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Stanzas for Ukraine – 20

Me, Ulyana and Energy by Iryna Sazhynska, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

The day before yesterday, when there was a storm, my father said: ‘Do you hear that? It’s missiles again!’

It was just thunder, which we are doomed to associate for the remainder of our lives with the expectation of death. Last week, a missile destroyed another residential building in the center of Zaporizhzhia. I used to work across the street from there and often saw the people who died that night. Now, during a thunderstorm, it seems as if missiles are waiting to kill each of us.

The 38th train is my constant companion. As long as it does its job well and cruises my route, no hypersonic missiles will intimidate me. It brings me home, to my Khortytsia, all in a missile-like fashion, and then returns me to Kyiv to work, so that I can continue to carry on fighting on my personal energy front.

It’s not easy to acknowledge, but I have learned the workings of explosive devices very well in order not to be afraid of long trips. When one might be about to strike me, I just roughly calculate how long it will be until I die. It’s not for nothing that I studied to be a finance professional and took optional courses in physics (Lordd, what a dismal life).

But that’s not really what I’m talking about. I wanted to tell a particular story. And I need to start with the fact that I know exactly where Ulyana, my great-grandmother, is buried. If I had been told to walk blindfold to her grave through the old local cemetery, I would have found it.

My great-grandmother worked on building the Dnipro HES[1] twice. The first time – because she was saving herself from starvation after the dekurkulization[2] and on the second occasion because the Germans blew up part of the dam. Now I’m going myself to these places where she began the history of Ukrainian energy generation. I grew up thinking that energy was inseparable from me because of this link through her. Therefore, I decided to continue the family tradition and also work in the power industry.

I hate the Soviets, who broke up her family in which there were thirteen children. Only four or five of them survived. Their father, my great-great-grandfather Yashka, first took to drink, he longed for the past, and then he was deceived in the market and sold an old nag instead of the decent horse, which, for some reason, he went there to acquire. That’s the story of how the big happy Holubov family came to an abrupt and sad end.

Ulyana was among the surviving children. It was because of the Soviet government that she found herself doing extremely hard building work, for which her exhausted body was not ready. It was like that for many unfortunate people who found themselves at the major Ukrainian construction site of the century building the Dnipro HES.

They had to live in dugouts and deal with rain, cold, looking after children and diseases. The authorities didn’t care about the lives of the destitute.

I feel regret for myself now, as my great-grandmother Ulyana felt regret for herself too: a terrible regret for this lost possibility to do something significant in the future, to have the time to create something valuable. But the feeling is not regret for myself really, but for something distant and ephemeral, something dreamed of and unrealisable. This is all because of the Russians, who try to take our lives again…

I look intently at the sky, where it is so empty and calm now that it is even difficult to imagine how steel sharks can possibly exist in its space. How are they able to reach this great depth of sky?

I work in the energy industry so that the memory of my great-grandmother Ulyana Holubova as embodied in power generation will last longer than me. I work so that her memory last longer than just a long while. It will last in frequency and voltage, in the generation and transmission of electricity. Many books are written about inventors, plaques or other memorials are erected to them after their death, but so few people remember those who mixed concrete in any weather during the construction of power stations. I think this injustice needs to be remedied.

However, I’m still frequently asked why I didn’t leave the country when the full-scale invasion began. A further reason in addition to the previous, historical one is that my place is here. If something has to happen (whether it brings sadness, or joy, or death, or life) it will happen wherever I am. Personally, I decided that there was no point in leaving: I saw a shell tear apart a car, I saw kilometer-long queues for pharmacies and abandoned animals at the railway station, I saw destroyed towns.

Therefore, when on February 24 I started volunteering, treating cats, searching for drugs for seriously ill civilians, I was not afraid. I’m already accustomed to death. Even my own. I became acclimatised to my death early on, like a mother becomes accustomed to the thought of having a child. Once, during shelling, I went down to the shelter to save (no, not myself, I don’t suffer from this) some cats. Only Maika (an old, very vocal, cat) couldn’t stand the shelling: she fell ill from stress and died soon after.

For a very long time, while there were Russian sabotage groups in Kyiv, I carried a note in my coat pocket which read: ‘My name was Iryna Sazhynska. I wrote poems and drew pictures. I was shot by the occupiers. If you manage to bury me properly, then tell my parents to plant peonies on my grave, as I wrote of someone doing in my play. The Russians will burn in hell. Glory to Ukraine! Death to the enemies’. The level of desperation and acceptance of the inevitable will be understandable.

It is a pity that in order to remove the Russians from our lives it’s necessary to pay such an exorbitant price… Several generations have been paying this price, but this circle is finally breaking.

I can still see the enemy aircraft in the sky above my native cities. I don’t know if I will ever start living differently. Will I ever stop jumping at loud noises, will I ever be able to sleep properly again. It’s unlikely…

Ulyana died a long time ago, but someday I will see other countries while traveling, and not because of evacuation. However, I have no plans right now, I live here and now with every second, for you have to do everything in time, because you never know which direction the hypersonic missile will fly from…


сподіваюся, куля нікого із нас не помітить:
ні цих порухів тихих, ні запаху крові в повітрі.
сніг червоний – липкий – білий пульс у гілляччя намацує.
розстріляли ліхтар, та крізь нього просвічує місяць –
знак, що можна лишатись, а отже, нічого не бійся:
ні стривожених сурм, ні ворожої авіації, –

каже матір чиясь. ці слова безнадійно холодні,
бо спростилося все до залізної бруньки у скроні,
бо поділено дім на підземний, земний і небесний.
тут за вікнами смерть обирає дзвінких і красивих,
та сміється лукаво, коли плаче матір над сином, бо людський син навряд чи воскресне.

сніг весняний летить, де співає скривавлений вітер
про гонитву, що має скінчитися разом із квітнем
ув одному із міст, де уже не існує печалі:
там тепер стільки квітів, що легко втопитись у квітах.
віриш, боже, я більше нічого не можу робити,
окрім обліку слів. але їх весь час не вистачає.

The Bud

I hope that the bullet won’t notice any of us:
neither these quiet movements, nor the smell of blood in the air.
the snow is red, sticky a white pulse gropes in the twigs.
they shot the streetlight, but the moon shines through it –
a sign that you can stay, and don’t be afraid of anything:
no alarming trumpets, no enemy aviation, –

someone’s mother says. these words are hopelessly cold
because everything was simplified to an iron bud in the temple,
because the house is divided into underground, ground and celestial levels.
Here. behind the windows, death chooses the resonant and beautiful,
and laughs slyly when a mother weeps over her son,
for the son of man will  probably not rise again.

The spring snow flies where the bloody wind sings
of the pursuit that should end with April
in one of the cities where sadness no longer exists:
Where there are so many flowers that it is easy to drown in blooms.
believe me, God I can’t do anything else
but reckon the words though they are not enough.


з необхідного: паспорт хіба що й каблучка
й уночі твоя відповідь майже беззвучна
коли я перепитую: як ти?
розучилася на’ слово вірити квітам
бо натомість я можу тепер розрізнити
де у небі ракета крилата

ця дорога порожня але небезпечна
в нас нічого нема: ні води ні аптечки
тільки спільний примарний знаменник —
бог який нас беріг увесь шлях безпричинно
а інакше інакше чого він кричить нам:
не називайте імен

ми проїдемо місто якого немає
а за ним — тільки лід — ритуал поховання
сотень тисяч життів наперед
лід мовчить як і ти а коли б говорив він
я б сама розшукала та знищила винних
усе решта здається даремним

все це вигадав монстр багряного світу
він наживо гниє але просить звільнити
своїх мертвих птахів металевих
я можливо уже не зустрінусь з тобою —
і хоча ми постійно готові до бою —
а до смерті ніколи не будем готові —

The Ring

from the necessary things: a passport and a ring
and at night your answer is almost inaudible
when I ask: how are you?
I have learned only to take flowers at their word
for instead I can now discern
the location of a winged missile in the sky

this road is empty but dangerous
for we have nothing: no water, no first aid kit
only common nightmarish denominator —
god who protected us all this way for no reason
For why else why else does he shout at us:
do not name names

we will pass by a city that does not exist
and behind it – only ice – a burial ritual
of the hundreds of thousands of lives ahead
the ice is silent like you, but when it speaks
I would find and destroy the guilty myself
for anything else seems futile

all invented by the reddened world’s monstrosity
it rots alive but requests the release
of his dead metal birds…
I may not meet you again,
and although we are always ready for battle,
We will never be ready for death


так уривається холод, співає скло,
ніби нічого у домі цім не було –
один тільки пил у стрічці сліпого світла.
ось ти мені цілуєш гарячий лоб,
ось ти смієшся, бо за твоє тепло
ані прокльон не візьме нас, ні молитва.

усе, чого ти торкався, уже кришталь:
спогад бреде як втомлений арештант
камери черепної – й нема де дітись.
говориш: так гірко, але аж ніяк не жаль,
що зовсім не ти насправді мене знайшла,
а наші майбутні діти.

говориш, а душі злітають з піддашшя над
сивим волоссям, вікнами, виноградом,
витрушують пір‘я із неземних помешкань
в горішньому місті, де тиша в‘язка й густа,
де визріла зірка порожня та золота,
ніби твоя сережка


so the cold breaks in, and the glass sings,
as if nothing had happened in the house  –
only dust in a ribbon of dazzling light.
and here you are kissing my hot forehead
here you are laughing, because of your warmth
neither a curse nor a prayer will take us.

everything that you touched is already crystal:
the memory wanders like a weary prisoner
in the skull chamber and there is nowhere to hide.
you say “it  is so bitter, but by no means a pity
that you didn’t really find me at all
and our future children.”

you speak, and souls soar from the cover
above grey hair, windows, grapes,
shake out their feathers from unearthly dwellings
in the upper city, where the silence is viscous and thick,
where the ripe star is empty and golden,
as your earring


не довіряйся цим ламким слідам,
бо ніч на узбережжі – це біда:
асиметричні лапища лускаті.
ти в місті цім не з’явишся, авжеж.
це узбережжя хворе. врешті-решт
ти сам про це повинен здогадатись –

від імені лишаються склади.
і ти прохаєш: боже, ну склади
для мене дім без болю та скорботи.
господь – співочий зодчий без домів –
скорочує ім’я до ноти мі,
записує тебе у зошит нотний.

не знаючи про камінь у руках
і вірячи, що нота – ліпший цвях,
він думає, що дім тобі дарує.
аж ось ти вже лунаєш на усі
можливі й неможливі голоси,
та стишено звучить твоє відлуння,

яке сюди ніхто не принесе.
скажи мені, чому це тільки се…
це лінія пряма кардіограми.
дивись згори, що двійко є нових:
з’явились щойно, тож славімо їх!
нехай вони насправді стануть нами.


We don’t trust these fragile traces
because night on the coast is misfortune:
the asymmetric paws scaly.
After all you will not appear in the city.
this coast is diseased. Eventually
you have to work it out –

syllables remain of the name.
and you ask: oh my god, construct
for me a home without pain and sorrow.
the lord – the singing architect without homes –
shortens the name to the note me,
writes you down in a book of music.

unaware of the stone in his hands
and believing that a note is a better nail,
he thinks that it is a house gives you.
but now you are a melody resonating
in all possible and impossible voices,
and your echo sounds softly,

No one will bring it here.
tell me why it’s just see…
this is a straight line from the cardiogram.
look from above two new ones have appeared,
Let’s glorify them!
let them be what we become.

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.

‘eventually you have to work it out’

Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

Let’s stay longer with  Iryna Sazhynska’s poem ‘ME’; in particular, with its opening stanza:

We don’t trust these fragile traces
because night on the coast is misfortune:
the asymmetric paws scaly.
After all you will not appear in the city.
this coast is diseased. Eventually
you have to work it out –

Think of the speakers of this text: they begin with mistrust. Now think about the speaker/s of your own poem: where do they begin – emotionally? What ‘fragile traces’ do they think/talk about? Where are they – physically? Is the place they have found themselves in also misfortune? What does it look like? What kind of image could best convey this perception? Eventually, your poem’s speaker/s will have to work something out. What is it? And how will they go about figuring something out? What – or who – will help them?

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 nineteen 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.


Iryna Sazhynska is a prize-winning poet, literary translator and illustrator from Zaporizhzhia who works in Ukraine’s energy sector. Her poetry has won numerous awards in Ukraine and faces displacement and war with finely crafted wit and symbolism.

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 Dnipro Hydro-Electric Station

[2]    A process whereby supposedly wealthy peasants (kurkuly) were dispossessed, but which had an ethnic dimension in Ukrainian areas, and was used as one of the instruments of genocide against Ukrainians.

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