Poetry is an instrument that helps people reflect on things happening around. Thus, contemporary Ukrainian poets depict the current situation in Ukraine, talking about love, hate, other feelings, and connections between people. Read some of them, as well as about the writers, in this article.
Kateryna Kalytko wrote 9 poetry books, and now is working on the next one, called “Open Fracture of the Voice.” In 2017 she won Joseph Conrad Literature Prize, and in May 2023, Kateryna won the American Pushcart Prize — she was recognised for her text “Having Lost the Keys” from the American poetry collection “Nobody Knows Us Here and We Don't Know Anyone,” and this is the first time that The Pushcart Prize has been awarded to a Ukrainian writer.
Not long is left until a kiss and the spring
Not long is left until a kiss and the spring.
The anxious rope of love tugged, tickling the throat.
All night the rain falls onto the roof, patterns, like dried peas.
From a distance one has sharper vision, so tell me, how
did you see each other when you looked almost point-blank
and the other could not stand it and lowered her eyes?
The red marks of winter, itchy skin, dry lips,
eyes tearing, voice uncontrollably
reaching a higher pitch. Not a kiss yet, but
in the short-lasting embrace it already feels too tight to breathe — the heart,
this combat Zeppelin, held up by hot air,
breaks through the sling of the body and frees itself.
And I don’t know how far it will flow into the rain, I haven’t had a chance
to name it.
If it finds its way,
then name it.
Translated by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna
This loneliness could have a name…
This loneliness could have a name, an Esther or a Miriam.
Regiments fall to the ground with an infant’s cry.
Words hardly fit between water and salt.
Under the flag at half-mast, hundreds of hoarse voices
laugh, pricked by the splinters of language.
This loneliness is vast, bottomless, and so chilling
that even a stranger turns away. Restless children wander
out of the school, stand by the sea, as if in front of a tribunal.
Dried tree branches crackle in the air like transmitters.
Somebody keeps calling out the name of the city turned into ashes.
This loneliness could be named Sevgil or Selima.
The names of the abandoned are salty and deep.
She comes out, fumbles with the knot
of her black headscarf; her lips are pale.
Who is there, she says, do you read me? Does anyone hear us?
Just a moment ago somebody called out our names.
Do you read me, son, try and listen to me, to me —
they have all left the shore, look for them in the sea.
Translated by Olena Jennings and Oksana Lutsyshyna
Serhiy Zhadan is one of the most translated and recognisable Ukrainian poets abroad. He writes novels, poetry, and he is a leader in the musical band “Zhadan and Sobaky” and radio program “Zhadan is Talking,” in which he communicates with other Ukrainian artists and intellectuals. On March 2022 Polish Academy of Sciences nominated Serhiy Zhadan for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Third Year into the War
They buried him last winter.
Some winter too — not a snowflake, so much rain.
A quick funeral — we all have things to do.
Which side was he fighting for? I ask. What a question, they say,
One of the sides, who could figure them out.
What difference does it make, they say, same difference.
Only he could have answered, they say, now it’s he said-she said.
Could he? His corpse is missing a head.
Third year into the war, bridges are patched.
I know so much about you — now what?
I know, for one, that you liked this song.
I know your sister, I loved her once.
I know your fears and where they came from.
I know who you met that winter and what was said.
Three years of nights patched with ash and star light.
I remember you always played for another school.
And yet, who did you fight for in this war?
To come here, every year, to rip dry grass.
To dig the earth, every year — dead, heavy earth.
To see, every year, this peace, this ill.
To tell yourself, till the end, that you didn’t shoot
into your own. In the waves of rain — birds vanish.
I’d ask to pray for your sins, yet what sins?
I’d ask for the rains to stop — rains full of birds.
Some birds! It’s easy for them. For all they know,
there's neither salvation nor soul.
Translated by Valzhyna Mort
Lyubov Yakymchuk is a Ukrainian poet, playwright, and screenwriter. One of her most famous works — a poetry book “Apricots of Donbas” — focuses on invasion, which Russia started in 2014 in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. At the 2022 Grammy Awards, Lyubov performed her poem "Prayer" in English as part of John Legend's performance of his song "Free."
our Father, who art in heaven
of the full moon
and the hollow sun
shield from death my parents
whose house stands in the line of fire
and who won’t abandon it
like a tomb
our daily bread give to the hungry
and let them stop devouring one another
and forgive us our destroyed cities
even though we do not forgive for them our enemies
shield and protect
my husband, my parents
my child and my Motherland
translated by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochynsky
Halyna Kruk is a Ukrainian writer, translator, educator and literary critic. She has been vice president of the Ukrainian branch of the writer's organization PEN. In 2003, she was awarded the Gaude Polonia Fellowship by the Polish Ministry of Culture.
This year Halyna Kruk delivered a speech at the opening of a poetry festival in Berlin and stressed that it is very difficult for Ukrainian poets to use metaphors in times of war: “Now a fifth of my country is temporarily occupied. I regret that this is not a metaphor. People from the occupied territories are being killed, terrorised, taken to filtration camps in Russia, parents and children are being separated, and denationalised. No poetry has words for this. My Facebook newsfeed is full of photos of incredibly beautiful people — men and women — whose parents, children have been killed by Russia. This is not a metaphor. Facebook blocks or deletes these photos as sensitive information that could upset social media users. These people were not born to die in the war, did not get a higher education or a rare profession to die in the war, did not nurture their talents to die in the war. The loss of these people will always leave a gaping wound in our souls, in our culture, science, economy, industry, and society. This is not a metaphor. I don't know any poetry that can heal this wound.”
A Woman Named Hope
it rained for four straight months
knocking down crops, trampling gardens
they came as new recruits
diligently watering the roadside bushes
as long as they could to slow their march to foreign war
and none of us knew
where the war zone actually was
no one understood the true scope of the losses
when a woman called Hope came to lift our spirits
she had no intention of dying
each person, she told us, carries their own war
and a weapon
they’ll clutch to the end,
and victory is a whore — she doesn’t care where she lies
she belongs to anyone
and we listened to a roll of thunder leave her throat
while she sang to us strange marching drills and lullabies
every drop of her saliva a balm
containing the poison of love
because every woman, she warned, knows this kind of love
that brings her low, shoves a gun barrel in her mouth
and does not kill her. After, the rains pass through her,
troop after troop
washes away the blood.
Translated by Sibelan Forresterand Mary Kalyna with Bohdan Pechenyak
Yurko Izdryk is a Ukrainian writer, poet, visual artist and music composer. He was also an author of the literature magazine called ”Chetver” (”Thursday”). Yurko is also known for his challenging and vivid performances, and recently he played the main role in the Ukrainian movie “Felix and Me.”
evil has melted away in our world, as ice turns to water
diffused invisibly, like mist in air
grope in the deepest, darkest of pits, your search will be futile
you cannot say evil is here, evil is there
for its spores are dispersed in the pores of the earth, even and smooth
you can meet it at any old time, any old place
for evil is not a big lie, but small shards, resembling truth
its metastases glitter like crystals in each one of us
for evil inheres in the reader — not the Vedas, the Bible, or the Koran
evil can’t lead, it lures — and each of us must decide
whether to go into battle, called by the beat of a drum
whether to head for the shimmering, coarse, bloody fraud
evil pleads for compassion, though it knows no compassionate ways
asks for a sacrifice, but won’t give a penny to anyone
for evil delights at the sight of the littlest tear on your face
though it really regards others’ tears as meaningless fun
just as black and white merge in a dance instead of a fray
just as prayer and profanity mingle within a gray din
evil can’t be discerned — like death seeded in you and in me
evil has merged with the world — it’s as if it were gone
while we two are together, I keep faith in light, love, and warmth
and in mercy, which conquers invisible darkness
the shadows will fade, evil will surface — pathetic, a thing of no worth
and we two will laugh, we’ll laugh right in its face
Translated from the Ukrainian by Boris Dralyuk
Oksana Zabuzhko is a Ukrainian writer, feminist literary critic, poet, essayist, publicist, teacher and political activist. Her novel, “Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex,” is the most translated piece of modern Ukrainian prose around the world, with translations available in 15 languages.
Her texts are adapted by numerous theatres in Ukraine, Europe and America. In 1994 Zabuzhko won a Fulbright scholarship and taught Ukrainian literature at Harvard and the University of Pittsburgh.
A Definition of Poetry
I know I will die a difficult death —
Like anyone who loves the precise music of her own body,
Who knows how to force it through the gaps in fear
As through the needle's eye,
Who dances a lifetime with the body — every move
Of shoulders, back, and thighs
Shimmering with mystery, like a Sanskrit word,
Muscles playing under the skin
Like fish in a nocturnal pool.
Thank you, Lord, for giving us bodies.
When I die, tell the roofers
To take down the rafters and ceiling
(They say my great-grandfather, a sorcerer, finally got out this way).
When my body softens with moisture,
The bloated soul, dark and bulging,
Like a blue vein in a boiled egg white,
And the body will ripple with spasms,
Like the blanket a sick man wrestles off
Because it's hot,
And the soul will rise to break through
The press of flesh, curse of gravity —
Above the black well of the room
Will suck on its galactic tube,
Heaven breaking in a blistering starfall,
And draw the soul up, trembling like a sheet of paper —
My young soul —
The color of wet grass —
To freedom — then
"Stop!" it screams, escaping,
On the dazzling borderline
Between two worlds —
My God. At last.
Look, here's where poetry comes from.
Fingers twitching for the ballpoint,
Growing cold, becoming not mine.
Prypiat — Still Life
It could be dawn.
The light, crumpled like sheets.
The ashtray full.
A shadow multiplies on four walls.
The room is empty.
But someone was here.
A moment ago twin tears shimmered
On polished wood
(Did a couple live here?)
In the armchair a suit, recently filled by a body,
Has collapsed into a bolt of fabric.
Come in, look around. No one's here,
Just the breathing air, crushed
As though by a tank.
A half-finished sweater remembers someone's fingers.
A book lies open, marked by a fingernail.
(How amazing, this silence beyond the boundary!)
On the polished wood, two stains.
On the floor by the armchair an apple,
Bitten but not brown.
Yuliya Musakovska is a Ukrainian poet and translator, whose poems have been translated into more than 30 languages, including Swedish, Polish, Lithuanian, German, Spanish, Bulgarian, English and Hebrew.
A Home to Freedom
The man that became my home
wants to become my freedom
but he's failing
He thinks that I'm
overwriting the words of familiar songs,
ravaging the principles of calligraphy,
distorting the words of prayers,
making a mountain out of a molehill,
crushing a fly upon a wheel,
and all that
How will our home have room for
so many great things,
so many phenomena and creatures,
so many implausible characters,
natural disasters and global issues
Our home is not a bottomless pit,
it cannot hold it all
it will explode and disappear off the face of the earth
There is only one solution:
it will learn to grow,
gradually growing and growing
until it fills everything around us
until it becomes freedom itself
Translated by Olena Jennings and the author
Marjana is a Ukrainian poet, children's writer, literary critic, publicist, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Staryi Lev Publishing House, translator. In 2021 she was included in the “Top 100 Successful Women of Ukraine” rating in the Culture and Media category by “New Voice” magazine.
as if on the margins of life
as if you were invisible
as if god’s optics weren’t aiming straight for your heart
cry an ocean of tears
let the records play in your head
someone is deejaying badly
mixing your pain and light
someone is letting the paper boats
of your childhood into your blood vessels
they’re decorated in your handwriting
a whole flotilla of memories
sometimes it gets stuck
in one of your heart valves
and you feel
a subtle pain
phantom pain of things past
I’ve learned so little
but my palms are warm
all I can do is hold them
all I can do is hold them
against your chest
Translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk
Ostap Slyvynsky is a Ukrainian poet, essayist, translator, literary critic, and academic. His poetry, particularly, was translated into sixteen languages. Ostap himself translates books from English, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Polish.
Lovers on a Bicycle
She rides sitting on the frame, like a bird
perched on a branch, puffed-up, mature,
with two clenched
knees that signal sweetly
to the truck drivers passing by.
Him we don’t see clearly, but we hear
his flask clanking against the seat with every
pedal stroke. He’s humming a ditty,
where did he pick it up, which war zone? No one’s heard it here.
She holds a handful of hazelnuts and feeds him
without turning — she passes them back and he
catches them with his mouth, which resembles
a fringed brown patch.
On the way back from the station she’ll be alone,
looking like a paper doll,
dry, straight, two-dimensional,
used to making do with this love, as she
is used to making a meal out of nothing —
a dash of tea, a couple of potatoes.
She will ride through the first bout of rain,
reeling with her feet the over-exposed film — an endless
blank frame, where he runs into the living room
and spins her in his arms.
So it goes, this empty language of love, bargaining with hope,
like a one-legged chair with a stove: let me be
at least until midday. I won’t
live through the night.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Anton Tenser and Tatiana Filimonova
She danced, since evenings were still warm,
and the world was being rolled up like
a carpet after a city festival,
and lights sparkled above red leaves.
She danced, because she wanted to turn back and
she knew you couldn’t resurrect things by imagining them.
She danced, because it’s better to remember with the body:
how she woke up, fell asleep
on the wet deck, waited for
things to be loaded. How she ran
after a floppy-eared dog, not wanting
to leave it to them.
She danced, because there are no more
places, stamps, return
addresses, banks, municipal headquarters, no more
street, water pump, half-painted
fence, soap dishes, brushes.
Everything is in a single moving point,
as a wrist where all the blood
Translated by Anton Tenser and Tatiana Filimonova
We believe these and other verses created by Ukrainians help you to reflect on the current events and live through difficult times. Take care!
With love, WU team