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Stanzas for Ukraine – 22

From the Springs of the Earth by Vasyl Makhno, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

I belong to the ranks of those who witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union with their own eyes, and the Revolution on Granite and Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence. However, by contrast I observed the Orange Revolution and The Revolution of Dignity from New York, speaking at meetings and taking part in protest marches. I wrote poems and essays about these events. Raised my voice in their defence. For thirty years my generation, which they are unwillingly summoning into the ranks of the military and still pondering whether that type of person is required in the Territorial Defence, has experienced the transition for a totalitarian regime to certain forms of nascent democracy. I will say that the transit is not easy because, in the current part of this historical scenario, we have also found ourselves at war. From 24 February onwards we are all at war, that is we are mobilised. Some might argue with me that this is a literary metaphor because the real soldiers are on the front lines. I agree, of course, with this indisputable fact but will nevertheless allow myself to reflect on the war, whose expanse reaches from the front lines of the combat zone and into each Ukrainian heart.

This insidious war caught us while we were on the move. We had turned partially away from Moscow and directed our gaze towards the West, to a different system of civilisation by contrast with the ‘Russian World’. However, a substantial section of our society, for various geographic, cultural, and familial reasons, remained captive to various ‘Fraternal’ ideas which Russian mythology still worked with. These ranged from the so-called act of reunification from the era of Bohdan Khmelnytsky to the ‘common struggle of the Soviet People against Fascism’ in the ‘Great Patriotic war’. This mythology ate its way like rust into the consciousness of several generations of Ukrainians. It seemed impossible to shed.

During the thirty-year period of independence, the realities of Ukrainian life were far from ideal. Too much was mixed up with Post Soviet society so that, when I left for New York, it seemed to me that this tangle would never be unravelled. Ukraine was crossed by the boundaries of too many confrontations. There was on the one hand the confrontation between East and West and, on the other, the confrontation over cultural values and historical events, the Ukrainian and Russian languages, the national versus the Soviet. Ukrainian cities surprised one by unifying Soviet architecture with the latest Ukrainian politics: ideology free directives with blatant lies and corruption, Ukrainian borders, which were criminally insecure, and the Ukrainian military, riddled with treachery and theft. The country lived between two poles, which might approximately be termed ‘Lviv’ and ‘Donetsk’ and were seemingly balanced by Kyiv.

However, there was something smouldering within this tattered country that prevented it from descending into complete chaos, or dependence on its imperial Northern neighbour. What was it? The language? No. The culture? Also no. Literature? Not entirely. Historical and familial memory? Perhaps. Political and cultural idealists? Undoubtedly. No country or society is perfect of course. However, there is a certain something that glues together the backbone of that same society or country. Confrontations are the basis of existence, it is from them that a certain compromise or a system of social and political agreements is born, in other words that law by which society and social mechanisms live. One of the most substantive problems of oligarchic state creation is the absence of effective and undeclared legal norms. How can we not recollect Yuliia Kristeva here with her desperate appeal to post communist elites regarding total corruption and their neglect of the foundations of democratic societies? The war, and the revolutions on the Maidan which preceded it in my view, performed the important function of catharsis and, probably, maturation. Optimists and pessimists are found in every generation, likewise Ukrainophiles and Ukrainophobes and followers of left- or right-wing ideologies. However, the threat of losing not only one’s life but something which might seem metaphysically an insignificant substance, that is your native land and home, the threat which we apprehend by drawing on the springs of archetypal national memory, pierced the toughened consciousness. Indeed, the consciousness of losses itself created our furious resistance. Did this apply to everyone? Of course not. Aren’t the Ukrainian mass media brimming with reports about dodgers, grafters, drug dealers, traitors and spies? How lucky we are that these are a tiny minority. War also provides an X-ray of everyone’s character. As the biblical proverb runs the sun rises above the good and evil alike and shines alike upon heroes and cowards. Yes, it shines alike but they walk along different banks.

Each attack by the aggressor is unjust because with the very first shot peacetime is transformed into wartime. Wartime furthermore is always indefinite, while it happens no one knows how long it will last, how many victims it will claim and when it will end. There is for me an important question which I ask myself and not only today – that runs as follows: how will Ukrainian society, which is surviving and will survive the war, be able to rebuild state relationships on a new foundation? How will the state philosophy, law, culture and language change? It is easy to find those guilty of the war. They are well known. Judgement awaits them, of course, because its avoidance and total impunity will lead to increased arrogance and further wars. Neither Georgia nor the annexation of Crimea acted as a warning to the world that the new Putin empire was prepared to launch a war in Europe and the world. It will be most difficult after all the losses and ruins to ‘re-reform’ Ukrainian society and imbue it with new significance. This will be the most difficult process because, as can be seen, it will take longer than a year.

We rethink the war every day. What does this mean? That the war for us is one large question. All of us will have to answer it together. And from what springs will we take the strength to answer? From those that flow as underground rivers in the depths of our earth. There are no others.

Poems by Vasyl Makhno, translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj

Василь Махно


По стародруках і настінних написах
ми перейшли в розмові до Кавафіса
що нам знайшовся ув Александрії
там мова грецька вижила в колоніях
удекорована пілястрами й колонами
в якій святі – а поруч солодії

монастирі – церкви з архимандритами
будинки із верандами відкритими
до моря – міту – до любовних втіх
до тіла – до тілесного наближення
поезія з чужими – а не з ближніми
і молоко із медом  – не для всіх

затриманий в своїм столітті точнім
коли історія на прикладі наочнім
у міністерстві зрошування ґрунту
чи у борделях для чоловіків
притягне острови – як кораблі й віки –
для огляду війни – впокорення і бунту

тоді сказав я: що знайшов видання
в коричневій обкладинці миґдальній
сказав про фільм й брудну Александрію
її порти – іслам і християнство
ми тими вуличками йшли як йдуть у наступ
щоби зайти по хліб у бакалію

я знав про варварів і подорож в Ітаку
про яблучний пиріг з миґдальним смаком
й про те що з міста вихід лиш один
і з нашого балакання – і з наших
акафістів разом із отченашем
з прозорого паперу – в білий дим

куди ж нас приведе цей Константінос
пожадливо вдивляючись на тіло
носильника в порту що аж до ночі
вантажить щось щодня без перестанку
пливе рядок як корабель в Ітаку
і варварів очікують на площі

все відбувається при тім в Александрії
ми теж присутні при воді й події
в бібліотечній тиші – й маяки
розставлені для моряків й поетів
у прибережних водах – слід комети
й рибалки у човнах – і бляшані зірки

і кожен вірш з пульсуючого світла
й розмова наша – теж війна і битва
і виїзд і повернення з терпіння
послухайте що каже нам Кавафіс
без порівнянь й барокових метафор
Ітака – в морі: варвари – при стінах


where does the tulip in my house come from?
from where to my niche?
a turban twisted from its petals,
the red ones like diseased tonsils

the stem bent as a monogram
broke from its bulb
the light pulsated
in the thread of its greenery,

there was a nameless fire,
an unformed fruit
and now it knows only
to be grateful for the water

poured into a jug
against whose rim its shoulder leans,
someone brought it to my house
as an emissary of spring

due of respect and honour
attention and caring hand
its leaves from the nearest post
the nearest river for its thirst

my least vigilance
the warm and quiet home
conversations till the third cock crows
songs sung to hoarseness

the flower itself like royalty on the table
just one held in the jug
nearby mugs and glasses
keeping it company

and I like an intrusion  with that question:
where is the tulip from?
I will not, of course, witter
For, as was said: divine the answer.

Кілька днів із Ду Фу


В серпневих сутінках – я з томиком Ду Фу
папір із рижу всотує строфу
тріпоче вітерець – немов шовки наложниць
я знаю як знайти його в саду
хоч всі століття я не перейду –
під скрип возів і скреготіння ножиць

присвітить нам ліхтариком нічним
бо більше він не матиме нічим
бо завжди в мандрах то човном то пішо
ні дому ні пристанища як гість
скрипить перо як колісниці вісь
і м’яко пензель по папері  пише

у нього там – сімсот якийсь там рік
війська у пилюзі гірських доріг
повсюди – битви за річки і села
ув імператора все валиться із рук
імперію так закрутило в рух –
цвіте пирій і пригасають зела

був прийнятий до двору як чиновник
тепер втікає по містечках чорних
вдовиних і сиротливих – в тих місцях
в яких йому доводилось ховатись
мені домів та вулиць не дізнатись
йому – Янцзи проплисти до кінця

ув вутлому  човні в іржавих хвилях
вбачаючи в вогнях що там на схилах
ворожих військ вечірні табори
з собою – пензель і два звитки віршів
й куди втікати він іще не вирішив:
услід воді за косяками риб?

услід – військам що кинувши столицю
відкриту браму – гикаву ослицю
сад для самотності осінніх хризантем
пустились врозтіч – їх не наздогнати
то чий наказ виконують солдати?
від їхніх коней шлях і світ гуде

в якімсь містечку з шурхотом бамбуку
свистять вітри в нім – спорожнілі звуки
і ринку і видовищ – без мужчин
Ду Фу знайде нічліг і миску рижу
селянка із дитиною на крижах
назветься Мей – у неї сто причин

відмовити – тут солдатні й злочинців
забрали чоловіка в ополченці
дитина плаче – й кожен норовить
залізти під спідницю – кожен ласий
шовкове тіло молоде привласнити
тому вона в штанах постійно спить

«скажіть – питає голосом вдовиці –
ви ж з двору імператора – з столиці
коли ж війна закінчиться – аби
мій муж вернувся» «Що тобі сказати –
у наших військ вже незлічені втрати
а наших військ – як на весні крупи»

містечко стихло й стишилась ріка
на грудях у Ду Фу її тонка рука
її уста – як спіла трісла сливка
під пахвами волосяний покрив
і млосний стогін – і пташиний крик
і довга ніч немов ріка велика

в часи війни коли мужчину смерть
бере під глину – під каміння  – твердь
коли жінок залишено солдатам
чужинських військ для ґвалту і наруг
в брудній хатині в якій повно мух
до ранку будуть ноги розплітати

а зранку принесуть прудкі чутки –
новітні біженці на берегах ріки
духм’яна Мей залишиться удома
Ду Фу поспішно пуститься у путь –
вздовж берега гортензії цвітуть
і видивляють очі темні вдови

A Few Days From Du Fu

In the August dusk I am with Du Fu’s volume,
its rice paper weaves a stanza,
the breeze flutters like concubine’s silks,
I know how to find it in the garden
although I will not cross all the centuries –
to the creak of wagons and grinding of scissors,

that will illuminate us at night with a torch,
because he will never have anything more
because he always roams by boat or on foot
with neither home nor refuge, as a guest,
the pen creaks like a chariot’s axle
and the brush softly writes on paper

he has seven hundred or so years there
of troops with the dust of mountain roads
and everywhere – battles for rivers and villages,
everything falls from of the emperor’s hands
the empire so spun into motion –
wheatgrass blooms and greenery fades,

he was admitted to the court as an official
and now flees through black towns
of widows and orphans – in those places
where  he had to hide
I don’t know of these houses and streets
he had to sail to the end of the Yangtze river

in a rickety boat on rusted waves
seeing in the flaming lights what there was on the slopes,
the evening camps of the enemy troops,
taking with him – a brush and two scrolls of poems
and not yet decided where to flee:
to perhaps follow the water and shoals of fish?

in the wake of the troops that abandoned the capital,
an open gate and a hiccuping donkey
a garden of autumn chrysanthemums for solitude,
they fled, they are not pursued,
so whose order do the soldiers follow?
the road and the world buzz from their horses

in some town with rustling bamboo
in which the winds whistle- empty sounds
the market and spectacles – left without men
Du Fu finds a place to stay, and a bowl of rice
there is a peasant woman with a child on her back
called Mei – she has a hundred reasons

to refuse – there are soldiers and criminals
they took her man into the militia
the child cries – and everyone tries
to get under her skirt – each sweet
silk body and young to appropriate,
that’s why she always sleeps in her pants

“Tell me – the widow asks aloud-
you are from the emperor’s court, the capital
when will the war end – only then
will my husband return” “What can I tell you –
our troops have already suffered countless losses
they are like groats in spring”

the town quieted and the river calmed
her slender hand laid on Du Fu’s chest
her mouth was like whipped cream
there was hair under the armpits
a sickening groan – and a bird’s cry
the long night is like a huge river

in times of war when a man dies
he is taken under clay – under stones – hard surfaces
when the women are left to the soldiers
the foreign troops for violence and insults
in a dirty shack full of flies
legs will be untangled by the morning

and the morning will bring strong rumors –
the latest refugees are on the banks of the river
fragrant Mei will stay at home
Du Fu sets off hastily-
hydrangeas bloom along the shore
the eyes of the dark widow peer after him.

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.

‘In the August dusk I am with Du Fu’s volume’
Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

Two out of three poems in this selection from Vasyl Makhno refer us to other writers: Du Fu and Cavafy. 

Through old prints and wall inscriptions
our conversation turned to Cavafy,
who was found, for us, in Alexandria


Which writers/artists/thinkers (the list continues…) would your conversation turn to? Who is going to be found by the speaker/s of your text to help them make sense of the events and emotions they experience? Where would this person be? Most importantly, how may their works/words/deeds offer advice and perhaps even consolation?

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-one 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.


Vasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, prose writer, and essayist. He is the author of fourteen collections of poetry and most recently the book of selected poems One Sail House (2021). He has also published a book of short stories, The House in Baiting Hollow (2015), a novel, The Eternal Calendar (2019), and five books of essays, The Gertrude Stein Memorial Cultural and Recreation Park (2006), Horn of Plenty (2011), Suburbs and Borderland (2019), Biking along the Ocean (2020), and From consonants to vowels: an encyclopedia of names, places, birds, plants and other things (2023). Makhno’s works have been widely translated into many languages; his books have been published in Germany, Israel, Poland, Romania, Serbia and the US. His poems and essays appeared in English in Absinthe, Agni, Consequences, Los Angeles Review of Books, Modern Poetry in Translation (UK), Poetry International, Post Road and others. Three poetry collections, Thread and Other New York Poems (2009), Winter Letters (2011), and Paper Bridge (2022) were published in English translation.  He is the recipient of the Kovaliv Fund Prize (2008), Serbia’s International Povele Morave Prize in Poetry (2013), the BBC Book of the Year Award (2015), and the Encounter: Ukrainian-Jewish  Literary Prize (2020).  Makhno currently lives with his family in New York City.

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

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