"Stepping in a River Twice: Ukrainian Poetry in Translation"

by Alex Braslavsky

Alex BraslavskyWhile taking Professor Dibrova’s Ukrainian for Reading Knowledge course, I have had the fortune of engaging with the Ukrainian poetic tradition through small side projects. My first opportunity came within the first week, when we were asked to share our favorite poems. My taste in poetry is always changing, so I found myself reading The Frontier: 28 Contemporary Ukrainian Poets to prepare for class. Appearing in English translation by Anatoly Kudryavitsky, the poems were riveting. I was struck in particular by the poetry of Anna Chromova and Katrina Haddad. Chromova’s poems are delightfully surreal, as we see in the following lines from “Dreams”:

The dog dreams that he is a fiery angel from the seventh heaven.
Sleep, my angel, the fairy tale has no words left.
The night climbs out of the sea foam like a turtle.

The Frontier book coverWith their quiet mayhem, these lines bring the poem to a close, allowing its dog, angel, and turtle to subtly dissipate in its ending froth… Chromova fashions a whole bestiary for us to peruse, if somewhat uncomfortably. Here are her opening lines to “Dead Fox”:

a dead fox on the road
    the road ends up in the mountains of clouds
    the mountains escape beyond the horizon
    the way our good intentions flee from us
    the road whirls between fields and rocky pastures
    resembling the face of a continuously crying man

I love the delirium of her imagery, and the way one feature of the landscape melds into another through the mist (“the road ends up in the mountains of clouds”), so that images begin to associatively transpose onto one another. 

Where Chromova supplants one image with another, Katrina Haddad, whose mother is Ukrainian and father Syrian, is invested in how images insert themselves into one another. She writes at the end of “All the Rivers Run into the Sea, Yet the Sea is Not Full”:

it is easier for a camel to pass through
the neck of an hourglass
not losing a grain of sand from his humps
full of gold and the papyruses of days

Haddad minimizes the camel and has it squeeze through the miniscule part of an hourglass through which sand passes. Meanwhile the camel does not “lose” a single speck of the sand in its fur as it makes its way through. The tense accommodation that one image makes for another appears also in “Weathercock” (“we’ll even have to define the position of kisses / in relation to the points of the horizon”) and in “Heirmos” (“resembling a lotus leaf / you enter the water”). Aside from modes of insertion, we also see intersection between images, as well absorption, such as in the following moment at the end of “Heirmos” where sleet dissolves upon the speakers’ tongues:

golden sleet
    falls upon our hungry tongues
    gets absorbed in our saliva
    and flies alongside our dreams
    through the immensity of our bodies

Even when the sleet is “absorbed in our saliva,” it also takes shape in the speakers’ dreams and makes its way “through” their bodies, so that Haddad complicates our vision of where the sleet “happens” on both psychological and topographical levels. Although it is cliché in contemporary poetry to refer offhand to the “body” politic, Haddad here uses the plural form “bodies” to usher us away from the delicate specificity of the falling sleet into a vaster sense of its implications, as it “flies […] through the immensity of our bodies.” 
As someone who has always wondered whether the use of the word “body” in a poem merely evades the necessity of writing in a more grounded way, i.e. directly from the senses (and thereby implying the constancy of the body), I was relieved to have my opinions rebutted when I watched Sandra Joy Russell’s HUSI Lecture this year (available for viewing on YouTube). Russell helped to clarify why embodiment is so important to Ukrainian feminist poetics.

In her talk, Russell stated that the body is “in many ways, the most immediate and insistent site of knowledge.” Not only is it “how we come to know the world, […] it is also how we are legible to the world.” Russell’s lecture was revelatory. She discusses poets of the perestroika period, including Iryna Zhylenko, Natalka Bilotsverkivets, and Oksana Zabuzhko, calling the era one of “apocalyptic” liminality, a cultural renaissance, and describes these works – highlighting in particular The Aesthenic Syndrome, directed by Kira Muratova. Muratova’s charged embodiment of the cultural lethargy that was characteristic of that era manifests in the way people fall asleep in public places – in orgies, classrooms, and the middle the Moscow metro. Just as Chromova and particularly Haddad had me thinking of image arrangement, Russell’s talk helped me rethink the significance of where the human body chooses (or does not choose) to act.

Later in Prof. Dibrova’s course, I had the chance to read more articles on the transformations that poetry experienced in the 90s after the Soviet Union fell. Little by little, my awareness of scholarship specific to Ukraine has been opening up, thanks in large part also to classmates Emily Channell-Justice and Samuel Finkelman, who both introduced a slew of cutting edge books to us in our Zoom chat.

Shortly after presenting on Chromova’s work in class, I had the opportunity to take on another side project  and “proofread” poems by Serhiy Zhadan, translated into English by Ostap Kin for Circumference magazine. Professor Dibrova was kind enough to meet with me to review the original and go over Kin’s strategies. I learned a lot under Professor Dibrova’s guidance; namely that Kin is an elegant translator and also that I’m not sold on the poems of Zhadan’s that I saw. Having acquired a rockstar-esque status akin to that of Lord Byron, Zhadan is wordy and provocative in ways that can at times feel manipulative. He does have impressive moments where his long line lends itself to a subtly distended quality and on occasion he yields striking comparisons: in some of his strongest lines from his poem «Чому я постійно говорю про церкву?» (“Why do I always talk about church?”), he compares the moon to a tumor, for instance, and his aesthetic potentially aligns with the kind of post-Soviet aestheticized illness that Russell is describing. Zhadan’s is not my type of poetry in part because I like detachment in a poem. This does not mean I like “apolitical” poetry, but simply that I find the art of withholding and leaving certain things to the imagination to be important to poetic craft. As a contrarian who is very politically active, Zhadan is heralded around the world as the best contemporary poet from Ukraine, although my sense is that this may in part be due to the fact that other talented Ukrainian poets have yet to be translated. Translation is exposure; I see it as my responsibility to suss out and expose incredible poetry and to advocate for poets who do something new.

When Professor Dibrova introduced us to Oleh Lysheha later in the course, I did find a detached sensibility in his work, which I later learned was in part because Lysheha studied Buddhism while he was in exile and poets like Li Po and Tu Fu had a huge influence on him . For one of our guest speaker sessions, we were fortunate enough to have James Brasfield come speak to us about his experience translating Lysheha, giving me a chance to ask questions about what it was like to work with the poet while he was alive, and how things changed in the translation process after Lysheha had passed. I was grateful for the chance to ask Brasfield how he felt things changed after he was no longer able to collaborate with Lysheha directly and I was struck by his description of their relationship as  greater than either of them as individuals and as manifesting in a unique, gorgeous creative. 

Up until this point I have been translating the work of Polish poet, Zuzanna Ginczanka. Ginczanka was murdered in the Holocaust. Translating her work has been challenging for myriad reasons and I imagine very different from translating in collaboration with the person who originally wrote the words you are rendering. I tend to downplay personal attachment when it comes to my work and have therefore found working on a deceased poet’s body of work to be deeply meaningful, but after reading Chromova and Haddad’s work, I am inspired to draft translations of some of their poems and contact them via email with questions! It (hopefully) will be my first time working with some living poets. My aim is to submit the translations to Circumference as well, to continue in Ostap Kin’s footsteps. I also hope to work with Sandra Joy Russell one day (perhaps at the Ukrainian Studies Conference next year!) and to read her recent publication on Iryna Zhylenko . It’s all very exciting and I’m eager to learn more. I am grateful for the course and for Professor Dibrova’s guidance, because it has enabled me to explore my interest in the world of Ukrainian poetry! Thank you, HUSI !