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OPINION

Voices of Ukrainian poets

‘Many of us are tormented and driven by both rage and compassion, and perhaps poetry is one of the best ways to address both.’

A man looks out of the window of his partially destroyed house after the shelling by Russian warships, on the outskirts of Odessa, on March 21, 2022.OLEKSANDR GIMANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this month, the writers organization PEN America hosted a Zoom event bringing together Ukrainian and American writers. Listening to the Ukrainians read their work aloud was deeply moving. As Ukrainian writer Oksana Lutsyshyna said, “Many of us are tormented and driven by both rage and compassion, and perhaps poetry is one of the best ways to address both.”

Here are poems by some of the writers who read that day.

Lovers on a Bicycle

By Ostap Slyvynsky

She sits riding on the frame, like a bird

perched on a branch, puffed up, mature,

with two clenched

knees that signal sweetly

to the truck drivers passing by.

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Him we don’t see clearly, but we hear

his flask clanking against the seat with every

pedal-stroke. He’s humming a ditty,

where did he pick it up, which war zone? No one’s heard it here.

She’s holding a handful of hazelnuts and feeds him

without turning — she passes them back and he

catches them with his mouth, which resembles

a fringed brown patch.

On the way back from the station, she’ll be alone,

looking like a paper doll,

dry, straight, two-dimensional,

used to making do with this love, as she

is used to making a meal out of nothing —

a dash of tea, a couple of potatoes.

She will ride through the first bout of rain,

reeling with her feet the over-exposed film — an endless

blank frame, where he runs into the living room

and spins her in his arms.

So it goes, this empty language of love, bargaining with hope

like a one-legged chair with a stove: let me be

at least until midday. I won’t

live through the night.

Translated by Anton Tenser and Tatiana Filimonova


We Carry Our Dead

By Halyna Kruk

we carry our dead like children

lay them out in the plaza and encircle them

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in the frost the snow bewildered

as if none of us yet knew

it was so easy to die

everyone still hopes

they will lie there and then get up

for what should we tell their moms

what to tell their children

who will tell them the worst

a person runs to meet a bullet

with a wooden shield

and a hot heart

and a head in a ski helmet

full of blood

mom, I’ve got my hat on he shouts into a dead phone

mom, his hat is too thin the bullet hisses

Translated by Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky


My God Spends All Night

By Marjana Savka

My god spends all night forming his battalions,

Is a crack shot, wages wars.

My god forgives my curses

As he polishes his stones.

My god won’t hide behind my back,

Throws quilted covers over children.

My god buys tourniquets

Then lines up to give blood.

My god can’t get a good night’s sleep

While the entire country’s standing guard.

My god allows me never to forgive

And lets me call things as they are.

Translated by Askold Melnyczuk


Who Is on My Side, You Ask

By Oksana Lutsyshyna

who is on my side, you ask

who is on my side? — this tree here,

as if it could be against you?

as if trees could be against people?

a whole park of trees

a whole forest, you could say — and are all on your side

all of them

and the cat? is the cat against you?

no, the cat is on your side

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this cat and all the world’s cats

all — on your side, all — your army

nimble, yellow-eyed

and gods? yours and others — and everyone in the world?

wouldn’t they help you?

of course, they would

they are on your side

how could they be — against you?

and that teacher that said — thoughts are everything?

what’s his name — Swami Vishnudevananda

is he — against you?

why waste his time! of course,

he is on your side

on your side

and the sea? what — you think, the sea is against you?

all its waves and pebbles and beaches

visible and invisible

everything is for you, don’t doubt it

every day and every minute

do you hear — the sea roars?

it says to you: I

am on your side

on your side

and music? which of the notes is against you?

which of the melodies?

Mozart? rappers? pianists?

The Accademia Bizantina? Paul McCartney?

no, what are you thinking

everyone is on your side

on your side

and there is no one against you

and there will never be

and so love, keep on loving

don’t be afraid

Translated by Olena Jennings


Ukrainian writers will be featured at a hybrid event (in person and online) Thursday, March 24, at 5 p.m. at Goethe-Institut Boston, 170 Beacon St., Boston.


Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.