“Bleed — My Heart — Bleed”: Ukrainian Poems of War by Boris Khersonsky, Iya Kiva, and Vasyl Makhno
For most of his career Khersonsky has written in Russian, but in recent years he has, like other Russian-language Ukrainian writers, shifted to publishing in Ukrainian. Nevertheless, he published “Missa in tempore belli” in an eponymous collection with a revered Russian independent literary press based in St. Petersburg, Ivan Limbakh. On their LiveJournal feed in June 2014, he wrote, “This little book contains poems written over the last few months against the background of tragic events in my country — written with a level of emotional stress I haven’t experienced in a long time. The paradox is that the book is being published in Russia. Even for me this serves just as additional proof that poetry has its own territory, and this territory is language. The Russian language will continue to exist on both sides of the border, and literature will be the bridge that unites us even in tempore belli.”
“Missa in tempore belli” probes the territory of language in unexpected ways. In this instance Khersonsky connects Russian not with Ukrainian but with another imperial language, Latin. In recent years he has worked increasingly with the ancient, Slavonic language of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. Here he draws the Latin mass into conversation with Russian church and colloquial language alike. In part through its end rhyme, the poem swings from moments of strange coalescence to moments of bathos and disjuncture. It poses questions it doesn’t answer: How do we pray collectively on days of such human ugliness? How do we make East and West speak together? How do we survive the legacies of empires? Khersonsky’s poem presents spiritual solace alongside raging grief.
Missa in tempore belli
Lord, have mercy on us,
if You are for us, who can be against us?
Christ, have mercy on us,
especially if our hours are numbered.
Lord, have mercy on us,
especially in days of war
Gloria in excelsis Deo
et in terra pax
hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Glory to God in the highest — wondrous are Your works!
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth — more war.
Glory to God in the highest — be not troubled, soldier, nightingales!
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth — bodies flail,
arms flung wide. People’s will is evil.
Thus it has been and always will.
We praise you, soldier, slender of neck, sharp of throat.
We bless you, soldier, who on bayonet raise up the foe,
We lift on high your long dying groan.
God is cruel at times, but still better than earthly thrones.
We bless you, mister General,
we glorify you, mister President,
you who have robbed us blind,
did the Lord trample down death with death for your kind?
“Yes, sir!” says the General, hand to visor.
He’s taken an oath to submit to his own dear tsar.
But his own dear tsar has flown up on a branch and cries, “Cocka-doodle-doo!”
He has a comb of gold, and a log in each eye, too.
Be glorified in the highest, God, behold not what’s going on down here.
The bullet’s a fool, the bayonet a good boy, one hit — and no more boy to fear.
With the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father.
Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris.
I believe that God is God alone,
He is Lord of his own.
He is the peace created by Him,
He is the light by whom the world is illumined,
And when battle flags fly, He is their Wind.
Out of black concrete holes the rockets fly.
The unseen world attacks the world in sight.
I believe that in Christ this God was made flesh,
and was crucified on the cross in sculpture and on canvas,
outside of time and yet within time, outside of space and yet on a hill,
between two thieves, a kind of earth-to-earth.
But if life is a sea, Christ stands at the helm
and steers the ship of the universe.
A ship with hundreds of thousands of cannons on board.
I doubt it can dock in the heavenly port.
Christ said, “I bring not peace, but the sword,
and with it, the chance to lie dead in the earth,
but when the reveille plays on the archangel’s trump,
the graves will open right up.
And the skeletons will arise and before our eyes
they’ll grow muscle and then a cover of skin,
and they’ll tread the battlefield in delirium
always, forever and ever, for weather of weathers,
for trenches of trenches, for tranches of tranches,
where once they lay side by side, feeding the lice.
And the lice grew as big as typhoidal cows on the kolhoz,
and the tanks rumbled as good as armored tractors down the rows.”
Holy, holy, holy, the Lord, God of might!
In other words — God of the heavenly hosts, or of the heavenly lights!
You went out with us to war, you seized the foe by the throat!
You filled earth and heaven with Your glory like a jug with wine.
You let the earth turn upside down.
Hosannah in the highest! We’ll see you around in the next world.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord in a glorious
and frightening time, a time of troubles, a time of war,
blessed are those who walk row by row, each one shall be a hero,
salvos three and into the ground they go.
And once again — Hosannah in the highest! Hosannah on high!
The further into battle, the fewer heroes left behind.
Lamb of God, who has freed all people from deadly snares,
Lamb of God, who has borne the immeasurable weight of our sins,
Lamb of God, who has counted and pardoned every fall,
Lamb of God, have mercy on us all.
Lamb of God, Son of the Father, Light from true Light,
Lamb of God, Savior of constellations, planets and stars in the sky,
Lamb of God, who crown your iconostasis,
Lamb of God, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, little lamb lain on the altar,
a time of war has come. Cinders rise from the earth.
Grant us peace, we are sated with eternal fire.
They say, “We’re starting a war again.”
Dona nobis pacem. Amen.
Translated from the Russian by Martha M. F. Kelly
Ukraine’s Iya Kiva (b. 1984) is no stranger to war. In 2014, the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine saw a Russian-backed incumbent ousted from Ukraine’s presidency; soon after, Russia forcibly annexed Crimea. Kiva’s hometown of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine also became a battlefield. A number of Kiva’s friends and acquaintances perished, while Kiva was personally threatened for speaking out about the war and forced to flee her home.
Not surprisingly for a poet who has spent most of the last eight years as a war refugee, themes of memory, violence, trauma, and borders/transitions run through Kiva’s poems. According to Kiva — who started out as a formal poet — she began to write “completely differently” after 2014, frequently employing techniques of free verse, collage, and montage and eschewing most punctuation. With its tonal complexity, its interplay of the everyday and the quasi-religious, “The Year of Ukraine” demonstrates much of what makes Kiva’s recent work so compelling. While some of her other work explores states of alienation and separation — including the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own country — in “The Year of Ukraine,” Kiva explicitly seeks to contextualize war as broader than one person’s experience.
The Year of Ukraine
see here we got what we wanted
now Serhiy Nigoyan’s graffiti on the wall
in the square across the way kids play at war
in Donbas the adults are also at play
a square looms on Google Maps another square
it’s a house it’s a boy with a rifle in his hands
if they tell him to shoot he surely will shoot
eff your mother our common motherland
at the store folks load whole sacks with macaroni
and afterwards bury the boxes somewhere
what’s that what crawls down that distant slope
it’s your coffin carried by security troops
we were here you’ll say no we haven’t been here
someone else was killed by sniper fire here
and snow nailed those who came after to earth
the lord’s summer has gone it wasn’t enough
Translated from the Russian by Katherine E. Young
By the time I met Ukrainian poet Vasyl Makhno (b. 1964) he had already made his home in New York City. A New Yorker, he remains intimately connected to Ukraine and was deeply affected by the events taking place today. He is instrumental in bringing Ukrainian literature to New York, organizing readings and talking to me about what it means to be a Ukrainian writer, someone tasked with keeping the Ukrainian language and culture alive.
“It seemed to me that I had written my final poem about the war. I wrote a few about Maidan and the events in Donbas and Luhansk. Poetry, of course, should react, and so I reacted. But on February 24 I experienced real shock and pain from the tragic news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I couldn’t call it anything other than ‘War.’ In the poem there are two allusions: to Pavlo Tychyna, a major Ukrainian poet who in 1919 wrote a poem that spoke of “torn apart Kyiv” and about the Russian poets Andrey Bely, Alexander Blok, and Sergey Yesenin, and the other to the 12th-century epic poem The Tale of Ihor’s Campaign, which is a common memory of Eastern Slavic literature, though it is about the campaign of the Novhorod-Siverskyi prince Ihor. Sadly, my poetry had to be dressed in army camouflage and had to look through black columns of smoke, in order to speak the language of truth about the difficult fate of my homeland.”
Lord, the way Tychyna writes:
“And Bely, and Blok, and Yesenin”
the way they surrounded us
on all four sides
give us strength and power
a hastily packed suitcase and bread
naturally their sly foxes lie
that we have neither shields nor centuries
Ihor leads us somewhere
over the Don with his regiments
today with the February snow
and tomorrow with a bloody shield
and their dark forces come from Tmutarakan
and Mokshas and Chud
shoot at our location
hit at the positions we take
so what is there in The Tale of Ihor’s Campaign
and what is there in ancient sounds
you — jumping barefoot as a wolf
spreading the spit of the devil
reached the rivers and borders
reached my clenched heart
your blackened icons
can’t even be cleansed with milk
Lord, the way Tychyna writes
about Kyiv — the Messiah — about the country
why didn’t we learn these poems by heart?
Bleed — my heart — bleed
Translated from the Ukrainian by Olena Jennings
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