Ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and soon after stirred the conflict in the southeast region of Donbas, the theme of war has figured prominently in Ukrainian prose and poetry. The ongoing war has inspired two poetic anthologies in English translation, Letters from Ukraine: Poetry Anthology (2016) and Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine (2017), as well as, more recently, two volumes in the Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series published by Lost Horse Press: Serhiy Zhadan’s A New Orthography (2020) and Lyuba Yakimchuk’s Apricots of Donbas (2021). Both Zhadan and Yakimchuk come from the conflict-ridden Donbas and, even though they no longer live there, have emerged as the region’s trusted spokespersons. Yakimchuk, born in Pervomaisk of the Luhansk Oblast, now occupied by the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, resides in Kyiv, and Zhadan, born in Starobilsk, also of the Luhansk Oblast, now under Ukrainian control, lives in Kharkiv.
In his book On War and Writing (2018), Samuel Hynes says: “There seems to be two quite different needs that produce war writing: the need to report and the need to remember.” As A New Orthography and Apricots of Donbas demonstrate, there is also the need to understand. Both Zhadan and Yakimchuk report what they have witnessed and remember those who perished. but they also yearn to make sense of what has transpired. That yearning comes through clearly and poignantly in the exquisite translations of Zhadan’s poems by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin, and of Yakimchuk’s by Oksana Maksymchuk, Max Rosochinsky, and Svetlana Lavochkina.
A New Orthography includes poems from Zhadan’s new collection Catalogue of Ships (Spysok korabliv, 2020) but also provides a selection from his two previous volumes, Aerial (Antena, 2018) and Knights Templar (Tampliiery, 2016). All three collections touch on the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, but Catalogue of Ships reveals a new dimension in Zhadan’s work, a concern with ecology. War primarily affects humans but also devastates flora and fauna. In the opening poem, the poet asks for remembrance:
Let’s start by whispering the names,
let’s weave together the vocabulary of death.
To stand and talk about the night.
Stand and listen to the voices
of shepherds in the fog
incanting over every single
And it is the non-human world that witnesses and loudly mourns:
Eastern Ukraine, the end of the second millennium.
The world is brimming with music and fire.
In the darkness flying fish and singing animals give voice.
In the meantime, almost everyone who got married then has died.
In the meantime, the parents of people my age have died.
In the meantime, most heroes have died.
Catalogue of Ships has many heroes; birds and pines are chief among them. Birds defend the airspace: they sing when pines “caught fire on the border”; they sing funeral hymns; they “testify for those in nameless pits.” No wonder the poet wants to protect them: “Each one should be counted, / not a single one forgotten.” Throughout the book he stresses the importance of communing and communicating not just with humans but with all elements of nature:
The most difficult, of course, is
to talk to
the trees —
it’s like you don’t owe them anything
but here you stand in front of the pines,
averting your eyes.
The poet’s job is not to avert their eyes and ears, yes, but it also to find the right words, words that would enable understanding, that would alleviate “the critical lack of love,” as Zhadan puts it. “Poetry,” he writes, “shouldn’t join the general insanity.” In the cycle “A New Orthography,” while the poet admits “the limited possibilities of poetry,” he also insists that “poems should be easily memorized / like your passport number”: “no one / has the right to complicate poetry.” Zhadan wishes to reach as many people as possible, yet Catalogue of Ships does not end on that note. The cycle is followed by three untitled poems, which revert again to the mode of witnessing, with the need to report taking precedence. The war goes on and the reporting must go on: a bridge that has disappeared, earth scorched by bombs, “the black branch of a river” over which migratory birds fear to fly. One needs to scream about it. And Zhadan does, yet he still hopes to “reach our borders.”
In their introduction to Apricots of Donbas, the translators Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky explain that, after Yakimchuk’s family was forced to flee Pervomaisk in 2014, she became a “spokesperson for the plight of the civilian population in the region.” The firsthand experience of war and displacement drove Yakimchuk to record what she or her loved ones witnessed. For example, in the poem “caterpillar,” she paints a painful scene of rape with chilling objectivity, and in the poem “skyscrapers” she underscores the fact that not only people suffer but their homes we well:
stitch the wounds on your building
with white bandages cover up
black burns on its pelt
with a hand — just don’t twitch —
shield the gaping mouths of windows
so marauders won’t get in
Yakimchuk also relates stories of whole families perishing in war, their demise covered up by ridiculous excuses, as in “of old age”:
an old man and an old woman
died on the same day
on the same hour
on the same minute —
people said they’d died of old age
their children came to bury the old man and the old woman
Olya was pregnant
Serhiy was drunk
Sonya was only three
and they died, too
and people said they had died of old age.
Yakimchuk’s voice is strongest when it grows personal, but for her, that personal always includes others. In the poem “prayer” she literally prays for her family to stay alive, at the same time proclaiming: “I carry within me a Motherland / and cannot puke it out / for it circulates like blood / through my heart.” “Our daily bread give to the hungry,” she prays, “and let them stop devouring one another.”
Apricots of Donbas isn’t just about war, however, it’s also about the poet’s origin and identification with the region of Donbas. She is the daughter of a coalminer, and the industrial landscape — with all the factories and mines — is also her own landscape. She resurrects the region’s history by invoking “the Cumans carved statues amid the steppes” and sings its peculiar beauty, typified by bountiful apricots growing amid coal mines: “apricot trees stretched their hands to the sky / apricots put on hard hats, yellow-hot / and now when you eat apricots / you find coals inside.” When war begins, her voice takes on heartbreaking urgency: “run / drop all you have and run — / leave your house, your cellar with jars of apricot jam.” Yakimchuk identifies with all the displaced people of Donbas in the poem “the return”:
we want back home, where we got our first grays
where the sky pours into window in blue rays
where we planted a tree and raised a son
where we built a home that grew moldy without us
Yet the “the road back home blossoms with mines.”
Samuel Hynes writes that “war turns the natural world into evil, indescribable spaces, and everything in it into broken, useless, unidentifiable rubbish — including human beings.” Yakimchuk captures this brokenness in “decomposition,” in which familiar names of places or people are broken into separate syllables mirroring the destruction caused by war:
don’t talk to me about Luhansk
it’s long since turned into hansk
Lu had been razed to the ground
to the crimson pavement
Her hometown Pervomaisk “has been split into pervo and maisk” and the poet herself seemingly loses her identity: “I have gotten so very old / no longer Lyuba / just a ba.” Indeed, the entire section of Apricots in Donbas dealing with war is titled “Decomposition.”
While the need to report predominates in Yakimchuk’s poetry, her cycle titled “Yum and War,” written in 2008, before the Maidan revolution, proves prescient. It introduces the childlike character Yum, through whom Yakimchuk explores her premonitions about the potential of conflict in Donbas. The names of individual poems in the cycle are telling: “making up the enemy,” or “hiding together.” Yakimchuk asks questions like “how does a war start?” but does not necessarily provide answers. Yum’s aggressive behavior toward dolls and toy soldiers (breaking arms and legs) comes as a warning of sorts. When asked by a reporter during an interview how this cycle came about, the poet could not really explain it — just intuition.
Both Zhadan and Yakimchuk have been personally affected by war, and both have felt the need to report its everyday horrors, to memorialize those who have perished, and to understand what they have witnessed. As the war that began in 2014 reaches a dangerous turning point, Zhadan’s A New Orthography and Yakimchuk’s Apricots of Donbas remind us of the toll this long conflict has taken on living beings and on the land that sustained them.
Maria G. Rewakowicz is a poet, translator, and literary scholar. She holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Toronto and has taught Ukrainian literature at a number of universities. Her book Ukraine’s Quest for Identity: Embracing Cultural Hybridity in Literary Imagination, 1991-2011 (2018) is the 2019 winner of the Omeljan Pritsak Book Prize in Ukrainian Studies. Her most recent publication is a translated volume of Mykola Vorobiov’s selected poetry, Mountain and Flower (2020).