“War shortens the distance from person to person, from birth to death.” New Work by Ukrainian Poet Halyna Kruk

Translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk

we stopped digging deep long ago
in this uncertain field of ours-yours
because all kinds of junk can turn up:
human bones, horses’ heads, unexploded mines
*

Halyna Kruk’s poems of war are gut-wrenching. She picks apart Ukrainian soil, unearthing the detritus of history. Ukraine’s fertile earth, known as “chernozem” or “black soil,” has been cultivated and coveted. The “breadbasket” of Europe was supposed to produce grain for the burgeoning Soviet Union. The Nazis saw the land as potential Aryan lebensraum. The land that has been sown with crops has also been sown with the casualties of history. As Timothy Snyder puts it in his 2012 Bloodlands, “Even human ash fertilizes.”

In the middle of a terrible harvest in the early 1930s, the Soviet government set impossible production quotas for the newly collectivized farms. The result, known as the “Holodomor,” or “Great Famine” of 1932-1933, was utterly catastrophic. When the farms could not harvest the desired produce, the Soviet government forcibly seized food from families, leading to the death, by starvation, of an estimated four million men, women, and children in those two years alone. Literally “Hunger-death,” the Holodomor has been understood by scholars as a genocide—for it was the result of a systematic effort by the Stalin regime to punish Ukrainians, who were deemed counter-revolutionary.

Lev Kopelev, who in the 1930s served as a Party delegate on what he called “the grain front,” later wrote a painful account of his ideological disillusionment after enforcing quotas in Ukraine. “Our party, our state,” he writes, “waged war on the peasantry.” The bodies of the dead were often buried in mass graves. Some peasants resisted by burning their grain or killing their livestock rather than allowing it to be requisitioned. The Soviet Union did not commemorate the Holodomor. Vladimir Putin has denied historians’ findings that the famine disproportionately affected Ukrainians.

Kruk’s poems combine images of rabbits and military checkpoints, the language of philosophy and of the street.

The Holodomor remains a paradigm for describing Ukrainians’ centuries of struggle against foreign domination. When Halyna Kruk evokes the Holodomor, she signals not only needless death, but also resistance under conditions of starvation. In her 2019 poem, “A History of the Turn of the Century,” she compares a poet’s unwillingness to produce words in a time of war to the unwillingness to forfeit the last handful of grain in 1933:

the poet’s muscles are slack
like a millstone in ’33
but don’t give her a word or she’ll take them all.

History is inseparable from the present. Kruk, a poet and Medievalist from Lviv, aims to sensitize her readers to both. To own your fate, she implies, is to own history, to become more certain of your place in “this uncertain field of ours-yours.” The sticky soil that “keeps us from moving our feet” must be exhumed, if there is any hope of moving forward. In one poem, Kruk describes the dream-like absence of reality in war, the desire to believe that you will eventually wake up:

…living life
is like trudging through a snow-filled field… it urges me on,
the dream’s uncertainty, a vague conjecture:
then again, who doesn’t come back?

In these lines, Kruk alters Boris Pasternak’s comparison of life to an actor’s obligation to play a role:

But you cannot change the final passage
Once the order of the acts is sealed.
I’m alone, the Pharisees have power.
Life is not a stroll across a field.

For Kruk, life cannot be limited to playing a role, but must involve recognizing the extent of one’s own agency. Kruk’s poems combine images of rabbits and military checkpoints, the language of philosophy and of the street, and these unexpected syntheses should sharpen the reader’s senses. Her dreamscape ends with a jolt back to reality: “but none of us has come back, not from that dream.”

“No war” is a further indictment of accepting a prescribed role. This poem, written in early March, 2022, voices the widely-held feeling in Ukraine that Russian civilians, including anti-war activists, should be held accountable for enabling a regime that is bombing Ukrainian cities. For Kruk, even the threat of prison sentences in Russia cannot be compared to the life-altering reality of families mixing explosives in their kitchens, or commandeering playgrounds to assemble anti-tank “Czech hedgehogs.” The poem is, in a sense, tragic in its rejection of Russian allies.

Some, at the time of this writing, have gone to prison, lost their jobs, or fled their country in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But if Kruk’s poem ignores the sacrifice that some Russian protesters have made, it forcefully illustrates the widespread anger in Ukraine at colleagues, friends, and relatives who remain safe as their government has waged an increasingly violent war on their neighboring country.

(This is part four in a series on contemporary Ukrainian poetry.)

–Amelia Glaser, Cambridge, MA

*

we stopped digging deep long ago,
just a couple fingers down,
we leave the plowed earth unturned,
so the fertile soil won’t all blow away in one generation
so we rake our beds,
make the sign of the cross, and sow
we sow, from here to there, like everyone
like everywhere
we stopped digging deep long ago
in this uncertain field of ours-yours
because all kinds of junk can turn up:
human bones, horses’ heads, unexploded mines,
a battle ax, the peg that marked the border
between our side and yours
we don’t go there
between the eyes out of sight about the eye
we don’t measure it in steps,
we can’t tell
when all our land’s stuck to our soles
and keeps us from moving our feet

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.

*

A History of the Turn of the Century

fatal and inconsistent as NEP
she aims her bangs at you
the poet’s muscles are slack
like a millstone in ’33
but don’t give her a word or she’ll take them all
you’ve tried not to let her dazzle you
you’ve seen these tricks, won’t fall for them,
who is she, anyway—flirt, Cheka agent, bitch
she knows how to hit you where it hurts and, of course,
that what will kill you will seduce you first
audacious Übermensch, how long will you stay standing?
over the hollowed trench, after a hasty gunshot,
over a bullet-marked body,
where God will never die

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.

*

in a dream where a winter rabbit tangles its tracks
an anxious sound hangs in the air like a dog’s barking
high up, as if from a plane… you snap at the cold with your mouth
the way you’d open the door to the house,
is drifting down the same as falling? can you
change things, start over? …living life
is like trudging through a snow-filled field… it urges me on,
the dream’s uncertainty, a vague conjecture:
then again, who doesn’t come back?
from checkpoint to gray-gray zone,
to the children bunched on bundles, their mothers keep them close
anxiously call their names, as if to hold them by the sleeve
and somebody gets lost all the same, and a woman’s scream
rings out a rolling echo
I saw faces whiter than snow… than paper,
like targets on a shooting range…
at a distance harmless as a safety razor
that slices me slices
the children scatter across the field the children
run, in each a little rabbit’s terror
and a heart’s drumbeat…
sometimes it’s warmer if you burrow in the snow,
depends how thick it’s piled.
this dream is like snow… you look down at it
at the prickly poppy-pod. at chaotic rabbit tracks
at the white. at tangled conversations,
at accidental gazes accidental insights,
like flashes of fire…
but none of us has come back, not from that dream

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.

*

my love language has broken teeth
spit, you say, spit ‘em all out, spit ‘em quick!
you’ll get straighter ones.
with a better bite.

my love language is a wreck,
avoid this thicket, it’s mine upon mine, a tangle of tripwires,
you never know what a word really means,
which memory you can touch, which will detonate.

we planted this hedge so no one would get hit,
hung caution signs to warn the others
of death disguised as a pretty view

but you just offer to remove them so nothing
ruins the picture, not waiting for the sappers,
not clearing the empty terrain of thorns.

my love language is heavy as a father’s gaze,
immovable as the eyelids upon his son’s coffin,
which they used all week to steady their guns,
my love language is choking on its words like his mother

I held it close when I was crying and to stop crying,
I held it close. I knotted it like a camouflage net,
color coordinated with the season, so it could
hide someone.

you say don’t get mad. be wiser. take the high road.
tame your love language. push it out. purge yourself of it.
plant a flower in this scorched land.
in this empty place in the language and in you

you must have saved a few flower seeds.
you must have saved a kind word someplace.
someplace in your soul, that will forgive everything

my love language has grown so big
that my tongue comes out with it,
and my soul come out
with this soulless language.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.

*

“No War”

You’re standing with a “No War” sign as if to redeem
the irreversible: this war can’t be stopped,
like bright arterial blood from an open wound
it flows till it kills,
it enters our cities with the armed men,
seeps into our courtyards with the reconnaissance units,
like deadly mercury beads that can’t be put back,
you can’t fix it, except to find and neutralize it,
these civilian managers, clerks, IT-guys and students,
life didn’t prepare them for street fights, but the war did,
on the frontline, in a painfully familiar landscape, in a hurry
at first they only recruit experienced combat fighters to the defense units,
after that gamers who play Dune and Fallout,
or maybe if you’ve had a short-course in Molotov cocktails from a bartender you know,
at the local club while the kids are asleep, the kids are crying, the kids are being born
into a world temporarily unfit for life
Out on the playground they’re assembling Czech hedgehogs,
and nuclear families are mixing deadly “drinks.”
whole families, finally enjoying a conversation
and a collective project—war shortens the distance
from person to person, from birth to death,
from what we never wished for—
to what it turned out we were capable of
“Mom, pick up the phone,” a woman’s been pleading for two hours in the apartment building basement,
stubborn and dense, she won’t stop believing in a miracle
but her mother is out of cell phone range, in the suburbs,
where the prefab collapsed like cheap Legos
from the massive strikes, where just yesterday broadcast towers
stopped connecting people, where the world got blown up into pre- and post-war
along the uneven fold of the “no war” sign,
which you’ll toss in the nearest trash,
on your way home from the protest, Russian poet,
war kills with the hands of the indifferent
and even the hands of idle sympathizers.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk.

_____________________________

Halyna Kruk (b. 1974) is a poet, translator, and Medieval literature professor at Lviv State University. She has been recognized as a significant voice in Ukrainian poetry since her twenties. She has published five collected volumes of poetry and two volumes of prose fiction. Her children’s fiction has been rendered into fifteen languages. She has won numerous Ukrainian and European awards for her writing.

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.






More Story
The Story Behind Jonathan Franzen’s New Backlist Book Cover Redesigns Last year not only marked the twentieth publication anniversary of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, it also saw the release...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.

x