February 13, 2012

Oleh Lysheha

Oleh Lysheha [Ukraine]

Born in Tys'menytsia in western Ukraine in 1949, Oleh Lysheha began his university studies at L'viv University in the 1960s, majoring in foreign languages, particularly English and American poetry.

      Soon after the poet began translating the works of figures as diverse as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, William Carlos Williams and others.

     In the 1970s he became involved in the underground literary group which included poet Mykola Riabchuk, singer-writer Viktor Morozov, and critic Roman Kis. The unofficial leader of this group was Hryhorii Chubai, born the same year as Lysheha. In 1971 the group printed and distributed in samizdat fashion a literary collection titled Skrynia (The Chest). The second issue was confiscated by the KGB in January 1972, and the group was disbanded and punished, most of the members being dismissed from school, Riabchuk from the Polytechnical Institute, Lysheha (with only one semester left) from L'viv University. Chubai was arrested and eventually released, with the KGB rumoring that he had collaborated. Isolated and alienated by the slander, Chubai died in 1982.

     Without his university position, Lysheha was drafted into the Soviet army, spending time outside of Moscow and, later, in the Autonomous Buriat Republic in the Soviet far east. Because of his ability with English, he was allowed twice a week to teach at a local school.

     In 1975, Lysheha left the army and returned to Ukraine, living first in Tys'menytsia and then L'viv, while he worked at various odd jobs. In the 1980s be worked as a decorator at the Karpenko Karyi Theatrical and Cinematic Institute in Kyiv, but remained on the brink of homelessness.

     Despite these difficulties, however, Lysheha wrote poetry, publishing his first collection, "Winter in Tys'menytsia" in samizdat form in 1977. More of his poetry appeared in the 1980s in the journal Vsevit and in Vitryla (Sails), an anthology of "young" poetry. His first published volume was Velykyi mist (The Great Bridge) of 1989, published by the Communist Youth League.

    The 1990s were a better period for Lysheha, although he published only one further book of poetry, The Selected Poems, published in Ukrianian and English by the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University. He also published a play, Friend Li Po, Brother Tu Fu, as well as a few essays.

     From 1997-1998 Lysheha was a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at Penn State University, and upon returning to Ukraine, devoted himself to poetry, painting, and sculpture. In 2002 he published his third collection of poetry, To Snow and Fire.


Velykyi mist (Kyiv: Molodist', 1989); The Selected Poems of Oleh Lysheha, in Ukrainian and English, trans by James Brasfield (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ukrainian Research Institute/Harvard University Press, 1999); Snihovi i vohn︠i︡u (Ivano-Frankivsʹk : Vyd-vo "Lile︠i︡a-NV", 2002)


God, I'm slipping..
This road can't hold me anymore..
I'm not even that drunk..
Moon, come here..
I come out from under the pines -- you're hiding..
I go back under the pines -- you shine..
I start running -- you're at my back..
I stop -- you're gone..
Only dark pines..
I hide behind a pine -- and you come out..
I come out -- you're not there..
Not there..
Not there..
Not there..
There.. not there..
I can't move that fast..
Wait.. I want to
Stand in your light..
Maybe you don't see me?..
See this is my foot --
Don't the wires holding my shoe together sparkle?..
My naked ankle's so pale it must glisten..
I need a cigarette, but haven't got one
I look around -- nothing..
The night train just stopped here
A bunch of them got out
And stood here shivering
I could smoke one of the butts..
I'll look -- I bend down over and over
To search the ground..
Nothing.. just a filter..
Here's something.
No, just an old bone..
Why don't you send me some company?..
How about a guy on his bike ringing his bell?..
After you -- I'll step aside..
The moonlit road is empty --
I'll wait..
Once I found a shot glass
Under this pine..
Where the road splits,
The glass stood right in the middle..
I picked it up and sniffed it..
Maybe someone had left it for me?..
It was warm, cut glass..
I was going to take it, but then I changed my mind..
In this very spot one night I pulled out a dried up pine,
Roots and all, and dragged it off..
And when I had almost gotten to town, it started to drizzle..
I heard someone singing softly and so I stopped..
They stood in the road swaying..
In that spot near the puddle, in the shadows,
Where there's a tree with very low hanging branches --
Maybe a cherry tree gone wild..
He stood there singing and staring at the bubbles in the water..
I dragged the pine through the puddle,
In my other hand I held a bag --
With a bottle
Of what they said was red wine..
He didn't step aside, but went on singing..
Maybe I should have stopped
And joined him?..
Maybe he had found
The tree of bliss?..
Nobody knows where it grows or what type of tree it is..
Or who is destined to find it..
As for me, I never stood under that tree..
Not once, not even to wait for the rain to stop
While watching bubbles swell up
Between the raindrops..
He was humming and swaying..
The tree held him fast..
Otherwise, he would have fallen over..
If he had, the rain would have stopped..
His dancing brought the rain
To that tree..
I don't know how to do that..
On second thought.. maybe it was a wolf?..
Right here between the pines
An old woman ran by, looking over her shoulder..
The full legs were hers --
But further up there was only
A frowzy armful of irises..
Like sweaty children, they clung to her neck,
And feebly hung down her shoulders..
They had fallen asleep at her breast.
Their sleepy eyes were
Dusted with yellow powder..
She floated by, a full bright cloud,
And I also clung to her,
Swaying at her breast,
Falling asleep, warm..
She carried us carefully
Like something precious, dear,
Hiding us in the shadows,
So that our poor, wheezing lungs
Wouldn't fill up too suddenly
With this world..
At the same time, I felt that
She had rushed out of my heart,
Disappearing with the whole world
Down this road,
Where no one will ever pass again..
I wasn't here all winter..
I managed to hide out..
A little further up the road-- over there..
Under the tallest pine,
The one under Ursa Major,
Where the Big Bear seems to fall straight down
Head first..
This winter Venus was on fire
And chased me further and further west..
In Danzig I couldn't find
Any shoes --
See -- I had to wire these together
And there's a hole near the big toe..
I stopped everywhere,
Walking up to every heavy carved door
With a crystal bell, and asked..
But do you think you could ever satisfy this foot?..
Finally I walked into this museum
Right near the canal..
I had to get warm at least,
The rain wouldn't stop..
No one else was there..
And in a corner under glass
I saw a dried out pair of ancient slippers,
Which must have lain in some swamp or bog
On their way to the next world.
The feet they once held
Have probably turned to dust..
Pointy, graceful,
With curved straps
I couldn't pull myself away from them..
A little past them stood
Funeral urns --- dark pots
With painted eyes and ears
Pierced with a awl, maybe a bone..
From which hung heavy brass earrings..
They were like one big family
That had just sat down in a clearing
For a picnic of fresh wild boar..
I walked around each one
Examining it, enchanted..
They were beautiful.. very beautiful..
Each one had a necklace of tiny,
Sharp beads, like mouse teeth --
The color of milky amber..
These were the urns
Of young girls who died
After eating boar
Each stomach bloated till it burst..
Would anybody now believe
That I was actually there?..
That once my foot was so free
In those slippers?..
And my spirit didn't have to look
Into every pot?..
After the museum,
There was nowhere to go,
The evening had gotten cold,
Winter is winter after all, even without snow,
There was only the rain..
I waited for it to stop,
Then I left..
It was getting dark,
I passed some pines with low-hanging branches.
Under each tree there was a hole,
Where they once found amber..
Foxes dug and made the holes even deeper..
I almost fell into one..
But then managed to get past them.
It was dark,
When I got to where the land ends..
There wasn't a living soul,
Only wet sand..
I sat down.. and stared out for a long time..
So quiet..
Then suddenly out of the thick mist
A swan swam out..
It turned its head..
And disappeared.. Just as suddenly..
That long neck
Was like the last ray of the sun..
Was he the guardian who let me in?..
What a look he gave me!..
There was no one else..
So I ripped my clothes off and stepped in..
It was not high tide.. no.. on the contrary..
It was ebbing away, pulling me out..
Suddenly I felt the sandy bottom give way
And then I went under..
So I opened my eyes wide
And forced my lids to embrace
The entire sea at once..
It was only me and him
Eyes wide open,
Not bound by a bottom or a sky..
Now, when I walk
Down this road again at night,
It's like I'm still there and
My eyes are still wide open..
But who's behind that pine?..
Some poor drunk?..
Please, take these eyes..
I'll step aside..
Tell me, how do I get out of here?..
Just step into the shadows of the pines?..
Can it be so easy?..
But that will be my final move, won't it?..
Maybe it wasn't me
Who came back from there?..
Well, who came back then?..
On that day,.. no, it was later,
It was a long time before I would've dared to..
Yes, it was later when I opened the gate
And asked Maria for an egg..
I had some money in my pocket..
She went into the hen house
And brought out three eggs.. and didn't even take a cent..
She said: Derhach, the guy with one arm
Who lived up the road, abandoned his house.
Now he begs at the train stop..
She gave me a knowing look
What a pity..
He always had such calm, clear eyes..
This road always leads some place again and again..
And I'm leaving..
Where can a tired man go at night
After he's been to the sea?..
What's left?..
Maybe the mountains..
But going up and down is so hard..
I touch the ground,
Only shadows of pines..
I always step over the same pine..
Is this the foot of the mountains?..
Was it a swan?..
How he raised his head..
Blocking the sky over the sea..
I don't know.. I only stepped in and now am swept away..
Look, I fling out my arms
And am rising towards you..
God, I'm falling..

—Translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps

English language copyright (c) Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps)

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