Ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and shortly after stirring up conflict in the southeastern Donbas region, the theme of war has figured prominently in Ukrainian prose and poetry. The ongoing war has inspired two poetic anthologies in English translation, Letters from Ukraine: poetic anthology (2016) and Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine (2017), as well as, more recently, two volumes of the Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry series published by Lost Horse Press: Serhiy Zhadan’s A new spelling (2020) and Lyuba Yakimchuk Donbas apricots (2021). Zhadan and Yakimchuk both hail from the conflicted Donbass and, although they no longer live there, have become the region’s trusted spokespersons. Yakimchuk, born in Pervomaisk of Luhansk Oblast, now occupied by the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic, resides in Kyiv, and Zhadan, born in Starobilsk, also of Luhansk Oblast, now under Ukrainian control, lives in Kharkiv.
In his book Of war and writing (2018), Samuel Hynes says, “There seem to be two quite different needs that produce war writing: the need to report and the need to remember. As A new spelling and Donbas apricots to demonstrate, one must also understand. Zhadan and Yakimchuk recount what they witnessed and remember those who perished. but they also yearn to make sense of what happened. This desire shines through clearly and poignantly in the exquisite translations of Zhadan’s poems by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin, and Yakimchuk’s by Oksana Maksymchuk, Max Rosochinsky and Svetlana Lavochkina.
A new spelling includes poems from Zhadan’s new collection Catalog of ships (Spysok korabliv2020) but also offers a selection of his two previous volumes, Air (Antenna2018) and Knights Templar (Tampliery, 2016). The three collections deal with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, but Catalog of ships reveals a new dimension in Zhadan’s work, a concern for ecology. War primarily affects humans but also devastates flora and fauna. In the opening poem, the poet asks for remembrance:
Let’s start by whispering the names,
let’s weave together the vocabulary of death.
Get up and talk about the night.
Stand up and listen to the voices
shepherds in the fog
chant on each
And it is the non-human world that testifies and cries loudly:
Eastern Ukraine, end of the second millennium.
The world overflows with music and fire.
In the dark, flying fish and singing animals give voice.
In the meantime, almost everyone who got married died.
In the meantime, parents of people my age have died.
In the meantime, most of the heroes are dead.
Catalog of ships has many heroes; birds and pines are the main ones. The birds defend the aerial space: they sing when the pines “take fire on the border”; they sing funeral hymns; they “witness for those who are in nameless pits”. No wonder the poet wants to protect them: “Each must be counted, / not a single one forgotten.” Throughout the book, he emphasizes the importance of communing and communicating not just with humans but with all elements of nature:
The most difficult, of course, is
it’s like you don’t owe them anything
but here you stand before the pines,
The poet’s job is not to divert his eyes and ears, yes, but also to find the right words, words which would allow understanding, which would make up for “the critical lack of love”, as Zhadan puts it. “Poetry”, he writes, “should not join the general madness.” In the cycle “A New Orthography”, if the poet admits “the limited possibilities of poetry”, he also insists on the fact that “poems must be easily memorized / like your passport number”: “no one / has the right to complicate poetry”. Zhadan wants to reach as many people as possible, but Catalog of ships does not end on this note. The cycle is followed by three untitled poems, which take up the mode of testimony, emphasizing the need for rapport. The war continues and the report must continue: a bridge that has disappeared, a land scorched by bombs, “the black branch of a river” on which migratory birds are afraid to fly. You have to shout for it. And Zhadan does, but he still hopes to “reach our borders”.
In their introduction to Donbas apricots, translators Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky explain that after Yakimchuk’s family was forced to flee Pervomaisk in 2014, she became a “spokesperson for the fate of the civilian population of the region”. Direct experience of war and displacement prompted Yakimchuk to record what she or those close to her witnessed. For example, in the poem “caterpillar”, she paints a painful scene of rape with chilling objectivity, and in the poem “skyscraper”, she emphasizes the fact that not only do people suffer but that their houses suit us well:
suture the wounds of your building
with white bandages cover
black burns on his skin
with one hand – do not move –
Protect gaping window vents
so that marauders do not enter
Yakimchuk also tells tales of entire families perishing in war, their demise covered up by ludicrous excuses, as in “of old age”:
an old man and an old woman
died the same day
at the same time
at the same minute —
people said they died of old age
their children came to bury the old man and the old woman
Olya was pregnant
Serhiy was drunk
Sonya was only three years old
and they died too
and people said they died of old age.
Yakimchuk’s voice is loudest when it becomes personal, but for her, that personal always includes others. In the poem “Prayer”, she literally prays for her family to stay alive, while proclaiming, “I carry a homeland within me / and I cannot vomit it out / for it flows like blood / in my heart”. “Our daily bread gives to the hungry,” she prays, “and that they stop devouring each other.”
Donbas apricots But it is not only about the war, but also about the origin of the poet and his identification with the Donbass region. She is the daughter of a coal miner and the industrial landscape – with all the factories and mines – is also its own landscape. She resurrects the region’s history by invoking “the statues sculpted by the Cumans in the middle of the steppes” and sings of its particular beauty, characterized by abundant apricots growing in the middle of the coal mines: “the apricot trees held out their hands to the sky / apricots wore helmets, burned yellow / and now when you eat apricots / you find coals inside. When war breaks out, his voice takes on a heartbreaking urgency: “run / drop everything you have and run – / leave your house, your cellar with jars of apricot jam”. Yakimchuk identifies himself with all the displaced people of Donbass in the poem “the return”:
we want to go home, where we had our first grays
where the sky pours into the window in blue rays
where we planted a tree and raised a son
Where we built a house that rotted away without us
However, “the way back is full of mines”.
Samuel Hynes writes that “War transforms the natural world into malevolent, indescribable spaces, and everything in it into broken, useless, and unidentifiable waste – including human beings”. Yakimchuk captures this fracture in “decomposition,” in which familiar names of places or people are broken into distinct syllables reflecting the destruction wrought by war:
don’t talk to me about Lugansk
it has long since become Hansk
Read had been shaved
with crimson pavement
His hometown Pervomaisk “was divided into perverse and maiskand the poet herself seems to lose her identity: “I’ve aged so much / it’s no longer Lyuba / just a ba.” Indeed, the whole section of Donbas apricots treat of the war is entitled “Decomposition”.
While the need for accountability predominates in Yakimchuk’s poetry, his cycle entitled “Yum and War”, written in 2008, before the Maidan revolution, proves prescient. It features the childish character Yum, through which Yakimchuk explores his premonitions about the potential for conflict in the Donbass. The names of the individual poems in the cycle are telling: “inventing the enemy” or “hiding together”. Yakimchuk asks questions like “how does a war start?” but does not necessarily provide answers. Yum’s aggressive behavior towards dolls and toy soldiers (broken arms and legs) is a kind of warning. Asked by a journalist during an interview how this cycle happened, the poet could not really explain it – just a hunch.
Zhadan and Yakimchuk have been personally touched by the war, and both have felt the need to report its daily horrors, to memorialize those who perished, and to understand what they have witnessed. As the war that began in 2014 reaches a dangerous turn, the A new spelling and that of Yakimchuk Donbas apricots remind us of the toll that this long conflict took on living beings and on the land that nourished them.
Maria G. Rewakowicz is a poet, translator and scholar of literature. She holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Toronto and has taught Ukrainian literature at several universities. His book Ukraine’s Quest for Identity: Embracing Cultural Hybridity in the Literary Imagination, 1991-2011 (2018) is the 2019 winner of the Omeljan Pritsak Book Prize in Ukrainian Studies. His most recent publication is a translated volume of selected poetry by Mykola Vorobyov, Mountain and Flower (2020).