Young poets speak to a generation
Cutting-edge. Determined. Critical.
Those are just some of the words that describe the works of Ukrainian poets Andry Bondar and Serhy Zhadan.
The two, both 28, are considered some of the brightest minds in Ukrainian literary circles, and they have been able to echo in their works the emotions of their generation.
The pair performed Sept. 26 at a poetry reading organized by New York theater director Virlana Tkacz, who is in Kyiv teaching on a six-month U.S. government-funded Fulbright scholarship.
Held at the Dim Art Gallery, the evening was the first in a series of poetry readings to be held at various venues in the coming months.
The evening began with Tkacz introducing each poet, who read two works. She and actor Mykola Shkaraban then read a bilingual poem in Ukrainian and English by Zhadan called “Eulogy for Ursula,” about the death of a friend. Bondar and Zhadan then each took turns reading their works.
The poets explored issues that have universal meaning, like love and death. Yet they also dealt with themes best understood by Ukrainians. Bondar’s “Slavic Gods” for instance, looked at the psychological impact of a secure way of life replaced by another lifestyle, more uncertain in nature. Translated by Tkacz, the poem reads:
“Slavic gods breathe frankincense/ comfortably aware of their inability/to deal with today’s climate/they remember the good old days before Christ/ when sausage was cheap, yogurt cost 11 cents/televisions could be had on credit and there was total confidence/ in the coming day.”
Zhadan, who is a native of Luhansk, read a work about the famed Slovo Building in Kharkiv, where he now lives. The building was home to many of Ukraine’s best-known writers. Beginning in 1933, during the Stalinist purges, many of its occupants were executed or died in labor camps:
“They were led out at night their dreams scattering/from their shoulders like rats from window sills/their gray shirts were soaked with sweat/and yellow piss hid in their bodies/like contraband/those who led them out enjoyed the scent of the night scene/the gray underwear wet with the sudden awakening/the women with their faces smeared /with makeup and fear.”
Bondar and Zhadan both said they don’t consider themselves political writers, but by its very nature poetry touches on social themes.
“I can’t say it’s philosophical or metaphysical,” said Bondar, who is a native of Kamyanets-Podilsk, and who is an editor at the influential Ukrainian paper Zerkalo Tyzhnya. “Poetry is a spontaneous act.”
The idea of a series of poetry readings came out of a discussion in one of Tkacz’s theater classes when students asked about the goal of theater.
“In Ukraine, the goal of theatre is to enlighten the audience,” Tkacz said. “In the U.S. you don’t have a Ministry of Culture that tells you what to feel. You have to decide for yourself. For me the point of theater is to make you aware of the presence of a person on a stage and to be aware of that.”
At a time when many are concerned Ukrainian literature has suffered since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Zhadan said poetry is doing well.
“Poetry is strong in Ukraine. There is a stable of 20 or 30 poets who are very strong,” he said.
American writer Askold Melnyczuk, who was present at the evening, said he was impressed with the quality of the work.
“There was a lot of edge and a sense of history without being oppressed by it,” he said. “The willingness to take on the establishment is always a good sign in a young writer.”
The next reading will be held at the end of October.