What We Live For, What We Die For is an introduction to an original poetic voice from eastern Ukraine with deep roots in the unique cultural landscape of post-Soviet devastation. During Poetry Month 2023, enjoy excerpts on our blog from a variety of poets published by Yale University Press.
Anton, thirty-two years old,
status includes living with his parents.
Orthodox, but doesn’t attend church,
university graduate, studied English.
Worked as a tattoo artist, had a signature style,
if you can call it that.
Many a local passed under
his sharp needle and skillful hand.
When all this began, he talked a lot about
politics and history, started going to rallies,
argued with friends.
Friends took offense, clients disappeared.
They were afraid, didn’t understand, left town.
You truly experience a person, touching them with a needle.
A needle pricks; a needle stitches. Under its warm
metal the texture of female skin becomes so supple
and the radiant canvas of male skin so tough.
Piercing through a person’s outer membrane,
you release velvety drops of blood, carve out
angels’ wings on the submissive surface of the world.
Go carve them, tattoo artist; we are called
to fill this world with meaning, with color.
Carve this shell, tattoo artist, which hides souls and disease—
what we live for, what we die for.
Someone said he was shot at a roadblock
one morning, weapon in hand, somehow accidentally—
no one really knows why.
He was buried in a mass grave—that’s how they were all buried.
His personal effects were turned over to his parents.
His status was never updated.
One day some bastard
will definitely write heroic poems about this.
One day another bastard
will say there’s no reason to write about this at all.
“‘WHERE ARE YOU COMING FROM?’”
“Where are you coming from, dark caravan, you flock of birds?”
“We once lived in a city that no longer exists.
We have come here tired and ready to submit.
Chaplain, tell your people, there’s no one left to kill.
“Our city was built of stone and steel.
Now we are each left holding only one bag,
A suitcase filled with ashes, gathered under fire.
Now we smell the burning even in our dreams.
“The women of our city were sound as a bell and carefree.
At night their fingers reached down into the void.
The city springs ran deep, deep as a well.
The churches were grand. We burned them ourselves.
“Gravestones will tell our stories best.
Chaplain, can you just talk to us?
Brace us with your love.
Confession is part of your job.
“Tell us, why did they burn our city down?
Tell us they did not mean to do it.
Tell us the guilty will be punished, Chaplain.
Tell us anything that’s not on the news.”
“Well, I can only tell you about the losses.
Surely a final reckoning awaits the guilty.
But it awaits the innocent as well and
even those who had nothing to do with this.
“How did you end up with these dark fleeing masses?
You should have read the prophets more carefully.
You should have avoided the road that leads to hell.
The people cannot bear to see faith in action.
“Remember what the prophets said about pain and long-suffering,
about the birds that fall from the sky like stones on a city?
That’s when the losses really start.
Where they end, you can’t even imagine.
“How are we different? As consonants from vowels.
Everyone can accept a death that’s not their own.
In this life no one avoids the final reckoning.
That’s what I tell people when there’s nothing left to say.
“I don’t know anything about inevitable penance.
I don’t know where and how you should live.
I can only speak of what’s inside us.
You must realize how unlucky we’ve all been.”
THE MUSHROOMS OF DONBAS
In spring Donbas disappears in the fog, and the sun hides behind heaps of earth.
So you need to know where you’re going,
you need to know the man who can make the arrangements.
This man was a worker in the former pumping station,
worn down by alcohol.
When we met, he said, “We, the workers of the pumping station,
were always considered the elite of the proletariat, yeah, the elite.
When everything fell the fuck apart, many
just threw up their hands. But not us, the workers
of the pumping station.
We organized an independent union,
took over three buildings of the former plant
and started growing mushrooms there.”
“Mushrooms?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Yes. Mushrooms. We wanted to grow cactus with mescaline, but
cactus won’t grow here in Donbas.
“You know what’s important when you grow mushrooms?
It’s important to get high, that’s right, friend—it’s important to get high.
We get high, believe me, even now we have to get high. Maybe it’s because
we are the elite of the proletariat.
“And so—we take over three buildings and start our mushrooms.
Well, there’s the joy of work, elbow grease,
you know—the heady feeling of work accomplished.
And what’s more important—everyone gets high! Everyone’s high even without
“The problems began a few months later. This is gangland
territory, you know, recently a gas station was burned down,
they were so eager to burn it down, they didn’t even manage to
fill up—so of course the police caught them.
And so one gang decides to take us on, to take away
our mushrooms, can you believe it? I think in our place anyone else
would have bent over, that’s the way it is—everyone bends here,
according to the social hierarchy.
“But we get together and think, well, mushrooms—this is a good thing,
it’s not a matter of mushrooms, or elbow grease,
or even the pumping station, although this was one of the arguments.
We just thought, they are coming up, they will grow,
our mushrooms will grow, you could say they’ll ripen to harvest
and what are we going to tell our children, how are we going to look them in the eye?
There are things you have to answer for, things
you can’t just let go.
You are responsible for your own penicillin
and I am responsible for mine.
“So we fought for our mushroom plantations. That is where
we beat them. And when they fell on the warm hearts of the mushrooms,
“Everything that you make with your hands works for you.
Everything that reaches your conscience beats
in rhythm with your heart.
We stayed here, so that it wouldn’t be far
for our children to visit our graves.
This is our island of freedom,
Penicillin and Kalashnikovs—two symbols of struggle,
the Castro of Donbas leads the partisans
through the fog-covered mushroom plantations
to the Azov Sea.
“You know,” he told me, “at night, when everyone falls asleep
and the dark land sucks up the fog,
I feel how the earth moves around the sun, even in my dreams
I listen and hear how they grow—
“the mushrooms of Donbas, silent chimeras of the night,
emerging out of the emptiness, growing out of hard coal,
till hearts stand still, like elevators in buildings at night,
the mushrooms of Donbas grow and grow, never letting the discouraged
and condemned die of grief,
because, man, as long as we’re together,
there’s someone to dig up this earth,
and find in its warm innards
the black stuff of death,
the black stuff of life.”
From What We Live For, What We Die For by Serhiy Zhadan. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.
Serhiy Zhadan, recipient of the 2022 Hannah Arendt Prize for Political Thought and the 2022 German Peace Prize, is widely considered to be one of the most important young writers in Ukraine. He has received several international literature prizes and has twice won BBC Ukraine’s Book of the Year award. His other books include Mesopotamia and The Orphanage. Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps are an award-winning translation team who have been translating Ukrainian poetry since 1989.