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Stanzas for Ukraine – 5

On The Impossibility of Not Writing by Vitalij Kvitka, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

Poetry is an infinity. War tries to deny this infinity. There are, in this sense, no greater enemies than poetry and war. The poet, after all, is trying to embody the idea of human eternity, as if the infinity of this world were not enough and another infinity was required. However, when war begins, any fiction becomes a very weak competitor to the reality unfolding around one. So, we can only speak of something else, the foreboding of war and then it is indeed worth turning to the poets initially. My poem ‘The Implacable Prince Ihor’ was an imaginative creation dating from 1995 about an attack on Ukraine (on my Kyivan Rus of the future) and this attack, to be frank, could have occurred in 1996 and in 2200. My intuition led me to events which happened several centuries ago, on Prince Ihor’s battlefield, but the poem told of the ideas of modern war. A tank turret, for example, appeared in the very first lines and every line held that foreboding of an attack by new Janissaries.[1] The shadow of an attack on my fatherland suddenly passed through my poems again in 2008. However, that was all until 2014 and even after 2014 there were times of peace. This was because at that point there was at least some illusion that the statehood of your nation could not be utterly destroyed, that no one really is encroaching on your life and that of your friends. This illusion allows you to produce a limitless sense of peace within yourself.

On the night of 1 January 2022, I looked through a barred window to the silhouette of the building opposite and said to my son Markas ‘this is the second time in my life that I am celebrating the New Year here with you in Kharkiv. This is a bad sign: the first time was in 2014’.

Subsequently I spent the whole of 2022 in central Ukraine in my native Oleksandriia, with a foreboding that something terrible was going to happen to Ukraine and Ukrainians. The feeling was extremely uncertain, something hung in the air, but what? An irreversible transformation had to happen in our relationship with the Russians. I cannot otherwise explain the fact that it suddenly occurred to me to translate the best poems of the Russian poet Nikolay Gumilyov into Ukrainian. However, I had a very precise sense that these poems would never be read in Russian again.

On 24 February 2022, I woke up and noticed that I had 17 missed calls from my aunt Viktoriia in Mykolaiv which, it transpired, had been fired at with cruise missiles. That moment was followed by the longest three weeks of my life when I watched only one thing every day, whether the country in which I was born would disappear from the map, or not. There were no poetic illusions. The profession of poetry had seemingly disappeared forever. The time had come when not only the muses fell silent. Although I was relatively far away from the war, in a small town in North Lithuania, I felt as if everything I read on Facebook and saw on TV was happening to me too. There, further south on the map, there was death, death and death once more. And death, as I was assured, is something more terrible than we can imagine. Because it cannot happen to us prematurely and if it did we would never know about it. I was affected by an upset stomach on eight occasions between 24 February and 17 April. I found out later that similar symptoms of stomach pain were experienced in particular by people who were being bombed in Kyiv. I don’t know how this works at a distance of several thousand kilometres, all the way into the EU, however it transpires that the war even affected me physically.

On 15 March at about five o’clock, I went onto the Facebook newsfeed. A face which I had known alive and animated looked at me, Oleksandr Kislyuk, a translator of, and an expert in, 20 European languages. Someone wrote that he had died in Irpin on 5 March 2022. It was basically impossible to believe that the Russians had killed the translator of Aristotle, Xenophon, and Thomas Aquinas. Especially if this was someone you had lived near for about ten years of your life and had been friends with for 25 years. After a while his brother, Pavlo Kislyuk, was evacuated to Kyiv. This is what happened. The brothers had dug an anti-tank ditch on Novosolska street and then the tanks appeared there. The ditch halted a tank and then the occupier began shooting at houses. First, they destroyed a hundred-year oak near Oleksandr Kislyuk’s house for some reason, then they fired into the house itself. A few minutes later Pavlo rushed to his brother and tried to extinguish the flames on his already dead sibling.

I have begun writing poems like an alcoholic daily, from that point onwards. This feeling of work on war poetry bears a faint resemblance to moments of ordinary work. There is no planning or polishing of such poetry. It just pours out of your brain in the middle of the night when you’re asleep and you just have to turn your computer on in time. I wouldn’t say this is inspired poetry. There is no inspiration in such poems. It is more akin to a morning prayer when you begin out of a sense of duty but continue because otherwise you cannot live. You cannot live without writing poems, if there is a feeling that they need to be written. The bible itself was probably impressed thus from above. The impossibility of not writing the truth. Albeit subjective. But the only one which is possible.

Poems by Vitalij Kvitka, translated From The Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj – From an unpublished collection, Libello Belli,2022

Fly, my boy, for now you swim in the water –
With your long hair, petrified braids,
Four years old, and auburn traces along them,
As if a scythe had passed through the body.

My tear is like dew, just one,
Alone, like you are, like a boat with a hole below,
The water you swim in is thick, slush,
It saves children.

Your hair-flowers and the auburn nest of eyes,
There, the gaze of your brown eyes breaks the lightning,
The hair-hay in the sky now meets the birds
And becomes the reflection on our faces.

Swim, my boy, for Vyshhorod, water
Won’t be lonely now, like you
Swim somewhere, that auburn, which is unsmiling
As if forgotten by people.

The blood congealed and became like marsh,
Merged with the Dnipro, and it is already as marble,
Do not hear, for they are not needed, our successes and our sorrow,
They are spectral.

They are like a misfortune, like a search continued,
They are combined with our heart, which is constricted,
And you now, Sashko, swim unmurdered, and don’t stray,
For Vyshhorod, for the homeland, in the suburbs.


I will lie on the grave of my friend and sleep,
For I don’t have the strength to live without him.
The grave, with its traces of wreaths and  sorrows,
Traces, both passed and lived through,

From fumes, from steps, circles from cups
Which were raised  and washed in the well later,
Traces from bowls, their contents uneaten
Traces from looks, and from rye beer.

I will lie down and look from the ground to where I was,
Where my friend could stand, so as not to merge with the clay,
I lie here as if with him like a tourniquet,
With which he was bandaged so the minutes did not flow.

Do not be angry, my friend, there is darkness beneath you
And the darkness in me that shines with the night.
Is it hard to sleep, my friend? You are a living soul
And now, more than me, you are eternal.

The earth is cold, and cold as your brow
Which is no longer kissed by your mother,
The earth is cold, like a strange village,
In which, in whose soil,  you should not lie.

Sleep, for you will wake,  and you become like smoke,
And you will become like the cliffs above the Dnipro,
And you will become a little boy again –
With the linen, of your dreams, from your eyebrows.

Sleep, and you will become the fatherland, rain,
The sting and nectar of the bee, and thunder,
And the song of a nightingale in the grove, and a raincoat,
Your father’s old one, and flesh and blood again.

And when I wake in the dream of life,
And remember how I shouted with a friend from the cliff,
Tree branches will no longer perish under tanks:
And it will gradually ease, this cancelled life.


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.

akin to a morning prayer

Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

You have just read two poems that needed to be written. Vitalij Kvitka finishes his post with a remark that explains the nature of such a necessity: ‘It is more akin to a morning prayer when you begin out of a sense of duty but continue because otherwise you cannot live.’ What kind of ‘morning prayer’ urges you to write? What needs to be ‘prayed’ for or against? What duties do you or the speaker of your poem need to attend to first thing in the morning? What cannot be lived without?

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 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.

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.


Vitalij Kvitka was born in 1971 in Protopopivka village near Oleksandriia in central Ukraine. He made his debut as a poet in 1994 in the Molode Vyno anthology, alongside Serhij Zhadan. Vitalij has won several awards for his writing including being a Laureate of the Pryvitannya Zhyttya competition in 1998. His poems and novels are largely untranslated into English but he is a particularly distinctive voice who deserves a wider audience.

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]   The word Janissaries, originally Turkish, refers to collaborators with Putin’s regime from areas occupied by the Russian empire. See:

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