor’s[1] path engulfed in thistles.
Why go to Crimea for salt when salt tears
So brim in your eyes?



Усім вам, кохані

Так затишно в колі свічі, що згорає,
коханням нас вечір освятить.
Вже завчені ролі, як вперше ми граєм,
хоч слів нам нових не сказати.

Про все говорилось, усе вже відомо.
Та щось зволікаєм, завмерши.
Так, ніби з тобою ми ще не знайомі,
і ніч нас з’єднала уперше.

Ніч… Пітьма. Ти. І я.
Це замкнене коло, чаклунська арена.
Ми – двоє акторів. Життя наше – сцена.

Свіча соромлива, як німб, золотиться.
Повінчані сяйвом кохання святим.
Ми зморені щастям… А свічці не спиться.


         ніби боїться,

                            що щастя проспим.



                          To All You Lovers

It is so tranquil in the circle cast by the candle as it burns,
The evening will sanctify us with love,
We have already learned our roles like the first time we played
Though we have no new words to be said.

Everything has been spoken and is known,
But we delay somehow, freezing,
As if I and you were not yet acquainted
And night united us for the first time.

The night… the darkness…
A closed circle, arena of magic.
We are two actors, our life a stage.

The candle is shy, a nimbus, turns golden.
Crowns love with its sacred aureole.
We are exhausted with our happiness
And the candle does not sleep

                     As if afraid it will not witness

                                            Our ecstasies.



Всі лицедіють у житті
й життя спливà, як мізанцена.
Сон на антракти ділить дні,
щоб яви визвірить в арени…

Бо й живемó, щоб лицедіять,
загримувавши світ химер –
на сцені граємо повію,
щоб справжню хтось привів в партер.


Everybody plays a role in life
And life drifts like a mise en scene
Sleep dividing the acts
So that events are declaimed in the arena,

Because we live to act
Applying our stage make up in a world of fantasies
Playing a whore on the stage,
While the real tart is led into the par terre.

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.

‘this name is difficult to comprehend’

Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

Fedir Mlynchenko’s ‘The Heat’ revolves around our understandings of ‘heat’, the Portuguese policeman’s incomprehension of ‘khujlo’ and the narrator’s (Fedir’s) attempts to approximate the invective to help his foreign interlocutor – and us – comprehend the word and what it names at this particular moment in space and time.

Let’s consider another example, from Mlynchenko’s poem ‘Above and From’:

The Black Sea is so deceptively blue
Its name is difficult to comprehend.
Perhaps the dolphins whispered it to us,
But it is already difficult to encounter them.

Now think of your own example of ‘a name’, perhaps also deceptive, certainly difficult to comprehend – for you or for the speaker/s of your poem. What is the origin of this term? Factual? Apocryphal? Imaginary? How can your poem help others understand ‘this name’: its denotations and connotations?

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 twenty-four 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


Fedir Mlynchenko, (1956) is a poet and translator known for his song lyrics as much as his printed work, but as this prose blog shows he has a sly sense of humour and an eye for the telling detail of a novelist.

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

[1] The term used refers to an old profession, vendors who sold salt and other produce, and their route, which gave their name to the Milky Way, in Ukrainian. I have rendered it as Salt Vendor to sustain the metaphor in the poem.

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