Four Poems

Serhiy Zhadan

I imagine how birds see it:
the black branch of a river,
rooftops in winter,
perplexed pedestrians on the sidewalk.

I imagine it’s scary for birds to fly over the river.

Still, they look at the city from above.
At the depot beyond the station,
the backyards,
the library on the other side of the river,
the full pages of the streets.

They repeat this February poem,
knowing it from gates to attics,
knowing where it’s going to stop finally,
and they know, by the way, how it’s going to end.

The soil emerges
the way facial features become clear,
fish will arrive in the floodplains of the Dinets river,
a bit of blackness will appear on the horizon,
there will be happiness,
there will be cattails.

The point is to warm up among people,
to love this artel work of winter,
this inaudible breath of soil,
its seal.

You have to scream about it.
And so they scream.

* * *

So I’ll talk about it:
about the green eye of a demon in the colorful sky.
An eye that watches from the sidelines of a child’s sleep.
The eye of a misfit whose excitement replaces fear.

Everything started with music,
with scars left by songs
heard at fall weddings with other kids my age.

The adults who made music.
Adulthood defined by this—the ability to play music.
As if some new note, responsible for happiness,
appears in the voice,
as if this knack is innate in men:
to be both hunter and singer.

Music is the caramel breath of women,
tobacco-scented hair of men who gloomily
prepare for a knife-fight with the demon
who has just crashed the wedding.

Music beyond the cemetery wall.
Flowers that grow from women’s pockets,
schoolchildren who peek into the chambers of death.

The most beaten paths lead to the cemetery and water.
You hide only the most precious things in the soil—
the weapon that ripens with wrath,
porcelain hearts of parents that will chime
like the songs of a school choir.

I’ll talk about it—
about the wind instruments of anxiety,
about the wedding ceremony as memorable
as entering Jerusalem.

Set the broken psalmic rhythm of rain
beneath your heart.
Men that dance the way they quench
steppe-fire with their boots.
Women that hold onto their men in dance
like they don’t want to let them go to war.

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.
The sky unfolds, as bitter as it is in Gogol’s novellas.
Echoing, the singing of people who gather the harvest.
Echoing, the music of those who cart stones from the field.
Echoing, it doesn’t stop.

* * *

As if this winter never happened,
as if we had no expectations, no worries,
hadn’t listened carefully
to the loudspeakers of December,
hadn’t halted motionless
before the orchestral truth of blizzards.

As if it wasn’t us who prepared
for the power of ice
born out of lovelessness.

As soon as the damp cursive of thaw
appears in the air,
the world explodes
like a crowd shown
the severed head of a tyrant.

Eternal the fire above the meadows.
Eternal our devotion to
the open heart of the river.

And the first to wake up are always
the booksellers at street markets,
and they lay out their treasures along
the city’s bridge.

And poets are already looking around
in the wind from their old wet anthologies
swollen like pillows,

chucked out of the school program,
but not banished from life,

they react to the laughter,
to the farewell rustle
of snow under boots,

they adjust their ties,
warm up between

Poets whom no one trusts,
poets from the history of literature.

Betrayed by lawyers,
left by wives,
those who drowned, hanged themselves, suicides:

they tell their biographies,
cultivate in us the love
of life.

* * *

The fish in this lake are weird: no matter how many we catch,
no matter how long we fish—they don’t disappear.
No matter how many times we pull them from their old haunts, riotously
burning away darkness with fire, forcing them
to the depths—they come back. No matter how many children
and possessions we snatch from their hands—they keep living.
They sing under the full moon.
Fall in love under the summer sun.
They remind us of our death—
as measured,

The fishermen on this lake are afraid to leave to get bread
and cheese—they keep angling, always peering through the water’s
clarity: will a weightless shadow appear for a moment, will the sand
move beneath the black iron fins.
These killers’ shadows are so heavy, no water will
withstand their weight. The sun jumps behind their
shoulders like a squirrel in a city park.
They stand like death:
also silent,

The lake is round.
The lake is deep.
You won’t reach the bottom.
Can’t jump beyond its limits.
You just touch the crystalline cold.
You stick to the banks.
Everything lies between them.
Nothing lies between them.

translated from the Ukrainian by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin

Click here to read more poetry by Serhiy Zhadan from the Fall 2016 issue, and here to read Mayhill Fowler’s Writers on Writere essay on Serhiy Zhadan, from our Fall 2014 issue.