The Frontier: 28 Contemporary Ukrainian Poets; ed Anatoly Kudryavitsky, Glagoslav Publications, 414 pp. €31.85, ISBN: 978-1911414483
Despite the efforts of a few enthusiastic translators, Ukrainian poetry remains largely unknown to the English-speaking reading public. The Frontier, a bilingual anthology of contemporary Ukrainian poetry published just before Christmas last year in London, strives to fill this gap. The book’s contributors come from different backgrounds and from different parts of Ukraine, a country that stretches for over 1,300 km between its eastern and western borders. They are mostly thirty-something-year-old poets who are prone to experiment with the language and the available poetics; they often cross the linguistic boundaries into an uncharted territory.
The editor, who also introduced all the twenty-eight included poets, is Anatoly Kudryavitsky, himself a poet and novelist of mixed Irish/Ukrainian descent and a long-term resident of Dublin. He has cherry-picked and translated poems from the Ukrainian with care, sense and, undeniably, a virtuous taste.
With its pre-Christmas publication date, this anthology bears a striking similarity to an Advent calendar. Each section opens a tiny door into the inner world of a poet represented by five to six poems. To the Ukrainian reader, not particularly familiar with the western concept of Advent ‑ probably due to celebrating Christmas a week into January ‑ the book might resemble identical-looking Soviet-era apartment blocks, with multiple kitchen windows open at the same time and different voices coming from inside. Put together, the contents of the book appear ‑ and appeal ‑ to the reader as a melting pot of voices and cultures. This kaleidoscopic presentation provides plenty of visually rich images for the readers to enjoy and share, each expressing a certain mood and having a story to tell. And they are told beautifully, some of them being beautifully disturbing.
The poets presented in The Frontier like to reflect upon the reality of their country’s everyday life. Many of them are city-dwellers living in towering apartment blocks that compete in height with poplars. Having donned thick woollen sweaters, they contemplate the chilling stillness of their land lying under the coat of snow. Ukrainian winters are never snowless, and snow, according to Anna Bagriana, is “whiter than death”. These poets travel in shaky railway carriages along the rail network that brings closer the remote regions adjacent to their far-stretching country’s borders; they sometimes notice, as Les Beley did, that “in these parts, wheels are never perfectly round”.
Multiculturalism is a relatively new phenomenon in Ukraine. The poets who come from multi-ethnic families are proud of their backgrounds. One of them, Katrina Haddad, looks beyond the country’s boundaries, and sees there the shadows of her ancestors and even of her descendants:
my Eastern parents
my Western friends
my Northern grandparents
and my Southern children
Some of the contributing poets have emigrated from their country, although they keep writing in Ukrainian. The biographical notes tell stories of having settled in the Czech Republic, Germany, Canada, Bulgaria, and Israel. They confess their guilty pleasures of having got accustomed to living in comfort, of the enjoyment their new well-heated apartments and better-quality food provide; they are getting used to strange-sounding foreign place names. Circumstances in the country they left were often pressing: economic hardships, the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and a few recent uprisings didn’t make life in Ukraine any easier, not to mention the most recent outbreak of hostilities. Still, nostalgia for their homeland, for their parental houses and their front doors often reveals itself in their works.
Many Ukrainian authors have backgrounds in the media. Having realised that the horrors of the undeclared war in Ukraine have somehow disappeared from the European TV channels and newspaper columns, they hasten to bring this blood-soaked theme back to the frontline, this time in a poetry format. Lyuba Yakimchuk, a poet and a journalist who originates from the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine has a hard-hitting poem about the travesty of Russian “humanitarian aid” being, in fact, arms shipments to the invading mercenaries. This piece has been widely anthologised. The young poet from Lviv Halyna Hevkiv warns about the militarisation of everyday life in Eastern Ukraine:
you’re waiting for your time to come,
you’re making love to your guns …
And this militarisation, as another Lviv poet, Halyna Kruk, duly notes in “Bomb Shelter”, has its roots in the Soviet past. The poet from Kharkiv Serhiy Zhadan writes about the futility of war. The underlying theme of many a poem is that Ukraine is tired of hostilities and wants to be left alone. The young poet Olesya Mamchych sums it up in the following lines:
The war didn’t turn out good ‑ thought the men
of another year ‑
let’s plant here, instead of the war,
There is a particularly strong link between the Ukrainian language and a sense of belonging to this national group, a sense of national identity. This is what the Ukrainians have been forced to defend not only in the current war but also long before it started. One of the poets of the older generation, Nobel Prize nominee Vasyl Holoborodko, whose works have been translated into the main European languages, writes about that in the following terms:
in our language
is recorded in the Living Chronicle
so that our enemies know
which words we use
when we are on our own and silent
And the language these poets use is rich with metaphors and symbols: “The night climbs out of the sea foam like a turtle” (Anna Chromova); “apricot petals by the roadside” (Katrina Haddad); “twilight is melliferous” (Halyna Hevkiv), and “old women … rub themselves against the rainbow’s feet” (Tetyana Bondar). No wonder that many of the contributors have won national and international poetry awards. Eternal themes prevail in this collection: poets write about earthy men and women, about faith and superstitions, reveal the meaning of dreams, as well as desires of their hearts. Talking about hearts, Les Beley wrote the following lines:
you ask whether I have a big heart
but the largest ones|
are empty inside
like bell peppers
In the original Ukrainian, most of the included poems are written in vers libre, and only a few of them are rhymed. One of them is my personal favourite, “Scythian Maiden” by Anna Bagriana; it has end rhymes in Ukrainian, but the English version is rhyme-free. The Ukrainian language is melodic in the way that Italian is melodic. However, over the last half-century many Ukrainian poets, like the majority of the English-language ones, have fallen out of habit of writing rhymed poetry, which is now deemed old-fashioned. Translators of poetry into English often follow the same trend, stripping the resulting texts of rhymes, or using sporadic rhyming throughout the poem instead of end rhymes. It is only a tiny minority of the included poems where the translator of the reviewed book employs this principle, and I’d rather these translations were rhymed in the same way as the originals.
The Frontier should be a welcome addition to anybody’s poetry collection. It is an informative anthology introducing the new generation of Ukrainian poets to the English-speaking audience. As such, it can serve as a good companion to contemporary Ukrainian literature for the readers who are prepared to open their minds for poetry from the eastern borders of Europe.
Victoria Melkovska is a Ukrainian writer and a student of creative writing studying at the Irish Writers’ Centre under the poet Mark Granier.