The Spirit of Ukrainian Resistance: Five Poems by Marjana Savka

“As if god’s optics weren’t aiming straight for your heart.”

On the eve of Ukrainian Orthodox Easter, the poet Marjana Savka posted a poem to her Facebook page about an army volunteer who has been struck down by missile fragments.

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Here lies the Lord. Slain in a coffin.
The Resurrection, it seems, is off schedule.
He was a volunteer in this last most terrible war.

Ukrainian Orthodox Christians celebrate Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, as a time marked by the sadness over the tragedy of the crucifixion and the anticipation of the resurrection. It is a day of mourning and of delayed joy.

Addressing his country on April 23d (Holy Saturday), President Zelensky, who had imposed new curfews on the expectation that there could be an Easter offensive, said, “It seems that Russa’s gotten stuck on this day. For years. On a day when death triumphs and it’s as though there’s no God. But there will be a resurrection. Life will defeat death.”

Marjana Savka is a visual artist as well as a poet and publisher. Her paintings of angels, posted to social media, have come to embody the Ukrainian spirit of resistance. On March 11, she posted a painting of an angel sheltering children against a backdrop of a ravaged city. She wrote, by way of explanation: “This is Mariupol. This angel has it the hardest.” [Це Маріуполь. Цьому Ангелу найтяжче.]

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Savka’s books are works of art in their own right. The poems in her 2019 book, Optika Boha (God’s Optics) are accompanied by doubled illustrations: with the naked eye, the reader sees pleasant social scenes—a family portrait, people feasting, children flying kites, with thinly drawn blue lines in the shadows.

But viewed through the red lens that comes with the book, a shadow picture emerges in blue: a panther drives a family away; a man alone at a table gazes at a paper boat, his companions vanishing into ghostly outlines; Roman soldiers crucify Jesus where the children in red had flown their kites. This double vision—a version of God’s optics—reveals life’s complex mixture of joy and sadness. Appearing five years into the Donbas war, the book hints at the strange reality of joy and loss that can share the same protracted moment.

Savka’s poetic personae are often suspended between the present and the past, between record-keeping and erasure, between the intimate and the public. “what can we talk about,” one poem asks,

[…]

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when facebook has already shared
what I was thinking about this morning
what films you’ve seen
and what we dreamed last night

[про що говорити
коли фейсбук уже розповів
про що я думала вранці
який ти бачив фільм
і що нам снилося]

In a world where everything feels public, Savka’s poems meditate on the space between intimacy and public display. Like the mournful space between the crucifixion and resurrection, the silences between speech constitute their own faith in the future: “sometimes it’s enough to emerge from your own silence.”

Savka, like many of her colleagues, has mobilized her poetry and her social media followers in defense of her country. Last week she asked her Facebook friends to contribute to a fund for Hikmicro heat visors for Ukrainian soldiers: “You may remember my book, God’s Optics. Now more than ever, words are losing their poetic metaphor and becoming reality. … we are raising money for optics.”

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–Amelia Glaser, Cambridge, MA. This is part of a series featuring new Ukrainian poetry.

 

*

Here lies the Lord. Slain in a coffin.
The Resurrection, it seems, is off schedule.
He was a volunteer in the last most terrible war.
Drove around the city so calm, unarmored
Delivered bread through the hellish traffic.
Told those around him: don’t live in anger.
After all even a horrible criminal has a chance of repenting.
But the sun was setting over the city, behind the hills’ black ridges
And the buildings were burning like dry masts. And the fight
Between the light and the dark might last a while.
He was struck down by a fragment of a missile to the chest.
Beside him lay twelve others, a child among them.
A good fifty people quickly surrounded them.
And they said, Herods spare no one, not even kids.
But they soon left. Because it was already curfew.
Here lies the Lord. He was kind. He divided the bread.
He came from somewhere—from Izyum, from Bucha, from Popasna.
He’s lying in a coffin. We’re awaiting the wonder of wonders.
He asked us not to kill. He walked here among us.
He will rise again. Casting off his cross and vulnerability.
He will rise again and will join our ranks,
Desperate,
Brave,
Familiar,
Alive.

April 23, 2022

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Translated, from the Ukrainian, by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.

*

sometimes you simply don’t notice
that someone is filming your life
that you’re in the camera sightline
of somebody’s (third) eye
sometimes we’re crappy actors
we forget our parts
we mix up our scripts
while trying to blurt out that final
triumphant line and what comes out are words of surrender

*

Here
as if on the margins of life
as if you were invisible
as if god’s optics weren’t aiming straight for your heart
let yourself
cry an ocean of tears
let the records play in your head
violating synchronicity
someone is deejaying badly
mixing your pain and light
someone is letting the paper boats
of your childhood into your blood vessels
they’re decorated in your handwriting
you carry
a whole flotilla of memories
sometimes it gets stuck
in one of your heart valves
and you feel
a subtle pain
a paper-thin
phantom pain of things past
you know
I’ve learned so little
but my palms are warm
all I can do is hold them
all I can do is hold them
against your chest

Translated, from the Ukrainian, by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.

*

somewhere on the shore of days
between yesterday and tomorrow
we strain our ears to hear
night is the time for listening
we let all the words out of our head—
let them fly
dark little angels
a strange trajectory
navigating between dreams and reality
it’s here somewhere
a stream pool of total silence
we step into it
naked and mute
and silence encroaches
first to the knees
then to the breast
consuming the shoulders
submerging you entirely
god what’s the word
from which everything was born?
… sometimes it’s enough to emerge from your own silence

Translated, from the Ukrainian, by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.

*

Time
does it dry up or burn to ash?
the skin under your eyes dries first
announcing your age with the most common convention
verified by indisputable signs of decay
we are inside time’s herbarium
carefully concealed between the pages
the book of life isn’t some brochure
it’s an actual ledger
under its weight everything gets thinner
until it becomes transparent
like the fluorographic X-ray of the flower that remembers

March, 2022

Translated, from the Ukrainian, by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.

_________________________

Marjana Savka is a Ukrainian poet, children’s writer, literary critic, essayist, and editor. She is also the co-founder of the publishing house “Vydavnytvo Starogo Leva.” She published her first poetry collection, Naked Riverbeds, at the age of twenty-one. Eight other books, for which she has received several awards, have appeared since then, including four poetry collections and three children’s books. A former actress and journalist, she edited We and She, an anthology of poems by female writers from Lviv, Ukraine. Savka’s poetry is distinguished by the intricate link between life and literature, resulting in a palimpsest of universal tropes and an intimate picture of love.

Amelia Glaser is Associate Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at U.C. San Diego. She is the author of Jews and Ukrainians in Russia’s Literary Borderlands (2012) and Songs 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 of Nikolai Gogol: Performing Hybrid Identity (2021). She is currently researching memory and identity in post-Soviet Russian and Ukrainian literature.






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