The Geopolitics of Poetry

I met her, as agreed, at the entrance to one of Kharkov’s metro stops. We walked into a wintry Ukrainian afternoon and sat down in a nearby café. She ordered an Americano immediately; I ordered the same, after some contemplation. Then she took out a pack of cigarettes and chain-smoked for the next hour.

As an ex-smoker who is just about to hit second anniversary of quitting, I couldn’t help but admire the reusable tin package she placed on the table between us. It featured the Beatles, and the top said: A Hard Day’s Night. Associating cigarettes with well-deserved moments of relaxation was exactly why I couldn’t quit for a decade before finally succeeding on Valentine’s Day in 2009. That small tin case was a good one.

She was a good one, too. As we talked, I was never sure whether she was looking at me, or into herself, or in both directions, somehow. She holds a number of literary awards, all received in Russia. That’s where she publishes. It wasn’t a free choice. She is Ukrainian, but she is also a Russian-speaker. Like for many others, her first language was defined by virtue of when and where in the country she happened to be born.

Anastasia Afanasieva’s contact details was one of the addresses Serhiy Zhadan gave me after his performance in Washington DC. According to our best-known Ukrainian-language writer of the younger generation, she is our best – but least-known – poet. So I won’t try to reinvent the wheel. Serhiy has already said it all in a small but important op-ed, right here: Опять об Гоголя.

Мы, украинцы, народ насколько искренний, настолько и гордый, и прощать, скажем, Гоголю его русский язык никто не собирается. Все может простить художнику украинский народ, кроме русского языка. И остается только увлеченно наблюдать, как щедрой рукой маленькие украинцы выбрасывают с парохода своей современности всех, кто не прошел строгий дресс-код титульной нации.

И все разговоры, что у нас нынче не XIX столетие и что не следует так легкомысленно пренебрегать национальным достоянием, никакой поддержки не находят: наш уникальный народ и на своем-то языке не читает, что уже говорить о языках заграничных. В общем, сначала геополитика, а уже потом – геопоэтика. А пока представители «титульной нации» ведут затяжные позиционные бои, народ понемногу сваливает на соседние территории. И хуже всего даже не то, что они сваливают, хуже всего, что им не дают потом вернуться.

Serhiy’s text is crucial, I think, because – unlike in Nastya’s case or in my case – no one would ever think of suggesting that he isn’t ‘properly’ Ukrainian. Which makes his opinion ever more vital. This phenomenon – a young poet stuggling to make her way in a country which she identifies with, but which holds her language in low regard, while across the border she gathers one prize after another – isn’t just fascinating politically, historically, or culturally. It’s also, somehow, poignant. Nastya’s official job is in psychiatry. She is a medical worker in Kharkov’s local sanitarium, Hospital №15. For us Kharkovites, Пятнашка is as iconic as Канатчикова Дача. The hospital is one of the oldest in Ukraine: it turned 200 years old in 1996. Which, to be entirely honest, hardly contributes much joyfulness to its ambiance.

At this particular moment I can’t quite fix, mend, or even fully comprehend the unique linguistic situation in our country. That, in part, is what my years at Cambridge are meant to be about. What I can do, though, is try to translate one of Nastya’s poems into English. She mentioned that it’s something she might enjoy. I hope she will forgive any inaccuracies.

Untitled (Page 41 of “Белые Стены”)

He gathered meaningless things.
Metal nails, candy wraps.
He spent nights in random places.
He rarely went where he should’ve.

He cursed the political system,
Ageing, and military equipment.
He grew bored at work.
Dreamt of Dresden and Van Gogh.

He left home and never came back.
Blue jacket, red woolen scarf.
Unpromising and unknown.
Beloved. The only one.

 

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