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In Memory of a Banyan Tree: Poems of the Outside World: 1985 to 2022
Three Wooden Trunks
DREAM BRIDGE
The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear: Selected Poems
ECCENTRIC DAYS OF HOPE AND SORROW  
|
  Natalka Bilotserkivets

ISBN 978-1-7364323-2-7     $24  /  $30 (Canada)     5.5 x 8.5       

212 pp      
PUB DATE: September 2021       Featured Poetry





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The eighth volume in the Lost Horse Press Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry Series, Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow brings together a selection of Natalka Bilotserkivets poetry written over the last four decades. Having established an English language following largely on the merits of a single poem, Bilotserkivets’s larger body of work continues to be relatively unknown. Natalka Bilotserkivets was an active participant in Ukraine’s Renaissance of the late-Soviet and early independence period. Now, nearly thirty years on, much has changed in the land of her birth, but the lyricism and urgency in Bilotserkivets’s poetry remain; her voice still speaks about movement and restricted movement, even symbolic movement. Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow endeavors to go back to shed light on the missing history.

About the Author

Natalka Bilotserkivets

Biloserkivets-Kyiv-e1610474127356-2

NATALKA BILOTSERKIVETS' work, known for lyricism and the quiet power of despair, became hallmarks of Ukraine’s literary life of the 1980s and 1990s. The collections Allergy (1999) and Central Hotel (2004) were the winners of Book of the Month contests in 2000 and 2004 respectively. In the West, she’s mostly known on the strength of a handful of widely translated poems, while the better part of her oeuvre remains unknown. She lives and works in Kyiv. Her poem, “We’ll Not Die in Paris,” became the hymn of the post-Chornobyl generation of young Ukrainians that helped topple the Soviet Union.

THE TRANSLATORS

ALI KINSELLA has been translating from Ukrainian for eight years. Her published works include essays, poetry, monographs, and subtitles to various films. She holds an MA from Columbia University, where she wrote a thesis on the intersection of feminism and nationalism in small states. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Ali lived in Ukraine for nearly five years. She is currently in Chicago, where she also sometimes works as a baker.

Pushcart prize poet, translator, and a founding editor of Four Way Books, DZVINIA ORLOWSKY is author of six poetry collections published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, including Bad Harvest, a 2019 Massachusetts Book Awards “Must Read” in Poetry. Her translation from the Ukrainian of Alexander Dovzhenko’s novella, The Enchanted Desna, was published by House Between Water Press in 2006, and in 2014, Dialogos published Jeff Friedman’s and her co-translation of Memorials: A Selection by Polish poet Mieczslaw Jastrun for which she and Friedman were awarded a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship.

Awards

REVIEWS

World Literature Today - May 2022 | Review by Ostap Kin - Rutgers University

 

KENYON REVIEW Online
Poetry
NATALKA BILOTSERKIVETS TRANSLATED BY ALI KINSELLA AND DZVINIA ORLOWSKY SEPT/OCT 2020

An Interview with the Translators

How did you begin working on this project? What drew you to it? What in particular would you like the audience to know about the work, the writer, and/or the context?

AK: I approached Dzvinia out of the blue because I had gotten her name from our series editor, Grace Mahoney. Up to that point, Lost Horse Press’s Ukrainian Contemporary Poetry Series featured some of the giants of the 90s, but all of them men (they’ve since fixed this), so I was determined to translate a giantess of the 90s, Natalka Bilotserkivets. I honestly knew very little about Dzvinia other than that she was a Ukrainian-American poet and translator, and she might be interested and that was enough for me. I now realize how lucky I got to have a co-translator whose skills were so different from my own.

Bilotserkivets became somewhat well known in the English-speaking world for her poem “We’ll Not Die in Paris”—which I later realized had been translated by Dzvinia—but there isn’t a whole lot else available, at least not relative to everything she’s done. Perhaps this could be said about all but a handful of Ukrainian poets, but here we had an opportunity to correct it for Natalka. Bilotserkivets first became established during perestroika and the immediate post-Soviet independence. This must be taken into account, especially when reading her earlier work. As she’s gotten older, I think she has become less riled up and more melancholy, but hers is tinged with realism. She’s not merely sad; she’s frustrated and unimpressed, but she hasn’t lost hope.

DO: Over the years, I’d translated a dozen or so of Bilotserkivets’s poems as well as those of other contemporary Ukrainian poets, but never an entire collection. My earliest translations of Natalka’s poems appeared in the critically acclaimed anthology From Three Worlds: New Writing From Ukraine (Zephyr Press, 2000). As Solomea Pavlychko proclaimed in the introduction, this was “the first publication to witness Ukraine’s Renaissance.” I was thrilled to be introduced to Ali and to begin our work together.

Bilotserkivets’s lyric poems resonate deeply with me. The movement between language and voice and requisite silence echoes what I often felt growing up as a daughter of immigrant Ukrainian parents: shifts between vivid, emotionally charged recollections—shared in our community as stories or songs—and long periods of silence in which a sense of alienation and solitude were keenly felt.

Bilotserkivets is a poet of witness, therefore she’s a poet of both joy and despair. Our selection titled Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow forthcoming from Lost Horse Press in fall 2021 explores that duality and range—from daily, seemingly insignificant life affirmations to survivorship of national tragedies.

Could you briefly explain your translation process? Could you speak to your collaboration and how it impacted your process?

DO: Our process was pretty straightforward. Ali provided a first draft literal translation of each poem into English, while I transformed each literal draft into poetry.

AK: Dzvinia, who is a poet and has a poet’s ear and sensibility, spent days pouring over my drafts to put them in proper order and turn them back into poems. Then we went over them together.

I learned so much about poetry just from listening to Dzvinia talk about the choices she made and why, and I tried to absorb all the matter-of-fact nuggets she threw my way. Some lessons we’ll have to revisit! As our project went on, my annotations changed and the number of synonyms I offered grew as I became more comfortable diverting from the literal text to capture its meaning more broadly; I learned to be true to the image while still being specific. This was hard for me as someone who works almost exclusively in prose.

DO: There’s a great deal of trust in our collaboration. Ali’s literal translations are meticulously considered, but she also gives me the freedom to condense, to take leaps of faith in order for the poem to find its equivalent in English. Line-to-line revisions are discussed in phone conversations often lasting several hours and mutually agreed on before final changes are made.

AK: Natalka also allowed us considerable freedom. She told us on multiple occasions that translation is no less a process of creation than writing the original. She didn’t want to interfere in our work and gave us the liberty to change words, line breaks, punctuation—anything we needed to make the poem work in English. She was delighted that we wanted to translate her and gave us creative license. I think she wouldn’t even be upset if they turned out bad; it’s our work, after all, not hers. She was, however, very helpful in explaining images we weren’t picking up on or references that were lost on us (really me).

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you meet those challenges? What did you learn in this process?

DO: I have a tendency to want to cut back quite a bit. For example, repetition in Ukrainian has a musical, incantatory, effect that doesn’t transfer well into English. Also, some of the frequent use of exclamation marks and ellipses were, at first, difficult to work around. I felt in English they compromised the original poem’s tonal mystery. We discussed and came to a mutual agreement on any changes that altered in any way the original text.

Regarding the learning process, I often remind myself not to impose my voice on the author, whose tone and intention have to remain the true north of any translation.

AK: Ukrainian is a highly inflected language—it has seven (!) cases and verbs take gender and number in the past, for example. Natalka has said that she often writes in the present tense to avoid having to assign her speaker a gender. The inflection makes it easy to write impersonally in Ukrainian, whereas English often demands pronouns and direct objects. At times this meant we had to make decisions for Natalka, choosing who her speaker should be or losing deliberate ambiguity. Dzvinia was very good about knowing where we needed to cut or change instances of repetition to actually retain the impact of the original.

DO: Also, when translating a poem that’s already been widely translated and anthologized—and there are a few in our forthcoming book— I had to work against not getting too carried away with making our translations stand apart from the others. When too many variations accumulate as a result of too many translations of a popular poem, the poem gets pulled further and further from its original source—like the children’s circle game Telephone.

What is the state of translation of the literature of the source languages you work with? What would you recommend to translators and editors interested in working with this material?

DO: As Ukraine increasingly entered center stage in world politics, a growing interest in Ukrainian literature has followed. A number of superb anthologies have been published in recent years—Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine edited by Oksana Maksymchuk & Max Rosochinsky with an introduction by Ilya Kaminsky and an afterword by Polina Barskova, as one example.

Christine Lysnewycz Kruk Holbert, founder and publisher of Lost Horse Press and Grace Mahoney, (mentioned earlier) Ukrainian Contemporary Series, LHP do a magnificent job of supporting Ukrainian and Ukrainian-American voices in translation.

AK: In the field, there is a distinct sense that Ukrainian literature has been somewhat overlooked these last 30 years. Almost like the country itself, it has struggled to distinguish itself from its neighbors. Yet, Ukrainian literature is quite popular in Central and Eastern Europe—perhaps it is slowly working its way west. In the past, a lot of work written in Ukrainian was translated from its Russian translation. This is changing as Ukrainian publishing itself becomes more integrated globally and the cadre of qualified translators grows. I anticipate a boom in the next decade. I’m the associate director of TAULT, a young agency working to bring Ukrainian literature to American publishers. We need translators who not only speak the language, but are also fluent in the culture.

Could you share the names of your two favorite books of or on translation with our readers?

AK: The best book I have ever read in translation was Minae Mizumura’s highly underrated A True Novel (Other Press, 2013) translated from Japanese by Julie Winters Carpenter. The second best is Magda Szabó’s The Door (NYRB, 2015) in Len Rix’s translation from the Hungarian. I also have a soft spot for Constance Garnett; she has a bad rap today, but she made a prodigious amount of Russian literature available to English-speaking audiences for the first time. Oh yes, and of course Ann Goldstein.

DO: I frequently return to View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems by Wisława Szymborska, translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh and Extracting the Stone of Madness: Poems, 1962–1972 by Alejandra Pizarnik translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert. I also have a third, more recent, favorite: What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems by Serhiy Zhadan translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps.

 

NATALKA BILOTSERKIVETS’s work, known for lyricism and the quiet power of despair, became hallmarks of Ukraine’s literary life of the 1980s. The collections Allergy (1999) and Central Hotel (2004) were the winners of Book of the Month contests in 2000 and 2004 respectively. In the West, she’s mostly known on the strength of a handful of widely translated poems, while the better part of her oeuvre remains unknown. She lives and works in Kyiv. Her poem, “We’ll Not Die in Paris,” became the hymn of the post-Chornobyl generation of young Ukrainians that helped topple the Soviet Union.

ALI KINSELLA has been translating from Ukrainian for eight years. Her published works include essays, poetry, monographs, and subtitles to various films. She holds an MA from Columbia University, where she wrote a thesis on the intersection of feminism and nationalism in small states. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Ali lived in Ukraine for nearly five years. She is currently in Chicago, where she also sometimes works as a baker.

Pushcart prize poet, translator, and a founding editor of Four Way Books, DZVINIA ORLOWSKY is author of six poetry collections published by Carnegie Mellon University Press including Bad Harvest, a 2019 Massachusetts Book Awards “Must Read” in Poetry. Her translation from the Ukrainian of Alexander Dovzhenko’s novella, The Enchanted Desna, was published by House Between Water Press in 2006, and in 2014, Dialogos published Jeff Friedman’s and her co-translation of Memorials: A Selection by Polish poet Mieczslaw Jastrun for which she and Friedman were awarded a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship.

 

”. . . a handsome volume, as they say, crafted by a press that knows what it's doing, translation of a poet whose style intrigues and whose subjects intrigue even more . . .”

—Steven P. Dandaneau, Ph.D., Executive Director, Association for Undergraduate Education at Research Universities (UERU); Associate Provost, Colorado State University

 

News of the Heart: On Natalka Bilotserkivets’s Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow

March 11, 2022

On February 17, 2022, I received my dual-language copy of Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow by Ukrainian poet Natalka Bilotserkivets, translated into English by Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky. I had heard and read a handful of the poems and looked forward to sitting down with the book in quiet time. Five days later, the notion of quiet time seemed like an undreamt dream as television screens around the world were filled with scenes of Putin’s attack on Ukraine. I had only just broken open the book’s packaging, and, there on the news, the streets of Kyiv, Kharkiv, and other cities were either jammed with cars of soon-to-be refugees or eerily empty. Now, I have come to this blank screen, where only words will mount, one after the other, as I contemplate the poems in Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow, a title more unnervingly apt than any for these days.

Natalka Bilotserkivets published her first poem, “A Word on Your Native Tongue,” in News from Ukraine in 1967, when she was 13, and her first full-length collection only nine years later. Co-translator Ali Kinsella offers an introduction to this volume that helps the reader recognize how the selection reflects the cultural terrain of Ukrainian literature as it moved from fierce Soviet control over artists’ voices, through Perestroika, to independence in 1991. Here we see a voice moderated by a state eventually freed, like the poet’s country. This is not to say that Bilotserkivets’s early work was not authentic; as Kinsella explains, it worked in subterranean ways, sometimes adopting the images and narratives of Ukrainian folk tales to depict a creative life constrained by the Soviet system. She stayed far away from overtly polemical themes.

I do not speak Ukrainian and will not address the accuracy of this translation. That being said, I have fallen hard for these poems—their images, rhythms, leaps. What the English language reader receives is due to the amazing collaboration of a native speaker of English fluent in modern Ukrainian and the sensibilities of an extraordinary Ukrainian-American poet, whose own work is imbued with the colors and voices of her Ukrainian immigrant parents’ lives and memories.

The poems in Eccentric Days move from themes of childhood and maternity set amid rain, forests, fields, mud, sunlight, and shadow. A nursing infant’s eyes resemble storm-clouded skies, while a gangly adolescent’s soul is compared by his mother to “a foal, / ungainly and fearlessly clean” (“A Forgotten Corner”). In “Herbarium” the speaker avers, “There’s nothing better than the scent / of a child’s hair—only a dried violet / smells like that.” The first three sections of Eccentric Days burst with memories of a kind of wilderness within domesticity, the immersive experience of mothering minus the societal framework. In “Herbarium” we discover inscapes that combine the quotidian with the cosmic, hear the wind drill “a whistle tunnel / in the cosmic blue” and travel on to God, who exists

where the thin paper
exposes other paper,
dried cereals, leaves, and flowers,
beauty as memory, as secret doors
a game in smells and lost thoughts.

We learn from Kinsella’s introduction that in Ukraine, in the wake of the Chornobyl disaster, many artists became “oriented toward truth above all” in their approach to their work. However, others, including Bilotserkivets, “retained a sense of ‘art for art’s sake’ prizing aesthetics and perhaps seeking truth in beauty.” Though the political circumstances were certainly different, I have been reminded, reading these poems, of Anne Sexton’s way of working through folk tales and what was close at hand to express her sense of being suppressed and restrained by social strictures. In particular, I was reminded of her poem “Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman,” which was her contribution to a poetry reading protesting the war in Vietnam. While the male voices thundered or blustered, Sexton offered her heart’s invocations. Although Bilotserkivets resists the label of “woman poet,” there is a feminine angle to her vision; as Kinsella points out, “no less than death, the facts of children and childhood are taken as givens” in her work.

There is also a constellatory connection in these poems to the Irish poet Eavan Boland, who raised her voice in praise of the feminine realm in Irish poetry, which until then had been dominated by male perspectives. Like Boland, Bilotserkivets carries an additional fruit of history in her avoska or “just in case bag.” She was born into the Soviet system and witnessed the catastrophe of Chornobyl as a young woman, which was as much a moral catastrophe as a physical one. Dropped into the fledgling democracy of a country whose citizens struggled, in the early years, to find their footing, she cannot help but strike the tense chords of a history of suppression: a long and bloody history of executions, exile, and the ruination of creative lives. She also recognizes the complex emotions of self-exile. “Not Everyone Has Returned” is perhaps her most prescient poem for this moment and what will follow.

As we watch Ukrainians crowd railroad stations and clog highways attempting to flee ahead of further violence from the Russian Army, surely they are wondering how long they will be gone. “Not everyone has returned. But not everyone is gone,” Bilotserkivets writes. “Our song is not the same, and all our rebukes have rusted.”

The voice in these poems is distinct, changing as the life of the poet lengthens and deepens. Thanks to the careful attentions of Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky, we get to savor and grow familiar with its resonant, shifting notes. With news of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ringing in our ears day and night, Natalka Bilotserkivets’ Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow brings us closer to what lay before and what lies ahead.

—Miriam O’Neal

Miriam O’Neal has published poems and reviews in AGNI, Blackbird Journal, The Guidebook, Lily Poetry Review, Nottingham Review, Ragazine, and elsewhere. She is a 2018 Pushcart Nominee and her awards include being named a Finalist in the 2016 Brian Turner Poetry Prize, 2000 Massachusetts Cultural Council Grants in Poetry, and 2018 Princemere Poetry Prize. She was also named a 2019 Notable Poet by Disquiet’s International Poetry Competition. Her translation of Italian poet Alda Merini’s work earned her a Fellowship in Beginning Translation from the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) and a selection of her translations from Merini’s Rose Volanti was published in 2019 in On the Sea Wall. Her book of poems The Body Dialogues was released from Lily Poetry Review Press in January 2020. O’Neal earned her MFA in Writing and Literature at the Bennington Writing Seminars in Vermont. She lives in Plymouth, MA.

Two Poems by Natalka Bilotserkivets

Translated from the Ukrainian by Ali Kinsella and Dzvinia Orlowsky

Swallows

a last attempt to fly off somewhere
from this coop from this stable from
this bedroom where the urgent sweet
smells of an animal’s nest hang

there to there—to heavens touched
where electrical wires are like a pedestal
and the fiery strokes of a rainbow
the unsettled comforts of a poor life

like black mittens from our fingers
like the black and white keys of a piano
like festival fireworks at night
they fly from their native nest

they’re already there—invisible
like the endless sound of the final abyss
so fearless and so cold
the solitary flights of our lives

Ластівки

остання спроба вилетіти десь
із цього курника цієї стайні
цієї спальні де висять нагальні
кохані запахи тваринного гнізда

туди туди—до пещених небес
де мов підніжжя дроти електричні
і де веселки змахи феєричні
спастичні втіхи бідного життя

як рукавички чорні з наших перст
мов чорні з білим клавіші рояльні
як феєрверки в ночі фестивальні
вони летять із рідного гнізда

вони вже там—невидимі як без
кінечний звук кінечної безодні
такі відважні і такі холодні
самотні злети нашого життя

The Letter

You go out for bread and milk in the morning.
Returning, you see the mailwoman—
she’s walking away from your house.
As usual, you imagine her two schoolchildren. It seems you and she are the same age.

Two dozen blue mailboxes.
Yours, number 20, is at the bottom on the right.
A key on the delicate ring.
Newspapers, bills, letters.

You sit with the white envelope for an hour and a half,
studying stamps, cancellation marks.
And you can neither cut nor tear
nor dissect the letters of the return address.

Hide it deep inside your writing desk
like wilted flower petals in a volume of verse,
like a handful of ashes.

If you could take and burn this body, if you could leave
only the spirit, only the X-rays on a spinal image,
only the young vertebrae under an invisible surface,
under someone’s hands,

stroking from neck to thigh.

Лист

Вранці підеш за хлібом і за молоком.
Повертаючись, бачиш поштарку—
виходить із вашого дому.
Як завжди, уявляєш її двох дітей-школярів:
ви, здається, ровесники з нею.

Два десятки синіх поштових скриньок.
Твоя справа внизу за номером 20.
На брелку із ключами крихітний ключик.
Газети, рахунки, листи.

Півтори години сидиш над білим конвертом,
роздивляєшся марки, поштові штампи.
І не можеш ні обрізати, ні надірвати,
розтинаючи літери на зворотній адресі.

Заховай його глибоко, глибоко до письмового столу,
як пелюстки зов’ялої квітки до томика віршів,
як жменьку попелу.

Якби взяти спалити це тіло, якби залишити
тільки дух, тільки промені Х на рентґені хребта,
тільки юні хребці під невидимою поверхнею,
під чиїмись руками,

що пестять від шиї до стегон.