Poems for an Uncertain World: On Serhiy Zhadan’s “What We Live For, What We Die For”

By Amelia GlaserMay 11, 2019

Poems for an Uncertain World: On Serhiy Zhadan’s “What We Live For, What We Die For”

What We Live For, What We Die For by Serhiy Zhadan

AS I SAT in a coffee shop in one of San Diego’s posher strip malls, scribbling in the margins of my advance copy of What We Live For, What We Die For, an undergraduate sitting near me asked if I was reading poetry. His friend wanted names of poets she should read in English. The thought that I should recommend a poet from eastern Ukraine, whose idiom blends a Soviet past with a Ukrainian present, would have been almost laughable a few years ago. Now I heartily recommended this collection of Serhiy Zhadan’s poems, just out in Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps’s thoughtful English translation. Zhadan lives in Kharkiv, not far from his native Luhansk, where he writes poetry and novels and heads a foundation to aid civilians in the Donbas region. His is one of the most important voices in eastern Ukraine, which has been embroiled in war since 2014. And his poems have, over the last few years, also come to feel uncannily relevant to an American readership.

Poetry sales in the United States are up, according to a recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts. As Maria Puente found in an article for USA Today, this is largely thanks to young poets who are articulating their experiences at poetry readings and online. Indeed, poets have flourished on social media across the world. “Facebook poets” emerged in full force during the Arab Spring, and a similar phenomenon took place in Ukraine during the 2013–’14 Euromaidan protests. Zhadan, who titled his 2015 book Why I’m Not on Social Media, is not a Facebook- or insta-poet, but his work has become important to a generation experiencing, simultaneously, war and global interconnectedness. At a precarious time in international politics, poetry has become a vehicle for understanding, and communicating, the complexity of current events. Translators, no less than these poets themselves, facilitate this vital act of communication.

Tkacz, a translator and theater director, and Phipps, an American poet, have been collaboratively translating Zhadan — the unofficial poet laureate of eastern Ukraine — for well over a decade, rendering his hard-hitting poetic images in eloquent, spare English lines. Their early translations appeared in journals and anthologies. With this book, they have made poems from all of Zhadan’s major collections more widely available, beginning with selections from his 2015 Why I’m Not on Social Media and ending, in a slightly disconcerting reverse-historical direction, with Ballads About War and Reconstruction, which appeared in 2001 when the poet was 27. What We Live For concludes with a poem from that first volume, “The End of Ukrainian Syllabotonic Verse,” which recounts the long history of the country’s tragedies:

[T]hey once lived in this building
see the fading red paint blistering on the window frames
it’s from those times when someone decided to put
them all into one building […]

Zhadan’s poems and novels are traces of his generation: the last generation to grow up in Soviet Ukraine, and the first to come of age in post-Soviet Ukraine. Since he began publishing in 1995, he has been mining the crude amalgam of Pepsi, American jazz, post-Soviet business ventures, a mafia underworld, the dark side of capitalism, and the weight of the past — as in “Maradona” from 2007:

Penicillin and Kalashinikovs — two symbols of struggle,
the Castro of Donbas leads the partisans
through the fog-covered mushroom plantations
to the Azov Sea.

But with the beginning of the war in Donbas in 2014, the present grew grimmer, and Zhadan’s verse grew more urgent. He has remained in close contact with many who still live in the region, and has written a series of poems in versions of their voices. “Headphones,” from 2015, describes a “quiet drunk” who has stopped watching the news. Instead,

He walks around the city with headphones on,
listening to golden oldies,
as he stumbles into burned-out cars,
blown-up bodies.

In addition to writing, Zhadan fronts a rock band, The Space Dogs (Sobaki v Kosmose), which has recently been renamed Zhadan and the Dogs (Zhadan i Sobaki), reflecting the poet’s new status as a household name. Phipps and Tkacz did not include his songs in this volume, but the fact that Zhadan is a public figure, immersed in the contemporary culture he writes about, is very much a part of his poetic persona. Rejecting the ivory tower, the 44-year-old Zhadan — whose boyish face is framed by a punky crew cut — articulates the voices of the crowd.

Much has been written about Zhadan’s street-level activism, about his involvement in the Kharkiv protests during the 2014 Euromaidan standoff. The poet made international news when he was badly beaten by a pro-Kremlin “Titushka,” or rabble-rouser, that spring. But what is striking about Zhadan — who read his work at my home institution, UCSD, two years ago — is his ability to connect with individuals on a personal level. He is direct, engaging, and remarkably patient. As a small group of us shared dinner after the event, a woman at the next table overheard our Russian-language conversation and, when we introduced Zhadan as a Ukrainian poet, asked whether he was a nationalist. Zhadan, who had recently been listed by the Russian government as a nationalist terrorist and arrested for attempting to attend a poetry festival in Belarus, shook his head, then added, “But I believe in a people’s right to decide its future.” He agreed to send the woman some of his writing electronically. I was stunned by his empathy and generosity. But Zhadan, a native speaker of both Ukrainian and Russian who has always written in Ukrainian, has a long relationship with Russian readers, and one that has not always been confrontational. In Russia, his books have been shortlisted for the Andrei Belyi Prize, the “National Bestseller” award, and the “Book of the Year”; he was nominated in 2010 for Russian GQ’s “Man of the Year” for literature, and his work remains important to the Russian literary counterculture.

With this volume, Tkacz and Phipps will whet Anglophone readers’ appetites for Zhadan’s poetic engagement with a dangerous, polarized, uncertain world, a world where “[t]here will be blood on women’s heels,” as he predicts in his 2015 poem “Take Only What Is Most Important.” He is, increasingly, writing for a world that echoes

the quiet of a cemetery, the noise of a command post,
and unedited lists of the dead,

so long that there won’t be enough time
to check them for your own name.

The translators have captured the power of Zhadan’s short, clear lines, of his subtle internal rhymes, alliteration, and meter. But it is not only the translation that makes Zhadan’s poems accessible to the American reader today. As the spoken-word poet Bob Holman writes in his foreword to the volume,

Zhadan’s poems, which so extraordinarily depict the lives of working-class Ukrainians […] now seem like a game plan for a U.S. citizenry struggling to come to grips with their own demagogic forces hellbent on challenging the foundations of their country — freedom of speech, freedom of the press, protection of the poor and newly arrived, etc.

What makes Zhadan unique in Eastern Europe is his ability to empathize across ideological lines without compromising his ideals. The United States needs a Zhadan as much as Ukraine does.


Amelia Glaser is associate professor of Russian and comparative literature at University of California, San Diego.

LARB Contributor

Amelia Glaser is associate professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at University of California, San Diego.


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