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  • Executed Renaissance

    A taste of Ukraine's poetic Renaissance executed by Stalin
    Steephen Komarnyckyj

    British translator and poet Stephen Komarnyckyj has agreed to give Euromaidan Press readers an exclusive peek at his translations of some of the most striking poems by Ukrainian authors from the astonishing cultural renaissance of the USSR's "Ukrainization" period of the 1920s - early 1930s. Ukraine's brief period of independence struggles during 1917-1922 created an air of unprecedented freedom, leading to an artistic flourishing which not only managed to compensate for the 300-year long marginalization of Ukraine's cultural stage, but made the country a hotspot of Europe's most innovative artistic directions. Only a dozen years later, most representatives of the creative class were brutally executed in Stalin's Great Purge, with the culmination taking place in 1937. Some have opined that the Communists allowed the brief revival of Ukraine's national culture only to reveal the gifted representatives of its elite, in order to ease the elimination of potential leaders of the republic that could rise up against the forceful incorporation of the Ukrainian republic into the USSR. Most Ukrainian artists of the following generations would be compelled to sing odes to the Communist leadership. Ukraine continues to reap the consequences of the "Executed Renaissance" to the present day.
    The British publishing house Kalyna Language Press has recently been granted permission to produce an English translation of Yurii Lavrinenko's 1959 anthology "The Executed Renaissance" (pictured on the left) which presents work by the generation of Ukrainian authors who were destroyed by the Soviets during the nineteen thirties. Lavrinenko was himself a member of the Executed Renaissance and a literary critic. His anthology, which was painstakingly compiled from archival resources, collated works which were published in Soviet Ukraine up until 1933 and subsequently banned. He documents the lives and deaths of these authors in the concise and perceptive pen portraits which introduce the selections from their work. The book is both a selection of some of the most beautiful poetry and prose written in Europe last century and a memorial to a generation which perished during Stalin's forgotten genocide of Ukraine.

    The texts which follow will be part of the English-language translation of Yurii Lavrinenko’s 1959 anthology “The Executed Renaissance.”

    æ, !

    Hannia - Hania - Mighthelp

  • #2
    Volodymyr Svidzinsky (1885- 1941)

    This poem was probably written in 1933/1934 and is, in my view, the greatest poem written by anyone in response to Stalinism. I make that assertion not because the poem is technically innovative but because it exemplifies what Keats called negative capability. Svidzinsky will have seen the results of Stalin’s policies in Ukraine, but he does not moralize, condemn, or posture. He simply conveys the effect on him, and therefore on anyone whose conscience was not poisoned by the party’s slogans, of what he experienced. He would later be burned alive by the NKVD, but the poem speaks as clearly to us now as it did then to those people who passed it from hand to hand.

    The poem’s genius is that it says everything by saying nothing. The poet’s courage in facing both a hopeless situation and its deadening effect on him is profoundly moving. The English version is not literal but I believe it captures the essence of the poem, for I know that it is the luster of the surface, rather than a simplistic mirroring of the original which is important.

    The Lustre of Surfaces

    The lustre of surfaces dies into the shadow
    And antique silence sleeps,
    Like water decanted into a bowl.
    Only my hands live,
    Strange and separate,
    Their movements
    Compel me to meditate,
    Like the whisper of a leaf.

    I go to the window,
    A broken post stands by the verandah,
    Mould grows in the guttering
    Where snowflakes gather in winter,
    Where birds alight in the morning.
    I press my forehead against the glass
    And gaze for a while.

    I don’t love the advent of night
    It seems guilty, a dark linen,
    The blurred green edges of vegetation.
    A huge pool of silence accumulates.
    Where have the birds gone?

    The lustrous surface of things dies,
    The curtains hang motionless
    As if carved in stone.
    In my defined circle of silence
    I become more insensitive, and sad,
    As a forgotten, Chinese lantern caught
    On a branch in some old orchard.

    From "Treachery"

    In the western fields at dusk
    The ash doesn’t whisper
    The jasmine is not fragrant
    As at first light.
    How gently
    You come over the horizon
    To the violet in the glade.

    You step towards her
    The earth crackling
    With autumn ice underfoot,
    And look beyond the path
    To see grassy mounds
    Squat like bazaar stallholders
    Some solitary and others in pairs
    And the jasmine fades
    In the yellow hands of buckthorn.

    We will embrace you in auburn waters
    Swathe you in tangled grass
    Give you a maiden
    Green of shoulder, smooth of belly
    Lustrous eyed, the marsh’s beauty…”

    The violet smiles
    At how easily you are lured.
    The silence is morose suddenly
    A maiden straight and tall
    You stretch out your hand,
    She is the night you call.

    Where wild chicory covered the street

    Where wild chicory covered the street
    In a familiar circle
    Where I would not place my feet
    The doors were open
    But only the night entered
    Limping clumsily
    And wearing no pale blue hat
    With a zig-zag of grey silk.
    I embraced her before I spoke
    “Sweetheart how long I waited
    By your window, when day came
    It was not I troubling the branches
    Of mountain ash and cherry trees.”
    The night leaves at dawn
    With her friend the moon
    They will sit together
    On the shaking cart of sunlight
    When the orchids flutter
    And I’ll look from my verandah.
    Do not look at me or mock the night
    With its deformed feet.

    I walk alongside a stream

    I walk alongside the stream
    A bird’s wings flash in the dusk
    Darkness thatches its shadow
    On crag and alder.
    I walk alone…
    Tense my forgotten hands
    Will I hear the fairy-tale whisper
    Of someone’s love.
    But all around are familiar shapes,
    Darkness lisps mockingly
    That I walk home
    Through no fabled landscapes
    No stories come.

    It is already evening , a soft breeze

    It is already evening, a soft breeze
    Behind the leafless tree in the orchard
    (As if these two trees are not kindred)
    The willow branches blossom
    With a candle’s yellow flame
    Lit for spring, its juvenile roar.
    Why does it burn?

    It is evening with a soft breeze,
    Do you see black horses to the east
    Dressed as for some antique funeral
    Emerging from the dusk?
    They will bear you back quietly
    As the yellow flame is severed
    From the willow branch
    To limp after them,
    In dishevelled smoke will come
    To the locked hollowness and bow
    Where the north is blank as stone.

    It is already evening with a soft breeze
    Sky torn between light and dark.
    Let the willow’s yellow flame tremble
    On the dark horses robed
    For my funeral.

    When the stars come
    Let them not fall upon my candle
    But break into flame
    On the willow branch
    So it can bloom.

    æ, !

    Hannia - Hania - Mighthelp


    • #3
      Mykhailo Drai-Khmara (1889-1939)

      Mykhailo Drai-Khmara (1889-1939) was a Ukrainian poet, linguist, scholar and academic and one of the many major authors who died during the Soviet state's genocide of Ukraine in the 1930's. He was also a prolific translator, who recast Dante's "Inferno" into Ukrainian along with works by many other major European authors. However his sonnet Swans (1928), which celebrated Ukraine's five leading neoclassical poets, challenged the Soviet state's attempt to destroy Ukrainian culture. This beautiful poem initiated his fight against the authorities and was the beginning of the path that led to his death in a labour camp in Kolyma in 1939. It is believed that he laid down his life to save that of another prisoner.

      These Lips of Stone

      These lips of stone
      The tall rooftops
      Gulping the curdled light
      Like Tatar Boza
      The bee swarm clings to a vast honeycomb
      Its massive sleep.
      Swollen eyelids blink
      Beyond the city’s periphery
      Fingers drum the guttering nervously.
      Snow veined with dirt
      Antique marble
      Darkening around tree stumps,
      Wounds collapsing inwards
      These tears that are not mine
      But those of oaks fallen
      My face and hands sprinkled with rain.

      Why do you weep, blind ones
      Let the road
      Be covered with this dirty fabric
      Let it displace
      The pendent ice
      And believe
      Soon soon
      The rainbow will come
      Spring will chime
      In the poorest dwelling,
      Sunlight will festoon
      Roses, though silently now
      People in winter coats
      Drift on sleighs through snow.

      This translation has not attempted to capture the form of Drai-Khmara’s beautiful neoclassical sonnet but is a semi regular sonnet. It reads fairly naturally in English while gesturing towards the discipline of the original. This approach allowed me, I hope, to capture something of the yearning for freedom of the original verse with its beautifully wrought style. The semi rhyme at the end is aimed in part at retaining the emphasis on the word life which concludes the original while evoking the feeling of a yearned for liberation (which thematically if not in terms of form is present in the original).The Lyra (Lyre) constellation consists of five stars. The five swans represent himself and the five neoclassical poets of his generation (Rylsky, Zerov, Fylypovych and Klen). The five stars they are guided by composing a lyre can be seen as their poetry which will lead them from Ukraine under the totalitarian winter of the thirties. He paid for this achingly beautiful poem with his subsequent arrest. He reportedly died when he asked a camp guard to take his life rather than that of a young student, and spat in the thug’s face. The guard emptied his clip of ammunition into Drai-Khmara who still managed to call him "viper!” as he died.

      æ, !

      Hannia - Hania - Mighthelp


      • #4

        On the tranquil lake where willows dream
        Long tamed by both summer and Autumn
        They splashdown, flutter and swim
        Their necks bend like heavily laden vines.
        When frosts come resonant as glass
        And waves whisper immersed in a white trance
        These swimmers shatter the frozen space
        Fearless, although winter threatens.
        Oh cluster of five unconquered singers
        Through snow and storm your song victorious
        Breaks the apathetic faithless ice.
        Be strong; from slavery and nothingness
        Be guided by the constellated Lyre
        To worlds of light, oceans of foaming life.

        æ, !

        Hannia - Hania - Mighthelp


        • #5
          Yevhen Pluzhnyk ( 1898-1936)

          Yevhen Pluzhnyk is customarily regarded as a highly introspective poet with a very individual style albeit one who championed the absolute value of human life. However this idealised portrait of a woman is reminiscent of the work of his neoclassical contemporaries. He died in a prison camp on the Solovetsky islands.

          She approaches the sea, indifferent now

          She approaches the sea, indifferent now
          Herself to who she is.
          Is that not all of us, at the same pitch
          In swift and vacuous changes

          She moves lazily the headscarf falls
          At her feet, a crown transparent
          On the slender stalks of her legs
          Warm heavy full the flower blooms
          Her body virginal, calm…

          A wave relapses… the shore is silent…
          Again sea splash… then soundless…
          Her pink toes stem the tide
          Infinite shifts of blue recede

          And she is embraced by the water
          Its vastness surrendered to the wind
          Until It seems Aphrodite has returned
          In the white foam that bore her.

          æ, !

          Hannia - Hania - Mighthelp


          • #6
            Bohdan Ihor Antonych (1909-1937)

            Bohdan Ihor Antonych lived in the same time frame as members of the Executed Renaissance but in part of Ukraine which was under Polish occupation. He can, however, be considered part of the revival of Ukrainian literature which they embodied and died with eerie synchronicity in 1937. The ecstatic surface of his poetry seems effortless.


            We return slowly to the earth, our cradle.
            Green tangles of vegetation bind us, two fettered chords.
            The razor sharp axe of sun hews at a trunk,
            The music of moss, tenderness of the breeze, the oak a proud idol.

            In the wastage of days that bear us the body, warm and obedient
            Grows with itself, two siblings, two flowers of fidelity.
            The moss warms us like cat fur. You transform the stars into a murmur
            And blood into music and greenery. The sky glows.

            At the edge of day, in the ocean of heaven, the winds of the future sleep
            And our devoted constellations wait under the frost,
            While earth does not instruct them to arise. We abandon things,
            To be borne, to grasp the stars in pure ecstasy.

            The yearning of blood hurts. Eyebrows sharp as two arrows,
            While above us a wall of melody echoes
            The pinions of a breeze. Our fate pinned on the planets.
            You burn with growth, thirsty as the earth. Become all music.

            This poem first appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation: Issue: Series 3 No.14 - Polyphony. The poem also appears in Kalyna Language Press’s PEN award winning 2016 book “Night Music: Poems by Bohdan Ihor Antonych” (translated by Stephen Komarnyckyj)

            æ, !

            Hannia - Hania - Mighthelp


            • #7
              Pavlo Tychyna (1891-1967)

              Pavlo Tychyna was born on 27th of January 1891, near Chernihiv in West Central Ukraine into the family of a village Deacon. He received a secondary education in exchange for tendering his services to the monastery choir, became an accomplished player of the clarinet and oboe, and displayed an ability to produce striking pencil sketches. It was, perhaps, his meeting with Mykhailo Kotsyubynskyi (1864-1913), which led to him becoming more known as a writer rather than a musician or draftsman. His friendship with Kotsyubynskyi, whose most well-known work is “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” (1912), gave him a template on which he could model his own developing identity. He studied at the Commercial Institute in Kyiv from 1913-1917 and, following the revolution, occupied various posts as a Soviet functionary and writer.

              Three key themes of Tychyna’s work are nature, music and, in a qualified sense, religion. The poems collected in Solar Clarinets (1918) evoke the landscape of central Ukraine and his experience of revolution and civil war, but more frequently explore the writer’s apprehension of an underlying structure within experience and reality that is expressed most perfectly through music. In his best work he is the most remarkable poet of the twentieth century, combining an ecstatic pantheism, a compassionate yet detached observation of humanity, and a mastery of the resources of his language.

              The first translation is what Ukrainians might call a perespiv, in this case a poem which is a translation with a creative element. This approach enabled me to capture something of Tychyna’s rapture. The original poem appeared in his first collection Solar Clarinets. The second piece, which is largely true to the original is from his second book The Wind from Ukraine (1924). This book shows Tychyna grappling with the contradictions of revolution and his role as a soviet poet. He was eventually terrorised by the regime and survived by becoming a bard of Stalinism during the nineteen thirties. His best work shows that he was immeasurably more gifted and intelligent than his tormentors.

              The flowering meadow and gold drizzle

              The flowering meadow and gold drizzle…
              In the distance, an aquarelle...
              The woods meditate, villages nestle.
              Oh, heart drink…
              The air has a taste
              Distilled from autumn’s kiss
              Of wonder and sadness.

              I stand alone in these unknown pastures,
              A forsaken sacrifice,
              And nature listens to my sorrows.
              Through smiles and tears
              She is the same sweet princess,
              Who more than once has crowned
              My sorrow in her songs.

              I pray. It is so quiet
              As if I stood before the Madonna.
              Only the bells in the village echo
              So lazily,
              While from just above the clouds
              The last farewells of swallows fade,
              Old vestments. Brocade.

              Over the road stands the willow
              Catching the resonant strings of rain
              Bowing with its branches as if saying
              Sorrow, sorrow
              Such years, such without end
              On the strings of eternity I play
              A willow, solitary.

              The Wind from Ukraine

              I do not love anything
              As much as the demonic gale
              That swings, past
              Roars, whistles and twists
              Last year’s leaves in the wood,
              Satan’s harvest,
              Or drowns the ploughed field in mud
              And tries to wrest the cattle wagons free…
              How they strain on the rails
              How the Poplar bends…
              Demonic gales…
              Rabindrath sits in distant Bengal
              “There is no insurrection here, the people are clay,”
              Around him the wind from Ukraine
              Laughs ironically
              Through the rocks of the West, the bars of a prison:

              “Is this the advent of an animal, an animal or a human”…
              The wind from Ukraine
              With his bushy head from the banks of the Dnipro…
              “Don’t expect anything good from me, my lords…
              Playing your vain and empty game…”

              I do not love anything
              As much as the gale
              His pain and his path
              And the earth

              My earth.

              Home - Kalyna Language Press
              A taste of Ukraine's poetic Renaissance executed by Stalin

              æ, !

              Hannia - Hania - Mighthelp