“I pretend death doesn’t exist.” New Poetry From Ukraine by Iryna Shuvalova

Translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk

Being a Ukrainian abroad and being a Ukrainian at home today represent two different kinds of pain. Iryna Shuvalova, a Ukrainian poet and literature scholar, traveled from her native Kyiv to China, where she works as a college counselor, as tanks began to appear on Ukraine’s borders.

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I pretend death doesn’t exist

but death is coming and death is buzzing
over plum trees over cherries and quince
the ruthless stinging of metal bees
spring is coming it’s already spring in nanjing
the columns move toward kyiv military columns

I read the news feed

Whereas most of the Ukrainian poems in our earlier Lit Hub installments were written during the first eight years of the Donbass war, we are sharing a cycle by Shuvalova, written far away from the bombing, in Nanjing, China, following the February 24 invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian name for February is liutyi—literally meaning “furious/fierce”—and, as Shuvalova writes, the month proved furious. Shuvalova’s poems capture the news feeds, the texts, and the phone calls that bridge and compound the distance between Ukraine at war and a Ukrainian abroad.

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Shuvalova began to attract attention in the 2000s as a young lyric poet who was an heir, in some sense, to the metaphysical tradition of Ukrainian poets of the 1980s like Oleh Lysheha and Vasyl Stus. But to this tradition she adds the changing relationships among individuals, the environment, technology, and post-Soviet culture. Shuvalova weaves natural metaphors with corporeal ones. She frequently writes in poetic cycles with internally overlapping themes and recurrent images that expose a broad spectrum of emotional and physical states. These states are encoded in mythological, biblical, and artistic references.

The distance between beauty and war, safety and home, is painful in its magnitude.

“The essence of poetry is speaking in multiple voices through one voice,” Shuvalova has said of her most recent book of poems. Shuvalova’s language is melodic, rhythmic, and deceptively simple. Her poetry sometimes sounds like a love song, sometimes like prophecy. She moves seamlessly from conversational language to compound words of her own invention. Refugees carry “evaculuggage” (evakvaliz). She titled her 2020 collected volume Stoneorchardwoods(Kaminsadlis). The book’s compound title suggests that the various elements in it are alchemically blended with each other, forging something new.

People in Shuvalova’s poems also break up into elements, and the world of inanimate objects can suddenly come to life with human voices. Bridging the gap not only between words but also between things, Shuvalova explores the phenomenon of memory at its deepest, most organic levels, where family and friends are intertwined with circulatory systems like trees by roots. In a 2020 poem, “You Deserve More,” Shuvalova writes:

sometimes the light shifts and folds up
like a tablecloth the kids hide under
a membrane that something trembles behind
the sensitive innards of their secret world where
the world lasts forever
airy agile unchanging

(Translated from the Ukrainian by Anand Dibble.)

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In her new war cycle, too, Shuvalova gives us poetry about the desire to define oneself as part of a fundamentally interconnected world. Memories, conjectures, acquaintances and nameless friends, blurred dreams and feelings constitute the fabric of her poems and lay down her personal universe. But here, the distance between beauty and war, safety and home, is painful in its magnitude. How do you respond to a friend’s texts about fighter jets? Can you wear happy earrings during a war?

Yuliya Ilchuk, Stanford, CA and Amelia Glaser, Cambridge, MA
(This is part five in a series on contemporary Ukrainian poetry.)


(to my loved ones)

1. the unspeakable

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look look look
here here
it lies
the unspeakable

as a loved one’s
dead body

as night when
they’re bombing

take the unspeakable
under its blood-soaked arms
pull it
leave tracks

in the morning may
these red tracks
be seen
from afar

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2. a poet can’t write about war

neither victim
nor participant
nor defender
nor observer
nor outsider
so who

the war gave everyone a role—what’s yours?
covering your mouth with your palm?

write write
miss can’t-hold-back-the-tongue
suddenly she’s quiet just when it seemed
precisely the time to talk but

what can you say when over there
everyone everywhere is shouting
sirens screaming
smoke crackling high up
evaculuggage wheels squeaking
crooked mouths of shattered windows
desperately howling

she texts you
“I can hear explosions close by,
fighter jets flying”

you don’t know
how to respond.


3. spring

in my

a woman who shall remain nameless
awaits spring and war

she pulls our common future from the closet
tries it on in the mirror

and only when the air-raid sirens go off
in the background
does her smile fade

she reluctantly lowers her hands
takes off our future
hides it in the closet
sits out the airstrike on the bathroom floor

not the right season


4. wooden gods

what did you know my little wooden gods
my cunning golden foxes

when my flight
left behind
the gray-black-red
November field beyond Boryspil
the mirror patches of autumn water

what did you see
from your dusty place
on my bookshelf when I
brought you
pinecones leaves pebbles
to thank you for

I thought
a new job
a successful relocation
the visa finally issued
but apparently it was

for an evening without shooting
for a city without tanks
for the fact that my almost eighteen-year-old

won’t have to kill anyone
won’t have to die


5. this is how a face looks

this is how my child’s face looks
when she’s about to say
mom have you read the news
mom it’s war

this is how the face
of a Korean teenager looks
asking, “teacher, are you ok?”
asking “teacher, how is everyone back home?”

“teacher it’s the twenty-first century
what the fuck?”


6. volunteer

my child’s father
is standing in line
to enlist as a volunteer
for the city defense squad

normally we don’t talk much
but now…
but now.

there’s a long queue
they’ve been waiting all morning
his voice on the phone is spirited
almost cheerful

how will you…?
constantly tortured by your ulcer
incapable of heating soup
hammering a nail taking out the trash
watering the flowers on time
keeping the cat from scratching up the sofa

how will you hold a weapon
how will you shoot at
the bloody boys from Perm
the bloody boys from outside Irkutsk
boys trained to kill

I know
you will be a good shot

7. earrings

getting ready to leave for work
I suddenly catch myself wondering
if I ought to wear
simpler earrings

if today
someone dies there
what will i do

a tearful

in these cheerful things
in these colorful things

8. while you sleep

it’s easier for me when you sleep
because it seems to me that while you sleep
you can’t die

after all, asleep,
you’re already so close
to the other world
where there’s no shooting anymore

and also because while you sleep
I’m not asleep
and so in some sense
I’m standing guard

if not guarding you
(you’re so far away)
then this day
this light

six hours ahead
I carry this morning sun like a banner
that waves

over the land of the living
and the land of the dead

their border guards
have hung their rifles in the trees
and lie down lazily in the grass

these two countries
have not yet severed
diplomatic ties


9. February

we planned to get through February
like any other month—
only shorter

to cross it like crossing a little stream
day by day
stone to stone

to stand, having made it across,
on the green shore of spring

but instead, the river roars and grabs us by the legs
this red slippery foaming

knee-deep in darkness
we hasten to build rafts

our rolled-up pants
grow heavy
filling up with water

or maybe with triumph
or maybe with death

10. a bun

by the river, a bun in my hands
I pretend death doesn’t exist

spring is coming buzzing over plum trees
spring is coming it’s already spring in nanjing
the columns are moving toward kyiv military columns
on the river, a bun in my hands
I pretend death doesn’t exist

but death is coming and death is buzzing
over plum trees over cherries and quince
the ruthless stinging of metal bees
spring is coming it’s already spring in nanjing
the columns move toward kyiv military columns

I read the news feed
cry straight into my bun

11. worry

is sitting on my neck
like a hairy devil

a devil with a human face

a devil with the face of a little man
with a big dark shadow
spreading halfway across europe

it’s gogolian dostoevskian
bloody axes troubled times
a plague at the threshold enemy at the gate

europe is backing off
europe stands cautiously aside

trying, confused,
to wipe the red splashes
off its patent leather shoes

12. your own

at first glance every bombed house in the photo
looks like your own

every child sleeping in the kyiv metro
has the face
of your daughter

the news doesn’t happen to us
happens to us

the woman in the photo
desperate palm covering
her twisted weeping mouth

i don’t know this woman
i know this woman

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk, in consultation with the author.


Iryna Shuvalova (b. 1986) is a poet, translator and scholar originally from Kyiv. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature from Dartmouth College (2014) and a PhD in Slavonic Studies from the University of Cambridge (2020). Iryna has authored five books of poetry: Ran, Os, Az, the bilingual Pray to the Empty Wells, and Stoneorchardwoods. Her poetry has been also anthologized, and published in periodicals in Ukraine and beyond in nine languages, including Modern Poetry in Translation, International Poetry Review, Podium Literature, Radar.

Amelia Glaser is Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at U.C. San Diego. She is the author ofJews and Ukrainians in Russia’s Literary Borderlands (2012) andSongs in Dark Times: Yiddish Poetry of Struggle from Scottsboro to Palestine(2020). She is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Yuliya Ilchuk is Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Stanford University. She is the author ofNikolai Gogol: Performing Hybrid Identity (2021). She is currently researching memory and identity in post-Soviet Russian and Ukrainian literature.

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