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Stanzas for Ukraine – 8

A World That Is Still Watching… by Anna Malihon. Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

‘Everything will start from a small country, from one that no one would have thought of’ she said ‘there will be great changes in the world, at a high price, along with blood and death. However, it will be the last slaughter, after which peace will come.’ My grandmother, who was so quiet, cautious, bright-eyed, said this and many more strange things, and her daughters joked about it. What she is saying, is that all the wars are behind us now, and in the outside world there is the dream of a bright future, peace, love and cheap products. ‘Don’t collect a lot of things, don’t get attached to your homes’ grandma said ‘because you will flee naked and barefoot, and strangers will enter your houses’… As a child, I did not understand why my grandmother said this. She raised me modestly and taught me to be content with only a little. She also taught me how to manage in any circumstance, to quickly pull things together and calculate food supplies. She survived the Holodomor of 1932-33, that genocide of the Ukrainian people, as a child and transmitted her fear of hunger to me. I never throw away food (my generation, which passed through the hungry 90s, also knows its value). Grandmother spoke little and only reluctantly about World War 2, in which she lost everything, her home, her lover, her destiny. Only my mother, who was born almost a decade after the war, dreamed of shelling, of fearfully running away with her little twin sisters, but they flee in different directions. The spectre of war still hung in the air, and not all of the mines from WW2 had been defused.

…On the 24th of February, I woke up with the first explosions and ran to the bathroom (it seemed safer there) and heard my friend crying.  Her relatives had already called her, their light fitting was broken by an explosion. I turned on my cold intellect, as my grandmother taught me, and in ten minutes I packed an emergency suitcase, more precisely a small backpack. It contained only the most necessary things. It was as if I would never come back. The only clothes I took were the ones I was wearing: a sweater and jeans. My friend and I drove from Kyiv heading as far as possible, stood in traffic for several hours, saw cars crash in front of us, how they tried to revive the heart of an already dead girl… It was a road of horrors and the unknown. Then, stopping at one of the estates, I began to wait for a green corridor from the town in Sumy region, where my son was with my mother at that time. However, humanitarian corridors were not provided from there, because it is a front-line zone, on the border with Russia. All the days wove into one endless day. I put people who needed help in contact with those who provided help, looked for housing with acquaintances and strangers, woke up in the middle of the night and read the news, cooked modest meals on the stove, hand-washed my clothes, lost my voice, and didn’t write a single line, because all the words were reduced to a few basic ones, those that are needed to support loved ones. Yet during this whole time I never cried. Then a miracle happened: it became possible to rescue my son from the occupied city via those dangerous corridors…

…And while we come round from that initial shock, our country is bleeding. The world watches as our northern neighbour destroys us, committing genocide. They shoot at women in labour so that no new Ukrainians are born. They destroy schools and cultural institutions, burn books so that our children do not know their history. However, our children will not know the story from books, because they grew up with it. Along with the sounds of sirens, they ate snow in bomb shelters to hold on to a thread of life. Many of my acquaintances, who did not want children, are now planning to have their own children, and to adopt orphans when the war is over. Whom did our neighbours come to de-nazify? A child crying over her murdered mother, or a grandmother who survived the Second World War, but didn’t get through it when ‘rescuers’ with machine guns entered her home, destroyed her family in front of her eyes and took everything they could carry? Or racehorses, which they, inhuman, burned alive?

Some of my friends were left homeless, their towns were razed to the ground. They were left without the homes for which they spent so much time saving up, and which they furnished so carefully with their favourite things. Evening gatherings on the balcony, music, children’s noise… we all have a phantom pain for that past life, which we still sometimes dream about. And an even stronger pain from the realisation of your powerlessness to reach out, to cry out ‘look, world, we are being exterminated as a nation, cut out, burned, close the sky, do something’. This is a common problem. It hurts both those who remained, unable to cut the umbilical cord that connects them with home, and those who crossed the border and eat the refugee’s bread, drinking the salty feeling of guilt.

…They will answer for everything. For the tears of orphans and widows, for every destroyed house, for every grandma who gave her last coins to the Armed Forces with trembling hands. New Ukrainians are born in bomb shelters, new books are written, history straightens that tired spine. Do you hear the voices of the angels who only yesterday were mortal children saying close the sky?

…The walls of the apartment, where we were given refuge by a lovely French family, are the same colour of those in our own flat. My grandmother’s old casket and several of her pre-war photos are on the shelf. That’s all I managed to take with me. I promised her that I would be strong, restrained, responsible. I wrote books in my previous life, but I don’t know if words are enough now. Our words will be different from now on. Our facial expressions, our views of the world are different too. A world that is still watching…

Poems by Anna Malihon, translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj

Ті що не спіймали

Як вони зараз живуть, ті, що робили дублікати ключів?
Ті, що брали на руки так легко, ніби дитину,
бавились, підкидали,
та не ловили…
Ті, що призначали короткі зустрічі з довгими перервами,
паркували свої серця біля входу в мій дім…
Говорили мало, більше кохались,
гасили недопалки об цитринову шкірку на блюдці,
називали котів кумедними іменами,
та частіше – зганяли їх з одягу,
pозкиданого по підлозі.
Де вони, ті, що кидали на прощання – «тримайся!»
На чому самі тримаються?

Попіл гасне, не долітаючи до землі, снігу, трави…
Так швидко блимають пори року.

Those Who Didn’t Catch

How do they live now, those who made duplicate keys?
Those who took me in their arms so easily, like a child,
Played with me, cast me into the air,
But didn’t catch…

Those who scheduled short meetings with long breaks,
Parked their hearts at the entrance to my house…
They spoke little, loved more
Cigarette butts were extinguished on lemon peel on a saucer,
They called the cats funny names,
But more often chased them from their clothes,
Which were thrown on the floor.
Where are they, those who said goodbye and “hang on!”
What do they hang onto?

The ash expires without reaching the ground, snow, grass…
The seasons flash by so swiftly.

Нерідний дід

Мій нерідний дід говорив так голосно,
що сороки злітали з паркану, забувши цікавість.
Тому ми дізнавалися всі новини пізніше за інших.
Він брав натомлену пугу, виходив на вигін
і довго стояв,
невідомо кого чекаючи –
корову із пасовиська чи сонне, нагуляне сонце,
чи ще когось, хто давно забарився…
Баба називала його пришибленим і казала, –
«Хочби вже діждався».
Мій нерідний дід пропивав потроху медалі,
лаявся, вибираючи послід щурячий
з торішнього тютюну,
вчив мене злазити з велосипеда
(їздити я і сама навчилася),
показував Берлінський альбом, западаючи
в раптову мовчанку, а потім, набравшись голосу,
знову викрикував, так, мов хотів перекричати час:
«Бач, як багато родиться хлопців. Це до війни…»
А сам, либонь, жалкував, –
замість онука – чужа недолуга дівчинка,
відлюдькувата, як равлик…
Я малювала пальчиком серце
на мокрім піску.
Здається, то все, що знала тоді про любов.
Поганих дітей відпускають гуляти в дощ,
аби швидше зросли та покинули дім…
А я втекла на велосипеді.

…Вона прийшла до нього ві сні,
стишивши мідні дзвіночки на каптурі.
За три доби до весни.
За три весни до війни…

My Step-Grandfather

My step-grandfather spoke so loudly
That the magpies flew off the fence, forgetting their curiosity.
Therefore, we learned all the news later than other folks.
He took the worn out whip, went out to the pasture
And stood for a long time
What he was waiting for is unknown,
A cow from the pasture or a sleepy, tired sun,
Or someone else who had long…
Grandma used to call him “cracked” and said,
“He’s waited enough already.”
My step-grandfather boozed away his medals gradually,
And cursed, removing rat droppings
From last year’s tobacco,
He taught me how to dismount from my bike
(I learned to ride it myself),
He showed me the Berlin album, sinking
into a sudden silence, and then, raising his voice,
shouted again, as if he wanted to shout down time:
“Look how many boys were born. This was before the war…”
He, perhaps, regretted, the fact himself
That instead of a grandson he had someone else’s poor girl,
As solitary as a snail…
I drew a heart with my finger
on wet sand.
It seems that’s all I knew about love then.
They allow bad children to walk in the rain,
To grow up faster and leave home…
And I fled on a bicycle.

…She came to him in a dream,
Silencing the brass bells on  her hood.
Three days before spring.
Three springs before the war…


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.

‘My grandmother said this and many more strange things’

Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

Anna Malihon opens her blog post with the remembered words of prophecy and advice delivered by her characterful grandmother. Her poem ‘My Step-Grandfather’ introduces us not only to the titular man, but also to the grandmother and her pronouncements about him. The grandfather is quoted too. Write a poem about your relative or relatives (real or imagined) which will quote their memorable words: to sketch their characters, to show your relationship with them, to consider what you have learnt from them. ‘I promised her that I would be strong, restrained, responsible,’ writes Malihon. What have you promised to the protagonists of your poem?

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 seven 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.


Anna Malihon (Ukraine, Kyiv) is a member of the National Union of Writers of Ukraine. She is the winner of numerous international literary competitions and festivals. Anna is the author of several poetry books: The Doorbell, Blood Transfusion, To Abandoned Ships, Initial Rain, Вurnt skin (translated into English by Olena Jennings), Rosarium, the novel Teach Her How To Do It, and the children’s adventure story Carolina’s Magical Album. Her poetry and prose have been published in numerous Ukrainian and international literary almanacs, anthologies and collections (including Two Tons of Poetry, Book Love (Knyha Love), Anthology of Young Ukrainian Poetry of the III Millennium, magazines (including Berezil, Vitchyzna, Kyiv, Sho, Kryvbas Courier, Ukrainian Culture) and also in periodicals. Texts have been published by organizations in Poland, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, the Czech Republic, Romania, Great Britain. Her poems have been translated into Belarusian, Bulgarian, Polish, Czech, Georgian, Armenian, English, and French.

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.

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