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by Virlana Tkacz

On Wednesday April 29, 1998 a unique crowd gathered at the Mayana Gallery in New York. Slava Gerulak greeted the audience which included Ukrainian writers, scholars of Ukrainian culture and translators of Ukrainian literature. Also present in the audience were young American poetry aficionados, musicians, artists from the Buryat National Theatre currently performing at La MaMa Experimental Theatre and a number of older members of the Ukrainian Arts and Literary Club. They had all come to hear Oleh Lysheha read his poetry in Ukrainian and to listen to members of the Yara Arts Group read translations of his work in English.

Oleh Lysheha has had only one slim book of poetry published and it has long been out of print. But few who have been privileged to catch a glimpse into his special world will never forget it. He called his earlier poems "songs" and numbered them instead of assigning titles. Mr. Lysheha began the evening by reading one of these early poems "Song 212," afterwards the poem was read in English translation.

There are so many superstars, overgrown with weeds...
Somewhere Tom Jones
Is still singing about that green-green grass...
On such a night under the moon among the trees
Cinnamoned mushrooms
Practice choreography...
And I think I should return
To the Milky Way,
Churn up that warm dust...
On such a night
The grandest operas play for free
To those at sea, to those awake
Ella Fitzgerald
Smears herself blue singing
We shall not perish of this earth! --
No, no, no don't you cry --
Like a willow weeping over water...

translated from the Ukrainian
by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps
published in Visions International #52

When I first read this poem in 1990 I was struck by how contemporary it was. I rushed around to find a copy of his book and read it expecting to find the young urban beat of Ukraine for which I was searching. Instead I sank into a world where Paleolithic horses spoke from cave walls and old illiterate Hutsul women turn out to be the true judges and guardians of Franko's spirit. I was mesmerized. This was truly like nothing else I had ever read.

Oleh Lysheha was born in the Carpathian region of Ukraine in 1949 and studied English at the University of Lviv. Expelled from school during the purges in 1972 for contributing to the literary journal Skrynia (Chest), he was sent to Siberia to serve his term in the army in the Buryat Republic. This initiated his interest in Asian philosophy, arts and culture which would eventually become a major influence on his work.

Returning to Ukraine, Lysheha settled in Kyiv and worked on his poetry while holding menial jobs. He managed to totally isolate himself from the official literary world and his first collection of poetry, The Great Bridge (1989) was truly unique. Shortly afterwards he wrote his first play Brother Li Po, Friend Tu Fu, about the great 8th century Chinese poets. Budmo Theatre produced the play in Kyiv and toured it in Germany in 1993. His more recent work appeared five years ago in the journal Suchasnist, while last year Svitovyd published one of his prose pieces. At the poetry event, Mr. Lysheha read several of these longer pieces, holding his Ukrainian speaking audiences rapt. One friend told me afterwards, "they're like great avant-garde film which tell a complicated story while allowing the shifting point-of-view to transform not only our view of the story, but also of the entire story-telling process."

Then, Mr. Lysheha started reading my favorite poem "Swan." This piece had captured me when I first read it in Suchasnist in 1994. I translated it with Wanda Phipps, the Afro-American poet with whom I work on Ukrainian translations. In the summer of 1995 I worked on staging it at the Theatre Workshop Yara conducts every summer at Harvard. Afterwards, I decided I wanted to do my next theatre piece using swan legends. This led me into the legends and mythic world of Burtyatia in Siberia. Cecilia Arana sang part of the poem in Virtual Souls to music by Yara's resident composer, Genji Ito:

I walked into this museum
Right near the canal..
No one else was there..
And in a corner under glass
I saw a dried out pair of ancient slippers,
Which must have lain in some bog..
The feet they once held
Have probably turned to dust..
Pointy, graceful,
With curved straps
I couldn't pull myself away from them..
Would you believe me
If I told you
That my foot used to be so happy
In those slippers?..

translated from the Ukrainian
by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps

These words helped open the mythical space in the world of our play. They also were the opening poem in the first book Yara ever published, Ten Years of Poetry from the Yara Theatre Workshops at Harvard. They invited us into a world where people believe in the power of the Word.

Three of the major songs in Flight, Yara's newest piece collaborative work with artists from the Buryat National Theatre at La MaMa Experimental Theatre are also sections of Lysheha's "Swan" poem. They are sung by Erdeny Zhaltsanov, Tom Lee and Meredith Wright to music by Genji Ito. Oleh Lysheha had actually come to New York to see Flight. He was very taken with the musical renditions of his work. We convinced him to stay in town long enough to do a poetry reading.

The audience sat very still after Mr. Lysheha read the powerful end of the "Swan." Then Tom Lee, one of Yara's actors got up and read our translation Lysheha's "Swan." I had heard Tom read many sections of this poem in rehearsal. I had even heard him and Andrew Pang recite pieces of it in the middle of the night on a dirt road in Siberia when our bus broke down. But I hadn't heard anyone read the whole text recently.

I was very moved by experiencing all the twists and turns of a soul searching for transcendence in the difficult pettiness of what constitutes life in Ukraine these days. Tom's interpretation was very different from Oleh's cool delivery. We were all swept away. Afterwards, there was a lot of talk about the poems, the readings and the cultural adventures Mr. Lysheha had sent us all on.

Oleh Lysheha is spending this year in Pennsylvania as a Fullbright scholar at Penn State. He is working on the first major anthology of 20th century American poetry in Ukrainian translation. Expect great things.

this article was originally published in The Ukrainian Weekly, Sunday June 21, 1998

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