A Week with Zhadan (7)
- By Serhiy Zhadan
Editor's note: There are many ways to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and to stand for civilization, against barbarism. Over the last seven days, we've offered you a poem from Serhiy Zhadan, so that you will think of his words, and of his struggle today in Kharkiv, and of all the other heroic souls whose voices we have not heard, or heard sufficiently, as well as those we will never hear again. This final post of the series features a three-part poem where medieval history and postmodern warfare collide. We can only hope that life, for once, stops imitating art.
(To get together and talk... )
(Sun, terrace, lots of green...)
(A woman walks down the street...)
(Here’s another weird story...)
(On a village street...)
(You led the regiments and liberated cities...)
Who could survive in the Middle Ages?
A woman sleeps on a wounded shoulder.
Sun blasts above the roofs on the outskirts of town.
I’m used to the joy on your face—
who else would tell you such things?
Children return from school in the evening.
The mild intrusion of rain at night,
the smell of summer from mansard roofs and attics.
I love your breathing and quiet so much
that I listen to you even when you’re silent.
How to exist in a besieged city?
In the twilight, anxiety touches you,
in the darkness all seems to be so close.
There’s just one book. It’s about god,
but written by who knows.
I love your hair in the night wind.
Animals react to voices from the towers.
Lilacs are torn from the peaty roadsides.
The world is limited to what you believe in.
Light was invented to end the night.
Everyone who comes here will carry out what they can.
I know when you remember you’ll recall only the good.
Tamed, like animals, the Middle Ages
guard us, taking their positions.
The world is created such that we have something to lose:
this forest, this voice, the left bank of a river.
What will happen to them when they all return?
Stone rosaries worn down, like the animals’ fangs,
wrinkles around the eyes—deep as rivers in spring.
A true faith grows from heresy.
As they drift through this palestine,
the sun above them burns like a slab of gold.
Touch sacred soil with your burnt skin.
War for new territory is always allied with faith.
When they return, when they disarm,
when they defend themselves in dark chronicles,
only the faithful will remain with them.
It’s better to observe a war from a distance.
They will be reminded of everything that now is meaningless,
deluged with renunciations and accusations,
will be found guilty for everything that happens these days,
the heavenly custom service will run an inquest.
But until they scare the sky with their flags,
they remain invincible and unnamed,
know that all this is meaningful, that all is fair,
the deeper war goes, the more courage you need.
After the end of winter, the dead still lie in lakes,
in every kiss a disease may hide itself,
they already grind stones in quarries,
and a stony womb echoes like an emptiness.
The lips after hunger are still so salty,
someone still remains a captive,
but they drag stones through the sand to a city,
rebuild the streets with their hands worn to blood.
They hew stones, change landscapes,
break air, make different light,
rebuild this world so it can be loved,
so you won’t feel this hopeless and ashamed in it.
All who lived through the brutal murrain,
all who held on to joy and disobedience,
everyone who has survived under the heavy stars,
they rebuild a city with their hands worn to blood.
They build the walls and window frames,
erect scaffolding, secure firm ropes.
The sun stands above bricklayers and stonemasons.
So much time left to save it all.
Serhiy Zhadan is a Ukrainian poet, writer, essayist and translator. All poems featured here are part of a book of translations by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin published by Lost Horse Press, A New Orthography (2021), co-winner of the Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry 2021 and a finalist for the 2021 PEN America Award for Poetry in Translation. English translations of Zhadan’s other work include three books of prose (Depeche Mode, Voroshilovgrad, and Mesopotamia (which also features poetry) and a collection of poetry What We Live for, What We Die For.
John Hennessy is the author of two collections, Coney Island Pilgrims and Bridge and Tunnel, and his poems appear in many journals and anthologies. Hennessy is the poetry editor of The Common, a print magazine based at Amherst College, and he teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Ostap Kin is the editor of New York Elegies: Ukrainian Poems on the City and translator, with Vitaly Chernetsky, of Songs for a Dead Rooster by Yuri Andrukhovych and, with Ali Kinsella, of The Maidan After Hours by Vasyl Lozynsky.