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A Poem That Is a Witness: On Vasyl Makhno’s “Paper Bridge”

By Nicole YurcabaFebruary 4, 2023

A Poem That Is a Witness: On Vasyl Makhno’s “Paper Bridge”

Paper Bridge by Vasyl Makhno

GATHERING PERSONAL POEMS that communicate the present Ukrainian experience, Vasyl Makhno’s Paper Bridge (translated by Olena Jennings and published by Plamen Press in October 2022) presents a witness account to heartbreak, wandering, hopelessness, and endurance. Instead of dwelling on suffering, however, the poems’ speakers transform their excruciating circumstances into light and passion, dreams and romance, and prayerful rhetorical moments that leave readers alone with, and searching within, themselves.

Quietly tapering, “Autumn Poems” oozes a modern transcendentalism. The poem’s natural imagery harkens back to works by American poet Robinson Jeffers, while its fusion of the modern with the mystical is comparable to the work of Ukrainian poet Oleh Lysheha. The poem begins with the quiet observation, “A leaf was caught in a spider’s web.” From this line, the poem unfolds, developing a confessional tone and carefully balancing the natural world with the industrialized one. The spider and its web stand paramount in the speaker’s mind: “From the spider’s spit and its razor thread / We’ll gather rain, a little rain and poems / Those filled with despair, those that are sad and sadder still.”

Place and environment influence many of Makhno’s poems, such as “Berlin.” Like “Autumn Poems,” “Berlin” balances a natural narrative with an industrial one and offers an observation or two about the creative process. It also asks what society and individual readers should demand of poetry, especially during our current times, when war and disaster permeate the headlines: “But how can one live with a poem that is a witness?” For the speaker, poetry is an all-powerful guiding force amid daily chores and interactions. Makhno’s direct, succinct lines and his use of anaphora with the conjunction “And” create an incantatory effect: “And so you rake the leaves with a fox’s claw / And so you throw on a military coat / And write a poem and read it.”

The incantatory rhythm drives the poem to its conclusion:

And if I invaded your Berlin
And if I warmed your cold knees
And if in the morning we didn’t make our flight
You would laugh and say, what a waste!
And is it possible to write a poem
Without a hotel address, confusing cities?

The final question beautifully clinches the poem, while challenging readers to think beyond its initial boundaries.

“Rain in New York” is another of the collection’s highlights. Abounding with romantic statements, the first-person point of view is honest and intimate. The speaker poses a beautiful confession: “I swore to you and to God that I wouldn’t / Get up at three in the morning to write anymore / These twenty poems about you are for you.”

Again, the speaker establishes poetry’s role in daily life as a means of attachment and familiarity, a form of intimacy existing between the speaker and the “you.” As the poem continues, the speaker’s unabashed admiration for the “you” takes center stage, and the placid despair present throughout the collection reemerges in the poem’s final lines: “Why does it prick my heart like a needle? / And why can’t I see your star above our house?”

Of course, one cannot read Makhno’s verses without recognizing their Ukrainian elements. “The Miner,” a narrative poem, references Kryvyi Rih, the largest city in Central Ukraine and the home city of current Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The poem depicts the speaker’s grandfather, who “didn’t like communism, which festered in the province” and “didn’t like the revolution either, he simply mined ore.” The speaker establishes emotional points by recollecting familial histories: “Grandfather also said that he was called to study at the seminary […] [b]ut he was a miner, he went blindly into the mineshaft.” The grandfather’s determination is symbolic, a representation of Kryvyi Rih itself, which, during World War II, was a crucial site of struggle because of the valuable manganese mined in the area. More significantly, the poem’s imagery echoes Lyuba Yakimchuk’s collection Apricots of Donbas, which incorporates the area’s mining legacy into poems about Ukraine’s decade-long war against Russia.

Yakimchuk’s award-winning poetry is not the only the poetry to which Makhno’s poems can be likened. “Christmas Poem,” with its Magi who “would not oversleep, they would not miss the star,” reads like a modern Ukrainian retelling of T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” In a neat twist, the poem alludes to the abandonment of religious faith, as the mysterious “I” leaves “the Magi alone / In a tent during dinner.” The poem’s speaker confesses, “I say, today I am lost,” before observing that “the light of Christmas may envelop us / Holding in its gaze the ox and the Magi / Your death and your soul.”

The punch of these lines lies in their reminder that while Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s coming and his impending offer of salvation, it is also a countdown to his death. Mystery surrounds the speaker’s usage of “Your,” which could reference Christ, the speaker, or the audience.

Haunting and introspective, the poems in Vasyl Makhno’s Paper Bridge offer readers a voice for the times — a voice unique in its style and observations, a voice that burns with desire, longing, and a cyclical questioning. Crying out in the darkness, in the cities, in the wilderness, this voice begs readers to cross the eponymous structure and find their own path among the verses. And perhaps, once readers have found this path, they might be inclined to encourage others to find their own way across whatever bridge they might encounter.


Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба — Nikola Yurtsaba) is a Ukrainian American poet and essayist. Her reviews, poems, and essays have appeared in Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals.

LARB Contributor

Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба — Nikola Yurtsaba) is a Ukrainian American poet and essayist. Her reviews, poems, and essays have appeared in Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole is a poetry instructor at Southern New Hampshire University and a guest book-reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and the Southern Review of Books.


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