“War Plants Paper Flowers.” New Ukrainian Poetry by Iya Kiva, Ostap Slyvynsky, and Halyna Kruk

“At every step one could wind up in someone else’s poem.”

Poets have long defined Ukraine. In the year since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian poets have helped to share with the world not only the country’s rich textual tradition, but also what is worth fighting for: children’s futures, self determination, the “freedom to rest in a land of love,” as Iya Kiva wrote in a poem from the brutal spring of 2022:

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we’ve packed a contraband humanitarian aid kit of war songs
and shipped it to Europe America India and China
paving the silk road with great Ukrainian literature

what have you got there, brothers—they ask at the borders—
silence dressed up in cyrillic letters
the sacred fire of the candlelight letter “ї”
our and your freedom to rest in a land of love

Scholars and translators of Ukrainian have acknowledged receipt of this aid kit, mobilizing to render Ukrainian poetry into a variety of languages.

To mark the passage of a year since the full-scale invasion, a year of Ukraine’s battle for independence, we are sharing the work of three Ukrainian poets. The poems by Iya Kiva and Halyna Kruk were written during the past year and are part of forthcoming collections, which I’ve translated together with Yuliya Ilchuk. The poems by Ostap Slyvynsky were written shortly before the February 2022 invasion. “Amber” is a joint translation that emerged from a poetry workshop at the recent virtual gathering of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL).

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–Amelia Glaser, UC San Diego


Two poems by Iya Kiva

memory dries like grass in summer’s garden

(air raids in most regions of Ukraine)

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i turn the key in a broken lock
and the door to the past closes

somewhere in my inner east, space
is overgrown with danger weeds, somewhere and nowhere

a favorite childhood hobgoblin falls in the slag heap

(attention everyone to a shelter)

what do you feel now
they ask in almost every interview

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Creaky krieg
throat cut with a bottle shank—shape of a Donbass rose
glass shards of a stolen youth in your hands and feet

these pretty metaphors are literature’s crooked mirror

I can’t remember
what I feel

(attention the air raid is going off)

and I’m trying to escape the parentheses

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on the unmarked graves of our lives
war plants paper flowers
The suffocating blossom of frozen time
its eyelid pages cut with a death knife

the borders of light and dark flatten into a platter of laughter
over the old fable about good defeating evil

cozy world, your unwanted children
have lost the ability to hear anything but atonal music
lost the ability to spell the word “love” out of legos
lost the ability to look their future in the face
with trusting eyes empty as their parents’ houses

long as the road to safety, this epic tale of freedom
smeared in the blood of the new abc’s of history
where every word must be looked up in the dictionary

and our mouths fill with the body of the earth
that’s caught like a noble beast in a trap of courage
pushing with all its weight our immobilized tongues
toward a mute boat amid rocks of pointless testimony

I’ve seen these deserted shores of justice before
I’ve seen these keys before in the beaks of birds of passage

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk


by Ostap Slyvynsky

Tell me, was that a joke? I dug
all night long, like you ordered me to,
the mice mocked me.
I seemed to see, on the other side
how the leaves were warming,
children readied for school,
dressed in starched collars,
how they double-checked that the iron was off,
watered the petunias with a tin
watering can.
And I could swear I heard
a heart beating through the clay. So, did I
intrude on hope for nothing?
Turned the earth for nothing, digging
for one bright line?
Explain this to me, as I stand here,
staring at my own palm,
where, under the very ring finger,
that rubbed against the shovel’s handle,
a grain of amber is ripening,
like a lamp, briefly lit
in some purgatory of mine
by my own hand.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Vitaly Chernetsky, Sibelan Forrester, Amelia Glaser, Olga Hasty, Yuliya Ilchuk, Roman Ivashkiv, Iryna Kovalchuk

Last Letter
by Ostap Slyvynsky

You leave, shutting the darkness like a folding table.
How much clothing we’ve ravaged!
How many yachts sailed into our waters, how many
fireworks there were and bodies! How we slammed
into the sleepy crowd, armed with an accordion!

But a thousand quiet Tuesdays are worth an hour’s weeping.
Sometime a neighbor will stop your hot clock hand.
Children will make their hideouts on the open
side of the rain, and there won’t be a minute without their knocking and laughter.
You’ll celebrate the evening arrivals,
you’ll sink into the plush carpet, full of sparks;
your quiet magnet will sparkle, while a wet hand
knocks at the door. And all this will happen as though you’d
long been praying to the beautiful Sunday gods.

Stay with me the whole sleepless night,
the whole night of watchfires.
If I should stumble, hold me
by my pale foot.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser


bifurcation point
by Halyna Kruk

in wartime Lviv, (they’ll write later)
there was a strong literary milieu,
most likely, they published as a group (like those modernists in “Mytusa”)
or gathered for readings (because what else would poets do in wartime!)
there were so many there:
the internally-displaced and the externally-dysfunctional
like briefly during the first world war, and the second, on their way through Europe,
before the iron curtain tore the modern world’s voluptuous naked body
wide open

back then it was more about Prague and Podebrady, Warsaw and Munich,
but this time they’ll talk about Warsaw and Lviv,
Chernivtsi and Uzhhorod, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil,
where there were so many of those poets it seemed
at every step one could wind up in someone else’s poem
in nightmares, in history, in the news, on the floor where you share a mattress,
under a single borrowed patchwork quilt
(what a perfect metaphor for human coexistence in wartime,
too bad it’s worn out!),
for one family, fractured and incomplete…

then explain to someone how in those first months we only crossed paths accidentally
for a few minutes just on business, sometimes on the street, not acknowledging each other at first,
startling, as if recalling something hopelessly lost and irretrievable
hugging instead of words to hide streaming tears:
—how are you—how are you (not a word about literature)—hang in there—hang in there
silent and focused, like the first Christians
who witnessed Christ’s miracles with their own eyes and had no idea
how to fathom it and how to tell others so they’d believe and wouldn’t mock them,
how not to twist or muddle things,
because it’s never clear which are the important details and which can be disregarded

then in each account we omit the parts about ourselves,
like apostles on opposite ends of the world, each preaching our own version of the gospel
because any faith depends on a million eyewitness accounts,
on countless private stories from that point in reality,
where no one knows anything yet, or understands
what that man did beside the dead Lazarus, and how he did it,
how everyone saw, but not everyone immediately believed…
especially if this faith in victory comes from a point not yet visible

this is how they’ll describe it in the early ’30s in the relevant chapters on Ukrainian literature
the main thing is not to forget that none of this was about literature


by Halyna Kruk

and Jesus ascended at the Mount of Olives
in the city of Bucha, in the city of Irpin,
in the town of Hostomel, in the village of Motyzhyn
in the town of Borodianka
in the city of Chernihiv, in the city of Kharkiv,
in the long-suffering city of Mariupol
and prayed to the Father–
let this cup stop with me,

crucified on a bodily cross
on an unidentified mortal’s body
2022 the year of our Lord
in a soulless world

heaven and earth walk on by

Translated, from the Ukrainian, by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk
From A Crash Course in Molotov Cocktails, forthcoming with Arrowsmith Press


Halyna Kruk’s poems are from A Crash Course in Molotov Cocktails, from Arrowsmith Press.

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