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Feature: Back From the USSR
Serhiy Zhadan

TO LIVE MEANS TO DIE
Translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps

In summertime when wedding rings and fingernails
grow warm on men in hotels near train stations,
and children from the projects hold black soccer balls
close to their hearts in the shadows;

the rosé goes flat in the wineries at dusk
as the train to Budapest crawls snail-slowly under the moon
fragile like crumbling hot rocks.

Dying once, you continue your journey
through the yards at night and notice
death hold out mint candies in its hand
to children in empty lots near the station.

In summertime when life’s warm lining is turned inside out,
when the small cars the color of your lip gloss crash,
the old pharmacist who cures everyone with an aspirin daily
plays some mysterious game with death;
life does not start without you – women laugh in the square,
to live means to die – you’re told by lonely couriers
who carry dry heavens in their backpacks.

Dying once, you step into the shadows,
watch your body helplessly search
for your self in the thick leaves of grass;
dying during the summer,
the souls of the dead break the lines
strung up by postmen and like clinging vines
cut their own verticals through the air.

When you learn to tear me free
from this internal night
tear free the unseen heavenly portals
through which our love comes to us.

Who will stop you, girl, who will drive out
the insects and spirits in your body?
Under the summer sky the land I share with you
smells so fragrantly of moon and bandages every summer.

…After death as you step aside,
you will see the seam in the air through which
secret technicians project
a film of the great heavens
on your body,
so that the souls of the dead
and emerald shadows of beetles
fly into its light….

 

POST OFFICE

The post office in the slow thaw,
and the morning department stores, the pizza delivery boys’ destination—
you easily pick up the things you need daily:
the pipe with hashish
and the cup of tea,
the thick mug covered with honey—
you avoid drafts and correspondence;

a view of the city, fallen silent,
the street trade is not very lively at this hour,
two-three vendors with roasted chestnuts
look at the sky,
and the snow is falling, but so aimlessly
that it melts – before it reaches the
flocks of birds;

and so the birds play—
overhead there’s so much snow
but it’s so empty under their wings
that they want to fly endlessly under low bridges,
catching the smell of roasting chestnuts in their beaks;

everyone can find something, if they only look carefully,
angels pour coarse sand and diamonds under your feet,
the sun is so helpless in the middle of winter,
all it can do—is simply move—
from East to West, dear,
from East to West.

 

BOOKIES

True joy and true despair in this
life can only be felt by a person who pays attention to
details, to things, which at first glance
are not important. For instance, circus producers
and retired
air force officers bet
on those Afghani
teens of average weight
who know best
the form and display of hatred
and luscious fits of nostalgia,
they are the only ones who can perhaps break through the thin
lining of time and for a moment
peer into the future, filled
with light, grass and street
birds.

I like men over
forty. They calm down and
stop worrying about age. Their life
fills up with all kinds of essentially
male things – heavy mechanical clocks,
handy ball-point pens and good cigarettes,
not any of that
American shit.
Usually they like to tempt fate,
stepping into her back yard
in order to feel their hearts beating again
dark and tough
like a pig skin purse.

It’s not even a matter of winning because what
is money when it comes to conscience
which always gets in the way of living, filling
their bed with hot coals and bottle caps every night.
After all, no matter how long you live, you will never
understand who gave you life
so when you finally meet him
you won’t be able
to say thank you.

 

FUNERAL ORCHESTRA

Stories connected with murders, knife wounds,
suicides, botched abortions, in general –
stories connected with crimes interest
people because they’re parables, in these stories
men are manly and dutiful while children
braid roses of the lord’s omniscience
into their hair. In these stories
death always runs ahead, wanting to see
how it all ends, many people like the fact
that in these stories death begins in life
so you can glance into its adolescent
face.

In such stories sooner or later there appear musicians
who play funeral marches, they jump out of a dilapidated
bus onto the grounds of the cemetery and pull out
bagpipes, trombones and hunter’s horns from under their coats, roll out
drums and hurdy-gurdies and blow great cemetery jazz
over the deceased, the bloody unrestrained music of despair
and disobedience, heart-wrenching gangster melodies, melodies of old
tunes popular with sailors and prostitutes,
and then everyone who came to see the deceased on his last
journey starts to breathe easier, because these are the rules,
this is the ritual, or something like that, in a word
they’re not afraid of the dead – but of becoming one of them.

Also, as a rule, there are women in these stories,
they deserve a separate discussion – those
forty-year-old women who still display
the passion and indecisiveness of seventeen-year-old girls,
they cry about every senseless life spent on such
trivialities as love and faith, they remember how
the great depression began in our country
and still whisper the words
that were said to them in parting:

everything is OK, girl, drugs won’t help me now
I want to love you more than you want to have children
life has not stopped, as we assumed, see – in the morning
couriers will arrive from the train station and lovers will part on the stairs as usual,
I will stay with you, watch
when praying mantises sit in your palm and move over your
sleeping body, send them patience, heavens,
on their journey without end.

 

SOCIALISM

Slow summer, endless, and some days are like young
blades of grass capable of totally changing their structure by tensing
their filaments; the sky stretches over the railroad, bits of news fly by,
on such days I always remember an old friend, we used to play on the same
team; he was about twenty years older than me,
in his day he was invited to join one of the
“major league” teams in a warm harbor town in what was then the Soviet Union;
he would have played for sailors, the sports club would have covered everything, in the evening
he would have strolled on the city beach – an idol for sun burnt boys;
however, for some reason he turned down the offer, became involved in black marketeering, sold hash,
and even spent a year in jail, someone had set him up, he said, but
personally I never believed that—hash, you know;
they let him out at the end of the eighties and he wound up playing on amateur
teams which he also trained, that’s when we met,
and for some reason I still think of him often.

You know, he would often say, the Soviets taught me
to keep it simple, in terms of myself, it’s enough to choose
only those bits you need; you want to know why I turned
them down? simply because I thought it really made no difference – to play or
not to play, there was no difference, you know?
my career? well, I can still play, but the hash, you know?
I constantly have flashbacks on the field, otherwise I’m fine;
obviously I understood little then, but now
I think – truly, there was reason to be tempted —
the sunny eighties in the big country, black marketeering was wrecking the Soviets,
communism, pop music, and Yugoslavia,
he still looks pretty good now, except for the flashbacks
during games, otherwise – he’s fine, a pretty good master of his sport,
as he should be.

It’s a bad habit to lug around all kinds of garbage from the past,
things you don’t need, at some moment you stop
and understand that you can’t carry all that grief and joy,
life offers you too many temptations, this life is too tempting a trick –
just short enough to be told in one sitting
and too depressing to share with others;
every summer it’s the same thing – you don’t understand
whether you lost or gained more;
and everything continues unbelievably,
and even water eventually heats up
from the rhythmic beating
of the malleable hearts of fish

 

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Serhiy ZhadanSerhiy Zhadan was born in 1974 in the Luhansk Region of eastern Ukraine. He lived in Kharkiv and now spends much of his time traveling from city to city reading his work to enthusiastic audiences. Considered the best poet of his generation, he is the author of the collections: Quotations (1995), General Judas (1995), Pepsi (1998), the very, very best poems, psychedelic stories of fighting and other bullshit (selected works 1992-2000), Ballads about War and Reconstruction (2001), History of Culture at the Turn of This Century (2002), UkSSR (2004), Maradona (2007), and Lili Marlene (2009) as well as the prose collections Big Mac (2003), Anarchy in the UKR (2005), Hymn of the Democratic Youth (2007) and the novel Depech Mode (2004). His work has been translated into German, English, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Lithuanian, Byelorussian, Russian and Armenian and is featured on Poetry International’s Website. In 2005 the Bowery Poetry Club presented a bilingual evening of Zhadan’s poetry with the poet reading in the original and the translators in English. Mr. Zhadan fellowships include: the Toefer Fellowship for a residency in Hamburg and Vienna 2001-2002, the Herman Kesten Fellowship for Germany in 2001, and the Kultur Kontakt for Vienna in 2003. He has also traveled to New York to work with the Yara Arts Group at La MaMa Theatre.

Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps have received the Agni Poetry Translation Prize, translation grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Theatre Translation Fund Award for their work with Ukrainian poetry. Their translations have appeared in Absinthe, Agni, Circumference, Index On Censorship, Mantis, Nimrod, as well as the anthologies From Three Worlds: New Writing From Ukraine, Leading Contemporary Poets published by Poetry International, A Hundred Years of Youth: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Ukrainian Poetry, and New European Poets anthology published by Graywolf Press. Together with Sayan Zhambalov, they are the authors of the award-winning book Shanar: Dedication Ritual of a Buryat Shaman in Siberia published by Parabola Press in 2002. They are founding members of the Yara Arts Group which has created eighteen original theatre pieces based on their translations from their recently published book In a Different Light: A Bilingual Anthology of Ukrainian Literature. Wanda Phipps is the author of the books Field of Wanting: Poems of Desire (BlazeVOX), Wake-Up Calls: 66 Morning Poems (Soft Skull Press), Silent Pictures Recognize the World (Dusie Press), Rose Window or Prosettes (Dusie Press), Your Last Illusion or Break Up Sonnets (Situations), and Lunch Poems (Boog Literature). She's a recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellowship. Her poems have also appeared in over 100 literary magazines and are included in numerous anthologies. Virlana Tkacz heads the Yara Arts Group and has directed shows at La MaMa Experimental Theatre, BAM's Next Wave Festival in New York, as well as in Rio de Janeiro, Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Bishkek, Amsterdam and Ulan Ude in Siberia. She is the author of Kyrgyz Epic Theatre in New York: Photographs by Margaret Morton published by University of Central Asia.

 

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