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WordCity Literary Journal. May 2022. Issue 14. For Ukraine

©®| All rights to the content of this journal remain with WordCity Literary Journal and its contributing artists.

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor. Guest letter by Clara Burghelea

Clara Burghelea

Welcome to the May issue of WordCity Literary Journal. This issue features a human rights theme and stands in solidarity with Ukraine and its people. The work is dedicated to the resilient people of Ukraine, speaking against the inhumanity of war, calling for peace and acknowledging the experiences of all poets and writers personally involved in this tragedy or simply reacting to it.

Our previous issue had been committed to sharing the pandemic experience that both united and divided us. We invited poets and writers to address this collective tragedy and share their personal take on it in the hope that their words will offer comfort and hope. Little did we know that more tragedy was about to hit the world in February when Russia invaded Ukraine causing an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Thus, the work included in this issue portrays a variety of reactions and a different understanding of this invasion that affected not only the Ukrainian people, but also their relatives, family and friends living abroad. Above all, artists all over the world, as well as simple people felt the need to voice their concerns or show their empathy.

We, the editors of WordCityLit, feel grateful for the way in which the contributors of this issue chose to interpret the current and historic human rights theme and incorporated it in their work, at the same time, standing against the Russian war and in support of the Ukrainian people, through their words.

We are also happy to have been given permission to include in our May issue, poetry in translation from the Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine anthology edited by Oksana Maksymchuk & Max Rosochinsky, with an introduction by Ilya Kaminsky and an afterword by Polina Barskova. These poems by different compelling poetic voices all over Ukraine, engage with the experience of war and make reference to specific events that are part of the Ukrainian history. They also mirror the poems we have included in the May issue, in a common effort to acknowledge the urgency of poetry and translation equally, in such times of alienation and loss.

We thank you kindly for reading and appreciate your willingness to join us in our effort to speak up and defend all human rights.

Hearts for Ukraine. by Adam Young

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Hearts for Ukraine, by Canadian artist Adam Young, raised $65,000CAD For Voices of Children Ukraine. We at WordCity Literary Journal are honoured to share Young’s work and his vision. Please visit Young Studios on Facebook. In posts from March 2022, you will find details of the auction (now closed). While there, please enjoy more stunning works by Young, which detail his vision of Canada’s Maritimes.

More about Adam Young

Fiction. Edited by Sylvia Petter

Fiction Prelude

The stories this month are diverse. People are on the run – from war, from life, with characters and readers always hoping to find relief and closure.

There is an enigmatic line in “The Caterpillar´s Crawl”, a story by Geoffrey Heptonstall that sets the scene for this prelude: “You must live according to your dreams.”

In the extract from Wan, Dawn Promislow´s forthcoming novel questions of guilt, complicity and privilege are examined as a woman´s life starts to unravel in the climate of 70s Apartheid.

Vanessa Gebbie´s story, “Letters from Kilburn” is told as an exchange of letters between an Iraqi boy and Her Majesty´s Deputy Secretary.

Finally, “A Story from a Tired Land” is drawn from a cry for help first expressed in photos on Instagram as a way of showing hope and a way forward from another long ongoing war.

WordCity is proud to bring a foretaste of what I hope will become a photo book of this young photographer´s work. ~Sylvia Petter

Geoffrey Heptonstall

GH

The Caterpillar’s Crawl

“I’m from a little place in Western Australia. You won’t have heard of it,” said the man from a little place in Western Australia.

“I’ve heard of it,” said the man who’d heard of it.

“Nobody’s heard of where I’ve from.”

“Yes, it’s called Western Australia,” the man who’d heard of it replied.

“But you don’t know a little place called Perfect, do you? Well, that’s where I live when I’m out there. Been out there all my life until I came over here. It’s a long way. My place is a long way from anywhere. If I ever write a book, I’ll call it A Long Way from Perfect. A good title, eh? Books with titles like that sell a million. I could write that book. Then I could retire. You know where I’d retire to?”

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Dawn Promislow

Dawn Promislow2 pic

Wan

I left, one day, my studio at noon, and walked under the dim trees, across to the garden room. The heater Josias had brought was next to the door. I went to the door, that door that now inhabited my dreams, and knocked. It was such a thin knock in the silence of the garden, a glade, it was. I heard the knock, so small, like a child’s. And I felt like a child. A timid, frightened child.

I heard the scrape of a chair, something like that, inside, and, instantly, the door opened, and he was there, standing there, and he saw me. Me. It was me.

Jacqueline, he said. How nice to see you. Is everything alright? He looked into my face. Oh yes, yes, everything’s fine, I said. I think my voice was small, tight in my throat. Come in, come in, Jacqueline, he said, and he opened his door, and stepped aside, and gestured me in.

All those months, four months, and I’d not seen him, or come into his room.

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Vanessa Gebbie

Vanessa Gebbie

Letters from Kilburn

901 Essex Heights
Kilburn
London
United Kingdom

October 15

Dear Your Majesty,

I hope you do not mind that I am writing. It is about the water pipes at Essex Heights.  The water is brown and I am worried. I have asked the Immigration Office many times but they say the pipes are old.

I am still worried.

I have seen you in the newspapers and on TV. I hope you can help me. Please forgive my bad writing.                          

I am yours,                                

Karim Hussein (Mr) (Aged 18)

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Ahmad Ali Fidakar

12

A story from a tired land

Once upon a time, nearly two decades ago, a miracle occurred at the center of crisis and turmoil in Ghazni province in a tired land when a humourful and playful boy was born into a traditional and populous family whose souls and minds for years had been harnessed by war.

War and terror were the twin monsters destroying the tired land of Afghanistan.

Despite the weak economy and being another mouth to feed the arrival of the boy did not diminish the joy and happiness of his family.

 

His grandfather, the dignified man of the family, with his open forehead and empty hands, gave everything up for his family, the boy´s grandmother loved her grandson very much.

The boy´s father always helped his father, the boy´s grandfather in the home, on the farm and through the hardships of life. He worked hard for his family to contribute to its happiness.

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Non-Fiction. Edited by Olga Stein

Editorial by Olga Stein

OLGA STEIN89

Revisiting 1990s Russia: Biznes in the Wild East

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine constitutes one of the biggest, gravest assaults on national sovereignty and human rights in decades. How does one explain it? Is there a political context one can parse well enough to make sense of decisions that have led to the displacement of millions, the destruction of historic cities, and the murder of countless civilians. True, there has been an on-going war in the Donbas region since 2014. Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March of that year. Nevertheless, Russia’s current aggression — indeed, its apparent effort to seize all of Ukraine — is not self-explanatory, given the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the start of the 1990s into 11 independent Republics and three Baltic states. For something like a decade after, didn’t it seem as if Russia had relinquished its neoimperialist ways?

          Perhaps now we must attribute a different, less benign significance to developments in the 1990s. The two wars in Chechnya, and two particularly vicious battles in Grozny, surely take on even more ominous meanings in light of Russia’s current assault on Ukraine and the growing list of its military’s war crimes. The official line, one that Russian citizens are being scrupulously served by state-owned media, continues to be that Russia is intervening only for the purpose of denazifying Ukraine. We mustn’t forget that the assaults on Chechnya were at that time described as ‘counterterrorist operations.’

          Revisiting the 1990s can be instructive if one is trying to make sense of a number of disconcerting matters. One of these is the rigged 2020 election in Belarus, which resulted in mass demonstrations and arrests. Alexander Lukashenko was first elected in 1994. Since then, he has been independent Belarus’ first and only president (his presidency is the longest in all of Europe). What accounts for Lukashenko’s uninterrupted and patently autocratic management of a supposedly democratic country, and what explains his increasingly pro-Russian orientation?

          Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in Russian oligarchs being given considerable air time. Their immense wealth can be traced to the privatizations of Russian state assets in the 1990s. These same multi-billionaires have recently been accused of influence peddling outside of Russia — that is, of using their wealth to shape the domestic policies of European countries, especially in England, where many of them have taken up residence after receiving “golden visas.” Rupert Neate and Aubrey Allegretti’s article, published in the Guardian on March 30, stated that “the UK government said sanctions had been imposed on 18 Russian businesspeople [with ties to Putin], with a combined worth of £30bn, since the invasion began. Hundreds more have been added to the list since.” It should be noted that Strabag, an Austrian-based construction company that won a $750-million contract for tunnelling Toronto’s Scarborough subway extension in 2021, is partly owned by oligarch Oleg Deripaska. It’s troubling to say the least that capital amassed from looting Russia’s publicly owned assets and resources in the 1990s is now being parlayed into ownership of corporations and property in Canada as well.

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Alla Gutnikova’s Speech from Court

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Alla Gutnikova and three other editors of the student magazine DOXA were tried in court in Moscow on Friday 8th April and on 12th April were sentenced two years of ‘correctional labour’ and a 3-year ban on administering any websites. It is as yet unclear what correctional labour entails – they may have to live in special camps. They were accused of encouraging minors to take part in demonstrations in support of Alexei Navalny last spring.

Doxa (from the Greek word for ‘opinion’) is a magazine about university and student life and often writes about the pressures being put on teachers and students by the authorities.

Alla and her fellow editors have been under house arrest for almost a year since April 2021, only able to leave the house from 8-10am. There have been many calls for harsher measures against them. Their crime, in this case, was simply to say to students, during the period when there were demonstrations against the incarceration of Navalny, ‘Don’t be afraid, and don’t be bystanders! It is our legal right to express protest by any peaceful means.’ (‘Не бойтесь и не оставайтесь в стороне! Это наше законное право — выражать протест любым мирным способом.’)

The other editors besides Alla Gutnikova are Armen Aramyan, Vladimir Metelkin, Natalia Tyshkevich. None of them plead guilty to the charges.

This is Alla Gutnikova’s stirring and beautiful speech from court last Friday. Rich in references and quotations, it is a reminder of the progressive and international outlook of many young Russians. Her speech is being read widely in Russia: Alla is a voice of hope and enlightenment, in this darkest of times.

Gutnikova’s Speech:

“I won’t talk about the case, the searches, the interrogations, the tomes, the trials. It’s boring and pointless. Recently I’ve joined the school of tiredness and frustration. But even before the arrest, I managed to join the school of being able to talk about truly important things.

I would like to talk about philosophy and literature. About Benjamin, Derrida, Kafka, Arendt, Sontag, Barthes, Foucault, Agamben, about Audre Lorde and Bell Hooks. About Timofeeva, Tlostanova and Rakhmaninova.

I would like to speak about poetry. About how to read contemporary poetry. About Gronas, Dashevsky and Borodin.

But now is not the time or place. I will hide my little tender words on the tip of my tongue, at the bottom of my larynx, between my stomach and heart. And I’ll just say a little.

I often feel like a little fish, a little bird, a schoolboy, a baby girl. But recently I found out with amazement, that Brodsky was also put on trial at 23. And in that I am also part of the human race, I will say the following:

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Olga Stein

OLGA STEIN89

Title: On Contemplating Stars: New and Timely Translations of Alexander Pushkin

Essay on The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy: 79 Poems by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Philip Nikolayev

PART 1: On Reading Pushkin in the Present

Alexander Pushkin is widely considered Russia’s greatest poet. In terms of Russia’s literature, its poetic canon, and language, Pushkin could reasonably be equated with Shakespeare. Such a comparison wouldn’t startle anyone who is native to Russia, or anyone who has made a study of the Russian language and its literature. Yet even those who have struggled to learn Russian and have grappled with Pushkin’s work in the original may not be fully aware of Pushkin’s cultural significance, the remarkable fact that despite his untimely death at the age of 37 (in January, 1837), his oeuvre shaped, and continues to influence the composition of poetry — not just in terms of meter, rhyme schemes, and originality, but as a set of principles concerning how poetry operates: its range for conveying ideas and emotions, and the aesthetic and ethical values it should espouse, or alternatively, rebuke. This is why those who have read Pushkin generally consider him a representative of Russian culture. They view him as a poet, artist, and, importantly, thinker and social critic, who wrote with an awareness that poetry and literature in general should do more than charm with beauty and wit; Pushkin intended to affect attitudes, and cause readers to question or challenge the status quo.

Pushkin’s artistic legacy is monumental, yet one that nonnatives have had limited opportunity to appreciate. His masterpiece novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, has been translated several times (the first translation appeared in 1881), but many other works have been confined to Russian. Simon Franklin was on the mark when he said, “Non-Russian-speakers know that Pushkin was Russia’s greatest writer only because Russians tell them so.”[i] Charles Johnston, whose book of translations, Eugene Onegin and Other Poems, was published in 1999, gave this eloquent formulation of the barriers to translating Onegin: “It’s as if a sound proof wall separated Pushkin’s poetic novel from the English-reading world. There is a whole magic which goes by default: the touching lyrical beauty, the cynical wit of the poem, the psychological insight, the devious narrative skill, the thrilling, compulsive grip of the novel, the tremendous gusto and swing and panache of the whole performance.” This is helpful, but only for starters. Those fortunate enough to have read Pushkin in Russian would undoubtedly argue that any statement on the difficulties involved in translating him into another language invariably fails to convey their full measure.

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Books and Reviews. Edited by Geraldine Sinyuy

Livi Michael

Aleksandar Tišma. Kapo, New York Review Books, (2021) £11.99

The term ‘Kapo’, as David Rieff explains in his illuminating afterword to this novel, refers to a prisoner in the concentration camps who has been selected by the Nazis to work for them.

Lamian, the protagonist of this novel, has served as a kapo in Auschwitz. At the start of the novel he is living in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, where he has a job as a superintendent in the railyard. The opening sentence sets out the premise of the plot: ‘He had found Helena Lifka.’

We begin, then, in media res. We are not initially told who ‘he’ is. The perspective remains close to Lamian’s own myopic view, intensifying the sense of claustrophobia that remains with us from this opening sentence. The verb ‘found’ has particular resonance, an ironic ambiguity pointing to a deeper paradox, because there is no sense at this point that Lamian has been looking for Helena Lifka, a prisoner he repeatedly raped in Auschwitz. As the narrative unfolds we see that Lamian has not ‘found’ Helena Lifka, rather, he is being haunted by her. The opening sentence represents a moment in which his past actions, always inescapable, have found him.

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Alina Stefanescu

The Aliens Created by Nation-States: A Review of Voices on the Move: An Anthology about Refugees

Domnica Radulescu and Roxana Cazan, editors, Voices on the Move: An Anthology by and about Refugees. Solis Press, September 28, 2020. ‎ISBN 978-1910146460

*

“The alien is even more animal than the animals,” Brandon Shimoda wrote in his hybrid memoir, The Desert. The legal terrain occupied by refugees and stateless persons is not human. The intractable exclusivity of citizenship as conferred by modern nation-states ties one’s rights to the blessing or curse of birthplace. Every citizen should be haunted by this.

The world’s most vulnerable, at-risk humans are the displaced, the refugees, the migrant laborers, the stateless, as anthropologist Ruth Behar reminds readers in the foreword of Voices on the Move: An Anthology by and about Refugees, edited by Domnica Rădulescu and Roxana Cazan. How we treat the vulnerable depends on how (and whether) we view vulnerability. The anthology arose in the context of Trump’s travel ban, his zero-tolerance policy for undocumented persons, an explicit, tactical dehumanization and abuse of humans on the run. The editors (both of whom identify as Romanian-American immigrants) begin by invoking the names of Black Americans killed by police. Insisting on the moral obligations of bystanders, the editors take listening as a form of action.

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Gordon Phinn

GordonPhinnPhoto

Emergence and Renewal

Books Considered:

Maybe It’s Me – On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman, Eileen Pollack (Delphinium Books 2022)
Artful Flight, Susan Glickman (Porcupine’s Quill 2022)
In the Writers’ Words, Laurence Hutchman (Guernica 2022)
Music, Late and Soon, Robyn Sarah (Biblioasis 2022)
The Swan: A Biography,  Steven Moss (Square Peg 2021)
A Triptych of Birds & A Few Loose Feathers,  Pratibha Castle (Hedgehog Poetry Press 2022)     
Stars in the Junkyard, Sharon Berg (Cyberwit 2020)
Screw Factory,  Edward Anki (Anxiety Press 2022)

 

     Mandate free and making the best of that sluggish season, winter into spring, I settled into a very fine cache of those collections of the printed word we have come to love as books.  Blustery afternoons were made benign by the likes of Eileen Pollack’s essays Maybe It’s Me, On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman.  Frosty evenings were chivvied into cosy by the stimulating literary opinion-making of Susan Glickman’s Artful Flight.  Laurence Hutchman’s interviews conveniently packaged under the rubric of In the Writers’ Words insinuated themselves into many a bright blue sunny morning, while Robyn Sarah’s musings on her mid-life return to music and performance, Music, Late and Soon made for a chatty companion to Mozart’s piano trios and Prokoviev’s violin concertos.  Steven Moss’s venture into the enigmatic and paradoxical world of swans, The Swan: A Biography, chastised me back into the nature worship of emerging green as I stared longingly into the drab wet garden, and when I rose to wander about the house with a pretense to the elegant rearrangement of the archive, poets Berg, Castle, and Anki  reminded me, in stanza after stanza,  why books do, as Anthony Powell insisted, furnish a room.

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Literary Spotlight.
Dawn Promislow in Conversation with Sue Burge

I am delighted to be chatting to Dawn Promislow for this issue of WordCity.  It’s an exciting time for Dawn with her novel, Wan, coming out this month. Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer states,“Wan is a masterpiece. This beautiful, painterly, sublime, and sonically exquisite novel by Dawn Promislow is a work of utter genius.” And having got my hands on an advance copy of the novel, I would absolutely endorse this review!

Dawn, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me during this busy period.  First of all, that classic question: How did you get started as a writer and when did you “come out” as a writer and state that that was your vocation?

Dawn Promislow

Your phrase “come out” is useful in this context, as in my case it did take a long time, and for me there was always an aspect of secrecy to the act of writing. I always understood that taking up a pen and writing was an act of great power, and possibly, subversion.

I grew up in an authoritarian society (apartheid South Africa) where creativity, even individuality, was not prized. You couldn’t speak your mind; and I didn’t speak my mind. I read books, though. Many books. I understood the power of writing and of books.

I must have been afraid at some level for many years to write, so I didn’t write—not at all. I had two children, I lived in Canada. But all the stories about my childhood in South Africa must have been standing like ghosts behind me, insisting on being told, and at some point I simply started writing them. Perhaps my children were older, and I had more time. I wrote in long-hand, in a spiral-bound notebook.

I wrote what became a manuscript of 25,000 words; I wrote quite quickly. This was in 2008. Then I enrolled in a program at Toronto’s Humber School for Writers to work on the manuscript, and under the mentorship of Olive Senior I expanded and deepened it, and developed the confidence to recognize what I had done. I had written a collection of short stories. (The collection was published in 2010 by Mawenzi House.)

I was a writer.

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Poetry. Edited by Clara Burghelea

Words for War
Oksana Maksymchuk & Max Rosochinsky, editors

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Selected poems by:

Anastasia Afanasieva – from The Plain Sense of Things
Vasyl Horoborodko – I fly away in the shape of a dandelion seed
Borys Humenyuk – An old mulberry tree near Mariupol
Yuri Izdryk – Make love
Aleksander Kabanov – Fear is a form of the good
Kateryna Kalytko – Can great things happen to ordinary people?
Lyudmyla Khersonska – I planted a camellia in the yard
Boris Khersonsky – My brother brought war to our crippled homes
Marianna Kiyahovska – we swallowed an air like earth
Halyn Kruk – like a blood clot, something
Oksana Lutyshyna – I dream of explosions
Vasyl Mokhno – Febraury Elegy
Maryana Savka – We wrote poems
Ostap Slyvynsky – Alina
Lyuba Yakimchuk – Eyebrows
Serhiy Zhadan – Village street- gas line’s broken
 

Read selected poems from Words for War

Mansour Noorbakhsh

Reskinned Moloch
             To: Ukrainian children after Russian invasion 
has raised again his shadow
with opened arms 
to burn the children, 
though has changed, reskinned, 
this time

his arms are open 
to embrace the world, 
Ukraine, Europe … 
what else would be the next?

perhaps still I am an immature child 
who dreams maturity of a lovely world 
in every poem 
innocent
unaware of
plentiful pollen of immature cruelty
growing under the skin of 
this mushroom-shaped cloud

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Alexia Kalogeropoulou

alexia_kalogeropoulou_BW

Sirens of death 

Listen, listen to the drums of war
how they beat
like human hearts in agony
listen to the sirens how they scream
like human voices
mourning the future deads
look at the fear on the faces of the children
an hecatomb of deaths is being prepared
for justice, they say, or for freedom
for their own interest, I say,
so to count money with dirty palms

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Josephine LoRe

Josephine LoRe

we've held our breath

through seven hundred pandemic days
waiting to awaken into normal

but this morning
images careen across the screen
tanks thunder through streets
seven hundred thousand flee from the beast
mouths agape in silent scream

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Rachel J. Fenton

Rachel Fenton

Freyja					
for Robert Sullivan

My people’s fierceness is noted in poetry and prose.
When I approach your ship, I steer a position to my favour, furl
my sail. My mast is un-stepped before I tether my vessel to yours 
so that we become two islands made one. 

Do not try to hurl
yourself overboard, there are smaller boats
waiting to pick you off as if a louse from my long
hair. Water surrounds us like greenstone at our throats.

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Dave Lewis

Dave Lewis

Every room is another room

It didn’t take long for you to go, not really, although it felt like a hundred years.
Watched you sleeping in that tiny room with nothing in the wardrobes or drawers.

After it was over though I started on the clothes,
holding each shirt close for the smell of you in healthier times.
I made a bonfire in the garden of your precious perfumed papers
then felt guilty, like Isobel. I filled bag after bag with things
you hadn’t thought about for ages;
your yellow foreman’s helmet,
tomato seeds still in their packets,
dented trophies that they gave you
for winning at skittles.

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Elizabeth Boquet

Elizabeth Boquet

February 26, 2022

L’horreur…

For What
For the world, standby,
as Ukraine stands alone.
For the boy, bullets,
for his toy gun one act play.
For the girl, rape.
For her guinea pig, freedom.
For the parents, cocktail time.
Molotovs.

Continue to 2 more poems

Claudia Serea

CS_Author photo_square (1)

Eastern European Dawn 
  
My father tells me over the phone 
he’d emigrate even now, in his old age. 
  
It’s good to have your daughter in America. 
I’m his insurance policy against history. 
  
He thinks about me late at night 
when he hears the news

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Frank Joussen

Frank Joussen

Night in Ukraine

I am night –
giver of peace and quiet
but I am not myself
in Ukraine tonight.

My head aches – crisscrossed
by mutated mosquitoes
that send lightning
through my veins
which tears up my belly
and wakes up the children
pursuing their dreams
of happiness there.

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Lauren Friesen

Lauren Friesen

Ukraine Memories 

My ancestors walked here
Among trees heavy with apples,
Plums, and cherries
Carrying baskets year in and out
For canning or asleep on screens
To dry for winter’s tastes.

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Michael Schein

Michael Schein

Don’t Look Away

Putin tracks the value of the ruble
a barrel of crude
then ruble then crude
his thin lips wet with drool.

Here is the bread line in Chernihiv, simple human hunger strafed
by Putin’s pawns, & the mother of three warming soup for her children
when shrapnel tears out her throat. Putin LOOK, as her children were forced to look.
Lash the beast to the mast of humanity. Make it see what it has wrought.	

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Janice Kulyk Keefer

Janice Kulyk Keefer

Skala

The village where my mother, her mother,
her mother's mother, were born
is no good to me.

The house where my mother was born,
the thatched house pierced
by the branch of a walnut tree:

torched in the war. Most of the village
was levelled, then—the remains
of my mother's childhood—church, schoolhouse,

cemetery—hold out no hands to me. I crave those
old-fashioned books of outlined images:water brushed
across the page, colours sprung from invisibility.

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Carol Hamilton

Carol Hamilton

Heritages

I believe Dostoyevsky never had 
a grandmother to tell him fabulous tales
of the past as did Fuentes, Allende, 
those of rich heritage. What flashed
through his mind awaiting
the firing squad's fake bullets? 
during his father's beatings?
He lived the past he wrote us,
as did Tolstoy. And what will
our grandchildren tell of our times?
Children!  May I …
	Please  …
       text you a story?

Continue to 2 more poems

Lisa Reynolds

Lisa Reynolds 1

WAR CRIMES

After discovery of Mass grave of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine
(Source: CNN, April 4, 2022)


Deny, deny, deny

That’s what he does,
Tells others to do

But bodies are unearthed
Bagged, tagged - in daylight

No tents, no screens
No deception, no deceit

War is war is war
Crime is crime is crime

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Gordon Phinn

GordonPhinnPhoto

The Family Man
 
Wars come and go
As do the politicos
Who sell them to the public
Under pressure from the generals
 
And the bankers beneath them.
You keep your sons clear,
Steer your daughters to safety
As the budgets for destruction

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Adrienne Stevenson

Adrienne Stevenson (1)

Sisters, 1906
inspired by the painting "Carousel", by Olexandr Murashko (Ukraine) 1906 

the day before our trip to Odesa
that day of endings and beginnings
my sister and I went to the fair
dressed in our best shawls
long skirts flowing over backs
of wooden steeds, the carousel
would remain when we had left
but we would leave no trace

the day before we boarded the ship
to bring us to the new land
we visited the stalls selling
food we were sure to miss
borscht, holubtsi, varenyky
even if beets, cabbage and potatoes
were abundant there
they would not taste the same

the day before we left our home
cradling pysanky—fragile mementos
we spent one final day
in traditional costume
in the new land we would try
to blend in, go unnoticed
be accepted despite our difference
take on new identities

now it is the next day
we have arrived at the docks
passage booked, papers in hand
will our daughters, and theirs
thank us for taking the journey
for becoming something other
or will they cling to remnants
of the lives they imagine for us?

…never dreaming that many days hence
in a new century, their cousins may face
the same stark choice to leave their homes.

Continue to 2 more poems

The Reverend Ngwa Hosea Ambe Nchesi

Ngwa Hosea Ambe Nchesi

What Will Be Remembered

Sow the seeds that will sprout
And grow into fruit-breaking trees
While you’re alive.
For your works will define you
When this candle is put off.

For when you’re gone
And in that little box lie
In that lonely corner of the world
Your own little portion
Of the earth beneath,
Only your trees will speak for you.

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Pratibha Castle

Pratibha Castle

In the Slips
 
While the world watches 
Violetta, clad in years
the measure of a week,
journeys from Odessa 
with her doll and cat 
 
and a Grandma 
her face a crumpled map 
of lifetime drills 
framed by a scarf 
the color of losing
urges a boy soldier 
put this flower in your pocket

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Reinhold Stipsits

Reinhold Stipsits-1

Spring paints without brush
Leaf buds blossom heart shaped
What a great lover

A Robin redbreast
In a flutter of spirits
Proudly presents hope

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Jack J. B. Hutchens

Jack Hutchins

Lament for Mariupol

It is impossible to get lost in flattened ruins
as grainy char will always point you towards hell,
and tall buildings wavering in the hazy Slavic evening 
no longer obstruct violent red horizons.

This long-forgotten place, squeezed between the wide 
European plain and the cold deep of the Azov Sea,
is now the stuff of hagiographies recorded on dry
bits of ancient, stained paper falling apart at the seams.

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Katia Kapovich

KatiaCreditAlexanderLevinskyj

Chronicles of this war

In February the world became silent like a mouse,
you open a comp to see a falling house, 
an old man embracing what is left, a puppy,
while in the background burns a flying canopy
that somehow flew through the broken window glass.
So the old man takes an empty bottle,
fills it up with a gasoline
makes a Molotov cocktail and goes to battle 
an armored car fighting for his Ukraine,
for its poplars, for its peaceful hearth,
for its people, for a church steeple
because not gods win war on earth,
but regular guys, ordinary people.

Continue to 2 more poems

Olga Stein

OLGA STEIN89

Ancestral Home

My mother’s and my father’s parents,
babushki, dedushki, cousins galore
were born in Ukraine, in towns and cities,
whose names make up familial lore.

Odessa, Zhytomyr, Kyiv — known to me places
comprise a timeline, whole lines of descent
that emanate from memories, where half-familiar faces
return and sweeten them like a beloved scent 

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Nina Kossman

fbt

Another thing about a war

Another thing about a war
(besides the thing we all know,
the one about killing)
is that, once it begins,
you have no right to talk about small things,

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May be art of flower

Hearts for Ukraine, by Alex Young, http://www.ayoungstudios.com/
With this painting and its 200 prints, Young raised $65,000 Cdn for Voices of Children Ukraine

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Call for Mss

For our July issue of WordCity Literary Journal, we’re both leaving the theme open and also seeking threads on networks. These can be all kinds—social, neural, aesthetic, web-related etc.
Please visit our Submissions page, but note that we’re going to accept pieces all the way until the end of June, and perhaps later upon request if we already know the quality of your work!
DSCN0119

On Contemplating Stars: New and Timely Translations of Alexander Pushkin. essay by Olga Stein

OLGA STEIN89

Title: On Contemplating Stars: New and Timely Translations of Alexander Pushkin
Essay on The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy: 79 Poems by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Philip NikolayevA&B Publishers and Tiptop Street, 2021

 

PART 1: On Reading Pushkin in the Present

Alexander Pushkin is widely considered Russia’s greatest poet. In terms of Russia’s literature, its poetic canon, and language, Pushkin could reasonably be equated with Shakespeare. Such a comparison wouldn’t startle anyone who is native to Russia, or anyone who has made a study of the Russian language and its literature. Yet even those who have struggled to learn Russian and have grappled with Pushkin’s work in the original may not be fully aware of Pushkin’s cultural significance, the remarkable fact that despite his untimely death at the age of 37 (in January, 1837), his oeuvre shaped, and continues to influence the composition of poetry — not just in terms of meter, rhyme schemes, and originality, but as a set of principles concerning how poetry operates: its range for conveying ideas and emotions, and the aesthetic and ethical values it should espouse, or alternatively, rebuke. This is why those who have read Pushkin generally consider him a representative of Russian culture. They view him as a poet, artist, and, importantly, thinker and social critic, who wrote with an awareness that poetry and literature in general should do more than charm with beauty and wit; Pushkin intended to affect attitudes, and cause readers to question or challenge the status quo. 

          Pushkin’s artistic legacy is monumental, yet one that nonnatives have had limited opportunity to appreciate. His masterpiece novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, has been translated several times (the first translation appeared in 1881), but many other works have been confined to Russian. Simon Franklin was on the mark when he said, “Non-Russian-speakers know that Pushkin was Russia’s greatest writer only because Russians tell them so.”[i] Charles Johnston, whose book of translations, Eugene Onegin and Other Poems, was published in 1999, gave this eloquent formulation of the barriers to translating Onegin: “It’s as if a sound proof wall separated Pushkin’s poetic novel from the English-reading world. There is a whole magic which goes by default: the touching lyrical beauty, the cynical wit of the poem, the psychological insight, the devious narrative skill, the thrilling, compulsive grip of the novel, the tremendous gusto and swing and panache of the whole performance.” This is helpful, but only for starters. Those fortunate enough to have read Pushkin in Russian would undoubtedly argue that any statement on the difficulties involved in translating him into another language invariably fails to convey their full measure.

          The art of translation certainly deserves notice in and of itself wherever it is practiced. Yet an occasion that involves translation of Pushkin’s poetry is one that should elicit special interest. A masterful translation, suggesting something like the diminution of Johnston’s sound-proof wall, is certainly cause for excitement. The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy, a book that presents seventy-nine of Pushkin’s poems in Russian  placed alongside their English versions, is that kind of occasion. We have the translator, Philip Nikolayev, to thank for it. Importantly, a great translation of Pushkin, beyond providing precious access to material that is, put simply, sublime, also shines light on the giftedness of their translator.

          Ilya Bernshteyn states in his Publisher’s Preface, “The elegance, precision, and apparent effortlessness of Pushkin’s verse require a translator of comparable virtuosity.” That in brief is the mountain-sized undertaking that confronts any would-be Pushkin translator. Yet Nikolayev has scaled this particular peak — with grace and authority, I might add.

          The quality of Nikolayev’s work is addressed farther down. In fact, more needs to be said because to do Pushkin justice in translation what’s needed is an array of exceptional skills. This is unequivocally the case. Moreover, judging by what already exists in translation, one can easily argue that only those who are superb poets in their own right are equipped to essay it (as an aside, this might account for Vladimir Nabokov’s several unsuccessful attempts to translate Onegin[ii]). I’ll set the matter of translation aside for the moment. Instead, I’ll highlight the publishers’ intentions. These appear to reference the broader present-day cultural, social, and political context, which strikes me as highly relevant in light of certain prevailing discourses.

          The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy was published by A&B Publishers (Moscow) and Tiptop Street (NYC). It’s part of a cooperative bilingual project. The publishers’ stated aim is to make Pushkin’s work “accessible to a broader humanity.” Clearly, then, their goal is to satisfy more than one community of readers. More precisely, Russian literature per se isn’t the only thing at stake. That a more solemn purpose underpins this project can also be sussed out from “Becoming Alexander Pushkin,” a foreword contributed by William Mills Todd III, Harry Tuchman Levin Professor of Literature at Harvard University. The foreword serves as an informative overview of Pushkin’s stellar career, and the impact of his work on those who followed in his wake. Above all, this pithy essay highlights Pushkin’s artistic, intellectual, and moral engagements with the Russia of his day. Here’s an example: “[Pushkin’s] texts serve as arenas in which succeeding generations might debate their unresolved differences on central cultural issues, issues such as Russia and the West, elite and popular culture, liberty and constraint” (9). Also on point: “Pushkin’s literary explorations have often had a cognitive, social and moral function in his homeland” (11). These and other aspects of the foreword help establish a frame of reference for appreciating Pushkin’s importance; or rather, the foreword clarifies the historical development of Russian literature in relation to Pushkin. It also adds pertinence to the digression below concerning said current-day discourses.

 

PART 2: Defining Russian Culture

On April 22, The New York Times published a guest essay by Professor Kevin M. F. Platt. The essay is titled “The Profound Irony of Canceling Everything Russian.” Platt teaches Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and is a translator of Russian poetry. His essay is cogent, and I quickly shared the link to it on my FB page. It should be read by anyone following the war in Ukraine, and overcome, as I am, with a mixture of horror and outrage.

          I agree with Platt. There is profound irony in canceling everything Russian. There is even great irony in the need for such an article — one that reminds readers that people who were born in Russia, or who speak Russian, or embody facets of Russian culture, are neither responsible for, nor support, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is not just the case that most Russian-speaking people, who live outside of Russia, identify with the cultures and politics of their adoptive countries — like, say, Canada, the USA, Germany, England, and Ukraine. What must also be kept firmly in mind is this: for the vast majority of those who left Russia, emigration has always stood for a repudiation of its politics and government.

          Echoing theorists of culture, post-colonialism, literature, and linguistics, Platt explains: “The forces of migration — as well as the more destructive means of war, conquest and colonialism — have insured the mingling of people, languages and cultures throughout history.” Yet even without recourse to scholarship, it should be patently clear to any thinking person that there is no single “Russian culture” or ethnicity, much less a shared or uniform set of beliefs and loyalties. Instead, people who hail from one of the former Soviet Socialist republics or current-day Russia have a myriad ways of acknowledging their birthplace or genealogy, one of which may include the use of a language that is more than a thousand years old, and whose rich lexicon and syntactic plasticity enables users to articulate complex ideas and emotions with the acuity and elegance of a fine tipped pen.

          Platt begins his article by asserting that “Russian art, music, painting and film do not ‘belong’ to the Russian state.” A little later, he states that “a spirit of resistance pulses through the work of many artists throughout the global diaspora.” Poet Dmitry Kuzmin is one such artist, Platt writes. This poet and publisher moved to Latvia in 2015 “to write Russian poetry at a safe distance from Mr. Putin and his state. His Russian culture is certainly not Mr. Putin’s.” Kuzmin’s work undeniably counts as Russian culture, Platt means to say. Perhaps he should have made this point more emphatically. He might have stressed that Russian culture is largely synonymous with its art — its literature, folk art, and music. Moreover, any student or devotee of Russian literature, especially its poetry, would know that the most admired works of the 19th and 20th centuries were stealthily, implicitly, or downright subversive; the most enduring of these — in terms of beauty, urgency, and depth — were written by dissidents who opposed the authoritarianism they saw crushing the lives of their country’s men and women, and at the same time extirpating intellectual and artistic freedoms.

          Russia has a long-established and venerable culture of contesting tyrannies — be they Tsarist, Communist, or autocratic and neoimperialist, like Putin’s regime. Currently, this culture is being honoured by the Moscow Helsinki Group, which was first set up in 1976 to monitor the Soviet government’s compliance with the Helsinki Accords and make sure that human rights abuses wouldn’t go unreported.[iii] Earlier, in 1970, Andrei Sakharov, a nuclear physicist, founded the Committee on Human Rights in the USSR, with fellow physicists Valery Chalidze and Andrei Tverdokhlebov. Their activism was coterminous with the dissident writings of poet Joseph Brodsky, and novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose The Gulag Archipelago (published in the West in 1973), was a forceful indictment of the brutalities of the Soviet state under Stalin. Less than half a decade before the founding of the Committee on Human Rights, writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were convicted of producing anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. Their work had been smuggled out of Russia for publication. Both had written fiction that was critical of life in Communist Russia. In 1966, they were sentenced to years of hard labour in the very same chain of camps that Solzhenitsyn had described in searing, condemnatory detail with his 1962 novella, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

          The word Samizdat means self-publishing. The term, which denotes any rough-and-ready publication or reproduction of censored, anti-government literature, was coined by the poet Nikolay Glazkov in 1940. The ingenious Glazkov earned his stripes by cleverly parodying the Soviet regime in poems that were bad by design. In the 1960s, Samizdat aided in disseminating Anatoly Rybakov’s anti-Stalinist novel, Children of the Arbat and Mikhail Bulgakov’s philosophical, The Master and Margarita. Rybakov and Bulgakov were participants in what was by then a long-established tradition of contestation. The generation of poets who preceded them already had its iconic dissident poets in Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova,[iv] and Osip Mandelstam. They were legendary due to the formal beauty and emotional intensity of their works, but also because of the heart-wrenching ways each was made to suffer under Stalin for speaking out.[v]

          There were many other activist poets and writers. They’re not listed above because the purpose here is merely to adumbrate the history of political (and hence also artistic) dissidence and investment in civil rights and freedoms among Russia’s most revered culture makers. For instance, Yevgeny Zamyatin was widely considered to be one of the earliest and most influential anti-conformist writers. His dystopian novel, We, was published in the West, where it had to be smuggled because in 1921 it became the first work banned by the still-nascent Soviet censorship board.[vi]           Zamyatin was a contemporary of Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, known by his nom de plume as Maxim Gorky. The literal meaning of ‘Gorky’ is bitter, a name the author and political activist chose for himself to convey his rage at the injustices he witnessed in Tsarist Russia, and about which which he wrote importunately enough to receive five nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gorky spent a good portion of his life in exile. He was punished by the Tsarist regime, and after 1922, by the Soviet Union. He had supported the Bolsheviks against the repressive regime of Nicholas II (especially after the massacre that took place in January of 1905, known as “Bloody Sunday”). Later, he became critical of the communists’ ideological rigidity and willingness to trample on civil liberties. Another much-admired author, journalist, and a heroic figure among the most committed of social activists, Vladimir Korolenko, was likewise disenchanted with the Bolsheviks and critical of both the red and white factions during Russia’s civil war (following the October of 2017 revolution and dissolution of the Provisional Government of the Republic). Modernist critic Yuly Aykenvald wrote of Korolenko: “His life was the continuation of his literature and vice versa.” One might assert the same about the continuity between literature and the culture of humanism fought for by all who stood up to tyranny in pre- and post-revolutionary Russia.

          To reiterate, the above-given is partial, woefully inadequate, and yet a much-needed reminder of a culture via-à-vis of which Dmitry Kuzmin, the poet and publisher adduced by Professor Platt, is just one example, and a recent one at that.[vii] Looking back further, to the 19th Century, we can’t but note that Fyodor Dostoevsky, like Dickens, was particularly intent on highlighting the suffering of working class people in rural and urban settings during the Industrial Revolution (this is attested to by Dostoevsky’s very fist novel, Poor Folk). Those familiar with Dostoevsky’s work know that he was sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison camp in 1849 (to those four years were added six more of compulsory military service in exile); Dostoevsky was part of the Petrashevsky Circle, an informal group that read and discussed books — mostly Western philosophy and literature — which were banned because they promulgated ideas and principles that were critical of tsarist autocracy and called for the abolition of serfdom everywhere.[viii] Less well known is the fact that the world-famous playwright and short story writer, Anton Chekhov, dedicated himself to bringing about prison reform. Spurred by the death of his brother Nikolai from tuberculosis in 1889, and despite his own poor health, Chekhov made a long and difficult journey in 1890 to Russia’s Far East to interview convicts living in the penal colony on Sakhalin Island. The abuse and degradation of thousands of prisoners (men and women, along with their children) horrified him. His findings were published under the title Sakhalin Island in 1893 and 1894. Chekhov turned the horrors he witnessed on Sakhalin into the story, “The Murder,” which appeared in 1895. A doctor by profession, Chekov treated nobility and peasants alike. He made a point of treating the poor free of charge, even traveling long distances to visit patients in their homes. Taking careful note of the peasants’ wretched, dire living conditions, and consequent debility, he made sure to act as witness with stories such as “Peasants,” “Ward No. 6,” and numerous others.

          Of that same generation, Gleb Uspensky is another fine example of agitating with a pen on behalf of peasants turned into workers and the urban poor after the Emancipation reforms of 1861. From the 1870s he spent a decade traveling across Russia and documenting the harsh realities of peasant life, despite being subjected to surveillance by members of the 3rd Department, the secret-police organization established in 1826 at the behest of Nicholas I. Uspenski was under surveillance from 1873 until 1901, a period of almost 30 years.[ix] 

          Many of Uspensky’s essays, travel memoirs and sketches, were published in prestigious literary journals, like Otechestvennye Zapiski (Notes on the Fatherland), which brought him into the ambit of publishers, editors, and other writers whose literary and intellectual legacies are still central to Russia’s national imaginary. Otechestvennye Zapiski, which served liberal-minded readers, particularly the university-educated and intellectual set (the “intelligentsia”), assembled young talent and luminaries. Among them were playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, novelist Ivan Goncharov, satirist Nikolai Shchedrin (whom Bulgakov counted as an influence), poet Afanasy Fet, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as poet, literary critic, and publisher, Nikolay Nekrasov. All are now part of a near 200-year-old tradition of humanism expressed through literature and the arts in general.

          Born in 1821, the brilliant Nekrasov began writing poetry in 1856, and was seen by some as a rival to Pushkin. Later on, as editor, critic and publisher of two literary journals, Sovremennik (The Contemporary) and the aforementioned Otechestvennye Zapiski, Nekrasov played a major role in shaping the nation’s literary life and numerous literary careers. Nekrasov’s innovative poetry focused on the lamentable situation of Russian peasants. When the Edict of Emancipation was passed in 1861, Nekrasov quickly ascertained the hardships it would cause the newly-freed serfs. He wrote two poems to underscore the profound flaws in the emancipation reforms: “Freedom” and “Korobeiniki” (“The Peddlers”). The latter contained lines that were patently subversive: “What’s fun and games for the Tsar/Is grief for a common man.” A longer poem, “Who Is Happy in Russia?” was published in several instalments between 1863 and 1876. Persistent censorship hampered his efforts to publish the various portions, and later, illness and death prevented Nekrasov from completing the poem. Dostoevsky, friend and regular contributor to Nekrasov’s journals, came to stay with him one month before he passed away from intestinal cancer in January of 1878.

          Nekrasov too endured constant police surveillance for decades. Fellow writer and journal contributor, Mikhail Mikhailov, who had advocated for the serfs’ emancipation and a new social order, was deported to Siberia in 1861. Nikolay Chernyshevsky, literary and social critic, as well as a novelist who figured prominently in Nineteenth-Century Russian literary realist aesthetics, met the same fate. A socialist and democrat who celebrated Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 as a sign of great progress in America, Chernyshevsky was sentenced to penal labour (1864–1872), and then exile to Siberia (1872–1883). He perished there at the age of 61.

          I offer this history of resolute antipathy to both autocracy and serfdom in Russia with two objectives in mind: first, to show that a literary culture of resistance existed, and was vigorously curated and critically supported by Sovremennik and Otechestvennye Zapiski, two of Russia’s leading literary journals (both run out of Saint Petersburg); and second, as proof of the dense web of relationships and reciprocal influences that characterized literary activity in Russia in the 19th century, and that was elicited in part by the liberal and politically West-leaning ideas the journals’ editors wished to foster.

          To be clear, the objective here is to reconstruct — in a way that is admittedly sparse — a past that for the majority of educated Russians informs the ethos of the present. Sovremennik was made defunct by Tsarist censors in 1862. Accused of spreading “dangerous ideas,” Otechestvennye Zapiski was permanently closed in 1884. Before its closure, Sovremennik operated on the basis of a shared understanding between contributors and editors. Chernyshevsky, who was exiled to Siberia, was the chief editor of Sovremennik from 1853 to 1862. Yet another anti-Tsarist firebrand, the highly-regarded literary critic Vissarion Belinsky, served as an editor at both Otechestvennye Zapiski and Sovremennik (at the former first, before being enticed over to the latter by Nekrasov). He set the journals’ ideological tenor until his premature death in 1848 at the age of 37. Belinsky happened to be the younger Nikolay Nekrasov’s mentor and entrusted him with unpublished material before his death.

          Men like Belinksy are most worthy of commemoration. He believed in individualism and the natural dignity and rights of each human being. He was a humanitarian, deeply affected by the plight of the poor and vulnerable, including women pushed into prostitution through hardship. Importantly, both Nekrasov and Belinsky formed a nucleus around which literary culture revolved and coalesced.[x] Many of the most accomplished poets, essayists, historians, and novelists entrusted their work to them while engaging with the editors’ convictions, and therefore also thrashing out ideas about writers’ social and moral obligations. Since they were intimately involved with the selection of material for publication, Nekrasov and Belinsky dominated thought and its expression.

          Nekrasov and Belinsky published novelists Ivan Turgenev, Anton Goremyka, Leo Tolstoy, and novelist and social philosopher Alexander Herzen. Historians Sergey Solovyov and Timofey Granovsky, and poet and activist in exile, Nikolay Ogarev likewise appeared in the pages of Sovremennik. These contributors’ personal beliefs didn’t always align (some thought radical reforms essential, others felt the need for more incremental changes to protect traditions and a national identity they valued greatly). Yet the body of works produced through both publications nevertheless helped build lasting aesthetic and intellectual foundations, as well as compassionate attitudes toward victims of economic and political oppression.

          Here, at last, we arrive at the crux of this very dense — and far from limpid — matter of culture, moulded by literature and other arts. This essay begins by commenting on the significance of a recently-published book of Pushkin’s translated poetry, together with the claim that Pushkin’s imprint on Russian literature and the art of poetry is likely unparalleled. What follows is an excursus into Russia’s literary history in reverse chronological order until we arrive at figures such as Ogarev, Herzen, Belinsky, and others who were a mere decade younger than Pushkin, or who were born into the very next generation, like Mikhail Lermontov, Nekrasov, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky. The importance of this can’t be overplayed. Succinctly put, the temporal (and in some cases, social) proximity of these writers to Pushkin had an effect that was both formative and catalytic.

          Without exception, all who belonged to Pushkin’s generation or the next, in one way or another, witnessed the phenomenon that was Pushkin: his spellbinding craft; the poetic elan that showcased his astounding ingenuity with genre, form, and language, even at the level of lexis; the erudition that enabled him to appropriate but also break with other literary traditions; and, significantly, his unequivocal moral purpose. Pushkin was, to borrow from the title of Philip Nikolayev’s book, a star, whose dazzling light reached every corner of Russia’s artistic life, transforming the entire domain with its inviolable incandescence.

          Nothing in the above-given description is an exaggeration. Pushkin was larger than life, a paragon composer of verse, but also a playwright, novelist, and translator. He admired, learned from, and then surpassed other poets, like the English Romantic, Lord Byron. A Romantic poet himself, Pushkin embraced the principles of the French Enlightenment (reading Voltaire), as well as the aims of 19th century liberalism in England. He embodied the idea that a more just society had to be willed into being, that poets in particular had a moral duty to enlighten readers, and to inspire them to act in ways that would bring about social change. Pushkin’s poem, “Ode to Liberty,” is a powerful condemnation of despotism in any form (composed in 1818, when he was only 19 years old). It was found among the possessions of the leaders of the anti-tsarist Decembrist Uprising in 1825. Another poem written in 1818 is Pushkin’s paean to Westernizing philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev. A few lines from “To Chaadayev,” translated by Nikolayev, read as follows:

          While, thus ablaze with liberty,
          Our hearts remain alive to honor,
          Let’s to our mouther-country offer
          Our spirit’s full nobility!
          Comrade, believe: it will emerge —
          The star of dazzling ecstasy;
          Russia will wake from her mirage;
          On ruins of autocracy
          We yet shall see our names writ large. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 42-3)

          At an online book launch for The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy, Nikolayev referred to Pushkin as Russia’s first civic poet. He was the first to demonstrate a social consciousness in verse, focusing on the evils of serfdom. And where Pushkin’s lyre went, others followed.[xi] Pushkin did express frustration at times, having learned the risks involved in challenging the tsar. He equivocated, made doubtful by what he perceived to be the peasants’ fecklessness. Such feelings are expressed in the untitled poem below, composed in 1823:

          When, freedom’s solitary sower,
          Before the star of morn I went
          With a hand pure and innocent
          Into the subjugated furrows
          To plant the liberating seed —
          It was a waste of a good deed,
          Time and benevolence misspent.

          Graze on in peace, obedient nations!
          May calls of honor ring in vain.
          Do herds want boons of liberation
          Nay, they need to be short or slain,
          Well yoked in every generation,
          And governed with a scourge of pain. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 58-9)

          Yet Pushkin was far more critical of the despotic institutions and general mindset that kept human beings in bondage. He satirized the nobility’s self-regard and obsequiousness, and he didn’t spare himself, mocking his own leisurely, banal enjoyments, and questioning the personal belief that poetry, his self-assigned mission, could move readers and lead to meaningful change. The first stanza from “To the Poet,” a pep-talk in a sonnet that Pushkin wrote in 1830, presumably to himself, reads thus:

          Poet! Set not too much store by the people’s love.
          The noise of accolades will not for long be heard,
          You’ll face the idiot’s court, you’ll hear the cold crowd laugh,
          Yet you must remain firm, sullen, unperturbed.  (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 172-3)

A later poem is more self-assured and assertive. Its classically inspired mode evokes poets Horace (and Ovid, I’d say[xii]). Composed in 1836, “Exegi monumentum” (the epigraphic title borrows Horace’s “I raised a monument”) gives us these indelible lines:

                      Exegi monumentum

          The monument I’ve built is not in chiseled stone,
          The people’s path to it will ne’er be overgrown,
          Its disobedient head in bold defiance has risen
               Above the Alexandrine column.

          No, I will not all die: my soul in the secret lyre
          Will well escape decay, outliving my remains,
          My fame will last while in the sublunary sphere
               At least one poet remains.

          Word of me will travel the holy land of Rus,
          And every living tongue in it will sing my praise:
          The Slavs’ proud heir, the Finn, the still savage Tungus,
               The Kalmyk, friend of prairies.

          I daresay that a fact that folk will cherish long
          Is that bright liberty served as my lyre’s true calling,
          That I, in my cruel age, evoked kindness with song
                And mercy for the fallen.

          Remain obedient to God’s injunction, Muse,
          Fear no hurt, crave no crown, retain your calm and cool,
          Treat flattery and slander with indifference
                Argue not with the fool.  (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 210-11)

          To appreciate the importance of a new book with deft translations of Pushkin’s shorter works (many of which have never yet been available in English), one has to grasp the fuller context — literary, social, and philosophical — these represent, along with their subsequent cultural reverberations. Nikolayev conveys key aspect of this in his introduction, “On Pushkin’s Genius”:

“The depth of a culture can be measured by the depth of its poetry, and in           Russia, true depth starts with Pushkin. Pushkin’s work is the first Russian literature that is artistically sublime as well as philosophically and psychologically deep. One of the best educated people of his time, one of the freest thinkers, and more in tune with world poetry than anyone else in Russia, Pushkin brought us to our modernity, elevated our ethical and artistic standards, and gave us our heartfelt, idealistic wisdom to live by….Reading him is edifying, it uplifts the spirit. As the poet Apollon Grigoriev famously said, “Pushkin is our everything.”

          Organized in chronological order, the translated poems enable readers to glimpse the artist as a young idealist, and then at later stages of his “becoming Pushkin”: as a man captivated by other cultures, epochs, and their ethos; or in the throes of love and desire; or preoccupied with everyday matters; or sometimes ruing his own youthful enthusiasms or goals for being impracticable. “Nikolayev’s dazzling selection captures [the full] range, from the self-ironic, the furious, and the defiant” (13), writes Todd, and justly so. Moreover, these translations enable us to glimpse a man, a life, and portions of an oeuvre that established a culture, which to this day venerates both beauty and defiance in the face of injustice.

 

PART 3: On Philip Nikolayev’s translations

Translation is at once science and art. This is even more true of translations of verse or poetry of fixed form. Translation of verse requires an understanding of rules (Nabokov’s 1964 translation of Onegin offers useful guidelines[xiii]). Such rules pertain to syntax, denotative and associative meanings, conventions of word usage, permissible substitutions or deletions, adherence to aspects of form, including prosody, and so on. At the same time, to translate Pushkin is not so much a matter of sticking to rules (alas, they get one only so far), but of having intimate knowledge and command of two languages (or more), and heaps of other skills, many of which, frankly, depend on inborn talent. An inspired translator of Pushkin will possess an ear for language and the mellifluous in combinations of words or lines, an unerring sense of rhythm, and an ability to perceive the subtlest of meanings and convey it. Even then, and despite all this, the translation might be poor because what is required to translate Pushkin is such an extraordinary confluence of skills, knowledge, and experience, that successful translations are nearly impossible to account for. Furthermore, there is something ineffable about what great translators accomplish; their works are like a children who are marvels in and of themselves.

          There are standards for assessing translations, sure, and Nabokov provided a framework — one he developed while contending with Onegin. Based on the three models/approaches he outlined in his 1964 book, they are as follows: “paraphrastic,” which gives priority to the meaning and spirit of a poem, while taking liberties with the diction of the original (the “Out of Language”); the “lexical,” which preserves all of the lexical and syntactical features of the original language, but at the expense of poesy in the receiving language (the “Into Language”); and the rarest and most difficult, the “literal,” which labours to preserve both meaning and the prosodic and formal features of the original in the translation, including meter and rhyme.

          The “literal” or the most sought after translation, whose exigencies I’ve sketched out above, is the type accomplished by Nikolayev in The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy. As far as I can tell — since I can read and understand the Russian — the results are astonishing, a feat rendered more extraordinary by the fact that the poems vary in theme, mood, and form. The book contains oft-read, beloved poems, such as “The Captive” (1823), “The Demon” (1823), “Pray Keep Me Safe, My Talisman” (1825), “The Prophet” (1826) “Madonna” (1830), and “Elegy” (1830). There are numerous others, including ones on the subject of love: the famous “To Anna Kern” (1825), “A Confession” (1824-6), the elegiac “The Burned Letter” (1826), “I loved you” (1829), and “Farewell” (1830), and the erotically charged “No, not one bit do I remotely treasure” (1830-1832). As already discussed, a number of poems deal with the harrowing aspects of autocratic rule in the past, as well as in Pushkin’s time: “In mineshafts of Siberian ore” (1827) is addressed to members of the 1825 Decembrist revolt, who were sentenced to hard labour in mines (for all intents, receiving a death sentence). There is the hair-raising “Ah, what a night! It’s rattling cold” (1827), which describes a square littered with bodies of men who met gruesome deaths through execution at the hands of murderous henchmen belonging to the private army organized by Ivan the Terrible. Ivan IV Vasilyevich, the first tsar of Russia, ran a program of systematic oppression of the nobility, Oprichnina, that enabled him to consolidate his power and control over the Tsardom of Russia during the mid- to late-16th century. Here’s a portion of the poem:

          Moscow slumbers at peace, all silent,
          Forgetful now of daily fright.
          Meanwhile the square amid the night,
          Still full of yesterday’s execution,
           Shows signs of torment in profusion:
          A corpse, by sword asunder struck,
          A stake here and a pitchfork there,
          A toppled executioner’s block,
          Big cauldrons full of cooling tar,
          Spikes sticking out at sundry places…
          Bones mixed with embers glow. Dark bodies,
          Impaled alive on wooden lances,
           Sit doubled up in rigour mortis. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 124-7

          Limitations of space prevent me from reproducing here more that a few additional poems; I hope to give readers an inkling of Pushkin’s range. Immediately below is a poem from a suite, “Imitations of the Quran,” which was completed in 1824. The suite as a whole is splendidly suggestive of Pushkin’s spiritual tendencies, as well as of the young poet’s fascination with the world traveler Byron and his evocations of the “Orient,” for want of a historically more fitting word.

             III
          On hearing the blind man’s approach,
          The Prophet, knitting his brow, flees:
          Scandal and vice must not encroach
          Upon his contemplative peace.

          Prophet! You’ve been a copy given
          Of heaven’s scroll—not for the wrathful;
          Keep calm while preaching the Quran
          Without coercing the unfaithful

          What is the source of pride for man?
          That naked he emerged one morn,
          Who breathes but for the briefest span
          And dies as weak as he was born?

          That God can give him o’er to death
          Or animate him—at discretion,
          Who from the sky prolongs his breath,
          Whether in fortune or misfortune?

          That I have Kindly given him
          His bread, his date, his fig, his olive,
          And blest his daily work routine,
          His vineyard, his hill, and his cornfield?

          Yet once the angel trumpets twice,
          Heaven’s thunder on earth will fall,
          Brother will against brother rise
          And son from mother will recoil.

          By fear disfigured, they will all
          Before their Lord appear at last,
          And fast the infidels will fall,
          Covered with flames and ash and dust. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 68-69)

The playful “The Sonnet” (1830) speaks for itself, while giving readers an appreciation of Pushkin’s grip on literary developments elsewhere in Europe.

          The Sonnet

                              “Scorn not the sonnet, critic.”

                                                    — Wordsworth

 

          Stern Dante treated not with scorn the sonnet,
          And Petrarch sang his love in sonnet form,
          The author of Macbeth drew pleasure from it
          In it Camões lent his griefs to rhyme.

          And to this day it blows away the poet:
          Wordsworth employs it as his chosen norm
          When he, in an asocial lonely moment,
          Portrays ideal nature in a poem.

          Mid shady hills of faraway Taurida
          The Bard of Poland would fit to its tight meter
          Ex tempore aspiration or regret.

          Up here, it was a new thing to the ladies
          As yet, when for it Delvig would forget
          Hexameter’s Homeric harmonies. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 184-5)

Below is taken from “The Poet and the Crowd” (1828), another classically inspired poem that reflects Pushkin’s occasional frustrations (and perhaps, self-doubt) concerning the reception of his work:

                  The Poet and the Crowd
                               Procul este, profani (“Away, profaners!” Virgil’s Aenead)

              The poet’s absent-minded hand         
          Strummed the inspired lyre. He sang on
          While unenlightened folk aound,
          Expressions proud and coldly frowned,
          Listened with meaningless attention.

             And the crass rabble questioned thus:
          “To what end is his tuneful singing?
          With earful of this soulful ringing,
          To what goal is he leading us?
          Where is the lesson in his chanting?
          Our hearts both breaking and enchanting,
          Oh waywardmost of sorcerers,
          Your song is beer than the breeze,
          But just as fruitless. Tell us please,
          Where’s the utility to us?”

          The Poet:

             Be silent, senseless mob, grunt not,
          Wage worker, slave to care and want,
          I cannot stand your cheeky rant!Worm of the earth, not son of heaven,
          Utility’s what you believe in,
          Your judgement is inane and hollow:
          You weight the torso of Apollo,
          Yet in his form you see no good.
          That marble is a god! So what?
          You much prefer your cooking pot,
          Because therein you cook your food!

          The Rabble:

             No, Sir! If you are heaven’s chosen,
          Not someone who’s a dime a dozen,
          Use divine gifts as it befits:
          Conduits for useful benefits!
          Correct with verse your brethren’s hearts,
          For we are cowardly, ungrateful,
          Sly, foolish, wicked, shameless, hateful,
          Slaves, liars, targets for your dart.
          We are cold castrates of the heart!
          Berate us then, our vice to lessen,
          Loving thy neighbor. We too may love you
          If you install in us your lesson
          The while we have a listen of you. (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 139-41)

And finally, this poem from 1936, witty and poignant at once, expresses the poet’s  desire to be free of the burdens that attend his calling:

          “(After Pindemonte)”

          I do not highly rate those loud trumpeted rights
          That turn many a head, nor do I rant against
          The gods who silently deny me access
          To the sweet joy of questioning the taxes
          Or meddling in the kings’ war on each other.
          I must admit that it’s none of my bother
          Whether the press is free to dupe the fools
          Or whether watchful censorship has rules
          Against one jester journalist’s ambitions —
          All words, words, words…[xiv] No, I crave better freedoms:
          Caring not to be slave to the tsar or the people,
          God bless them, I would be much more content and gleeful
          To follow my own path and own account to none,
          To bend not neck nor conscience, nor to cower
          Whether before or for the sake of power,
          But to roam unrestrained at the whim of volition,
          Gazing in awe at nature’s beauty in creation,
          To flutter and vibrate with rapturous elation
          In front of masterworks of artful inspiration.
         — That is bliss, those are rights!…  (Pushkin, trans Nikolayev 204-5)

          Now to make a few additional remarks about the translator, Philip Nikolayev. I have been following his work as poet and translator for at least five years. He is a remarkable poet — highly focused on his craft, original, versatile (master of many forms), and productive.[xv] He has four published collections to his name. A bilingual collection, Fugitive Speech, is in the works. As a translator he can easily be described as singular, not just because he’s exceptionally good, but because he can translate from a handful of languages instead of adhering to the usual rule of one-way translation from one language into only one other. I have read Nikolayev’s translations of poems from French, Rumanian, and, surprisingly, from Urdu, Hindi, and Sanskrit. He translates contemporary Russian poetry on a regular basis. These works, composed in Russian by poets whose styles vary appreciably, turn out breathtakingly well in English.

          Nikolayev arrived in the USA at the age of 24 from Russia, yet has a superb command of English. This is uncommon among adult immigrants. Nabokov argued that after ten years of age, an individual will never become fluent in a newly acquired language, and a 2018 article published in the Scientific American appears to back his claim: “One of the largest linguistics studies ever conducted showed…that it is best to start by age 10 if you want to achieve the grammatical fluency of a native speaker.”[xvi] An exception, then, Nikolayev has made English his own, and it shows in the ways he has managed to recreate the allusive, layered, and interior aspects of the original verse (and rhyme schemes). I’ve included examples of poems from the The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy so readers can read and judge for themselves. I hope they will notice too that Nikolayev has done a fine job of balancing the intricacies of language and expression, which were characteristic of Russia’s haut monde 200 years ago, with current-day English-language readers’ expectations.

          Nikolayev completed the translation in The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy over a course of ten years, and my hunch is that his work improved in the process. A small number of poems, or lines therein, show a slight unevenness, and there are a few instances were I feel another word could have worked better. These are cavils, however, and are of no consequence in comparison to my regard for the immeasurable value of The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy and the translator’s achievement. And that is to make available at long last in English Pushkin’s artistry in all its ardent, sharp-witted, and fierce glory.

 

NOTES

[i]Franklin, Simon. “Alexander Pushkin: ‘Eugene Onegin.’” Journal of European Studies, vol. 23, no. 92, Dec. 1993, pp. 471+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A15024715/AONE?u=yorku_main&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=d85ab749. Accessed 7 May 2022.

[ii]Sarah Funke Butler’s is an excellent, detailed discussion of this foredoomed project in “Document: Nabokov’s Notes,” which was published in the Paris Review in February, 2012. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/02/29/document-nabokov%E2%80%99s-notes/.

[iii]Founding members included Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Shcharansky, Lyudmila Alekseeva, Alexander Korchak, Malva Landa, Vitaly Rubin, Yelena Bonner, Alexander Ginzburg, Anatoly Marchenko, Petro Grigorenko, and Mikhail Bernshtam.

[iv] Solzhenitsyn, was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” Brodsky was awarded the Nobel in 1987. Akhmatova was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965, and again in 1966.

[v]For further reading on the history of Samizdat, please see “The writers who defied Soviet censors” by Benjamin Ramm. The essay was published on 24th July 2017. BBC Culture.

https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20170724-the-writers-who-defied-soviet-censors.

[vi]Other authors of note who were either censored or executed on Stalin’s orders include Boris Pilnyak, and the great Jewish author Isaac Babel.

[vii]See the following essay by Kirill Medvedev, “Dmitry Kuzmin,” in issue 13 of the online magazine, n+1 (Winter 2012). Medvedev examines the more recent culture of social activism, and asks important questions about the direction it is taking in present. <https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-13/essays/dmitry-kuzmin/>

[viii]The progressive Petrashevsky Circle included a number of distinguished poets and writers, such as Aleksey Pleshcheyev and the great Ukrainian poet, writer, and visual artist, Taras Shevchenko, and the great Russian satirist Nikolai Shchedrin. A. Fadeev wrote of Shchedrin: “The pathos of satirical humanism was his driving force. The mere awareness of people being treated cruelly while causes for their suffer were removable, filled him with rage and… murderous laughter that makes his satire so distinctive.”

[ix]Among many of Uspenski’s works, perhaps the best known are The Village Troubles (Vols. I-III), and The Power of the Land, which came out in the early 1880s.

[x]Belinsky died from consumption on the eve of his slated arrest 1848. Isaiah Berlin wrote of him: “Because he was naturally responsive to everything that was living and genuine, he transformed the concept of the critic’s calling in his native country. The lasting effect of his work was in altering and altering crucially and irretrievably, the moral and social outlook of the leading younger writers and thinkers of his time.” It was Belinsky’s letter, calling for the end of serfdom, that — not coincidentally, perhaps — Dostoevsky had read aloud at public gatherings and helped print and disseminate by means of a secret press. It was for these particular offences that Dostoevsky was sentenced in 1849 and sent to prison camps in Siberia for four years. See Isaiah Berlin’s chapter on Belinsky in his Russian Thinkers (1978).

[xi]In 1837, poem by Mikhail Lermontov, wrote “Death of the Poet” in shocked and frantic reaction to Pushkin’s death. Lermontov accused the court aristocracy of manipulating events that led to the tragedy. The poem depicted this clique as “huddling about the throne in a greedy throng”, and as “the hangmen who kill liberty, genius, and glory.” Hand-written copies of the poem were circulated, eventually reaching the Tsar’s people, who deemed the last 16 lines of the poem highly seditious. Lermontov was arrested and exiled to military service in the Caucasus. Nekrasov wrote the poem “Freedom” in 1861 as a response to the inadequacies of the Emancipation Reform of 1856, as well as in tribute to Pushkin’s “Ode to Liberty.” A Poet’s Death (1837) by Ogarev was likewise dedicated to Pushkin.

[xii] The poem brings to mind Ovid’s Envoi: “And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let that day, that only has power over my body, end, when it will, my uncertain span of years: yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies, –vivam – I shall live.” (Metamorphoses, Bk XV:871-879, trans. A. S. Kline)

[xiii]See also Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse: Text (Vol. 1), Translated by Vladimir Nabokov, Introduction by Vladimir Nabokov, Foreword by Brian Boyd, Princeton Press, 2018.

[xiv]Pushkin’s note: “Hamlet.”

[xv]For readers not familiar with Nikolayev’s work, go to the Poetry Foundation’s page for basic facts about the poet and titles of his published collections: <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/philip-nikolayev>

[xvi]See article by Dana G. Smith, published in the Scientific American in May of 2018, “At What Age Does Our Ability to Learn a New Language Like a Native Speaker Disappear?” <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/at-what-age-does-our-ability-to-learn-a-new-language-like-a-native-speaker-disappear/&gt;

NOTES:

[1]Franklin, Simon. “Alexander Pushkin: ‘Eugene Onegin.’” Journal of European Studies, vol. 23, no. 92, Dec. 1993, pp. 471+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A15024715/AONE?u=yorku_main&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=d85ab749. Accessed 7 May 2022.

[1]Sarah Funke Butler’s is an excellent, detailed discussion of this foredoomed project in “Document: Nabokov’s Notes,” which was published in the Paris Review in February, 2012. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/02/29/document-nabokov%E2%80%99s-notes/.

[1]Founding members included Yuri Orlov, Anatoly Shcharansky, Lyudmila Alekseeva, Alexander Korchak, Malva Landa, Vitaly Rubin, Yelena Bonner, Alexander Ginzburg, Anatoly Marchenko, Petro Grigorenko, and Mikhail Bernshtam.

[1] Solzhenitsyn, was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” Brodsky was awarded the Nobel in 1987. Akhmatova was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965, and again in 1966.

[1]For further reading on the history of Samizdat, please see “The writers who defied Soviet censors” by Benjamin Ramm. The essay was published on 24th July 2017. BBC Culture.

https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20170724-the-writers-who-defied-soviet-censors.

[1]Other authors of note who were either censored or executed on Stalin’s orders include Boris Pilnyak, and the great Jewish author Isaac Babel.

[1]See the following essay by Kirill Medvedev, “Dmitry Kuzmin,” in issue 13 of the online magazine, n+1 (Winter 2012). Medvedev examines the more recent culture of social activism, and asks important questions about the direction it is taking in present. <https://www.nplusonemag.com/issue-13/essays/dmitry-kuzmin/>

[1]The progressive Petrashevsky Circle included a number of distinguished poets and writers, such as Aleksey Pleshcheyev and the great Ukrainian poet, writer, and visual artist, Taras Shevchenko, and the great Russian satirist Nikolai Shchedrin. A. Fadeev wrote of Shchedrin: “The pathos of satirical humanism was his driving force. The mere awareness of people being treated cruelly while causes for their suffer were removable, filled him with rage and… murderous laughter that makes his satire so distinctive.”

[1]Among many of Uspenski’s works, perhaps the best known are The Village Troubles (Vols. I-III), and The Power of the Land, which came out in the early 1880s.

[1]Belinsky died from consumption on the eve of his slated arrest 1848. Isaiah Berlin wrote of him: “Because he was naturally responsive to everything that was living and genuine, he transformed the concept of the critic’s calling in his native country. The lasting effect of his work was in altering and altering crucially and irretrievably, the moral and social outlook of the leading younger writers and thinkers of his time.” It was Belinsky’s letter, calling for the end of serfdom, that — not coincidentally, perhaps — Dostoevsky had read aloud at public gatherings and helped print and disseminate by means of a secret press. It was for these particular offences that Dostoevsky was sentenced in 1849 and sent to prison camps in Siberia for four years. See Isaiah Berlin’s chapter on Belinsky in his Russian Thinkers (1978).

[1]In 1837, poem by Mikhail Lermontov, wrote “Death of the Poet” in shocked and frantic reaction to Pushkin’s death. Lermontov accused the court aristocracy of manipulating events that led to the tragedy. The poem depicted this clique as “huddling about the throne in a greedy throng”, and as “the hangmen who kill liberty, genius, and glory.” Hand-written copies of the poem were circulated, eventually reaching the Tsar’s people, who deemed the last 16 lines of the poem highly seditious. Lermontov was arrested and exiled to military service in the Caucasus. Nekrasov wrote the poem “Freedom” in 1861 as a response to the inadequacies of the Emancipation Reform of 1856, as well as in tribute to Pushkin’s “Ode to Liberty.” A Poet’s Death (1837) by Ogarev was likewise dedicated to Pushkin.

[1] The poem brings to mind Ovid’s Envoi: “And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let that day, that only has power over my body, end, when it will, my uncertain span of years: yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilised, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poet’s prophecies, –vivam – I shall live.” (Metamorphoses, Bk XV:871-879, trans. A. S. Kline)

[1]See also Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse: Text (Vol. 1), Translated by Vladimir Nabokov, Introduction by Vladimir Nabokov, Foreword by Brian Boyd, Princeton Press, 2018.

[1]Pushkin’s note: “Hamlet.”

[1]For readers not familiar with Nikolayev’s work, go to the Poetry Foundation’s page for basic facts about the poet and titles of his published collections: <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/philip-nikolayev>

[1]See article by Dana G. Smith, published in the Scientific American in May of 2018, “At What Age Does Our Ability to Learn a New Language Like a Native Speaker Disappear?” <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/at-what-age-does-our-ability-to-learn-a-new-language-like-a-native-speaker-disappear/>

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Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.

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Table of Contents. WordCity Literary Journal. May 2022. Issue 14. For Ukraine

This page is still in progress…

Letter from the Editor. Guest letter by Clara Burgelea

Fiction. Edited by Sylvia Petter

Geoffrey Heptonstall. The Caterpillar’s Crawl

Dawn Promislow. Wan

Vanessa Gebbie. Letters from Kilburn

Ahmad Ali Fidakar. A story from a tired land (words and gallery)

 

Non-fiction. Edited by Olga Stein

Editorial by Olga Stein. Revisiting 1990s Russia: Biznes in the Wild East

Alla Gutnikova’s Speech from Court

Olga Stein. On Contemplating Stars: New and Timely Translations of Alexander Pushkin

 

Books and Reviews. edited by Geraldine Sinyuy

Livi Michael.  Aleksandar Tišma’s Kapo

Alina Stefanescu. The Aliens Created by Nation-States: A Review of Voices on the Move: An Anthology about Refugees

Gordon Phinn. Emergence and Renewal

 

Literary Spotlight with Sue Burge

Dawn Promislow in Conversation with Sue Burge

 

Poetry. Edited by Clara Burghelea

Mansour Noorbakhsh

Alexia Kalogeropoulou

Josephine LoRe

Rachel J. Fenton

Dave Lewis

Elizabeth Boquet

Claudia Serea

Frank Joussen

Lauren Friesen

Michael Schein

Janice Kulyk Keefer

Carol Hamilton

Lisa Reynolds

Gordon Phinn

Adrienne Stevenson

The Reverend Ngwa Hosea Ambe Nchesi

Pratibha Castle

Reinhold Stipsits

Jack J. B. Hutchens

Katia Kapovich

Olga Stein

Nina Kossman

 

Artist Adam Young
Hearts for Ukraine

May be art of flower

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WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Letter from the Poetry Editor. Clara Burghelea

Clara Burghelea

Welcome to the May issue of WordCityLit Journal. This issue features a human rights theme and stands in solidarity with Ukraine and its people. The work is dedicated to the resilient people of Ukraine, speaking against the inhumanity of war, calling for peace and acknowledging the experiences of all poets and writers personally involved in this tragedy or simply reacting to it.

Our previous issue had been committed to sharing the pandemic experience that both united and divided us. We invited poets and writers to address this collective tragedy and share their personal take on it in the hope that their words will offer comfort and hope. Little did we know that more tragedy was about to hit the world in February when Russia invaded Ukraine causing an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Thus, the work included in this issue portrays a variety of reactions and a different understanding of this invasion that affected not only the Ukrainian people, but also their relatives, family and friends living abroad. Above all, artists all over the world, as well as simple people felt the need to voice their concerns or show their empathy.

We, the editors of WordCityLit, feel grateful for the way in which the contributors of this issue chose to interpret the current and historic human rights theme and incorporated it in their work, at the same time, standing against the Russian war and in support of the Ukrainian people, through their words.

We are also happy to have been given permission to include in our May issue, poetry in translation from the Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine anthology edited by Oksana Maksymchuk & Max Rosochinsky, with an introduction by Ilya Kaminsky and an afterword by Polina Barskova. These poems by different compelling poetic voices all over Ukraine, engage with the experience of war and make reference to specific events that are part of the Ukrainian history. They also mirror the poems we have included in the May issue, in a common effort to acknowledge the urgency of poetry and translation equally, in such times of alienation and loss.

We thank you kindly for reading and appreciate your willingness to join us in our effort to speak up and defend all human rights.

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Clara Burghelea is a Romanian-born poet with an MFA in Poetry from Adelphi University. Recipient of the Robert Muroff Poetry Award, her poems and translations appeared in Ambit, HeadStuff, Waxwing and elsewhere. Her collection The Flavor of The Other was published in 2020 with Dos Madres Press. She is the current Poetry Editor of The Blue Nib.

Hearts for Ukraine. fine art by Adam Young

Hearts for Ukraine. Adam Young, artist

Hearts for Ukraine, by Canadian artist Adam Young, raised $65,000CAD For Voices of Children Ukraine. We at WordCity Literary Journal are honoured to share Young’s work and his vision. Please visit Young Studios on Facebook. In posts from March 2022, you will find details of the auction (now closed). While there, please enjoy more stunning works by Young, which detail his vision of Canada’s Maritimes.

Adam Young is best known for his whimsical and colourful depictions of Eastern Canada, specifically Newfoundland.  He was born in Halifax, NS, raised in Moncton, NB and has been living on Fogo Island, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland since 2008.  He completed is BFA at Mount Allison University in Sackville, NB (2003).  He went on to completed his BEd (Crandall University, Moncton 2007) and MEd (Memorial University, St.John’s 2016).  Adam started his artistic career as a freelance illustrator for newspapers and magazines throughout Canada but his professional body of work began after his first visit to Newfoundland in 2005.

Inspiration for Adam’s work comes from the stark beauty of the landscape, architecture and the warmth of the people who live here.  His mediums of choice are acrylics and inks and focuses on the elements of light, repetition, movement and colour.  The fishing stage and/or saltbox house is a common theme within most of Adam’s paintings which takes the place as the absent figure. The little colourful shacks embody a playful feeling of curiosity and wonder as they balance on the rocky and sometimes harsh coastline of the North Atlantic.  Adam lives on Fogo Island, NL with his wife Jennifer, their daughters Bella and Scout and dog Johnny Cash.

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Literary Spotlight. Dawn Promislow in Conversation with Sue Burge

I am delighted to be chatting to Dawn Promislow for this issue of WordCity.  It’s an exciting time for Dawn with her novel, Wan, coming out this month. Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer states, “Wan is a masterpiece. This beautiful, painterly, sublime, and sonically exquisite novel by Dawn Promislow is a work of utter genius.” And having got my hands on an advance copy of the novel, I would absolutely endorse this review!

Dawn Promislow

Dawn, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me during this busy period.  First of all, that classic question: How did you get started as a writer and when did you “come out” as a writer and state that that was your vocation?

Your phrase “come out” is useful in this context, as in my case it did take a long time, and for me there was always an aspect of secrecy to the act of writing. I always understood that taking up a pen and writing was an act of great power, and possibly, subversion.

I grew up in an authoritarian society (apartheid South Africa) where creativity, even individuality, was not prized. You couldn’t speak your mind; and I didn’t speak my mind. I read books, though. Many books. I understood the power of writing and of books.

I must have been afraid at some level for many years to write, so I didn’t write—not at all. I had two children, I lived in Canada. But all the stories about my childhood in South Africa must have been standing like ghosts behind me, insisting on being told, and at some point I simply started writing them. Perhaps my children were older, and I had more time. I wrote in long-hand, in a spiral-bound notebook.

I wrote what became a manuscript of 25,000 words; I wrote quite quickly. This was in 2008. Then I enrolled in a program at Toronto’s Humber School for Writers to work on the manuscript, and under the mentorship of Olive Senior I expanded and deepened it, and developed the confidence to recognize what I had done. I had written a collection of short stories. (The collection was published in 2010 by Mawenzi House.)

I was a writer.

 

That’s so interesting Dawn.  I’m always struck by how long it takes writers to actually recognize and value the power of their own words.  I was wondering, how do you manage to tread the line between autobiography and fiction in your work? How much does your own lived experience inform your work?

 

I try to distance myself personally from what I write. I find it overwhelming and revealing, to expose myself in that way. I seldom write non-fiction and memoir, therefore!

I am interested, instead, in transforming my lived experience into something new, which is what fiction does. I guess you could say I am most interested in the invention that is fiction. Paradoxically, that invention—the imagined world—reflects and deepens our understanding of the real world. That is the great paradox of fiction, and its meaning and power reside there, in that paradox.

My novel Wan depicts the real world of apartheid South Africa, which is my lived experience, but it is—most importantly—a fictional tale. The characters are fictional, and what happens to them is fictional. If the novel succeeds as a work, however, I hope it sheds some light on that real time and place, reveals how it was—and even reveals new things about it.

I am also interested in beauty alone as a value, the beauty of a work of art, of a novel. So my lived experience is, to me, the material from which I try to make a thing of beauty, that exists on its own, completely outside of and separate from myself and my experience of the world.

Having said all that, I think lived experience informs every aspect of a writer’s work. Every moment of life, of what has been seen, heard, felt, and experienced, is material to the writer. But what is made of the material, and how, is random and unpredictable. In my case, certainly.

Wan feels so well contextualized in terms of lived experience so that all makes perfect sense.  Thank you for that really thought-provoking answer.  So, what is your writing method? Are you disciplined? How do you tackle the blank page? And what is your favourite way of having down-time from writing?

I am undisciplined, I think! Most of the time I don’t have a routine. I spend what could be years just thinking about a writing project, perhaps some part of me is avoiding it. And I think the avoidance is part of the process. The fear of revelation is part of the process, I believe.

I seem to work around a project, perhaps writing something else, a short story or a poem, or doing other things. And then after a long time of visualising, and more thinking around it, and gathering other bits and pieces in a fairly random way, I sit down and write. The writing often comes very quickly at that point because it seems my unconscious has solved many of the puzzles and problems during all that ‘marinating’ time. So I think that time is an important factor in the creative process. I believe in an organic process of waiting, and observing, and gathering, before putting pen to paper.

When I sat down finally to write Wan, I wrote the first draft over a period of weeks, starting at 6 o’clock every morning, three or four hours of writing, and two hours of reading over or editing in the afternoons. Every day. During editing and revising in general I follow a similar routine, for many months. It’s intense and I become upset if my routine is interrupted during that time. So that is discipline, I suppose!

As for down-time from writing: I like walking, I walk a lot, and perhaps motion is conducive to creativity, or to thought. Most of the things I like to do are solitary (reading, walking, looking at paintings in art galleries), and I think that solitude particularly is conducive to creativity. So I find it necessary to spend a great deal of time alone!

What advice would you give other writers starting out? What advice do you wish you’d be given at the start of your writing career?

Before I did the program at Humber, I had not studied creative writing, or known any writers. Working with a mentor helped me develop confidence, and exposed me to a more analytical and nuts-and-bolts, or craft-based, approach to writing. And writing is so solitary an occupation, so support from other writers or teachers is important. I would recommend a mentor, or a mentorship program, therefore!

Overall, though, I would say that reading makes a writer. Read, read, read. You can never read enough.

I’m really glad you said that Dawn!  For me reading is absolutely key to becoming a better writer so that’s a piece of advice that really resonates with me.

 

Do you think moving to Toronto changed you as a writer and if so, in what way? Are there things you can’t imagine writing unless you are in Canada/South Africa? Wan had such a strong sense of place and I wonder whether that strength of setting came about because you were one step removed from it after moving to Canada? Sometimes it’s hard to “see” and process the place you are in.

I definitely think so. Wan was written some fifty years after the lived experience that inspired it! I think that is very much part of its being. It seems to have taken me many years (decades!) to have processed apartheid South Africa. And I am still processing it. It holds great power over me, the memory of it. And perhaps some of that power and intensity, and also pain, is evident in the work.

I would have been a very different writer if I had not left South Africa. Migration itself is a defining life experience, and so it is a different novel I would have written had I not left South Africa. Perhaps another way of putting it: I would have been a different person had I not left South Africa.

Dawn, you are one of those polymath writers who always fill me with awe in that you write in all genres. Do you think you have a consistent voice whether you are writing a poem or a novel. or do you inhabit a different writing persona and voice for each genre? I noticed in Wan your skillful use of repetition which gives such a rhythmic feel to the prose . It feels very poetic and also a way of showing memory and its unreliability. Wan also felt very tightly and economically written, with every word earning its place, which often seems to be how poets and short story writers approach their work. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of writing in all genres?

In general I respond to things in a poetic or short-story way. For example, visual imagery is key for me. My writing projects usually start with a visual image, a compelling image that I can’t forget. I spend a lot of time looking at paintings—visual art—and I am compelled or entranced or intrigued by the captured moment that is a painting. I started writing short stories because I love how a short story can capture a moment so succinctly, almost a “single effect” as Edgar Allan Poe described it. When I started to write this novel I had trouble ‘expanding’ the imagery, and the story, in the way that a novel requires.

In the last few years, before I wrote Wan, I became very interested in writing poetry. I read a lot of poetry, I published some poems. I thought I would continue writing poetry. But then I felt it needed so much from me, I had so much more to learn from other poets and poetry, there were so many theoretical concerns in the poetry as well, that I balked. I learned a great deal from that period, about poetic means. But then I started writing Wan, which I think is what I had wanted to do from the beginning. To write this story set in the South Africa of my childhood. So I set myself to that—and the result is here!

In general, I like brevity rather than profusion, and understatement rather than elaboration. I have been quite influenced by Japanese aesthetics, some favourite novels of mine are Japanese (translated into English). Those of Yasunari Kawabata, for example. His Snow Country has been a significant influence on my work.

As for voice, it’s hard for me to say. Wan is a novel narrated in the first person, by the character Jacqueline. My intent was that the voice be Jacqueline’s voice, not my voice. I was quite anxious that the voice not be my voice. The way Jacqueline expresses herself, including in the style of rhythm and circularity you mention, is meant to be an expression of her character, of who she is. But if it is Jacqueline’s voice, a voice I created for this character, where does my own artistic ‘voice’ fit in? This is one of the wonders and mysteries of fiction: where, and who, is the artist behind the characters? I have to say I don’t really know! I will have to write another novel that doesn’t have Jacqueline in it, to find out.

Yes, that old conundrum of the writer/narrator/character and where it all begins and ends!

 

Finally, how important is it for you as a writer to remain politically engaged with your topics, and how do you manage to do this without preaching to your readers, so that you come at uncomfortable truths in ways the reader can absorb and process effectively?

I don’t think of it in a theoretical way. I have no wish to proselytize or be ‘moral,’ in spite of the fact that moral issues in the world and in history concern me deeply. I try to write the best fiction I can, by which I mean, I try to create a fictional world that holds together: setting, time, characters, and story. I believe that if I do that, moral concerns will reveal themselves, but perhaps in a particularly compelling way, or in a new way. That is what the best fiction does, I think.

Wan is set in apartheid South Africa, and I tried to render that time and place as truthfully as I could, also as vividly, in a way that readers could visualise and even feel. The senses are very important in a novel: to feel the world of the work, to hear its sounds. But the world of apartheid South Africa (like all worlds!) has an intrinsic moral framework. No work could be set in that time and place without being infused with the moral catastrophe that it was. So, yes, Wan is engaged with politics and more, with moral dimensions and moral dilemmas.  Most certainly, too, anguish underpins the novel, the anguish of a confrontation with the moral destitution that defined South Africa at that time.

Dawn, thank you so much for taking time out to talk about your work.  I wish you every success with Wan and hope it gets the accolades it deserves.  What’s next for you, I wonder?

 

Thank you Sue for your time here, for inviting me into this wonderful and interesting conversation, and for your good wishes!

For what’s next: I am hoping I won’t take so long to write another novel! My goal is to shorten the ‘marinating’ time that I spend on a project, and to arrive at the sitting-down-and-writing part sooner. Which is another way of saying that I hope to be more disciplined!

Best wishes to you too Sue, in your poet’s work, and in your work for this exciting journal!

Read an Excerpt of Wan in WCLJ

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Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her collection Jewels and Other Stories (Mawenzi House, 2010) was critically acclaimed, long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and named one of the eight best debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail. Dawn has published short stories, poems, and essays, in literary journals in Canada, the US, and the UK, where they have been short-listed for awards.

Wan is her first novel. It has received stellar advance reviews, and will be out on May 1st.

Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK.  She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University.  Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet.  She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris.  This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press.  Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News.   She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic.  Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon.  More information at www.sueburge.uk

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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A story from a tired land. words and photo gallery by Ahmad Ali Fidakar

12

A story from a tired land

Once upon a time, nearly two decades ago, a miracle occurred at the center of crisis and turmoil in Ghazni province in a tired land when a humourful and playful boy was born into a traditional and populous family whose souls and minds for years had been harnessed by war.

War and terror were the twin monsters destroying the tired land of Afghanistan.

Despite the weak economy and being another mouth to feed the arrival of the boy did not diminish the joy and happiness of his family.

 

His grandfather, the dignified man of the family, with his open forehead and empty hands, gave everything up for his family, the boy´s grandmother loved her grandson very much.

The boy´s father always helped his father, the boy´s grandfather in the home, on the farm and through the hardships of life. He worked hard for his family to contribute to its happiness.

 

But war gradually split the boy´s family and all the families in the country. In his early days of childhood, confusion and insecurity pervaded the lives of the members of the large family, and in some cases, the damage affected many family members.

 

Migration was a temporary solution for saving their lives from bombs and guns for a while. The boy´s grandfather moved several members of the family to  the center of Ghazni, then to Kandahar during the Taliban’s military conflict with Western coalition forces and the national force of Afghanistan, through Spin Boldak to Pakistan, and then from Pakistan to Iran, and finally to relatives in Shiraz city.

 

For the young boy, it was difficult and unpleasant to be separated from my birthplace, from the farm and from the gardens of his house, and he prayed every night to return to the warm embrace of his kind mother. Alas, his prayers took almost two years to be answered.

 

When he returned to Ghazni two years later, he found a devastated and wounded city. His grandfather no longer had his former energy, and the children would count his white hairs.

The school at that time was not very close to home, and the boy had to walk for hours to get to class, but he never got tired or stopped; this tireless journey continued for twelve years. Twelve fruitful and noisy years, but alas at the end his grandfather was no longer.

During those twelve years, the boy became interested in poetry, novels, stories, short stories, art, film and music and also the English language. His great interest was to photograph nature and record it with his old camera; this excited his life until he realized that he had become immersed in his art. And so he concentrated on photography.

This passion for art, and especially for the art of photography, forced him to take the Kankor preparation classes and gave himthe desire to enter the Faculty of Arts at Kabul University.

 

But war and destruction in Kabul was increasing every day, and he found his dreams burning and being destroyed in his heart, as were those of the children of his homeland going up in smoke.

He became indistinguishable from the children of his homeland, and the war extinguished the lives of his friends and his dreams as well.

 

A prose poem in his words:

That day (August 15, 2018).

There was blood in the lesson that day

Mathematics of war

Solve a not-so-simple equation

A negative explosion of a class of 400 people

Reporters run for hours in hospitals

And at the end of the night, they announce the impact of this explosion.

Killed 150 Wounded 50

Killed 47 Wounded 47

And teacher

The result is called a mass graveyard

The lesson of that day

 

In the midst of the smoke and the wounds, he cried and searched all day for the bloody torn bodies of his classmates. Luckily, he was healthy enough; he had a few wounds, but the very first wave of the explosion stole all his imagination, desires and motives from the depths of his heart and carried them to the sky and beyond the clouds in long streams of smoke.

 

For months, as a result of that attack inside his classroom, he became deeply depressed and his soul ached. What was he going to do with all his long-lost dreams? And where could he take his head empty of longing?

Soon after the difficult days of the tragedy in Kabul, Ghazni fell and was set on fire. After that, the Taliban attacked his hometown. The displacement and injury of his family and other innocent compatriots compressed his soul more than before, and the vicious wounds of his heart deepened but, like in his early school days when I walked for hours to study for only 3 hours in class, he still had strong hopes and, despite countless grievances, did not get tired and continued his activities and efforts. He did even more than that.

He tells me: “My interest in photography is not only artistic, personal, and recreational; I want to bring smiles through my photography, something which has been done less; I want to bring smiles through my photography to the lips of the deprived children of my homeland, and to the hearts of all Afghan citizens; my love for photography is more than just an interest. I am in Afghanistan and belong to its people and I want to continue as far as we can; but war, insecurity and poverty are the barriers that constantly hinder me and my fellow citizens from serving my country.

I don’t want to die on a night full of war and explosions inside my earthen house like my grandfather. I want to see the coming of peace with my own eyes. I want to live in a space full of love and purity. As a literate person, I want to serve my people through my art.

 

I am ready to experience being away from home again and away from my family.

The difference is that this time I am no longer that one-year-old child who escaped the war with the help of my grandfather. Rather, I am a hardworking young man. I want to put an end to the war with the help of my pen and artistry.

There are more opportunities for study and progress abroad than in Afghanistan, and I want to study and complete my higher education in a humanitarian European country.

As far as I know, Europe annually has accepted a large number of young people like me in its home countries and with a sense of humanity and service to human society has made it possible to cooperate with them so that they may study. I am also eager to come to one of the European countries and study in such a good environment. After graduation, I intend to return to Afghanistan and serve my people. And to be of a little help to Europe itself, I will prove to you the value and efforts of the people of my land.

I didn’t want to sign up through social media on inanimate and relatively dull, faceless apps. Rather, I wanted to send my heartfelt message to you. If you could help and accept me as one of the hundreds of people who are studying in Europe. First of all, I would be grateful for your help. Secondly, for a while, I would be like you, in your shadow and that of your country and in line with your culture, and then I would return to my country so that I can take a small step in eliminating and ending the war in Afghanistan. And I promise you that if you give me this opportunity, after I return to my country, I will help this land to get rid of this nightmare, so that there will be no more children without fathers and no fathers without children.

My wish and that of my poor family is for you to accept me for a limited time and to be able to continue my studies in the field of photography at one of the European universities, and to help me regain my lost dreams.

 

Sincerely, and with a smile.

AHMAD ALI FIDAKAR

Kabul Afghanistan”.

 

Will there be a happy end to this story? It all depends on us, on you. Here are some of the beauties from Ahmad´s portfolio. It is a plan to make a photo book with his story to raise money for his studies.

https://instagram.com/ahmad_fidakar?igshid=NDBlY2NjN2I=

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WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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The Caterpillar’s Crawl. fiction by Geoffrey Heptonstall

GH

The Caterpillar’s Crawl

“I’m from a little place in Western Australia. You won’t have heard of it,” said the man from a little place in Western Australia.

“I’ve heard of it,” said the man who’d heard of it.

“Nobody’s heard of where I’ve from.”

“Yes, it’s called Western Australia,” the man who’d heard of it replied.

“But you don’t know a little place called Perfect, do you? Well, that’s where I live when I’m out there. Been out there all my life until I came over here. It’s a long way. My place is a long way from anywhere. If I ever write a book, I’ll call it A Long Way from Perfect. A good title, eh? Books with titles like that sell a million. I could write that book. Then I could retire. You know where I’d retire to?”

“A long way from Perfect.”

“How did you know that?”

We were in the café with a view of the distant white mountains. The sound of the ocean’s surf crashing against the rocks so far below was the constant rhythm. Here, beneath parasols, we refreshed and relaxed in the afternoon heat of the island.

“How did you know what my book’s going to be called? You a writer? You could help me write my book. Fifty/fifty share of the profits. You’d be rich. I’d be rich. What do you say?”

The man from a little place in Western Australia and the man who’d heard of it were sitting at the next table to us on the left. They had met only moments before. The man who’d heard of it was a Londoner making his first visit to the island. His companion had never been far from Perfect until he took the bus to Perth for the internal flight to Sydney, then out across the world to Europe, and from there he took the boat to the island. He seemed in pursuit of a dream. We were not sure of his dream.

The man at the table to our right seemed oblivious to the conversations of his neighbours. We were barely aware of him. He was an elderly man reading a newspaper in a café. Cafes the world over always have such a customer. They always sport goatee beards of greying hair. Our man was true to type. He had a goatee beard of greying hair that he thought gave him the look of distinction. The young have beauty. The elderly have distinction.

We were watching a caterpillar crawl across the café lawn. The grass had been freshly cut. Because of the rains that had fallen all summer everything green was almost luminously so. The man – we were never to see him again – said, “You must live according to your dreams.” They were the only words he spoke to us. He made no introduction, said nothing further, and soon afterward disappeared when we were pre-occupied with our own conversation.

He had leaned across from the next table to say those words to us. He was sitting alone. He looked like a man who lived alone in his chrysalis. One day he was going to fly again. He lived alone with his memories of battles and conquests. A widower, he employed a widow to keep house for him.  As a young man he had forced himself upon a much older woman who accepted her lowly position without a word of protest. But these days his interest was in younger women paid to keep silent. Theirs was a different silence, and a different submission.

Of course, we were never to see the man again. It would have destroyed the mystery had we known who he was. Speaking to him, learning about his life, should have destroyed the mystery. This man was about mystery. It was a curious remark casually dropped into the conversation of strangers. He was the unknown figure who vanishes, leaving behind the enigma by which will he is sure to be remembered.

 

He wanted us to remember him, to wonder about him, to speculate on the meaning of his remark, and then to speculate on his identity.

“Do you know who I am?” the memory of him asks me. No, I have no idea. I can try to imagine. This I find myself compelled to do. It is what he wished me to do. He continues to wish this of me. He repeats his advice over and over.

Most advice we are given we ignore. We ought to ignore most advice because most people are thinking not about us but about themselves. They think that what works for them works for everyone. People can be so self-centred. They can be generous with their time, their money and, especially, their advice. All the while they are thinking of themselves. They are going out of their way to help, but the road they take you on is the road they would take if they were you. That’s what they say: “If I were you.” But it’s not you they mean. Most advice we can ignore.

“It was spur of the moment coming here,” the man from a little place in Western Australia said. “Well, I had trouble back home. When you got trouble the best thing you can do is get out right away. That’s what I did. I got out right away. Best thing to do when there’s trouble.”

“Trouble follows you,” the man who’d heard of it replied.

“You know you Brits don’t see things right. My advice is just do it. Follow your dreams. Yes. Like the man said. That’s what I did. I’ve never felt better. Plenty of money. Plenty of time. I’m like a free man released from captivity. You know that? That’s how it was.  I was in a cage. They called it Perfect. I called it captivity.

Well, I escaped. You know how? I took the money and got myself a ticket. Here I am, talking to you on this beautiful island.”

 

The caterpillar was no longer visible. It had found the refuge of anonymity in the long grass. If we could not see it we were going to forget it was there. Perhaps it was observing us from its bolt hole. If it could hear our voices – and surely it could –what did it make of the sounds we were making. Not much we said or did made any sense to a caterpillar. It was far better to ignore us. Like the clouds and the trees, we were there. We were part of the landscape. Every caterpillar knew that.

“You’ll have to go back, won’t you?” replied the man who had heard of it.

“Go back? Not necessarily. When the money runs out, I can work. Or there’s some rich woman visiting the island. These islands are full of them.”

He was a long way from Perfect, and the unreality of his situation was bending his perception. He had walked, as we had, from the town to this place. In the heat haze the narrow, lonely road could work strangely on a tired, hungry mind. I pictured the man on an even lonelier and much longer road. He had seen stumps of trees turn into beautiful women. He had seen pools of water on dry rocks. He had seen armies that so easily might have been mistaken for children.

He seemed a stranger on the run. He had come close to confessing it. He wanted to tell the world what he had done. He was proud of what he had done, although his pride depended on not being caught. We supposed he had committed some audacious and clever fraud. He had embezzled a hated brother-in-law. Or he had cheated the company he worked for out of the money he felt those rich employers owed him. The company could afford the loss. They deserved to lose. It was the little guys who deserved to win. He’d won. And here he was to prove it.

“Rich, beautiful women,” the man from a little place in Western Australia repeated dreamily.

 

A cloud passed over the sun. Somewhere in Europe there was rain. This whisper of cloud was the hint that on the mainland, north in the mountains there were chill winds and storms.

“Not that you can trust any of ‘em. Women, I mean. Don’t trust the ladies. Never. You can’t trust nobody. They cheat, they lie, and they rob you left and right.” He no longer spoke dreamily. A bitter edge had crept in again. Perhaps it was never far away.”

He, too, reminded me of the caterpillar. There he was crawling along, imagining himself the butterfly he was never going to be. People are divided into those who crawl and those who fly. He had taken flight, only to land on this small island where nothing happened. His life now was going to be nothing happening. There was nothing except to watch caterpillars while dreaming of air and beauty that was never going to be his.

He drank too much. He talked too much. He was confessing more than he knew. He hadn’t escaped. Like the caterpillar crawling he might be caught so easily at any moment. 

We could have warned him, but he didn’t seem a man who took advice. He might never have left the little place in Western Australia had he listened to advice. He might never have taken the money with him on the flight to Europe. He surely should not be here on the island had he listened to anything beyond the impulse.

There was something admirable in its way about that impulse. Here was someone who took a chance against all advice. Do any of us listen to advice? Sometimes, rarely, there comes the suggestion that really does make a difference. “Take that train. Take it now.” And you take the train, and you leave, never to return, and it’s a better place that you find. You remember for ever the figure at the station, watching as the train departs. You remember the loss that she is going to feel. You remember the selfless sacrifice made for your sake. If you had had a moment to consider this you’d never have boarded the train. But there was no time to think as you hurried to buy a ticket. There was time only to say thanks before you were through the barriers. That was how it was. You took the chance.

He took the chance and ran. He was never going back. He would rather throw himself onto the rocks beneath the sea cliffs than be taken back. He was going to leap and fly like a butterfly into the haze. All his life he had crawled. And then he learned that he, too, could fly.

“Rich, beautiful women,” he murmured, dreaming again as the afternoon sun cast shadows across the lawn where the caterpillar crawled.

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Geoffrey Heptonstall is the author of Heaven’s Invention, a novel [Black Wolf 2017] and two poetry collections published by Cyberwit The Rites of Paradise [2020] and Sappho’s Moon [2021]. A playwright, he was an associate writer of Duck Down Theatre in London. Several of his plays have been produced in London fringe theatres. A current project is Virginia, a short film. Poetry, essays and fiction has appeared in a dozen print anthologies and in many international publications, Geoffrey was closely associated with The London Magazine between 2007 and 2018. He has taught Writing in Cambridge where he lives.

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Wan. a novel excerpt by Dawn Promislow

Dawn Promislow2 pic

Wan

I left, one day, my studio at noon, and walked under the dim trees, across to the garden room. The heater Josias had brought was next to the door. I went to the door, that door that now inhabited my dreams, and knocked. It was such a thin knock in the silence of the garden, a glade, it was. I heard the knock, so small, like a child’s. And I felt like a child. A timid, frightened child.

I heard the scrape of a chair, something like that, inside, and, instantly, the door opened, and he was there, standing there, and he saw me. Me. It was me.

Jacqueline, he said. How nice to see you. Is everything alright? He looked into my face. Oh yes, yes, everything’s fine, I said. I think my voice was small, tight in my throat. Come in, come in, Jacqueline, he said, and he opened his door, and stepped aside, and gestured me in.

All those months, four months, and I’d not seen him, or come into his room.

I’d imagined it, how I’d imagined it, that space. There were more books than I’d imagined, a pile, many high. More papers, many papers, but in an orderly pile on the table, and several other piles, all over the room, some on the concrete floor. A briefcase, next to his table. My table, an old table I’d hauled from the garage. His chair, my chair, a wooden chair, pushed back, he must’ve been sitting in it, right before.

And his bed. A narrow bed, like a prisoner’s. Or like Josias’s bed, I’d seen Josias’s, in his small concrete room. But Joseph’s bed was neatly made. Immaculate. The white sheets I’d put there, the pillow, the wool blanket, blue. And a chill in the room, the weather had turned, as I said.

In the corner, some of our white dishes, two or three, and a cup, were stacked—dirty dishes, Emily would pick them up that afternoon, I knew. And next to them, on the floor, plugged into the outlet, was our old kettle, its dusty, worn silver that I remembered. And there was the small, white fridge.

That’s all there was. I think that’s all.

The lone light bulb on the ceiling cast a thin, yellow light, and filtered sunlight came through the two small windows, as I’d imagined, so many times. The windows, I saw now, were not clean (how could they be clean?), they needed washing. More light would come then, more light. I thought I would ask Josias to wash them, inside and out. No, Emily. Josias mustn’t come in here, I remembered. Josias had never been in here.

Before I stepped in I said, Joseph, I’m here to bring you a heater, it’s winter soon, it must be cold in here. I had to give him a reason for my being there.

I turned and gestured outside to the heater. This is wonderful, he said. Thank you. And then he moved outside, and bent down, lifting the heater with both hands, it wasn’t heavy, a small portable thing it was, and carried it over the threshold, past me, into the room.

I stepped in. I didn’t close the door behind me, that felt wrong. Jacqueline, he said, I must close the door. There’s no one down here, I said. I know, he said. But I must. And he walked past me and pushed the door shut. It scraped on its frame as he pushed.

And then we were together in that small space. So still. I looked at him, looked at him properly, then.

He looked more groomed than I imagined. His dark beard was thick but trimmed, and his hair was not long, it must have been recently cut. By whom? I thought then of his nights, those many nights, with colleagues in Soweto, in other safe houses, and the help, the support he got. Someone to cut his hair. Suddenly, I wanted to cut his hair.

His glasses were clean, his eyes dark behind them. I’m so sorry for all this, Jacqueline, he said. So sorry. I’m so grateful to you and Howard. Our work is proceeding. We work on, you know. I know, I said. I couldn’t think what else to say. We’d better plug your heater in, I said.

He carried the heater to the plug where the kettle and fridge were, the only outlet in the room, and I said, you’ll just have to unplug the kettle when the heater’s on, and he laughed. Of course, it’s no problem, he said. He plugged it in and right away there was the smell of burning dust, so long unused, that heater.

D’you have enough to eat, I said. Emily can bring you anything you want, you know, you have simply to ask her. I know, he said. I’m fine. I eat very well at night, my friends feed me. They know they must feed me, I’m very important to them, he said, and he laughed. I felt terrible then. I felt close to tears.

He turned away, he was quite amused by what he’d said. His frame was so thin, thinner perhaps than before, his long dark pants, his leather belt, his white buttoned shirt. And I see it now, the shirt unbuttoned at his neck, his pale throat. A pallor, no doubt about it: a pallor. I would lay my head on that white shirt, that shoulder, his thin frame beneath it. I imagined it. I felt a stab of anguish. I must go now, I said, and I turned to the door, pulled it open, and left. So quickly, so gracelessly, I see it now.

Excerpt from Wan by Dawn Promislow, forthcoming from Freehand Books in May 2022. © Dawn Promislow 2022. Reprinted with permission from Freehand Books.

To purchase Wan in Canada:

Your local independent bookstore: https://shoplocal.bookmanager.com/isbn/9781988298993

Chapters/Indigo: https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/wan/9781988298993

Amazon: https://www.amazon.ca/Wan-Dawn-Promislow/dp/1988298997/

From the publisher: http://www.freehand-books.com/product/wan

Read an Interview with Dawn Promislow

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Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her collection Jewels and Other Stories (Mawenzi House, 2010) was critically acclaimed, long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and named one of the eight best debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail. Dawn has published short stories, poems, and essays, in literary journals in Canada, the US, and the UK, where they have been short-listed for awards.

Wan is her first novel. It has received stellar advance reviews, and will be out on May 1st.

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