Dispatches From Lviv, A Conversation With Halyna Kruk, Dzvinia Orlowsky, Ali Kinsella, and Chard deNiord

Dispatches From Lviv, A Conversation With Halyna Kruk, Dzvinia Orlowsky, Ali Kinsella, and Chard deNiord
January 26, 2024 deNiord Chard

Dispatches From Lviv, A Conversation With Halyna Kruk, Dzvinia Orlowsky, Ali Kinsella, and Chard deNiord

 

After reading Dzvinia Orlowsky’s and Ali Kinsella’s translations of Halyna Kruk’s new manuscript of poems titled Lost in Living, I wasn’t sure at first just how to broach the profoundly grievous but also transcendent subject matter of Kruk’s poems. I was curious about how a poet in the midst of devastating war could write about both her country’s and her own personal losses with what William Butler Yeats called “a cold eye.” Kruk’s poetry rises memorably to the occasion of its subject matter with language that conveys a unique combination of empathy and original tropes that indict her country’s enemy accurately as simply dehumanized. A spiritual economy infuses her poetry as a poetic blessing that witnesses memorably to the devastation of her deceased and wounded countrymen and women: “the dead, you could say, live through us,” she writes, “feel through us, play out their games,/prove their theories through us,/convey what was not read and not understood/during life.” Such prophetic vision resounds with mystical intimations and forthtelling, testifying to the power of a single vatic voice over a throng of warmongering invaders. It’s impossible for those far removed from the Russo-Ukrainian War, as we are in America, to imagine both the emotional and physical trauma Ukrainians experience daily. I wondered after reading Lost in Living what Kruk’s last word for her enemy might be, since she addresses them ironically as her “dog” that possesses the power to kill her physically, but not spiritually or on the page where her poetry and witness live on as memorable speech in her country and beyond:

 

come here, my dog, I have so much for you 
tell me how it’s going—living when
all your people have died

wag your tail at me, nuzzle me, take me by the hand
go for my throat

 

deNiord:

Dzvinia and Ali, your upcoming collaborative book, Lost in Living, featuring translations of Halyna Kruk’s poetry, and for which you’ve just been granted a 2024 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, is set for release in spring 2024 through Lost Horse Press. Following your recognition as finalists for the Griffin International Poetry Prize in 2022 for translating Natalka Bilotserkivets’s Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow, we’d love to hear the story of how you discovered Kruk’s poetry and what inspired you to translate her work.

 

Kinsella:

As someone who reads extensively about Ukrainian literature—which, unfortunately, is not the same as simply reading extensively—I’ve known about Kruk’s work for a long time. It would be hard to miss her in even a superficial survey of contemporary Ukrainian poetry. But to be specific, it was my friend Ostap Kin, himself a translator, who first put Halyna on my radar years ago.

Later, in 2022 after Eccentric Days had already come out, I contacted Halyna and asked her if she had any poems on the topic of motherhood to submit to a special issue of Mom Egg Review called Ukrainian Voices. Dzvinia and I translated a handful of her poems for that and then it sort of seemed obvious that she would be our next project.

 

Orlowsky:

I had translated individual poems by Bilotserkivets for a ground-breaking anthology From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine (Zephyr Press and Glas, 1996), but my first co-translation of a full volume of her poetry was Eccentric Days with Ali. Ali also introduced me to Halyna’s work with an eventual collaboration in mind for which I am immensely grateful.

Translating Halyna’s work provides a distinct departure from translating Bilotserkivets. While both possess philosophical and visionary elements, Bilotserkivets’s poems captivate with unique imagery and musicality, whereas Halyna’s tonal variations, anecdotes, and poignant ironies create an intimate storytelling atmosphere—as if the speaker sits beside you, sharing her thoughts. Without oversimplifying, one seems to create mystery, while the other endeavors to unravel it. Each offers distinctive cadences and textures in Ukrainian as well as in English translation. I found these differences intriguing and inspiring.

 

deNiord:

What is your collaborative method exactly? Do you need to work in each other’s presence when you’re translating, or does corresponding via email work just as well for you?

 

Kinsella:

If only we could work in each other’s presence! Though, honestly, I don’t know if that would be any more fruitful, since we seem to work at different paces. The majority of the work on our previous collaboration took place during the intense quarantining of 2020, when everything was being done online. We mostly go back and forth over email, but we also like to work on the phone, which might sound antiquated today. We’ve only had the pleasure of meeting once, last March at Columbia University.

 

Orlowsky:

Ali converts a rough draft of each poem into English, while I transform and fine-tune that draft into poetry. At first, Ali leaned on me for poetry as up to that point she’d mainly translated prose. I relied on her for the first translated drafts due to my mixed Ukrainian-Polish language background. Over time, Ali gained knowledge of poetic craft techniques, and I gained a better understanding of contemporary Ukrainian.

Our partnership thrives on trust—we allow creative freedom while ensuring meticulous translations through detailed discussions. We consult Halyna for challenging parts despite war and internet disruptions.

 

Kinsella:

Yes, and we have to trust the author, too, and try not to clarify her intentions for our readers. We go back and forth until we are both satisfied that what we have will place readers on familiar ground, yet still present them with a challenge to their cultural framework. To that end, emotional tenor takes precedence over literal meaning.

 

Orlowsky: 

Having collaborated on our previous project, we’ve honed our strengths. This second project flowed more smoothly with greater flexibility regarding deadlines we set for ourselves. Kruk’s lack of end punctuation and preference for lowercase letters were at first difficult to work around. But as we went deeper into the layers of her poetry, these features revealed themselves to be more than a statement about living beyond the rules.

This question readers ask often, and I wonder if anyone follows a radically different approach—like guessing the poem’s essence before confirming with an original language co-translator. I heard about an anthology (can’t recall the source) where poets shape poems into English without knowledge or input from native speakers—a fascinating concept of sound decoding and interpretation. While I’ve always had the benefit of Ali’s literal translations to work from, attendees at poetry in translation readings might experience something close to sound decoding. Traditionally, the English version was read first for context. Nowadays, it’s more common to start with the source language text, honoring the native author and enabling appreciation of what Robert Frost termed “abstract vitalities”—language’s tonal qualities and textures as they inform sense.

 

deNiord:

Halyna, so many of your images evoke heart-breaking emblems, scenes, details, and loss in the war-torn landscape outside your window. The “clothespins of sparrows/on the line—”, “diminished things” as Robert Frost would say, resound so ironically as large beatific creatures in what you call “the complex nosedive of holy simplicity.” Do you think of your poetry as a human weapon against the material weaponry of this war and what hope does it instill in you, if any?

 

Kruk:

Unfortunately, in a real war, poetry is not arms, only emotional testimony, a way of documenting and reflecting the tragic circumstances and devastating consequences of war. It is beyond the power of poetry to stop the war or create an alternative reality in which there is no war. Living under war forces people to constantly be in survival mode, to analyze and react to real threats. War takes away the ability of being somewhere other than here and now; it demands you pay attention to signs and details so you can react quickly and appropriately—freeze in place, run, or strike back. Poetry is an integral part of the world of peace, so during war it returns to its very primal functions: witnessing, preserving the memory of events and the dead, consoling or giving hope. In ancient times, this was the lyric-epic: both the Iliad and the Odyssey, the French chansons de geste, the Icelandic or Irish sagas. This is a very archaic view of poetry for us modern people who are used to poetry demanding nothing of anyone, being non-mimetic and non-functional, the thing-in-itself, its own subject and object. I’m struck by what’s happening to poetry during war. It’s growing like connective tissue at the site of a wound, like a scar that appears to protect the body from destructive external influences and penetrations, like the epicormic growth of a damaged tree. But you have to remember that all this growth is unnatural; it occurs as the result of an abnormal, critical condition. If this war goes on for a long time, there will ultimately be no room left for poetry or for the belief that it can heal and save. The poem you quoted in your question is from the relatively peaceful ones that I wrote before the full-scale invasion. It is about the illusory nature of peace and calm.

 

deNiord:

What paradoxical but essential function do you feel such “immense particulars”—Czesław Miłosz’s term for the vital ingredients of poetry—as sparrows on the clothesline play in writing about the vast subject of war?

 

Kruk:

As an existentially traumatic and liminal experience, war requires the writer to be selective with her material, since in places it is so heavy and painful that to make full use of it could emotionally “kill” or crush its recipient, traumatize or re-traumatize. But the artistic selection or transformation of difficult experience allows authors to choose the expressive details that create the space for poetic attention. Then readers themselves can administer their own dose of immersion, controlling the intensity of the impact based on their individual sensitivity. The skill and talent of each person writing about difficult events lies precisely in inventing (or discovering) these “immense particulars” that allow the reader to enter the depths of a particular state or situation. Traditional metaphors and ordinary images don’t work in poetry like this. Like all earlier comparisons or allusions, they cease to be weighty. They depreciate. It is this unique experience, which is comparable to nothing before it, that gives value to the poetry of war.

 

deNiord: 

Dzvinia and Ali, you are both fluent in Ukrainian and English. Was there any aspect of Halyna’s poetry in her book, Lost in Living, that you felt was untranslatable for whatever reason, and if so, how did you both ultimately decide on a translation you felt sufficed?

 

Kinsella:

As Dzvinia points out, Bilotserkivets is rather lyrical and has emphasized during various interviews and readings how important the musicality of language is to her when writing. Not to diminish the power of sound in Kruk, but her work is much more focused on meaning rather than sound or image. In some ways, this is to my advantage since I, too, am drawn to meaning, even to my own detriment. But it also presented a new difficulty since many of her poems enlist double entendre, often in a pivotal way. In most cases, the play on words had to be sacrificed to make a good poem. With regard to Kruk’s poetry, I was surprised to discover how much she also likes to use idioms (notorious!) in her work. With her, though, the expressions feel serious rather than trite, like her effort to reclaim Ukrainian as a language fully suited to all purposes. Of course, there could be no intention behind it at all; it might just be the way Kruk lives and experiences language organically.

 

deNiord:

Halyna employs double-edged irony and figurative speech in a lot of her poems. Did you find those lines and passages especially difficult to translate? I’m thinking of her ending to Lost in Living.

 

Orlowsky:

I’m happy you single out this poem. It’s among my many favorites in this collection.

I personally didn’t find the closing lines difficult to understand or translate. But as Ali provided the initial draft, she might feel differently.

The title poem Lost in Living uses writer’s block as a vehicle to explore the limits of language to convey concepts. The speaker questions her identity and intentions, highlighting the absence of meaning without intentionality. The “windmill-lighthouse” stanza investigates natural elements beyond reach, paralleling the speaker’s inaccessibility. When Ali first presented the phrase “windmill-lighthouse” to me, I thought she was suggesting two options for translating a single word. However, in the original Ukrainian, both nouns are hyphenated and exist together—an astute kenning found amid a poem about struggling to express oneself clearly.

The request for something to write with shifts from a physical object to a mental state, seeking beyond the tangible world. The mention of thoughts as weightless “like a road” hints at the transformation to figurative language to ignite ideas effortlessly.

At the poem’s conclusion, Kruk dismisses the “lined thing” with boundaries and limitations implying inferiority despite its regulatory purpose. Ironically, despite the speaker’s wisdom akin to an owl, communication falters, possibly due to fear—the consequences of saying the unsayable.

 

deNiord: 

Did you feel any of Halyna’s lines or phrases were lost in translation?

 

Kinsella:

Absolutely. Something is always lost. For example, if we look at that same Lost in Living, we’ll see that the kenning “windmill-lighthouse” that Dzvinia intuits as an example of inaccessibility and attempting to speak about that which is out of reach, in the original means something a bit different. Vitriak, or “windmill,” can also describe a capricious, unreliable person—perhaps someone who goes where the wind blows, but much more concise in Ukrainian. And then we have various understandings of “lighthouse” even in English as a beacon, a tower, or, in Ukrainian, somewhat of a vanguard. So interpretations abound: perhaps Kruk was trying to convey a contradiction of frivolity and stability in a single individual; perhaps she wanted to imply that volatility is the way of the future; perhaps it was even a reference to Don Quixote! And then, of course, the two words sound so good together in Ukrainian with their soft vowel before the plosive [k]: vitriak-maiak. But what do we have? “Windmill-lighthouse,” which serves us perfectly well in a very different way, even bringing something new to the English rendering that might not have been in the original.

There was one poem that ended on a pun that we could in no way preserve, so we actually decided to cut the last two lines! We’ll let our readers see if they can find it themselves.

 

deNiord:

Halyna, you write with prophetic self-effacement in your poem that begins “I opened the last door behind which neither of us existed”: “I opened the door like the lid of a coffin, like the eyelids of the dead/I opened the door. I can no longer close it.” You reverse the proverbial trope of being possessed by the dead by witnessing to the dead in life in an oneiric vision of citizens afflicted with ennui and boredom—those whose spirits have perished in the oppression of war but still exist in bodily form, almost like zombies. These poems are remarkable examples of what John Keats called “negative capability,” that is the “capability of being in uncertainty, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” How do you conjure enough emotional, mental, and creative energy to witness so tirelessly to the dehumanizing horrors of this egregiously unjust war?

 

Kruk:

The poem you’re quoting was written before the war and is a little bit different. It’s about relationships in the context of one particular family, relationships that have come to their “last door” and are of no further use. At some point everyone realizes that certain social roles or games have lost all importance for them; they’re depleted; they’ve stopped satisfying. Some places we can never return to because we don’t want to or can’t. I see the world as being engaged in internal and external dynamics: we change something, something changes us, we change. In this way, baroque poetics are close to me: they also tried to capture this constant variability of the world, this wobbly balance of opposites, these endless metamorphoses.

 

deNiord:

Halyna, in your poem “black hole,” absence speaks louder than presence in these apophatic lines in which absence evokes the presence of the lost. Can you comment on this?

 

Kruk:

If I’m not mistaken, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that there is a God-sized hole in the soul of man and everyone fills it as best they can. My poem inverts this quotation, for if God is love, then the loss of love leaves a hole the size of God. Many of my poems feature a crossing and intertwining of the sensual and existential, explaining one through the other. For, paradoxically, everything large is contained in something small, like God or love in a person, eternity in death, life in a cell, the universe in an atom. And although in this poem the woman’s disappointment in love undermines her faith in God—for God is love—it’s clear that the story doesn’t end here, for reflections fill the cavities and holes that we all experience after loss. Roughly speaking, art always senses the inner need to penetrate deep into our cracks and fill them with itself, to impregnate our voids with something larger than ourselves.

 

deNiord:

I read lines like “I opened the door, I can no longer close it” and can’t help thinking of Paul Celan’s poetry, especially its apophatic conceits. He wrote of language after Auschwitz, “In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. . . . Went through it and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.”

From a translator’s perspective would you say that Kruk’s feminine sensibility echoes Celan’s feeling about language in the midst and wake of war, as these lines from “black hole” seem to imply:

 

God, don’t listen to the woman in love, the disappointed woman,
the abandoned woman—don’t listen to any of them,
they themselves don’t understand what they’re asking
 
love leaves a hole in the woman’s heart the size of another woman
a gaping void, a lacuna that cannot be sealed,
antimatter, a blast wave, a prayer for revenge

 

If so, how would you describe Kruk’s “feminine strength” specifically in her witness to the human catastrophe occurring right now in Ukraine? What do you think she means exactly by the phrase “the size of another woman” in contrast to “the size of God”?

 

Kinsella:

You know, Dzvinia and I are involved in the Ukrainian poetry community and after Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022, people kept repeating Adorno’s observation that it was barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. Celan is saying the opposite to some extent, though the two sentiments could likely be resolved. Halyna actually provides a key to this when she speaks of poetry returning to its primal functions during war, while simultaneously warning us of the irreversible damage it will sustain from prolonged warfare. Unfortunately, I am not familiar enough with Celan to comment on Kruk’s artistic similarities, but I have no doubts that she knows his work, as he is her countryman. Born and raised in a Jewish family in Chernivtsi, Celan is celebrated with many new translation projects and festivals as lately Ukrainians have been reclaiming all of their lost children, whose alienation was certainly a result of the Soviet project.

I didn’t know the Sartre quotation, but Kruk starts “black hole” by suggesting that love leaves a hole in a woman’s heart the size of a man, before going on to say the size of a woman, and, ultimately, the size of God. My reading was that a woman scorned first mourns the loss of her lover, then feels her absence being filled by someone else. Grief eventually brings her to blame God and feel her spiritual relationship is also compromised. I’d like to say that the hole is the same shape and size as the woman herself, the end of the relationship bringing her into closer conversation with her own self and revealing to her that she had attempted to use the man to delay the project of reckoning with herself. But, the poem clearly states “another woman”. . .

As for Kruk’s “feminine strength,” I’m sort of at a loss. She’s obviously experiencing this war as the mother of a son, but that is true of all of her experiences, right? In everything she does, she is the mother of a son, just as I am the mother of a daughter, or Dzvinia is the mother of two or the daughter of immigrants, and Kruk is equally a professor of literature, an Eastern European, and a cat lover. We all bring all of our identities with us at all times. I don’t know that there can be many “strengths,” feminine or masculine when confronted with a total human catastrophe.

 

deNiord:

Halyna, you address the Lord in recounting the Holomodor and GULAG in which millions of Ukrainians perished in your poem “the villas, sister, are all empty.” But rather than ask the Lord “Why?” like Job after his losses, you simply write that these horrific events taught you simply to “close your eyes when the path is bloodied.” But you haven’t. What belief and courage and spiritual impetus keeps your eyes open?

 

Kruk:

This is a rather feminist poem that begins with a hidden quotation of a piece by the Ukrainian modernist, Lesia Ukrainka (a significant figure in the turn-of-the-twentieth-century Ukrainian literary canon). It’s built on the juxtaposition of “kind mothers,” who teach their children to endure and survive in a patriarchal society and difficult historical trials, and “bad mothers,” who teach theirs to resist and fight (for your rights, for your values, for what you cannot give up). My generation of mothers is the latter, who better understands how to put up a fight and even die than tolerate or bow to the circumstances. Women are flexible like Kevlar fabric; they refuse to be victims and can defend themselves and their own on par with men, shoulder to shoulder, when the need arises. A world that has ceased to be (or perhaps never was) good and just, requires different ideals and other ways of responding.

Western feminism is used to treating war as men’s business, as men’s favorite game, and it constructs its opposition along these lines. Yet the reality of war shows that everything is much more complicated. Wars are started by scoundrels, but the men and women who are taking a stand against this war and defending their loved ones from it are guided by totally different principles. If they were to simply lay down their weapons and stop fighting the enemy, it would not mean the end of the war. On the contrary—evil would win. Strangely, this is exactly what is hardest to explain to people in the West who have never found themselves in a situation of total war and who cannot distinguish between the fact that people with weapons might not be aggressors, but actually people who are protecting themselves and defending others.

 

deNiord: 

Ali and Dzvinia, Kruk has risen to the stature of a major Ukrainian poet of witness. In an interview I did with Carolyn Forché, she defined “the poetry of witness” as “an impress of extremity, legible in language, as another dimension of reading poetry and literary art emerging in the aftermath of extreme experience, and to formulate the thought of witness.” But war coverage is also by its very nature comprised of reports. What do you feel Kruk’s exemplary poetic gift is, despite what may be lost in translation, for conveying enduring reportage?

 

Kinsella:

The gift might be in the reading! If you go through this entire volume, you’ll find that there are actually very few instances that could be likened to this reportage you speak of, at least as I see them. Lost in Livingstrikes me as more taking into account life’s mysteries than functioning as poetry of witness. But I have the advantage of knowing that with only a few exceptions, these poems were all written before February 24, 2022. To be sure, Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, so the war actually has been going on for ten years, but the previous two exist in a different plane. There is before 2022 and after, before utter human catastrophe and after.

 

I think it is important to remind readers that there are whole worlds within Ukraine. That there is a language, a culture, a history, that people are happy or sad or in love or out of love and all of it can exist and has existed outside of combat. This is actually the toll of the war; this is what’s being lost. Still, this phenomenon of reading everything Ukrainian through the lens of the full-scale invasion is widespread and not limited to Westerners.

 

But if I understand you correctly, you’re asking how Kruk makes the prevailing extremity legible in language and how this leads to specific instances of witnessing or creates space for others to bear witness. Again, I don’t feel equipped to speak to such a weighty matter. But I do think Kruk approaches her subject with great courage, and that the very act of refusing to back down in the face of such tragedy offers others a path to bearing their own witness, either by expanding the field or by leading by example. Furthermore, Kruk succeeds at making the particular feel universal, whether it’s about trying to identify dead bodies by their clothing, or wanting to dance in the kitchen with your lover.

 

Orlowsky:

A standout untitled poem in this collection, for me, takes as its subject the challenging task of “reporting” bad news to friends, neighbors, and even unknown individuals—something that might be perceived as rare. However, in the context of Kruk’s life in Ukraine, it has become as common as relaying news of climate change in our day-to-day existence.

With Yeats’s “cold eye,” as mentioned in your intro, Kruk resolves:

 

so you and I have become bearers of bad news
to places that previously were relatively good, wholly tolerable

people who want to squeeze a tear out of every rock along the road
no matter where you go, you lose everything

from whose light hand the word death devalues and demands an ever-greater fee
to buy the world’s attention, let alone weapons

 

While this volume contains numerous untitled poems, I find the absence of a title for this poem particularly serendipitous. Would this poem have benefited from a title? If so, what word or words would have the power to shock the reader into the poem, compelling them to pay even closer attention to the surroundings it describes? Leaving the poem untitled, and therefore unlabeled, raises the question of what is considered newsworthy, and conversely, what the media audience has grown desensitized to.

 

deNiord:

Lost in Living reprises the Ukrainians’ grief song following such a long bellicose history with Russia, especially the Holomodor that occurred from 1932 to 1933 during which Stalin’s imposed famine killed millions, and which you, Dzvinia, have written about movingly in your last book, Bad Harvest. Could you comment on how you think Lost in Living provides a historical update to Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine?

I’m also curious about the title itself. What do you feel the primary conceit is in this title? Would you simply say living itself in the midst of war?

 

Orlowsky:

Thank you, Chard, for your kind words about Bad Harvest. Stalin starved people, Putin attacks with missiles on civilian infrastructure—to name just one atrocity. One form of terror replaces another in a cycle of violence. In the broadest sense, that in itself presents a tragic historical update.

The collection title Lost in Living (as well as the eponymous poem which we’ve talked about) are taken from Eliot’s pageant play, “The Rock.” Its questioning lines profoundly echo with Halyna’s art and sensibilities: “All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,/But nearness to death, no nearer to God./Where is  the Life we have Lost in Living?” Maybe they, too, provide a kind of ongoing update, as you suggest, on life’s contradictory complexities—both in times of war as well as pre-war mimicking peace.

 

deNiord:

Halyna, do you feel at all possessed by the ghosts of the millions of Ukrainians who died in the Holomodor and GULAG at the hand of Stalin and are continuing to die now at the hand of Putin? If so, what poetic blessing are you finding in speaking so memorably for so many, both living and dead?

 

Kruk:

Poetic blessing is perhaps too generous. I can’t say what the late Holodomor scholar James Mace once did: “Your dead have chosen me.” But I know for sure that for me, creativity is not only the freedom to create, but also an inner responsibility for what you’ve written and said. Right now I experience this as the responsibility of a survivor (that is, as someone who wasn’t killed or forced to keep silent in previous generations). The survivor’s obligation is one of the constructive ways of overcoming survivor guilt syndrome, which often occurs in people who have survived a difficult and traumatic experience that many others did not. I feel the responsibility to speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves, to bear witness to events, to preserve memory. I’m sad, for like every responsibility, it deprives me of the ease and joy of creation. I don’t know how it will be after the war, but what I’m writing now is not limited to me myself, but concerns a certain collective experience. Perhaps one day the joy of writing from my own “I” will come back, of listening to the whims of this “I,” experimenting for the sake of experimenting, not feeling internally obligated.

 

deNiord:

As I note in the intro, Halyna, you write that you find yourself “in the company of the dead.” Could you elaborate a bit on what you feel some of “the games and theories” that you mention are and just how the dead possess the living, either literally or metaphorically?

 

Kruk:

This poem, which I wrote during the pandemic, is about the obligations of survivors. The rows of our dead stand behind each of us, continuing to live on in our memories. To a significant degree, culture is a phenomenon and space where we talk to the dead as if they were alive, where they go on existing and doing what they did when they lived. We can give this various names, either more idealistic or materialistic, but this nomenclature doesn’t change the essence: all preserved artifacts of human civilization, all preserved elements of culture—even if they are physically lost, but preserved in memory—create a space that ensures lastingness and continuity, the possibility to grow from what came before you, and continue it or negate it, to use the fruits of its creativity or build your foundation on them. I don’t believe anything in culture disappears without a trace, though it could be lost and later rediscovered. The history of literature and art confirms this more than once. The only thing that could put an end to this endless history is perhaps the physical extermination of humanity, but I don’t want to project so far with such hopelessness.

 

deNiord:

If you had to choose one of Halyna’s poems to send to Congress to convince them to continue American aid to Ukraine, which one would it be?

 

Orlowsky:

Despite my skepticism about the impact of poetry on politics, I’d have to pick “We Carry Our Dead” previously published in The Boston Globe and Consequence Forum and included in our book:

 

we carry our dead

 

we carry our dead like children
lay them out in the plaza and encircle them
in the frost the snow bewildered
as if none of us yet knew
it was so easy to die

everyone still hopes
they will lie there and then get up

for what should we tell their moms
what to tell their children
who will tell them the worst

a person runs to meet a bullet
with a wooden shield
and a hot heart
and a head in a ski helmet
full of blood

mom, I’ve got my hat on  he shouts into a dead phone
mom, his hat is too thin  the bullet hisses

 

Reflecting on the Senate Republicans’ recent actions, the line “what should we tell them” resonates deeply, highlighting the harsh reality faced by Ukrainians. The poem’s poignant questioning strikes a chord, emphasizing the critical need for military and humanitarian aid in Ukraine, from medical kits to drones. Ukrainians feel ill-equipped in their fight, amplifying the urgency for support. Even in these tough circumstances, hope persists.

 

Halyna Kruk’s responses were translated by Ali Kinsella.
Selections from Lost in Living

 

***

the clothespins of sparrows
on the line—
no one wants to clean the scales,
we’ll do without fish

 

sunday morning’s palette knife
slathers light and shadow—
leave it, don’t mix them

 

between the just and the sinful, a spiderweb
of delicate filagree—dust, geranium,
a window wide open

 

let the spirit of music enter
the complex nosedive of holy simplicity
pour the dry wine

 

it was always alarming
that one of us’d get too close
and the other’d disappear

 

one hundred horsepower released
as if no one had ever loved—
green in their eyes

 

I stand, cooling my forehead
against the window pane—
maybe there was no one here
next to me

 

***

 

Lemko

if only I didn’t believe in words
if only you didn’t doubt them
the distance between us heals
like a wound, two sides of the scar
creep closer together
pull together the landscape—
a land in which we’ll no longer live
not in any of its iterations, only mountains
with their familiar voice of chasms and peaks,
with the church cross between their breasts

 

if only I hadn’t thought you were flint
if only you didn’t have to come down to people
how we would live in that winter den!
in the forest’s arc, in the sieve of the sky
where our hearts were breaking like clay mugs
until they no longer fought for anything
where love lingers, a note
too high above life,
and you fall into a rhythm
the spirit refuses

 

***

 

Lost in Living

I grew as wise as an owl
words now avoid me
perhaps, they’re afraid

 

and that writing desk in the corner
whose upper mouth is locked
where’s the key?

 

but sometimes something falls out
of your head neither heavy, nor light
like a road

 

and you think you’ll move
towards her, windmill-lighthouse,
but there’s nothing there

 

no clue, no hook—
what’s she called, who is she,
however you name her

 

please give me something to write with
and that lined thing underneath it,
or maybe not

 

 

***

moment, stop, I’ll come out
you’re beautiful, but who asked for beautiful
who asked for exceptional, for happy

 

moment, stop, I’ll come out, you hear
I’m tired of being wise, understanding everyone,
forgiving them all, people don’t do that

 

stop just once where you’re asked
here in this wet spot
in this remote hermitage
I don’t need any more

 

there’ll be no more
no more
no more

 

 

***

people are good when they want to be
you can hide in the house of god
and name the Rorschach test on the walls
who are we today, the doctor asked you
time, they say, heals, but it doesn’t help everyone
mom is gone, dad too
how far can someone go down a different road?
periphery of consciousness, is anyone home? I ask
not here
I’m at home by myself, I am my own home, I carry all I have with me—
a suitcase on wheels, my father’s wristwatch,
mother’s cross necklace, prenatal experience,
historical traumas, genetic disorders

 

our people are good, but being different is bad
it’s even worse than being bad
“let’s be like children,” the priest says at mass

 

and from the one man who always happily responds “amen,”
everyone retreats, sometimes kicks him out,
occasionally crucifies

 

 

***

a sense of loss overtakes you on a deserted night road
like a strange dog, suspiciously like the one
you had as a kid,
it looks at you, as if it wants to recognize you, sniffs

 

don’t let the black dog near you
my late grandmother taught me
don’t turn your back on it
show your fear
make sudden movements

 

it’s not me, it’s my fear looking anxiously at the dog, grandma
not me, it’s my experience of loss expecting the worst,
it knows that death exists for those who remain alive

 

come here, my dog, I have so much for you
tell me how it’s going—living when
all your people have died

 

wag your tail at me, nuzzle me, take me by the hand
go for my throat

 

 

***

she keeps her distance
the way others hold a grudge against life
like gymnasts hold their backs
soldiers—their shoulders

 

this year’s May is so wet
that the green doesn’t grow, but flows
omnia fluunt et mutantur,
a wave covering more and more

 

she collects the neighborhood’s bottles,
shakes out cigarette butts onto the sand,
anarchy is her mother, but what the hell for?
all the places in her life are overflowing
she needs to come out of the shadow of the high-rise
into the sun, but how many bottles
are still littered under the benches in the yard

 

the bitter smell of smoke—someone on a balcony
takes a drag off the morning’s first cigarette—don’t finish it, toss it
anarchy is her mother, fall is not far away,
not everyone is lucky enough to die young

 

 

Photo credit:  Anna Drvnik

Halyna Kruk (b. 1974) is an award-winning poet and prose writer, translator, and scholar. She is the author of five books of poetry, Grown-Up (2017), (Co)existence (2013), The Face beyond the Photograph (2005), Tracks on the Sand, and Journeys in Search of a Home (both 1997), a collection of short stories, Anyone but Me (2021), which won the 2022 Kovaliv Fund Prize, and four children’s books, two of which have been translated into fifteen languages. A Crash Course in Molotov Cocktails, translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk, was published in English (Arrowsmith Press, 2022). Her numerous literary awards include the Sundara Ramaswamy Prize, the 2023 Women in Arts Award, the 2021 BookForum Best Book Award, the Smoloskyp Poetry Award, the Bohdan Ihor Antonych Prize, and the Hranoslov Award. She holds a doctorate in Ukrainian baroque literature. Kruk is a member of Ukrainian PEN; she lives and teaches in Lviv.

 

 

Ali Kinsella holds an MA in Slavic studies from Columbia University and has been translating from Ukrainian for twelve years. She won the 2019 Kovaliv Fund Prize for her translation of Taras Prokhasko’s novella, Anna’s Other Days, forthcoming from Harvard University Press. In 2021, she was awarded a Peterson Literary Fund grant to translate Vasyl Makhno’s Eternal Calendar. She co-edited Love in Defiance of Pain: Ukrainian Stories (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2022), an anthology of short fiction to support Ukrainians during the war. Her other published translations include pieces by Stanislav Aseyev, Lyubko Deresh, Kateryna Kalytko, Myroslav Laiuk, Bohdana Matiiash, Olena Stiazhkina, and others.

 

Pushcart Prize poet, award-winning translator, and a founding editor of Four Way Books, Dzvinia Orlowsky is the author of six poetry collections including Bad Harvest, a 2019 Massachusetts Book Awards “Must Read” in Poetry. She is a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Poetry Grant, a Sheila Motton Book Award, and a co-recipient of a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship. Her first collection, A Handful of Bees, was reprinted as part of the Carnegie Mellon University Press Classic Contemporary Series. Her latest book of poetry, Those Absences Now Closest, is forthcoming from Carnegie Mellon in fall 2024.

 

 

Kinsella and Orlowsky’s co-translations of Natalka Bilotserkivets’s selected poems, Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow (Lost Horse Press, 2021), was a finalist for the 2022 Griffin International Poetry Prize, the Derek Walcott Prize for Poetry, ALTA’s National Translation Award in Poetry, and winner of the 2022 AAUS Prize for Translation. They received a 2024 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship to support the translation into English of Halyna Kurk’s recent, unpublished poetry, Lost in Living.

Chard deNiord is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently In My Unknowing (University of Pittsburgh Press 2020) and Interstate (U. of Pittsburgh, 2015). He is also the author of two books of interviews with eminent American poets titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century Poetry (Marick Press, 2011) and I Would Lie To You If I Could  (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018). He co-founded the New England College MFA program in 2001 and the Ruth Stone Foundation in 2011. He served as poet laureate of Vermont from 2015 to 2019 and taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-two years at Providence College, where is now a Professor Emeritus. He lives in Westminster West, Vt. with his wife, the painter, Liz Hawkes deNiord.