Thursday, October 20, 2022

Red Letter Poem #132

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner





Red Letter Poem #132



As the sun sets and hills grow dark,as the birdsong ends and fields fall silent,as the people laugh and take their rest,I watch.My heart hurriesto the twilit gardens of Ukraine.


                                                            –– Taras Shevchenko

                                                                        From: “To N. N.”

Vasyl Makhno is a kobzar – the term for a ‘bard’ in Ukrainian.  Since ancient times, a bardic figure is the poetic embodiment of communal character and cultural memory; it’s the sort of voice we rely upon to echo back to us an almost primal understanding written in the marrow of our bones.  For modern American readers, Walt Whitman was that sort of inspirational wellspring from which all poets continue to draw sustenance.  Ukraine, too, had just such a 19th century national poet, Taras Shevchenko, an artist of enduring power whose writing not only reflects that love of homeland – it’s beauty, its storehouse of remembrance – but embraces his people’s sadness/longing/determination for freedom and justice as their birthright.  Every bard has the responsibility to both refresh the roots of their literature while promoting new and unexpected growth.  Vasyl’s poetry celebrates the tumultuous life in cities (as did Whitman, of course) while still reflecting upon the quiet beauty of the landscape; his voice seems to me both contemporary and timeless. 


Many Europeans are drawn to the idea of the grand metropolis that is New York City, and for that reason Vasyl and his family resettled there two decades ago.  But now, at a painful distance, he must watch his country suffer the wanton cruelty of the Russian invasion, doing what he can to maintain solidarity with family and friends.  As Shevchenko railed against the oppression of the Tsar, Vasyl’s recent poems (like that of all Ukrainian poets) document the brutality being experienced while celebrating the inextinguishable spirit of his people.  But today’s Red Letter comes from Paper Bridge (Plamen Press), a book of poems written before the invasion that has just been published in America with English translations by the estimable Olena Jennings.  The poetry explores that instinctual human desire for home; and since the Russian aggression seems designed to obliterate, not only the people of Ukraine, but their very culture and history, I thought it appropriate to share a depiction of what Ukrainians are fighting to preserve.  “You Have It All” is a lyric poem about simple abundance; it sings of the sort of quiet beauty we all tend to take for granted – that is, until it’s suddenly under threat.  The all being unveiled here is so utterly essential to who Ukrainians are – to who we all are – it underscores why men and women are willing to lay down their lives in its defense.  It’s a lesson my own people need to take to heart, especially during these precarious times.


Poet, prose writer, essayist, and translator, Vasyl is the author of fifteen collections of verse.

Among his many honors, he is the recipient of Kovaliv Fund Prize; Serbia’s International Povele Morave Prize in Poetry; the BBC Book of the Year Award (in 2015); and the Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize “Encounter.”  I am delighted to share his voice with new readers, and am grateful to be reminded of what I, too, must savor, honor, and defend.




You Have it All



You have bread to sustain you

And the cloak of the river on your arm

In the wheat field—rye

And in the rye field—wheat


And you have some things to go with your bread

The road, the river, the hill, the slope

Light for your footsteps

Wind for your wings


And what more do you need?

Everything else will find you

Your cloak will slip from your arms

And the river will pass you by


And a stone will be your pillow

And the riverbank, your bed

A comet’s tail

Will be etched upon your brow


And so you have wheat with rye

And you have cabbage and peas

No worries, no sorrow

A key, a door, a lock


So, who took care of you

And was so generous?

Who pierced the river with the sky

And opened the door for you?



––Vasyl Makhno





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