From “Letters to Ukraine”

But Ukraine is a country of the baroque.
Traveling through it is a pleasure for the eye.
And that’s why the temptation to obliterate everything
is so strong. And no matter how far you travel

you see the consequences: dilapidated walls and houses
maybe from the time of the Turks. And five-sided
signs. Stars have disappeared from the wells,
that is, they’re gone, the wells are gone,

but there are traces, and this allows us
to forecast in the form of faith
in the inevitable. Because our earth is
something more than a shirt for your skin.

This underground baroque resists, it blooms
wildly even from the rubble, even though
we’re forgotten and no one talks about us in Europe.
It’s convenient to torture in palaces and castles,

but it’s tight in chapels. That’s why chapels
are the first step into the depths of Ukraine.
I can see everything from this foreign capital.
Everything in the world can be raised from ruins,

except for the living blood, as we already know.
Write, tell me if everyone is alive and well.
Whether angels fly over the Danube, if it’s raining
in Lviv, and if there is still enough blood.

_____

Meanwhile, I’m traveling around Moscow,
where the subway is both tragic and strategic,
which doesn’t help you have a chill life
or bring you any halva (what a magical word!),

because it’s just a network of shelters
neighboring hell, and it’s extremely unlikely
that anyone like a certain Andrukhovych
would ever have figured out the system. And when

at 12:30 am you walk through the arched
underground expanses of the circle line, heroically
unveiled by the Komsomol back in the thirties,
that is by convicts, you recall not Buzzati,

nor especially Kafka, but something more expensive,
such as executions and People’s Commissariats,
leather gun straps. The wind is rinsing you,
and you stand there gaping, like Thomas the Apostle,

or Brutus, whose hair stands on end
from the night terrors of empty stations,
the strategic lines that still bear
the names of murderers, swindlers, and scoundrels.

“These are,” said a professor from the US,
“the protagonists in my study of history.”
I don’t want to say the names of these villains.
They’d leave a sooty taste on my lips.

_____

Having bought a ticket with my last penny,
I absorb with my eyes, mouth, and brain
our rapid, instant ascent to the sky.
Below me is, as the English say, Moscow.

I was taking off, and from below waved
a hundred partings, a hundred wings in a frenzy of ecstasy,
rock stars, harlots, ambassadors, generals,
tsar Ivan and tsar Pushkin. The immortal genius

Lenin waved from his pedestal (farewell, buddy!
I will never see you again. Near Lviv,
you were recently tossed from the sky like
a charlatan or a jester, in short, like trash).

I took off. What will you do without me, Moscow?
What can you do—I have to be in the south.
I’m leaving you my fiery word.
You will be needier without me

in your abysses, beloved Mecca,
with your poor crawling toward you.
But you are so far away from us now
that “forever together” is becoming nonsense!

Good night, sky and clouds of cotton wool!
Sleep well, crimson city, the color of blood!
I’m flying home to sing carols.
Toward Irvanets and Neborak.


Read the Ukrainian-language original, “Листи в Україну,” the translator’s note by John Hennessy, and the translator’s note by Ostap Kin.

Source: Poetry (March 2024)

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