British translator and poet Stephen Komarnyckyj presents his translations of some of the most striking poems by Ukrainian authors from the creative outburst of the USSR's "Ukrainization" period of the 1920s. Only a dozen years later, most were brutally executed by Stalin. Some have opined that the Communists allowed the brief revival of Ukraine's national culture only to reveal the gifted representatives of its elite, in order to ease the elimination of potential leaders of the republic that could rise up against the forceful incorporation of the Ukrainian republic into the USSR.
The British publishing house Kalyna Language Press has recently been granted permission to produce an English translation of Yurii Lavrinenko's 1959 anthology "The Executed Renaissance" (pictured on the left) which presents work by the generation of Ukrainian authors who were destroyed by the Soviets during the nineteen thirties. Lavrinenko was himself a member of the Executed Renaissance and a literary critic. His anthology, which was painstakingly compiled from archival resources, collated works which were published in Soviet Ukraine up until 1933 and subsequently banned. He documents the lives and deaths of these authors in the concise and perceptive pen portraits which introduce the selections from their work. The book is both a selection of some of the most beautiful poetry and prose written in Europe last century and a memorial to a generation which perished during Stalin's forgotten genocide of Ukraine.
The texts which follow will be part of the English-language translation of Yurii Lavrinenko’s 1959 anthology “The Executed Renaissance.”
Volodymyr Svidzinsky (1885- 1941)
This poem was probably written in 1933/1934 and is, in my view, the greatest poem written by anyone in response to Stalinism. I make that assertion not because the poem is technically innovative but because it exemplifies what Keats called negative capability. Svidzinsky will have seen the results of Stalin’s policies in Ukraine, but he does not moralize, condemn, or posture. He simply conveys the effect on him, and therefore on anyone whose conscience was not poisoned by the party’s slogans, of what he experienced. He would later be burned alive by the NKVD, but the poem speaks as clearly to us now as it did then to those people who passed it from hand to hand.
The poem’s genius is that it says everything by saying nothing. The poet’s courage in facing both a hopeless situation and its deadening effect on him is profoundly moving. The English version is not literal but I believe it captures the essence of the poem, for I know that it is the luster of the surface, rather than a simplistic mirroring of the original which is important.
The lustre of surfaces dies into the shadow
And antique silence sleeps,
Like water decanted into a bowl.
Only my hands live,
Strange and separate,
Compel me to meditate,
Like the whisper of a leaf.
I go to the window,
A broken post stands by the verandah,
Mould grows in the guttering
Where snowflakes gather in winter,
Where birds alight in the morning.
I press my forehead against the glass
And gaze for a while.
I don’t love the advent of night
It seems guilty, a dark linen,
The blurred green edges of vegetation.
A huge pool of silence accumulates.
Where have the birds gone?
The lustrous surface of things dies,
The curtains hang motionless
As if carved in stone.
In my defined circle of silence
I become more insensitive, and sad,
As a forgotten, Chinese lantern caught
On a branch in some old orchard.
In the western fields at dusk
The ash doesn’t whisper
The jasmine is not fragrant
As at first light.
You come over the horizon
To the violet in the glade.
You step towards her
The earth crackling
With autumn ice underfoot,
And look beyond the path
To see grassy mounds
Squat like bazaar stallholders
Some solitary and others in pairs
And the jasmine fades
In the yellow hands of buckthorn.
We will embrace you in auburn waters
Swathe you in tangled grass
Give you a maiden
Green of shoulder, smooth of belly
Lustrous eyed, the marsh’s beauty…”
The violet smiles
At how easily you are lured.
The silence is morose suddenly
A maiden straight and tall
You stretch out your hand,
She is the night you call.
Where wild chicory covered the street
In a familiar circle
Where I would not place my feet
The doors were open
But only the night entered
And wearing no pale blue hat
With a zig-zag of grey silk.
I embraced her before I spoke
“Sweetheart how long I waited
By your window, when day came
It was not I troubling the branches
Of mountain ash and cherry trees.”
The night leaves at dawn
With her friend the moon
They will sit together
On the shaking cart of sunlight
When the orchids flutter
And I’ll look from my verandah.
Do not look at me or mock the night
With its deformed feet.
I walk alongside the stream
A bird’s wings flash in the dusk
Darkness thatches its shadow
On crag and alder.
I walk alone…
Tense my forgotten hands
Will I hear the fairy-tale whisper
Of someone’s love.
But all around are familiar shapes,
Darkness lisps mockingly
That I walk home
Through no fabled landscapes
No stories come.
It is already evening, a soft breeze
Behind the leafless tree in the orchard
(As if these two trees are not kindred)
The willow branches blossom
With a candle’s yellow flame
Lit for spring, its juvenile roar.
Why does it burn?
It is evening with a soft breeze,
Do you see black horses to the east
Dressed as for some antique funeral
Emerging from the dusk?
They will bear you back quietly
As the yellow flame is severed
From the willow branch
To limp after them,
In dishevelled smoke will come
To the locked hollowness and bow
Where the north is blank as stone.
It is already evening with a soft breeze
Sky torn between light and dark.
Let the willow’s yellow flame tremble
On the dark horses robed
For my funeral.
When the stars come
Let them not fall upon my candle
But break into flame
On the willow branch
So it can bloom.
Mykhailo Drai-Khmara (1889-1939)
Mykhailo Drai-Khmara (1889-1939) was a Ukrainian poet, linguist, scholar and academic and one of the many major authors who died during the Soviet state's genocide of Ukraine in the 1930's. He was also a prolific translator, who recast Dante's "Inferno" into Ukrainian along with works by many other major European authors. However his sonnet Swans (1928), which celebrated Ukraine's five leading neoclassical poets, challenged the Soviet state's attempt to destroy Ukrainian culture. This beautiful poem initiated his fight against the authorities and was the beginning of the path that led to his death in a labour camp in Kolyma in 1939. It is believed that he laid down his life to save that of another prisoner.
These lips of stone
The tall rooftops
Gulping the curdled light
Like Tatar Boza
The bee swarm clings to a vast honeycomb
Its massive sleep.
Swollen eyelids blink
Beyond the city’s periphery
Fingers drum the guttering nervously.
Snow veined with dirt
Darkening around tree stumps,
Wounds collapsing inwards
These tears that are not mine
But those of oaks fallen
My face and hands sprinkled with rain.
Why do you weep, blind ones
Let the road
Be covered with this dirty fabric
Let it displace
The pendent ice
The rainbow will come
Spring will chime
In the poorest dwelling,
Sunlight will festoon
Roses, though silently now
People in winter coats
Drift on sleighs through snow.
This translation has not attempted to capture the form of Drai-Khmara’s beautiful neoclassical sonnet but is a semi regular sonnet. It reads fairly naturally in English while gesturing towards the discipline of the original. This approach allowed me, I hope, to capture something of the yearning for freedom of the original verse with its beautifully wrought style. The semi rhyme at the end is aimed in part at retaining the emphasis on the word life which concludes the original while evoking the feeling of a yearned for liberation (which thematically if not in terms of form is present in the original).The Lyra (Lyre) constellation consists of five stars. The five swans represent himself and the five neoclassical poets of his generation (Rylsky, Zerov, Fylypovych and Klen). The five stars they are guided by composing a lyre can be seen as their poetry which will lead them from Ukraine under the totalitarian winter of the thirties. He paid for this achingly beautiful poem with his subsequent arrest. He reportedly died when he asked a camp guard to take his life rather than that of a young student, and spat in the thug’s face. The guard emptied his clip of ammunition into Drai-Khmara who still managed to call him "viper!” as he died.
On the tranquil lake where willows dream
Long tamed by both summer and Autumn
They splashdown, flutter and swim
Their necks bend like heavily laden vines.
When frosts come resonant as glass
And waves whisper immersed in a white trance
These swimmers shatter the frozen space
Fearless, although winter threatens.
Oh cluster of five unconquered singers
Through snow and storm your song victorious
Breaks the apathetic faithless ice.
Be strong; from slavery and nothingness
Be guided by the constellated Lyre
To worlds of light, oceans of foaming life.
An earlier version of this translation was first published in Modern Poetry in Translation Series 3 No.15 - Poetry and the State and Centres of Cataclysm: Celebrating Fifty Years of Modern Poetry in Translation (Bloodaxe Books)
Yevhen Pluzhnyk ( 1898-1936)
Yevhen Pluzhnyk is customarily regarded as a highly introspective poet with a very individual style albeit one who championed the absolute value of human life. However this idealised portrait of a woman is reminiscent of the work of his neoclassical contemporaries. He died in a prison camp on the Solovetsky islands.
She approaches the sea, indifferent now
Herself to who she is.
Is that not all of us, at the same pitch
In swift and vacuous changes
She moves lazily the headscarf falls
At her feet, a crown transparent
On the slender stalks of her legs
Warm heavy full the flower blooms
Her body virginal, calm…
A wave relapses… the shore is silent…
Again sea splash… then soundless…
Her pink toes stem the tide
Infinite shifts of blue recede
And she is embraced by the water
Its vastness surrendered to the wind
Until It seems Aphrodite has returned
In the white foam that bore her.
Bohdan Ihor Antonych (1909-1937)
Bohdan Ihor Antonych lived in the same time frame as members of the Executed Renaissance but in part of Ukraine which was under Polish occupation. He can, however, be considered part of the revival of Ukrainian literature which they embodied and died with eerie synchronicity in 1937. The ecstatic surface of his poetry seems effortless.
We return slowly to the earth, our cradle.
Green tangles of vegetation bind us, two fettered chords.
The razor sharp axe of sun hews at a trunk,
The music of moss, tenderness of the breeze, the oak a proud idol.
In the wastage of days that bear us the body, warm and obedient
Grows with itself, two siblings, two flowers of fidelity.
The moss warms us like cat fur. You transform the stars into a murmur
And blood into music and greenery. The sky glows.
At the edge of day, in the ocean of heaven, the winds of the future sleep
And our devoted constellations wait under the frost,
While earth does not instruct them to arise. We abandon things,
To be borne, to grasp the stars in pure ecstasy.
The yearning of blood hurts. Eyebrows sharp as two arrows,
While above us a wall of melody echoes
The pinions of a breeze. Our fate pinned on the planets.
You burn with growth, thirsty as the earth. Become all music.
This poem first appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation: Issue: Series 3 No.14 - Polyphony. The poem also appears in Kalyna Language Press’s PEN award winning 2016 book “Night Music: Poems by Bohdan Ihor Antonych” (translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj)
Pavlo Tychyna (1891-1967)
Pavlo Tychyna was born on 27th of January 1891, near Chernihiv in West Central Ukraine into the family of a village Deacon. He received a secondary education in exchange for tendering his services to the monastery choir, became an accomplished player of the clarinet and oboe, and displayed an ability to produce striking pencil sketches. It was, perhaps, his meeting with Mykhailo Kotsyubynskyi (1864-1913), which led to him becoming more known as a writer rather than a musician or draftsman. His friendship with Kotsyubynskyi, whose most well-known work is “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1912), gave him a template on which he could model his own developing identity. He studied at the Commercial Institute in Kyiv from 1913-1917 and, following the revolution, occupied various posts as a Soviet functionary and writer.
Three key themes of Tychyna’s work are nature, music and, in a qualified sense, religion. The poems collected in Solar Clarinets (1918) evoke the landscape of central Ukraine and his experience of revolution and civil war, but more frequently explore the writer’s apprehension of an underlying structure within experience and reality that is expressed most perfectly through music. In his best work he is the most remarkable poet of the twentieth century, combining an ecstatic pantheism, a compassionate yet detached observation of humanity, and a mastery of the resources of his language.
The first translation is what Ukrainians might call a perespiv, in this case a poem which is a translation with a creative element. This approach enabled me to capture something of Tychyna’s rapture. The original poem appeared in his first collection Solar Clarinets. The second piece, which is largely true to the original is from his second book The Wind from Ukraine (1924). This book shows Tychyna grappling with the contradictions of revolution and his role as a soviet poet. He was eventually terrorised by the regime and survived by becoming a bard of Stalinism during the nineteen thirties. His best work shows that he was immeasurably more gifted and intelligent than his tormentors.
The flowering meadow and gold drizzle…
In the distance, an aquarelle...
The woods meditate, villages nestle.
Oh, heart drink…
The air has a taste
Distilled from autumn’s kiss
Of wonder and sadness.
I stand alone in these unknown pastures,
A forsaken sacrifice,
And nature listens to my sorrows.
Through smiles and tears
She is the same sweet princess,
Who more than once has crowned
My sorrow in her songs.
I pray. It is so quiet
As if I stood before the Madonna.
Only the bells in the village echo
While from just above the clouds
The last farewells of swallows fade,
Old vestments. Brocade.
Over the road stands the willow
Catching the resonant strings of rain
Bowing with its branches as if saying
Such years, such without end
On the strings of eternity I play
A willow, solitary.
I do not love anything
As much as the demonic gale
That swings, past
Roars, whistles and twists
Last year’s leaves in the wood,
Or drowns the ploughed field in mud
And tries to wrest the cattle wagons free…
How they strain on the rails
How the Poplar bends…
Rabindrath sits in distant Bengal
“There is no insurrection here, the people are clay,”
Around him the wind from Ukraine
Through the rocks of the West, the bars of a prison:
“Is this the advent of an animal, an animal or a human”…
The wind from Ukraine
With his bushy head from the banks of the Dnipro…
“Don’t expect anything good from me, my lords…
Playing your vain and empty game…”
I do not love anything
As much as the gale
His pain and his path
And the earth
We would like to express our thanks to the publishers of the original text, The Institut Literacki in Paris, for permitting us to produce a translation of these poems. We also thank Tetiana Sosnowska for permission to produce translations of her grandfather Pavlo Tychyna’s work. We have combined the texts from the anthology with some work which is out of copyright to provide a balanced representation of these authors.
Please visit www.kalynalanguagepress.com for regular updates on this project.
For more reading on the Executed Renaissance, see:
- Ukraine’s Executed Renaissance and a kickstarter for one of its modern successors
- Ukrainian translations, Russian oppression, and soft power
- Ukrainians in Russia remember Ukraine’s massacred elite
- Holodomor: Stalin’s genocidal famine of 1932-1933 | Infographic
- Dancing with Stalin. The Holodomor genocide famine in Ukraine
- The Holodomor of 1932-33. Why Stalin feared Ukrainians
- A short guide to the linguicide of the Ukrainian language | Infographics
- The Ukrainian Revolution of 1917 and why it matters for historians of the Russian revolution(s)
- “Rebellious pagan” Ukrainian poet Antonych receives English translation