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Stanzas for Ukraine – 9

It Was As If There Was No Life And No Poetry Before 24 February 2022 by Andrii Kovalenko, Ukrainian poet, novelist, journalist (Kyiv). Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

Six months since the beginning of Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine and our latest war of liberation, life is divided into what came before and after. Poetry and art seem to lie phantasmagorically in the hazy, distant past. Every Ukrainian has only one goal which is to survive and win. This seems to be simple to the point of being primitive, but, simultaneously, it is also infinitely complex.

Ukrainian poetry will also most probably change under this indescribable burden after our victory, although no one today knows exactly how. Will it abandon its natural singing fashion in favour of a more rigid, ‘empirical’ style, will it sacrifice ‘irrational’ rhyme in favour of free verse under the influence of the war’s inhuman rhythm? Nobody yet knows, not even the poets.

The treacherous attack of Nazi Russia was terrible news for most people in our country. Many of them still experience all this as if it were a nightmare from which they cannot wake up. This is despite the fact that Ukrainian history itself seemed to speak to everyone.  It said how could things be otherwise, after more than three hundred years of enslavement by Moscow, Baturyns[1] and Krutys[2], and imperial attempts at crushing Ukrainian language and culture, tsarist and communist repressions, famine, genocide, Crimea, Donbas…

The only reality now is that they, these sinister, ‘others’ simply seek to destroy us. Their maximal plan is to turn Ukraine into a comprehensive massacre site, a vast Irpin, or Bucha, Mariupol, or Severodonetsk. What a predatory paraphrase of Mykola Mikhnovsky’s legendary slogan: ‘Ukraine without Ukrainians’! They mean all Ukrainians including those of Russian, Crimean-Tatar, Greek, Azerbaijani, Jewish and all other origins.

According to this simple plan, there should only be only four ‘castes’ in the population remaining on the emptied territory which will not be their land: Moscow’s Gestapo officers, and Gauleiters then collaborators and slaves.

Putin, a modern-day Führer, is desperately trying to advance his forces to the West and waging war upon the civilian population. However, his armies flee like evil spirits from incense during direct clashes with the Ukrainian army.  He is obviously confident that he will manage to avoid a similar shameful end to his German forerunner. Nevertheless, the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people are dispelling these illusions more and more with every moment. This accords with the prediction of the leader of free Ichkeria, Dzhokhar Dudayev, that the attack on Ukraine would end in the resounding collapse and of the last empire in the world.

However, at present, we are destined to a period of time which will see the spilled blood, sweat and inhuman suffering of millions of Ukrainians. Western leaders could end the war in a week, everyone at present is aware of a simple, but at the same time effective set of tools that would stop Putin quickly. However, there is an irrational fear of the alleged personification of world evil, who is in reality a worthless being stunted of flesh and spirit. This has resulted in a rigid political intention not to provoke him at any cost.  The situation now looks like the materialization of Spengler’s ‘twilight of Europe’.

This is our inevitable and bloody karma in all its greatness. We are, for some reason destined to save Atlantic civilization from the brown plague of the new millennium. Is this simply so that Europe will continue to preserve its own comfortable, and unhurried bourgeois existence?

The war to date permeates consciousness with, paradoxically, poetic fragments viewed through some demonic kaleidoscope. It was initially as if all the otherworldly Freudian ‘Id’ spilled over into our awareness and poisoned it with sulphuric acid.

The first explosions are in the distance, but eerily close to Kyiv’s Obolon district. You emerge as if from some hungover leaden dream (although it has been a long time since I drank the night before). The night’s inexorable crimson glow from the deadly Irpin and Buchan horizons, the thick smoke from the helicopter shot down by the Ukrainian Air Defence Forces, which rested in an unrighteous sleep on the green bottom of the man-made but invincible sea of Kyiv. And bottles, many plastic bottles of tap water which my wife and I filled over the course of several hours.

There are the faces, crooked and distorted with horror, as if on the canvases of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The faces of women and men in their noble old age, young mothers with babies in their arms, children holding no longer needed toys, animals, dogs, cats, parrots, and even gophers huddling together in the icy drafts of the subway station. The eerie and anxious feeling in rare moments of silence (something is wrong), the flight of two missiles heading somewhere, not too far above the roofs of the buildings opposite buildings, and then being shaken by an allegedly not too close explosion. Automatic weapons being fired at night somewhere in the courtyards of the almost empty Kyiv buildings with their blind, dead eyes in the darkness. Then waking up every morning at the end of February, your heart pounding wildly as you turn on the TV to see who’s on the air, and if there’s even a broadcast.

The four-hour line to the military commission (a similarly numerous line of people will probably stretch in an anxious queue to visit the blood soaked lunatic Putin’s grave). The emotionless and weary doctors, who examine you hurriedly, your backpack, stuffed with all the futile items that you may not need. Then the three-hour selection at the assembly point where we are divided into mechanics, cooks, snipers, paramedics, armoured vehicle drivers, sergeants. Unfortunately, you are not included in these lists. There are the village boys, sombre, but with a determined if crazy glimmer about them for, after all, each of them has his own destiny. You encounter a deputy from the military commission, a lieutenant colonel, a veteran of the Donbas fighting (who is as they used to say in the Soviet occupation army, a ‘beast’): he said, guys, if any of you has any hooch round here, even if it’s packed under a jar of mayonnaise I’ll find it and shoot them in turn in the legs, without any warning.

It’s roll call at last, don’t worry, wait around, don’t go anywhere, when necessary, you’ll be called, and show up at the mobilization point within two hours. I think my backpack will wait for its time to come in the room back at home.

In the midst of this crazy flow of events I heard from my dear friend, a hero of the Ukrainian War of Liberation. I remember how he rang me in August 2014 from the Yavoriv training ground, and said he was being sent to the front without a bulletproof vest. My friends and I did everything we could then so that a courageous warrior, a participant of the Maidan, went to defeat the monstrosity from Moscow equipped with both a bulletproof vest and in a Kevlar helmet. However in 2022 when February 24 came he did not manage to leave his native Kherson region in time for Kyiv and mobilization.  So, when Kherson was occupied, he spent a month and a half hiding in an old house belonging to an acquaintance, in a village there.

Finally, on one really fortunate day, he crossed the Kakhovka reservoir by boat and ended up on the safe unoccupied shore in the Nikopol district. The day after the Rashists shelled two Ukrainian families who also tried to escape with the help of a boat. Their dead bodies later washed up on the shore… My friend, who was already a paratrooper, has recently trained in England, and wrote soon after that he was heading with his battalion ‘to collect watermelons’. Have a good harvest in the Motherland, friend, and may the Lord protect you in your noble deeds!

And how many more such fragments will drift in the souls of each of us until the Day of Promise. And then, in our intermittent half-sleeps, they will similarly not leave us in peace.

And poetry? It is eternal, but it is silent while the guns are thundering, it gathers previously unseen and terrible, but also such life-giving and vivid experience, material. It will return finally when the poets return home from the war and continue to painfully search for their own, internal, Ithaca.

Poems by Andrii Kovalenko, translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj

Вечірній демарш
Сьогодні в місті
можна ходити без мозку
так само як учора –
без одягу
Аж надто затяглася
позавчорашня спека
чайники википіли
у парку можна гуляти
зовсім без крові
собакам легше буде дзюрити
на постаменти
Там п`ють бордо
тут – портвейн
цокання доміно
цокання кісток
без яких теж дозволили
бути в місті
Месія як і всюди – свій
сьогодні – це пивник
що декламує рубаї
Народові потрібен сенс
у вигляді вогню
орди спалюють сувої
на пікадільському колі
а ніч створена для шпарок
а ранкове кохання –
для дзвінків у двері
Сьогодні можна прогулятися
без парабол та інтегралів
пульсацій і зникнень слова “ми”
без війн готів з гунами
і їхнього впливу на курс ієни
Сьогодні в місті всі гуляють
без тарганів на повідках
що борються зі стерильністю
на міських вокзалах
Не лякає навіть нічна повінь
І тополя за вікном вже не застує
солоного сяйва місячних оргій
Потаємний гріх – у кожного свій
розплата – для всіх одна
лакшері каюти в ковчегу
за сто тисяч ветхих долярів
у пацюків немає батьківщини
немає смерті
Замість дзвонів над містом –
шум піску в годиннику
На вході до казино “Сомалі”
нічний негр у смокінгу
й білих пальчатках
продає масних оселедців
кожен може безкоштовно
відгризти висячу цибулину
з мертвого міста Ангкор-Том
Сьогодні всі дефілюють
без сідниць і протезів
загальний вихід на свято
інвалідів злягань
хто більше пустить бульок
у води мармурових ванн
хто більше закопає ілюзій
у забальзамовані тіла
Катакомби м`ясних складів
псуються від потаємних знань
це вибухонебезпечно
коли гени черв`яків зможуть
про щось повідати
Містом гуляють на шарнірах
ніхто не встигає до фіналу
гастрономічної рапсодії
скорпіонам немає сенсу
вмирати своєю смертю
А вже летаргічні легіони
маширують Хрещатиком
під сентиментальний скрип
губної гармошки

Evening Demarche

Today you can walk
in the city without a brain
just like yesterday
you could walk without clothes
It lasted too long
the day before yesterday’s heat
the kettles boiled
you can walk in the park
utterly without blood
it will be easier for dogs to bark
at pedestals
they drink Bordeaux there
and port here
dominoes clicking
bones clicking too,
without which they are also allowed
to be in town
the Messiah, as everywhere else, is one’s own
today it is a beer vendor
who recites the Rubayat
people need meaning
in the form of fire
hordes burn scrolls
on Piccadilly Circle
and the night is made for sleepers
and morning love –
for doorbells
today you can go for a walk
without parabolas and integrals
pulsations and disappearances of the word “we”
without wars between the Goths and the Huns
and their impact on the yen exchange rate
today, everyone is walking in the city
without cockroaches on leashes
that fight sterility
at city stations
even a nocturnal flood doesn’t frighten
and the poplar outside the window will no longer stiffen
the salt glow of lunar orgies
everyone has their own secret sin
the pay-off is the same
luxurious cabins in the ark
for a hundred thousand shabby dollars
rats have no homeland
and there is no death
Instead of bells over the city –
the sound of sand in the clock
at the entrance to the “Somalia” casino
a black guy in a tuxedo
and white gloves
sells herrings in oil
everyone can  bite off a hanging bulb
from the dead city of Angkor Thom
for free and today everyone parades
without buttocks and prostheses
a general exodus for the holiday
disabled people lying down
who will make more noise
in the water of the marble baths
who will bury more illusions
in embalmed bodies
catacombs of meat warehouses
corrupt from the secret knowledge
which is explosive
when the worms’ genes will be able
to tell of something
they walk around the city as if on hinges
no one makes it to the finals
of the gastronomic rhapsody
with no meaning for the scorpions
their death
and lethargic legions
march along Khreshchatyk
to the sentimental squeak
of a harmonica

Мимовільна музика
в голові солдата,

якого контузило
на війні

Прозорим потоком сірки
плащаницею таїни
огризком свободи
безміром розпушеного сну
як сіль на чоботях
усмішка на твоєму обличчі
ліпити з хліба вбивцю
контральто вагонної монотонності
мізантропи піску на зубах
приємність тертя метала об шкло
окис єства заліплює дірки в гуральні
земля це млин
сморідне дихання легкого поступу
серця проростають мов картоплини
над усім майоріє ідол закляття
відкритого спаленим фізиком
а той падре грав уночі
фугу на кухонній плиті
ключі від наших дивацтв
у білих яйцях хробаків
метелики лишають свої старі обриси
на заклання богів
а нам що
Славута впадає в Мертве море
галерні жарти можуть
перерости в бій биків
людство одвічна соплива дитина
ритися в піску беручи до рук
котяче лайно
коли п`яниця
кидає цигарку в мурашник
це Помпея і Атлантида
всюди мета
соломонові притчі
декламують булькаючи
туалетні іхтіандри які
горілку закушують
кораловими рифами
тепер кочують в Тібеті
замість грат шкіри
рай електродів
розпуснику відтяти каяття
схимнику спокусу
намалювати лого
любовного паралічу
в кігтях весна
крила облиті кагором
розіп`ятий птах
на знаку Сварога
з черепа блазня
Граальська чаша

Spontaneous music
in the head of a soldier
who was concussed
during the war

A transparent flow of sulphur
shroud of mystery
a sliver of freedom
and immeasurably loose dream
like salt on boots
or a smile on your face
to mould a murderer from bread
contralto carriage monotony
sand in the teeth of misanthropes
the pleasure of rubbing metal against glass
the substance’s oxide seals holes in the distillery
the land is a mill
the fetid breath of easy progress
hearts sprout like potatoes
the spell’s idol prevails over everything
discovered by a burnt physicist
and at night that padre played
a Fugue on the stove
the keys to our strangeness
in white larval eggs
butterflies leave their old outlines
at the behest of the gods
what about us?
The Slavuta flows into the Dead Sea
gallery jokes can
turn into the combat of bulls
humanity is that eternal snotty child
digging the sand with hands
cat crap
when a drunkard
throws a cigarette into an anthill
these are Pompeii and Atlantis
everywhere is the goal
Solomon’s parables
they recite gurgling
those toilet ichthyanders which
vodka is swigged
coral reefs
finned- people
now nomadic in Tibet
instead of leather bars
a paradise of electrodes
the debauchee is to repent
the schemer of temptation
to draw a logo
paralysed love
in the claws of spring
the wings are covered with Cahor
a bird crucified in the shape
of Svarog’s sign
the cup of the holy grail
fashioned from a jester’s skull

Іранська зима

Колись хліби, тепер сніги
Кроти гуторять сліпо
у підземних вирвах
А в стійлах зимна неміч
Не обличчя – зліпки
З посмертних масок
Навіть не з зелених щік
Ошкірені кобили
доїдають стріхи
Все йде по колу
            ветхих заратустр
І лиш у серці – віхи
Що відміряють –
спалених паперів тлін?
Чи гуркіт прю небесного?
Арджуна пише руни
у безхребетній тьмі
Й рядки згорають, ло’яться
як недоношені тільця
що Сонця світ побачили
і хутко розчинились
у калюжці з плоті
Зима вбиває заповіти
Вмить старіють діти
Примерзли ластівки
до скронь
Лиш збожеволілі
                        од холоду  
старці у постолах
бредуть рядами полонені
під конвої’ комах
Ця путь – єдина втіха
Мо’ дійте хто у край
Кроти жаліють ластівок
на ложах земляних
Арджуна… Руна…
Аж нагло вітер стих
І крапля крові знов
запліднила траву
Вві сні як наяву

An Iranian winter

Once it was bread, now snow
moles talk blindly
in subterranean excavations
while in the stalls, there is a winter infirmity.
Not faces but mouldings
from death masks
not even from the green jowls
of skinned mares
they eat the straws
everything goes in a circle
           dilapidated Zarathustras
and only in the heart, boundary stones
measuring what
burnt papers, decay?
The roar of heavenly strife?
Arjuna writes runes
in the spineless darkness
and the lines burn, curse
as premature bodies
that saw the sunlight
and quickly dissolved
in a puddle of flesh
Winter kills testaments
children age in a moment
the swallows froze
to the temples
only the old men abed
driven mad by the cold
wander in captive lines
under convoys of insects
this path is the only comfort
someone may reach the end.
Moles pity the swallows
from their earthen beds
Arjuna… Runa…
Suddenly the wind died down
and a drop of blood again
made the grass fertile
a dream seemingly real


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.

‘Today you can go for a walk without’

Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

Taking your cue from Andriy Kovalenko’s ‘Evening Demarche,’ imagine your own ‘walk without.’ Is it a walk/poem of complaint? Of shortages? Or is it perhaps the expression of pragmatic frugality or imaginative restraint? Is the ‘withoutness’ the condition imposed on your speaker? Or is it your speaker’s choice? What or who is missing? What or who is being encountered? What are the external circumstances of this walk without: its place and time? To what extent does the walk’s scenery reflect the walker’s internal circumstances? How does the poem’s shape convey the walk’s dynamics?

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 eight 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.


Andrii Kovalenko was born in Kyiv in 1969 and is an author whose poetry hovers on the brink of incoherence, seeming at times surreal but never losing the thread of the underlying reality, whether that be a walk through Kyiv where his subconscious spills onto the streets or the jumbled music pounding in a concussed soldier’s head.

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]   Baturyn was the capital of the Ukrainian Hetman Mazepa in 1708. It was sacked by Russian troops in October-November of that year and its inhabitants massacred. The fortress of Baturyn was the capital of Hetman Mazepa at the time; according to various estimates, between 9000 to 15,000 civilians and defenders of Baturyn were killed.

[2]   Kruty was a battle between a vastly outnumbered Ukrainian force consisting mainly of army students and a Red Army force. See

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