FEBRUARY 10, 2021
More than a writer, philosopher, and public intellectual, Oksana Zabuzhko is a highly recognizable Ukrainian brand and a renowned ambassador of Ukrainian culture in the international arena. As Askold Melnychuk states in the introduction to her new Selected Poems, she is “the most influential literary figure in Ukraine of the last half-century.” Zabuzhko is widely published both in Ukraine and abroad. Despite the challenges imposed by a global pandemic, 2020 was kind to her: in addition to this book, this year also the appearance of a collection of her short stories, Your Ad Could be Here. The dual publication is a fitting tribute to the author on her 60th birthday.
Selected Poems continues the dialog with her English-language readership initiated back in the 1990s, when most of the poems compiled in this stylish and well-organized book were first made available in translation. Among the few previously unpublished poems is “Diptych 2008” (translated by Melnychuk), replete with apocalyptic Biblical motifs and allusions. Written in the aftermath of the 2008 Russian–Georgian military conflict, this precisely dated text nevertheless addresses the universal tragedy of war.
Zabuzhko’s readers might have benefitted from more cases of such precision, although the absence of dates seems to signal here that true poetry — especially such hermeneutically challenging and intertextually vibrant poetry as Zabuzhko’s — is the stuff of eternity. As Melnychuk puts it, “She’s an inheritor of the Western literary tradition, grounding many of her poems in classic texts she then transforms into counter-narratives.” For example, she opens one of her poems with the following invocation: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” as if it is intended to be the poet’s personal Stabat Mater prayer. However, the exactitude of dating would have helped the reader better contextualize “Hitchhiking: A Prayer for the End of Time,” which contains passages as unfortunate as this: “I watch you from my window, the only other white person on the bus is sleeping on my shoulder.” The poem crosses the boundaries of time and space to connect the suburbs of New York with their counterparts in Kyiv: “Concrete walls dripping with graffiti, open garbage cans — Bronx, Harlem, Borshchahivka, Vidradnyi…” Reading this poem in the times of a international reckoning with racial injustice, one cannot help but wince at the tone-deafness of what follows: “You’re a hitchhiker, an intercontinental tumbleweed — from where? From colored neighborhoods of Chicago? Aren’t you from Sacramento Street, didn’t your brothers beat a white student there last night, heels stomping his groin?” Perhaps small comfort, but it would have been, if nothing else, historically instructive to know that this piece was first published in 1994.
Dating her work would have made it clear that “Hitchhiking” captured Zabuzhko’s first impressions of the United States in 1992–1993, when she taught Ukrainian classes at Penn State, Harvard, and the University of Pittsburg. At the time, the young poet may have been less sensitive to the heated racial rhetoric of her host culture than the mature author of international stature must be now.
A reader unfamiliar with the relationship between Zabuzhko’s poetry and personal history will find much to appreciate in the “In Conversation…” section. McKenzie Hurder’s incisive and well-structured questions bob and weave between possible interpretations of the poet’s work, her changing attitudes toward her own vocation, the new generation of Ukrainian women writers, and Zabuzhko’s standing as the “literary matriarch” of Ukraine. Hurder confesses her admiration for the interviewee, praising her “writing, feminism, and political activism” and imparting this feeling to the reader as well.
The book also contains two texts by Askold Melnychuk, “Introduction: Where Poetry Comes From” and “New Year’s Letter to Oksana Zabuzhko.” The introduction is particularly informative, summarizing Zabuzhko’s biography and analyzing both her poetry and the essay “One Hundred Years of Solitude, or the Importance of a Story.” Melnychuk limns Zabuzhko’s intellectual footing in the European humanities; her devotion to Ukrainian culture, especially to the pioneering proto-feminist writer Lesya Ukrainka (1871–1913); her compassion and the emotionality of her writing; along with her multifaceted involvement in contemporary Ukrainian literature.
Both Melnychuk’s texts speak to years of mutual respect and friendship. The two intellectuals, who grew up 4,000 miles apart, on the opposite sides of the Cold War divide, have more in common than some would assume, making this cross-Atlantic dialogue nothing short of riveting. Yet, readers with no background in Ukrainian history and geography might be a little confused. In a biographical note, the Massachusetts–reared Melnychuk writes that Zabuzhko “was born in 1960 in Lutsk, a town whose origins date back to the 7th century.” He fails, however, to explain that back then Lutsk was part of Soviet Ukraine. I would not have mentioned this tiny detail (there are a few of this kind) if Melnychuk had not cited Peter Pomerantsev, described here as “the Soviet-born British journalist.” But Pomerantsev was born in Soviet Kyiv in 1977. Perhaps Melnychuk intentionally downplays her Soviet provenance to demonstrate that Zabuzhko has always been, at heart, a Ukrainian national, a European with no real roots in the USSR. And a wide array of poems handpicked for the volume prove that Zabuzhko is very much at home with the European tradition and classical cultural heritage, situating Ukraine (writ large) in the appropriate context — see, for instance, “Clytemnestra,” “Ophelia and the Mousetrap,” “A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles,” or “A Definition of Poetry,” a beautiful poem that includes the following lines:
Heaven breaking in a blistering starfall
And draw the soul up, trembling like a sheet of paper —
My young soul —
The color of wet grass —
To freedom — then
“Stop!” it screams, escaping,
On the dazzling borderline
Between two words —
My God, at last.
Look, here’s where poetry comes from!”
(translated by Michael M. Naydan and Askold Melnychuk)
In the essay “One Hundred Years of Solitude, or The Importance of a Story,” Zabuzhko emphasizes the scarcity of Ukrainian voices in the world culture where they properly belong: “One hundred years of our [Ukrainian.] solitude — of our cultural non-existence, in the view of the outside world.” Her broad overview reads Ukrainian history through the tragedy of exclusion from global networks, with an emphasis on the ongoing calamity and the fact that “Ukrainians have finally discovered how much they have to tell the world. If only, this time, the world will listen.?
In the course of the book, Zabuzhko’s life story and creative trajectory are traced several times over— by Melnychuk, Hurder, and Zabuzhko herself. For some reason, the editors also chose to add a short – –and, I would argue, redundant– – CV at the end of the book, which says that Zabuzhko “earned her doctorate from the Department of Philosophy at the University of Kiev in 1987.” At the time, the official name of the University was exactly that, but now it is officially recognized as the University of Kyiv. “Kiev” is a transliteration from Russian, and Zabuzhko has done everything in her power to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit.
That said, this slender volume — only 75 pages — is as concise as it is illuminating, not to mention aesthetically pleasing, thanks to the cover image by Rostyslav Luzhetsky. It delivers abundant information about contemporary Ukrainian culture and the country’s often-tragic history, and it is steeped in the European tradition — though Europe has yet to include Ukraine in its sisterhood of nations. After reading the book, one may conclude that Oksana Zabuzhko’s life’s work illustrates her homeland’s aspirations to adopt and be adopted by a Eurocentric postcolonial consciousness.