Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine

Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine

from 23.95

Edited by Oksana Maksymchuk & Max Rosochinsky
with an introduction by Ilya Kaminsky and an afterword by Polina Barskova

Series: Ukrainian Studies
ISBN: 9781618116666 (cloth) / 9781618118615 (paper)
Pages: 242 pp.; 16 illus. (color)
Publication Date: December 2017

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The armed conflict in the east of Ukraine brought about an emergence of a distinctive trend in contemporary Ukrainian poetry: the poetry of war. Directly and indirectly, the poems collected in this volume engage with the events and experiences of war, reflecting on the themes of alienation, loss, dislocation, and disability; as well as justice, heroism, courage, resilience, generosity, and forgiveness. In addressing these themes, the poems also raise questions about art, politics, citizenship, and moral responsibility. The anthology brings together some of the most compelling poetic voices from different regions of Ukraine. Young and old, female and male, somber and ironic, tragic and playful, filled with extraordinary terror and ordinary human delights, the voices recreate the human sounds of war in its tragic complexity.

Oksana Maksymchuk is an author of two award-winning books of poetry in the Ukrainian language, and a recipient of Richmond Lattimore and Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender translation prizes. She works on problems of cognition and motivation in Plato’s moral psychology. Maksymchuk teaches philosophy at the University of Arkansas.

Max Rosochinsky is a poet and translator from Simferopol, Crimea. His poems had been nominated for the PEN International New Voices Award in 2015. With Maksymchuk, he won first place in the 2014 Brodsky-Spender competition. His academic work focuses on twentieth century Russian poetry, especially Osip Mandelshtam and Marina Tsvetaeva.


Explore Words for War further on its dedicated interactive webpage. Read the preface, editors' introduction, select poems, biographies, and translators' essays about the works. Check back regularly as ASP continues to add further exclusive content. 


The poets here do what poets do best: in responding to a traumatic upheaval, they create a language for events that defy words. Their work is creative in the original sense of the word. The variety of the voices in this volume is its greatest strength. It reflects the fact that war affects everybody, and that Ukraine is and remains a bilingual country. … The translation into English by a stellar line-up of translators, several of whom were born in Ukraine, makes these poems available to a world-wide readership on linguistically neutral territory. The anthology is beautifully and professionally executed.
— Josephine von Zitzewitz, University of Cambridge, Slavic and East European Journal Vol. 62, No. 4
Both Words for War and The White Chalk of Days, each in its own unique way, aim to provide English-speaking readers with the best examples of contemporary Ukrainian literature, while at the same time promoting it as diverse, inclusive, vibrant, and simply too riveting to be unknown or ignored. ... The poems in Words for War, as gathered by Maksymchuk and Rosochinsky, have the potential to permanently inscribe themselves in the global canon of war poetry. While narrower in thematic scope, this gripping anthology serves as a reminder of what it takes not to lose humanity and dignity in a time of war.
— Maria G. Rewakowicz, University of Washington, Slavic Review, Vol. 77, No. 4
The kind of poetry included ... is the antithesis of propaganda; these poetic dialogues are a valuable reminder that there is nothing immutable about Russian–Ukrainian enmity.
— Sophie Pinkham, The Times Literary Supplement
Poems are frequently described as ‘powerful,’ violence as ‘unspeakable’ or ‘senseless.’ We all have heard that the pen is mightier than the sword. Most of the time, however, we cannot fathom the meaning of these turns of phrase. In Words for War, they gain weight and significance, coming from the midst of the conflict that has engulfed Ukraine since 2014. For all the darkness and pain of many of these poems, translated from both Russian and Ukrainian, they attest to an optimism that literature can speak back to violence, can find its sense, that language will prevail over the cynical political interests that have engineered this needless bloodshed. Rendered into English by a superb international team of translators, with moving introductory and concluding essays, this volume is the best account of the war in Ukraine I have read.
— Kevin M. Platt, Professor of Russian and East European Studies, University of Pennsylvania, and the editor and translator of Hit Parade: The ORBITA Group (2015)
Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine is an urgent, beautiful and astonishing collection of poems. Read this book to remember, as Kateryna Kalytko writes, that ‘Loneliness could have a name,’ and, as Vasyl Holoborodko writes, that there is an invisible history in every series of footsteps. How may we remember our humanity? ‘I’m gathering my footsteps / so that strangers don’t trample them.’
— Laynie Browne, author of P R A C T I C E
How much Ukraine has suffered, we cannot count, and so we often forget. A battleground for empires, torn apart from inside and out, as far back as it can remember. War has been waged over and through it and when it tired, hunger, ethnic strife, political repressions, corruption, or stagnation took its place. It has had scarcely a night of peace. So the poets in this anthology don’t sleep; they keep their poems open 24 hours, awake, which is why—as one poet in this anthology writes—‘Poetry witnessed it all.’ The poets in this collection—writing in Ukrainian or in Russian, or questioning the place of their own language—move quickly and confidently between straight-faced testimony (a la Charles Reznikoff) and Celan-esque fragmentation; veering and ricocheting between witness and trauma, as if to explode those easy distinctions and catch the blur of history.
— Matvei Yankelevich, author, Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (2015)
We necessarily come to these poems in a time of war, and that war’s grotesque political dimensions and endless violence are painfully felt on these pages. But these are poems that should command our attention even in a time of peace, should it ever come to our troubled planet: these are poems in which the spirit of creative imagination, free expression, emotional clarity, and ethical courage reigns supreme.
— Stephanie Sandler, Professor, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University
‘How would you explain the war?’ asks one of the poems in this collection, but indeed it is the main question of the whole. War, whether seen from up close or far away, crumples the fabric of life. It enters like a pole exerting a pull on every point of daily experience. War turns out be an autonomous mechanism: its causes and reasons fall away, but it abides and expands, self-caused, self-moving, self-creating. It is a machine of such overwhelming reality that in its presence reason and language can either go silent or turn into poetry, which is, after all, a shape of silence. But then what happens? Do we read this collection to ‘learn’ about war? Do we read it for its existential authenticity? Do we read it as a model of the poetical becoming political? Do we read it to use it for our own ends? Its poets include soldiers, refugees, inhabitants of regions at peace, émigrés anxiously contemplating the conflict from afar. Some, like Serhiy Zhadan, have achieved international fame, others are more locally known. The skilled translations render originals in Ukrainian and in Russian composed in a variety of styles. The editing gives each poet enough material for us to grasp the individuality of the voice.
— Eugene Ostashevsky, professor in the Liberal Studies Program at New York University and translator of The Fire Horse: Children’s Poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, and Daniil Kharms (2017)
In this powerful new anthology a number of emerging and established Ukrainian voices chart what it means to be in a state of war, and how it affects the poetics of a country. They represent a flourishing and important poetic identity, and a body of work on war equal to anything in the current global canon of war poetry. However the poems here also have a political urgency. An unacknowledged war has been going on between Russia and Ukraine for several years now, and the level of misinformation and propaganda is now extreme. The poems published in Words for War are not just things of beauty and truth, but essential information in an age of fake news.
— Sasha Dugdale, editor of Modern Poetry in Translation
Words for War is not your conventional poetry of witness but poetry and collective translation as intervention, complicity, weapon, social media fodder, reflection, deflection, defection, defiance, sentiment, mourning, melancholy, anger, black comedy, patriotism, disgust, activism, iPad wet dream, delirium, nightmare, hope, hopelessness, absurdity, combat. Poetry in the service of poetry. Poetry on the front lines.
— Charles Bernstein, co-editor, Best American Experimental Poetry (2017)
Poets standing on a small patch of ground between life and death; this is one of the most important anthologies of our time! Many thanks to the poets, editors and translators, bringing urgency to the forefront! These are poets who remind us we are of one world and we need to meet them there!
— CAConrad, author of While Standing in Line for Death

Table of Contents

Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky

Introduction: “Barometers” 
Ilya Kaminsky

she says we don’t have the right kind of basement in our building
You whose inner void
from Cold
She Speaks
On TV the news showed
from The Plain Sense of Things
Can there be poetry after 

No Return
I Fly Away in the Shape of a Dandelion Seed
The Dragon Hillforts
I Pick up my Footprints 

Our platoon commander is a strange fellow
These seagulls over the battlefield
When HAIL rocket launchers are firing
Not a poem in forty days
An old mulberry tree near Mariupol
When you clean your weapon
A Testament 

Darkness Invisible
Make Love 

This is a post on Facebook, and this, a block post in the East
How I love — out of harm’s way
A Former Dictator
He came first wearing a t-shirt inscribed “Je suis Christ” 
In the garden of Gethsemane on the Dnieper river
A Russian tourist is on vacation
Fear is a form of the good
Once upon a time, a Jew says to his prisoner, his Hellenic foe 

They won’t compose any songs, because the children of their children
April 6
This loneliness could have a name, an Esther or a Miriam
Home is still possible there, where they hang laundry out to dry
He Writes
Can great things happen to ordinary people? 

Did you know that if you hide under a blanket and pull it over your head
How to describe a human other than he’s alone
The whole soldier doesn’t suffer
A country in the shape of a puddle, on the map
Buried in a human neck, a bullet looks like a eye, sewn in
that’s it: you yourself choose how you live
I planted a camellia in the yard
One night, a humanitarian convoy arrived in her dream
When a country of — overall — nice people
Leave me alone, I’m crying. I’m crying, let me be
the enemy never ends
every seventh child of ten — he’s a shame
you really don’t remember Grandpa — but let’s say you do 

explosions are the new normal, you grow used to them
all for the battlefront which doesn’t really exist
people carry explosives around the city
way too long the artillery and the tanks stayed silent in their hangars
when wars are over we just collapse
modern warfare is too large for the streets
my brother brought war to our crippled home
Bessarabia, Galicia, 1913–1939 Pronouncements 

I believed before
in a tent like in a nest
we swallowed an air like earth
I wake up, sigh, and head off to war
The eye, a bulb that maps its own bed
Their tissue is coarse, like veins in a petal
Things swell closed. It’s delicious to feel how fully
Naked agony begets a poison of poisons 

A Woman Named Hope
like a blood clot, something catches him in the rye
someone stands between you and death
like a bullet, the Lord saves those who save themselves 

eastern europe is a pit of death and decaying plums
don’t touch live flesh
he asks — don’t help me
I Dream of Explosions 

February Elegy
War Generation
On War
On Apollinaire 

We wrote poems
Forgive me, darling, I’m not a fighter
january pulled him apart

Lovers on a Bicycle
Kicking the Ball in the Dark
Story (2) 
A Scene from 2014

Died of Old Age
How I Killed
He Says Everything Will Be Fine
Funeral Services
Crow, Wheels

from Stones
    “We speak of the cities we lived in . . .” 
    “Now we remember: janitors and the night-sellers of bread . . .” 
from Why I’m not on Social Media
    They buried him last winter
Three Years Now We’ve Been Talking about the War
    “A guy I know volunteered . . .”  
    “Three years now we’ve been talking about the war . . .” 
    “So that’s what their family is like now . . .” 
    “Sun, terrace, lots of green . . .”
    “The street. A woman zigzags the street . . .” 
    “Village street – gas line’s broken . . .” 
    “At least now, my friend says . . .” 
Thirty-Two Days Without Alcohol
Take Only What Is Most Important
A city where she ended up hiding 

Afterword: “On Decomposition and Rotten Plums: Language of War in Contemporary Ukrainian Poetry”
Polina Barskova

Geographical Locations and Places of Significance
Notes to Poems
Acknowledgement of Prior Publications