Translated by Myrosia Stefaniuk
Ukraine’s battle for sovereignty and freedom from Russian oppression did not start in February 2022, nor in 2014, but has been ongoing for centuries – first from Russian tsars, then from Soviets, and now from Putin. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but Russia’s imperialistic goals lived on, more hidden perhaps, but growing and expanding. KGB methods and forces continue to use military might and invasion, arrests, poisoning, propaganda, exile to labor camps, torture, and killing to achieve Russian’s ultimate goal of destroying democracy.
Today, as the world witnesses the unprovoked, heinous attack on Ukraine and the barbaric murdering of its innocent people, the words of Mykola Horbal, poet, musician and human rights activist are as timely as they were decades ago.
Mykola Horbal, imprisoned for 16 years in Soviet labor camps for his writing, was released from the notorious Perm 36 camp in Siberia in 1985 during perestroika. Currently, aged 81, he lives in war-ravished Kyiv. His poems, originally printed as samizdat(clandestine) literature were republished in Kyiv, 2008. Below are several selections of my translation of his book Details of an Hourglass. Poems from the Gulag.
Poetic Reflections from Imprisonment
Surely, you monsters don’t think
that with lopped off wings
the need to fly vanishes?!
Starved for the world,
I shut my ears from myself –
Sorrows clang alarm bells in my head, –
Nothingness burns with a green flame.
How to extinguish it?!
A black bottom gapes in the cup of anguish.
by the light of a wax candle,
turn a plank board stained by the dying
into a new
If I steal a cleaver from the butcher
who peddles hearts by the pound,
then I can carve out
signs of hope
intertwined with knots
of barbed wire.
The dream thickens in dense darkness,
Paralysis constricts movement.
Only on knees and elbows
Among the graves. – Where is God’s sepulcher?
Every night among the graves
Seized by graveyard terror.
Let me have peace, beloved.
With your absence in dreams.
Every night through the abyss
The precipices filled with vipers.
Faceless miserable nights
Without flowers, without you, without daylight.
Rows of shaven heads
and in brigades.
Each one is issued a tag
with his name
and a wooden beam for his head.
Each one is issued:
a shaven head
and a wooden beam.*
The candles in the fortresses tapered
and burned out.
Abandoned strongholds gazed at the world
through black battlement holes.
On the graves of executed freedom
Through the gaping main gate
the plague of forgetfulness walked out
and wandered off aimlessly.
They took turns carrying him
the way they carry little boys on their backs
only this one was over fifty
and had both legs missing.
Without a sound Day left us.
A poplar taper cast shadow apparitions
in the sky,
someone’s lament meandered through the field,
an orphaned morning whimpered near the cemetery.
but no one was around.
Only the wet crow’s crackly voice
foretold the fate,
and before dawn someone pounded
a nail into a wooden board.
If we gather all your tears,
all of your laments,
all your wailing
from all the years
when you endured the Way of the Cross
throughout your land
and if the heart does not break
from the weight of this burden –
WE WILL RETURN.
Myrosia Stefaniuk, writer, translator, and educator, was born in Ukraine. Her family fled Soviet-occupied Ukraine when she was a child, lived in Displaced Persons’ camps in Europe for 5 years, and ultimately resettled in the USA. She has travelled to Ukraine several times in past years. Her published works include numerous translations of contemporary Ukrainian literature and her own prose and poetry.