The Word in a Time of War

Mayhill Fowler on Serhiy Zhadan

when you decide to separate words
into those you used at least once and those you've never touched
you will feel the silence that ripped apart
the heart of that night—the tortured circle
you sense each time you return to this place

because long ago fragments of hot lexemes
grew cold in mouths filled with fear
and the man with the serious expression
with his dark notebook and lead pencil
left behind only silence
that fell like a dead bird

simply, such buildings exist
where the final border is particularly grim
where hell and veins of underground ore are unexpectedly close
where time sticks out like lumps of coal from the ground
where death begins, and literature ends

—From Serhiy Zhadan, "The End of Ukrainian Syllabotonic Verse"

(Translated by Wanda Phipps and Virlana Tkacz. Used with kind permission from Virlana Tkacz.)

Rock-Star Poet

"I told them to go fuck themselves," explains Serhiy Zhadan, when describing his beating at the hands of pro-Russian rioters last March. They had demanded that he kneel and kiss the Russian flag during a pro-Kyiv demonstration on Kharkiv's Freedom Square. The moment is pure Zhadan: bucking authority without sentimentality, with a soupçon of choice swearing, resulting in an event that made the pages of The New Yorker and The London Review of Books, and elicited protests from cultural elites the world over, including in Russia. Serhiy Zhadan is Ukraine's Rock-Star Poet. His books frequently sell out; they've been translated from the original Ukrainian into over ten languages; he reads to packed bookstores, clubs, and cultural institutes across Ukraine, Germany, and the United States; his poetry on his official Facebook page is re-posted across social media. (And he's a real rock star, too. He plays with a ska band called Dogs in Space.)

Born in 1974 near Luhansk, Zhadan has published poetry collections, plays, and several short novels. He is, by training, a philologist, and throughout his writing the reader finds a complex understanding of how languages work (Russian, Ukrainian, Soviet-speak—as well as German and English), combined with a playfulness that can make his writing read like a rap song. His first major novel, 2004's Depeche Mode, peels back the skin on the post-Soviet 1990s. It follows a group of friends with names like Dogg Pavlov (a Jewish anti-Semite) and Vasia Communist who are searching for their friend Sasha Carburetor (whose one-legged stepfather has shot himself) through the post-nuclear landscape of 1990s Kharkiv. There's a lot of drinking, puking, and even a recipe on how to make a bomb, but Zhadan also paints a fine-grained portrait of this particular generation of young men, just out of school and lost in the disconcerting instability of the post-Soviet world.

The theme of Ukraine's East—with its dying rust belt towns and people living liminal lives in liminal spaces—has continued to shape Zhadan's creative landscape. Anarchy in the UKR tells of a journey through the Donbas region of Ukraine on the trail of revolutionary anarchist Nestor Makhno. Voroshilovgrad, Zhadan's 2010 novel, translated into German as Die Erfindung des Jazz im Donbass (The Invention of Jazz in Donbas), recuperates the theme of searching for someone lost. Instead of searching for a friend, as in Depeche Mode, here a man returns home to the Ukrainian East to find his long-lost brother, who once ran a gas station and has now vanished. Voroshilovgrad was the Soviet-era name for today's Luhansk. Luhansk, Kharkiv, the East, the factory town: the very spaces that the news has covered in recent months as sites of struggle between Ukraine and Russia, and between Ukraine and itself.

Ukraine's East

On the surface, Zhadan has much in common with his fellow writers who, along with him, have shaped Ukrainian letters since independence in 1991. Oksana Zabuzhko (Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex) writes about sex, Taras Prokhasko (The UnSimple) makes use of a magic realist style, and Yuri Andrukhovych (The Moskoviada) has the same rock-star status in Ukraine, and Ukrainian rock-star status abroad. Zhadan verges more on the Bukowski-esque—indeed he has been compared to Charles Bukowski—with more sex, more drugs, and more rock-and-roll, but all these writers are highly educated intellectuals who strive to push the Ukrainian language into the realm of the postmodern. Still there's a huge difference. While Zabuzhko, Prokhasko, and Andrukhovych all hail from Western Ukraine and generally write about Western Ukraine, the setting and subject of Zhadan's writing is very much Ukraine's East.

The difference isn't merely one of geography. Ukraine's Western provinces are a largely Ukrainian-speaking region with a historical link not to the Russian Romanov, but to the Austrian Habsburg Empire. By claiming this heritage, Zhadan's fellow writers separate contemporary Ukrainian literature from everything Russian, and by implication, everything Soviet. Zhadan's texts, by contrast, write clearly of the post-Soviet period as just that—post-Soviet—and he not only embraces Ukraine's East, but actually sets his work there, lives there, and, it seems, takes the East, with all its failed towns and barren borderlands, and claims it for the culture of Ukraine. Ukraine is not a non-Soviet place for Zhadan, but a place struggling with a Soviet past.

The Building of the Word

Zhadan's "The End of Ukrainian Syllabotonic Verse," quoted at the beginning of this essay, focuses on one aspect of that past. There is some truth to the cliché that in this part of the world, poets are more than poets. That's not because people in Russia and Eastern Europe have a gene that makes them more sensitive to verse; rather, the lack of political options meant that poetry was forced to become a more meaningful form of expression than it was elsewhere. The post-Soviet space, it turns out, suffers from this legacy of "poets as more than poets." On the one hand, people revere poets and poets can acquire the status of rock stars; on the other hand, the Word itself has lost some of its value, and been damaged by its association with the Soviet socialist state. Pravda, as everyone knew, hardly ever told the truth. The Word could lie, mask and harm, as much as it could reveal and illuminate.

Zhadan wrote his dissertation on futurist bad-boy poet Mikhail Semenko. Semenko was a denizen of Kharkiv's Building of the Word, Budynok Slovo in Ukrainian, a cooperative housing project funded by the Soviet state. Here Ukraine's leading poets, playwrights, and novelists, together with their wives and a few choice snitches, lived together in one 68-apartment block. The times were such that by the end of the 1930s most of the original inhabitants had been arrested and sent to the gulag or shot, a fate from which Semenko himself wasn't spared. For Zhadan—as for many—their murder was, in effect, the murder of literary innovation in Ukrainian. It was, in his words, the "end of Ukrainian syllabotonic verse."

For Zhadan, the murder of those artists left a silence. Now the poet can only "separate words into those you have touched at least once and those you have never touched." The legacy of the Slovo means that later generations of poets, like Zhadan, do not possess the words with which to express themselves. "Simply," Zhadan concludes, "such buildings exist...where death begins and literature ends." Such buildings exist, in fact, all over the former Soviet Union, and the story of the Slovo is not unique, but representative. And yet Zhadan is incorrect. Death continues, but literature does not end; the poem itself shows the mercurial power of the word.

Of late, Zhadan has been writing a series of refugee poems posted on his official Facebook page. In a sense, they reconstruct the Building of the Word as a place where words can speak truth. What is happening in Ukraine—civil war with military support by Russia, following an illegal land-grab of Crimea, and the most moving show of civil society in one of the coldest winters in recent history, and that's the most succinct summary I can give—is a humanitarian crisis. What can poetry do in such times? Zhadan's refugee poems show that poetry can do quite a lot. They're akin, in this sense, to, say, Anna Akhmatova's famous Requiem. She begins this poem by describing herself as she stood in line to deliver a package to her husband, held in prison. A woman approaches her and asks, "And can you describe this? / And I answered, Yes I can." Or Wisława Szymborska's "The End and the Beginning," about what happens when "all the cameras have left": "After every war / someone has to clean up."

Zhadan's refugee poems have no concrete subjects. They may, today, relate to Eastern Ukraine, but they speak to the many millions over the last century who have lost their homes, their loved ones, and their cities, in times of modern war. To describe that human suffering, not to analyze or propagandize or aggrandize, but to simply describe war in words: that is the achievement of Zhadan's recent poems.

Two poems in particular strike me as meaningful, and I offer excerpts here in a (very) loose translation.

Візьми лише найважливіше. Візьми листи.
Візьми лише те, що зможеш сама нести.
Візьми рушники та ікони, візьми срібні ножі,
візьми дерев'яні розп'яття, золочені муляжі.

Take only what's most important. Take letters.
Take only what you can carry yourself.
Take the embroidered towels and icons, take the silver knives
Take the wooden crucifixes, the golden plaster casts.

Візьми хліб і городину, потім іди.
Ми ніколи більше не повернемося сюди.
Ми ніколи більше не побачимо наші міста.
Візьми листи. Всі. До останнього злого листа.

Take bread and vegetables, and then go.
We will never return here.
We will never see our cities again.
Take the letters. All of them. To the last wicked one.

Нам ніколи не повернутись до наших нічних крамниць.
Нам ніколи не пити з сухих криниць.
Нам ніколи більше не бачити знайомих облич.
Ми з тобою біженці. Нам з тобою бігти крізь ніч.

We will never return to our nighttime stores.
We will never drink from dry wells.
We will never again see the faces that we know.
We are refugees. We must run through the night.

Even without knowing Ukrainian, the reader can detect the repetition of words at the beginning of each line of verse. A video of Zhadan reading the piece shows how this repetition builds and creates a sense of urgency; the poet and his addressee must run through the night because they are being chased, because death awaits. This is a poem about refugees: people without homes, without friends, without the shops they stopped in at night for smokes or beers, without the wells that even if they were dry were part of home.

Another poem tells of a conversation between a chaplain and a flock of birds, refugees, "inhabitants of a city that no longer exists" where "there is no one to shoot any more." The chaplain explains to them how it is:

Добре, давайте я розкажу вам, що таке втрата.
Звісно, всіх винних чекає гідна розплата.
І невинних вона, до речі, теж чекає потому.
Вона чекає навіть тих, хто взагалі ні при чому.

Okay, let me tell you what loss is.
Of course, a good retribution awaits those who are guilty.
And it awaits those who are innocent as well, by the way.
It awaits even those who have nothing to do with it at all.

Я не знаю нічого про неминучість спокути.
Я не знаю де вам жити і як вам бути.
Я говорю про те, що кожному з нас властиво.
Якби ви знали, як нам усім не пощастило.

I don't know anything about the inevitability of redemption.
I don't know where you'll live or how it will be for you.
I'm speaking about what's true for all of us.
If only you knew, how we are all unlucky.

Who is the chaplain, and who are these inhabitants? Who is pro-Russian, pro-DNR (Donetsk People's Republic), pro-Kyiv, pro-Western . . . ? It is not clear. But it's simple: A town has been destroyed. People are weary. The church has no answers, except the eternal truth that war gets everyone.

Songs in Dark Times

Zhadan's forthcoming book of translations includes poetry by Bertolt Brecht. He recently posted a translation of Brecht's 1938 "To Those Born Later" (An die Nachgeborenen), which includes the hair-raising line "truly I live in dark times." Hannah Arendt, who was to build her book of essays, Men in Dark Times, around Brecht, considered her one-time compatriot an anti-hero and "a kind of case history of the uncertain relationship between poetry and politics." For Arendt, poetry and politics should remain separate. Poets should "say the unsayable," and once a poet entered the realm of the political—as Brecht did by working as the state-approved theater director of East Berlin and lauding the postwar socialist German state—the gods would deprive him of his gift.

Regardless of his political stance—and he has one, as do I, as do all of us who love Ukraine and watch the war with pain and sadness—Zhadan's refugee poems are strangely Arendtian. They say the unsayable, by not saying who is in which category, who is guilty and who is innocent; they speak to the larger human tragedy of war. "In the dark times / will there also be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times," writes Brecht, and translates Zhadan. Truly, Zhadan's refugee poems are songs about dark times. They show the power of the word in a time of war.