After the Amstor by Alisa Havrylchenko, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj.
There will be no war, the two nuclear powers will only pressure each other. That’s what everyone I knew thought right Until February 24. I was preparing for the presentation of my new book, even though the news that airlines were stopping flying and embassies moving from Kyiv to Lviv worried me a little. But would a simple, normal person believe that the Kremlin would order them to be killed? Most people didn’t believe that in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol, Odesa, Kremenchuk or anywhere else in Ukraine.
But there is no going back to the past which existed before February 24.
What’s it like to live in wartime in a country at war? Impossible. Living impossibly. You aren’t prepared to deal with waiting for missiles to hit, running into bomb shelters during an air raid, for new checkpoints on the roads. The sky itself is already different to what it was. It’s perceived differently. I and the entire Poltava region are still relatively fortunate compared to other places. Kharkiv, Sumy, Okhtyrka, Trostjanets were between us and the invader, and I will always remember this personally. The knowledge of what they are going through there, leaves me with no right to complain about life. I am at home and my relatives are still alive, and in their homes, too. I am as happy as I can be in the circumstances. I try to live every day as fully as possible.
However, this impossibility remains in the depths of the soul, this sitting on the suitcases, this bewilderment mixed with fear in the face of the deranged criminality that the Russians are committing. You are not just a writer now, a writer first above all else, but a Ukrainian, a citizen protected by the army. Some copies of the books that you wrote have probably been burned along with the bookshop in Kherson which was set on fire by the occupiers. There were probably similar fires in other occupied territories. You look at your parents and think, what will happen to them if the occupiers suddenly arrive and discover that their daughter is a Ukrainian writer? You look at your grandmother, she is an ethnic Russian, and you realise that she hates Putin, maybe even more than you, because she has already experienced this hatred, having ferociously hated Stalin as a child. She remembers the touch of her father’s hand, a Russian soldier who disappeared in World War II. She remembers how everyone was afraid of saying too much under Stalin. She studied, escaped from the village (more precisely, from a Russian ‘hamlet’), managed to get to Ukraine and settle there. She made my father learn Ukrainian, even when it wasn’t compulsory at school. My grandmother frequently repeated the phrase ‘You must know the language of the country in which you live’ as if it was a mantra.
You look at your other grandmother, who once worked in Kazakhstan and moved to Poltava region, and you thank God that she is here now, and not in a village in Chernihiv region, where it is still troubled. She will never forget the firefight between the partisans and the German soldiers which she lived through. During it, bullets whistled over her head, and the heads of other civilians hiding in pits and trenches. Her father, a Ukrainian peasant, also disappeared in World War II.
Both of your grandmothers are ‘children of war’.
That thing which one grandmother hated, and the other grandmother ran away from, has returned. And you feel this ‘déjà vu’, because in the depths of your soul you already know who these ‘brothers’ really are. You studied history and Ukrainian literature during lessons. You saw the attitude towards the Ukrainian language on the Russian website even before the Euromaidan, when a comment was deleted only because I wrote it in Ukrainian.
All of my relatives in Ukraine are ‘Nazis’ to the Russians. My ancestors are also ‘Nazis’ for the Russians. I am also a ‘Nazi’ to them. This is what they claim, and I believe that they will kill all of us Ukrainians if they can. It is impossible to finally solve the ‘Ukrainian question’ otherwise.
Tractors, almost new, bright yellow, move in the distance. They go so fast, as if they are racing each other. Such toy-like tractors but they will steal a tank, you think involuntarily, and realise that you would not have thought like that before. Before the war.
All of your time is taken up by terrible news and sirens, and then you prepare for the worst-case scenario, and you’re barely living. You do everything so that later, in a few months, you don’t go hungry. You are preparing to plant onions and carrots, and potatoes and cabbage, and cucumbers… then suddenly you see a flower right in front of you, over which bees are flying diligently. This seemingly mundane flower clearly has something special, if even the bees jostle each other competing to enjoy it. And so, you exhale the tension. You meditate beneath the open sky. The sun is shining.
Then you hear a powerful explosion in the distance. Black smoke rises above the horizon. You phone your parents and grandmothers immediately, write to your friends, checking if everyone you know is alive. You already know even without watching the local news that something flew above Kremenchuk and struck there, your hometown.
They write about the Amstor shopping centre in the news. There were ordinary peaceful people. People, damn it! Is this War? No, it’s just terrorism. That same genocide that some still cannot believe in. Some still talk about this situation as if the Russians would not have killed civilians if only we Ukrainians, had capitulated. Aren’t such voices ashamed when this happens? Not at all.
‘You know what’ – I heard these words a few days ago from my mother – ‘an acquaintance works near the Amstor. He says it still smells around there. It smells of burnt bodies.’
This is one of the reasons we don’t even think about surrender but support our army. It’s one of the reasons why we abandon Russian culture. And even if the whole world tries to convince us to surrender, we are now totally unable to.
Because it still smells of burned bodies there. Burned.
We can only guess how many people actually died in the Amstor and mourn them. We are perfectly aware that such a missile can strike anywhere anytime in Ukraine, and it is unlikely that an ordinary basement in a residential building will save you from a missile.
Yet instead of fear we feel more anger. Instead of despair, we have still more desire to live on, no matter what happens. To live for the sake of those who died.
For the sake of the children. The new children of war.
Poems by Alisa Havrylchenko, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj
пальці води просякають до мене
до мого рота до моєї води
бо кожна людина і кожний поет –
це 80% вологи
це пальці води
From My Notes
Fingers of water glide over me
To my mouth, to my water
For each person and each poet
Is 80% moisture
These are the fingers of water
зоставатись у своєму місті коли в ньому гуркіт люті
не грому але градів не блискавок але смерчів
коли й місто вже не своє не твоє а вороже
все одно що зоставатись під прицілом снайпера
але зостаються і зостаються ті
кому пізніше присвоять прийменник «святі»
займенник «вони» дієслово «витримали»
хоч насправді зовсім не святі
і не витримали а їх тримали
за руки діти й старі у підвалах
і місто як снайпер наказувало
всім зоставатись у своїх підвалах
To remain in your city when there is such an angry cacophony
Which is not thunder but Grad and Smerch missiles
When the city is no longer ours or yours but theirs
It’s the same as staying in a sniper’s crosshairs.
But they remain and will remain those
Who will later be granted the adjective “sacred”
The pronoun they and the verb “held out”
Though they are not really sainted
And did not hold out but were held
By the hands of children and oldsters in cellars
Then the city ordered them all like a sniper
Into the cellars and to stay there.
Ніч приходить вороним конем
і скубе траву, зітхає тяжко.
Коню, коню… п’ю зелену пляшку
бренді чи вина під ліхтарем.
Коню, коню, що тобі? Мовчиш.
Я мовчу, хоч є про що казати,
І мовчання вже – неначе ґрати.
О, зламати б їх, немов комиш,
закричати б, щоб почув сам Бог…
Щоб од сну прокинувся, поглянув,
зглянувся на світ, на всю цю рану,
світ і справді нею став або
рана – світом, болем світовим,
що волає темно і невпинно.
Чуєш, коню? Я з цим світом гину.
Тільки ти залишишся живим.
Night comes, is a black horse
Tearing up the grass sighing heavily
Horse, oh horse… I drink a green bottle
Of wine or brandy beneath the light
Horse oh horse what’s with you? You are silent.
I am silent too though there is something to say
And this silence is like the bars of a cell.
Oh I would break them easily as bulrushes
I would cry so God themself heard…
So that the deity woke and looked
Looked on the whole wound that this world
Has become or the wound has become
This world this world sized agony
That bellows dark and unceasingly.
Horse do you hear me? This world I die with.
Only you will live.
триста років і більше
де скіфські кургани
хижий птах бив ув очі
і так бив ув очі
що навіть сьогодні читаєш
крізь вікно маршрутки
та бачиш натомість
крізь вікно маршрутки
повертаєшся і не смієшся
триста років і більше
та що на вигляд мертва
прибита була до скелі
мов Прометей чи Ісус
Where the Scythian burial mounds lay
For three hundred years or more
The predatory bird has beat
Beat into your eyes so
That even today when you read
Through the bus windows
You see instead
Through the bus windows
You turn to read
To read and do not laugh
For three hundred years and more
And what, to all appearances dead
Nailed to the rocks like
Prometheus or Jesus
The language speaks.
Як це – себе не любити,
втомлену жінку у люстрі,
кішку, що комою гнеться,
І рахувати лиш збитки,
золота злитки у хустці –
все це ховати у серці
серед волосся віків…
Як це – себе не приймати,
не пам’ятати, аж доки
ніч не настане поволі
і не спитається сон:
як це – любові не мати?..
І відповість тільки докір.
І відповість тільки доля –
How it is not to love yourself
The tired woman in the mirror
The cat curled in its coma
The letter-legs slender?
And to reckon just losses
Gold bars in a kerchief
To hide all this in your heart
Among the hair of ages.
How it is not to accept yourself
Not to remember while
Night yet descends slowly
And you have not yet asked in a dream
How is it not to have love?
And only reproach will answer
And only fate will answer
With the lines of your palm.
То наче цілий айсберг у мені.
Уся моя печаль – його вершина.
І невідомо, що у глибині,
на цьому дні, на злому дні…
якого можна випустити джина.
То наче мати крила кам’яні.
Із ними – тільки рани там, де спина.
Із ними – тільки падати вві сні
в наступні дні, в нестерпні дні…
і кожен день – немов нова стежина.
Тож можу лиш відповідати «Ні»
на запитання й запити, чужинна-
відчужена. Мов призабутий гнів,
минають дні на злому дні…
Я прокидаюсь. Ох і світла днина.
It is an iceberg entire inside me, whole,
And its summit is all of my pain
And its depths are unknowable
At this depth this depth malign…
From which they could release the Djinn
It is like having wings of stone
And with them wounds in place of a spine
That only let you fall into a vision
In these days, days that cannot be borne
And each day is like a new path also
To which I can just reply “no”
To questions and queries, alien
Alienated. Like anger forgotten
Days pass, this day malign.
I awake. Oh, day bright again.
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.
‘an iceberg entire inside me’
Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
The last poem accompanying Alisa Havrylchenko’s blog opens with the image of an iceberg of pain. The whole iceberg inside one person – located there, disproportionately, to assist the speaker in expressing her emotion. Think of an emotion the speaker of your poem is struggling to convey/is hoping to convey. What can they place inside themselves to express it? What proportions would they need to disturb?
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 twelve previous invitations to write can be found here.
Alisa Havrylchenko is a Ukrainian writer who hails from Kremenchuk and was born in 1989. She has written mainly detective and adventure novels but is also a gifted poet and has won numerous literary awards.
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.