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Feature: Back From the USSR
Vasyl Makhno

Translated from the Ukrainian by Orest Popovych

In Sighetu Marmatiei the odor of wormy apples
and gypsy women grabbing at your sleeves to read your fortune
claiming to know all about you
they reeked of homemade brandy laced with the onions chewed in the morning
and Ukrainian cigarettes
they smuggle across the border bridge several
times a day

morning mists would envelop the town up to its neck
descending from the mountains – like the local villagers – to the market in Sighetu
and lingering on the streets
they snuggled up to the buildings with their heads
like the stray dogs
of this town

I stood at the street intersection
where the road sign pointed towards Baia-Mare
nearby a restored synagogue
an Orthodox church the city hall and a few matchbox houses
overturned by the wind attested to the downfall
of all the Europes and empires
and only the railroad built back in Austrian times
at least was heading somewhere tugging the cars
like a disobedient child by hand
and the train
entering the mountains would vanish in them forever
having taken away the Jews

for it was impossible for them to live here
meaning to pray in their synagogue
to milk their goats and sell red pepper
to travel to Baia-Mare and Hungary
and to sing their mournful songs each Sabbath

it was impossible to live here in general
among the wooden churches with Cyrillic inscriptions
with the pictures of St. Barbara and the Last Judgment
with the evangelists each holding at the ready his index finger
like a key
and the night watchman probably
while locking up the church and the cemetery gate for the night
would grumble that the keys and locks were rusty

And Sighetu Marmatiei also smelled of squashed plums
with their pits resembling the brown eyes of a dead cow
with flies and ants crawling all over them
and it was obvious that the night train was approaching the station
for long before the stop the engineer was signaling
to these mountains to apples to plums and to the tired gypsies
drinking wine at the roadside tavern
and gutting fried trout with their dirty hands
while shouting at the innkeeper
to serve more white bread
and quickly

For they had to reach the border crossing by the time
their women were returning home
with bootlegged cigarettes


DACIA 1300*

It was during Ceausescu’s rule and when old buildings were collapsing
That people of Bucharest rode in wagons drawn by cows
and only the birds circling above the countryside were free

The car was bought by his father with money paid to him monthly
by the Securitate for being an informer
At that time it was new and envied by all

That night he drove with his girl thereby providing some light to the city
because the electricity was being sold abroad
also the right of the Jews to emigrate was being exchanged for hard currency

Then everyone wanted to be a Jew in order to flee
and everyone wanted to live in Paris since everyone knew French
no worse than Tristan Tzara or Mircea Eliade

She sat beside him in tears her pregnancy had made him irritated
He asked her to light his cigarette
and then he stopped ran out of the car and with all his might kicked the tires

as round as her belly

*A Romanian car manufactured during the Cold War



there was poetry and there was booze
God used to kiss you on the forehead
and protect you knocking the knife out of a foe’s hand
twisting his right arm like a martial artist
attaching a rattle to your leg
so that you wouldn't get buried in these snows

and you too would attach an epaulette
on your lean shoulder—stripes on your sleeve
picking up three poetry hounds
as a connoisseur would purchase ample booze for all
be it a biblical stanza or a mediocre verse
everyone squeezed it in his hand like a knife

everyone knew we face life and death
which leads us somewhere like a guard leads a convict
half a bottle still left—of the snacks only cheese remains
that a poet is nothing but a prodigal son
and the girl stayed with him all night
so by morning you'll run out of booze

everyone here dreamed of Paris
there the best poem you'll roll up and burn
that's where Pierre Cardin will tailor your jacket
and any kind of Paul or Jean-Jacques
will drink shampoo as white as champagne
bewitching all truly like a shaman

there you stood and smoked all night
following you was a whole regiment of whores
the whole Parisian elite of these bohemian broads
whom Hemingway summons with a whistle
and there spitting from time to time bleep
Henry Miller sleeps with Anais Nin

but this is Paris—this uncertain step
and for whom shone Brooklyn and New York?
the rustling of the ocean waves of skirts
and Broadway which just arrived late
and joined you at the table but what a debacle
for someone to call you a drunkard

even if your friend John is here
a dove who flies into the sky like a dandy
even when the poem fell like a knife into your sleeve
and here are the locks that you didn't lock
even if you my lady companion are drunk
a golden chain of light and poetry

will lead you away from decent places
you'll test the strength of your bladder
and New York at night as drunk as a satyr
won't show you where to find a toilet
but the nymph who crawled out of the drinking spree
knows all about booze but doesn't yet know you



Vasyl MakhnoVasyl Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, essayist, and translator. He is the author of seven collections of poetry: Skhyma (1993), Caesar’s Solitude (1994), The Book of Hills and Hours (1996), The Flipper of the Fish (2002), 38 Poems about New York and Some Other Things (2004), Cornelia Street Café: New and Selected Poems (2007), and most recently Thread and Selected New York Poems (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009). He has also published a book of essays The Gertrude Stein Memorial Cultural and Recreation Park (2006), and two plays Coney Island (2006) and Bitch/Beach Generation (2007). He has translated Zbigniew Herbert’s and Janusz Szuber’s poetry from Polish into Ukrainian, and edited an anthology of young Ukrainian poets from the 1990’s. Makhno’s poems, essays and plays have been translated into some one dozen languages. In recent years volumes of his selected poems were published in Poland, Romania and USA. In English, his poems and essays have appeared in AGNI, Absinthe, Post Road, Poetry International, Interlitq (UK). He has been living in New York since 2000.

Orest Popovych, the translator, is Professor-Emeritus at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, and the President of the Shevchenko Scientific Society, USA. He is the author or editor of 4 books in English and one in Ukrainian. A collection of 33 of his English translations of Vasyl Makhno's Ukrainian poetry has been published as part of their bilingual book titled "Thread and Selected New York Poems" (Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2009), for which the translator was awarded by the American Association for Ukrainian Studies "The AAUS 2010 Prize for Best Translations from Ukrainian into English". His individual English translations of Vasyl Makhno's poems have appeared in "Agni," "International Poetry Review" 2010, and "Poetry International".


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