Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Poems by Serhiy Zhadan


Slow summer, endless, and some days are like young
blades of grass capable of totally changing their structure by tensing
their filaments; the sky stretches over the railroad, bits of news fly by,
on such days I always remember an old friend, we used to play on the same
team; he was about twenty years older than me,
in his day he was invited to join one of the
“major league” teams in a warm harbor town in what was then the Soviet Union;
he would have played for sailors, the sports club would have covered everything, in the evening
he would have strolled on the city beach – an idol for sun burnt boys;
however, for some reason he turned down the offer, became involved in black marketeering, sold hash,
and even spent a year in jail, someone had set him up, he said, but
personally I never believed that—hash, you know;
they let him out at the end of the eighties and he wound up playing on amateur
teams which he also trained, that’s when we met,
and for some reason I still think of him often.

You know, he would often say, the Soviets taught me
to keep it simple, in terms of myself, it’s enough to choose
only those bits you need; you want to know why I turned
them down? simply because I thought it really made no difference – to play or
not to play, there was no difference, you know?
my career? well, I can still play, but the hash, you know?
I constantly have flashbacks on the field, otherwise I’m fine;
obviously I understood little then, but now
I think – truly, there was reason to be tempted —
the sunny eighties in the big country, black marketeering was wrecking the Soviets,
communism, pop music, and Yugoslavia,
he still looks pretty good now, except for the flashbacks
during games, otherwise – he’s fine, a pretty good master of his sport,
as he should be.

It’s a bad habit to lug around all kinds of garbage from the past,
things you don’t need, at some moment you stop
and understand that you can’t carry all that grief and joy,
life offers you too many temptations, this life is too tempting a trick –
just short enough to be told in one sitting
and too depressing to share with others;
every summer it’s the same thing – you don’t understand
whether you lost or gained more;
and everything continues unbelievably,
and even water eventually heats up
from the rhythmic beating
of the malleable hearts of fish


True joy and true despair in this
life can only be felt by a person who pays attention to
details, to things, which at first glance
are not important. For instance, circus producers
and retired
air force officers bet
on those Afghani
teens of average weight
who know best
the form and display of hatred
and luscious fits of nostalgia,
they are the only ones who can perhaps break through the thin
lining of time and for a moment
peer into the future, filled
with light, grass and street

I like men over
forty. They calm down and
stop worrying about age. Their life
fills up with all kinds of essentially
male things – heavy mechanical clocks,
handy ball-point pens and good cigarettes,
not any of that
American shit.
Usually they like to tempt fate,
stepping into her back yard
in order to feel their hearts beating again
dark and tough
like a pig skin purse.

It’s not even a matter of winning because what
is money when it comes to conscience
which always gets in the way of living, filling
their bed with hot coals and bottle caps every night.
After all, no matter how long you live, you will never
understand who gave you life
so when you finally meet him
you won’t be able
to say thank you.

When Easter arrives and the sky becomes kinder
but everyone becomes more intense, saying, Easter, Resurrection Day
then the dead start to turn in the ground,
breaking up the cold clay with their elbows.
I’ve had to bury friends,
I know what it’s like to bury your friends in the dirt,
like a dog buries a bone,
and wait till the sky
                                 becomes kinder.

There are social groups
for whom such rituals are very important,
I mean, first of all, mid-sized businesses.
Everyone has seen
the sorrow that envelopes these regional
representatives of Russian gas companies
when they descend on the boundless
cemetery fields, to bury in the ground
one more brother shot through the lungs;

everyone has heard the loud beat of their hearts
when they stand near the coffin
and wipe their stingy tears and runny noses against their
dolce & gabbana
slurping hennessy
                         from disposable

“So, Kolya,” they say, “here’s to you and the hereafter.
In the great field of offshore business
we fall into the cold pools of oblivion,
like wild geese in the autumn with buckshot in our livers.”

“So,” they answer, “when we
send off our brother
on his long journey
into the radiant Valhalla of Lukoil
who will accompany him
through the dark caverns of purgatory?”

“Bitches,” they all say, “bitches
he’ll need bitches,
good bitches
expensive ones, without bad habits,
they will warm him in the winter
they will chill his blood in the spring,
on his left will lie a platinum blond,
on his right will lie a platinum blond,
and he won’t even notice he is dead.

Oh, death is a territory where
                                        our credit won’t reach.
Death is the territory of oil,
                                         let it cleanse his sins.
We’ll place his weapons at his feet, and gold,
and furs and finely ground pepper.
In his left hand we will place his newest nokia
and in his right an indulgence from Jerusalem.
But the main thing are the bitches,
two bitches, the main thing are two platinum bitches.”
“Yes, that’s the main thing,” everyone agrees.
“The main thing are the bitches,” they agree.
“The main-main thing,” adds Kolya from the casket.

We’re all sentimental at Easter time.
We stand and wait for the dead
to rise and come to us from the hereafter.
You become more interested in death
when you bury friends.

On the third day as they flank
the doors of the morgue, on the morning of the third day
he conquers death through death, after all, and walks out
from the crematorium, he sees
that they have all fallen asleep exhausted
after a three-day drinking spree
sprawled out on the grass,
in vomit-covered
dolce & gabbana.

Then quietly
                              so as not to wake them up
he takes from one of them
the charger for a nokia
and returns
to hell
to his


Stories connected with murders, knife wounds,
suicides, botched abortions, in general –
stories connected with crimes interest
people because they’re parables, in these stories
men are manly and dutiful while children
braid roses of the lord’s omniscience
into their hair. In these stories
death always runs ahead, wanting to see
how it all ends, many people like the fact
that in these stories death begins in life
so you can glance into its adolescent

In such stories sooner or later there appear musicians
who play funeral marches, they jump out of a dilapidated
bus onto the grounds of the cemetery and pull out
bagpipes, trombones and hunter’s horns from under their coats, roll out
drums and hurdy-gurdies and blow great cemetery jazz
over the deceased, the bloody unrestrained music of despair
and disobedience, heart-wrenching gangster melodies, melodies of old
tunes popular with sailors and prostitutes,
and then everyone who came to see the deceased on his last
journey starts to breathe easier, because these are the rules,
this is the ritual, or something like that, in a word
they’re not afraid of the dead – but of becoming one of them.

Also, as a rule, there are women in these stories,
they deserve a separate discussion – those
forty-year-old women who still display
the passion and indecisiveness of seventeen-year-old girls,
they cry about every senseless life spent on such
trivialities as love and faith, they remember how
the great depression began in our country
and still whisper the words
that were said to them in parting:

    everything is OK, girl, drugs won’t help me now
    I want to love you more than you want to have children
    life has not stopped, as we assumed, see – in the morning
    couriers will arrive from the train station and lovers will part on the stairs as usual,
    I will stay with you, watch
    when praying mantises sit in your palm and move over your
    sleeping body, send them patience, heavens,
    on their journey without end.

Serhiy Zhadan was born in 1974 in the Luhansk Region of eastern Ukraine. He lived in Kharkiv and now spends much of his time traveling from city to city reading his work to enthusiastic audiences. Considered the best poet of his generation, he is the author of the collections: Quotations (1995), General Judas (1995), Pepsi (1998), the very, very best poems, psychedelic stories of fighting and other bullshit (selected works 1992-2000), Ballads about War and Reconstruction (2001), History of Culture at the Turn of This Century (2002), UkSSR (2004), Maradona (2007), and Lili Marlene (2009) as well as the prose collections Big Mac (2003), Anarchy in the UKR (2005), Hymn of the Democratic Youth (2007) and the novel Depech Mode (2004). His work has been translated into German, English, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Lithuanian, Byelorussian, Russian and Armenian and is featured on Poetry International’s Website. In 2005 the Bowery Poetry Club presented a bilingual evening of Zhadan’s poetry with the poet reading in the original and the translators in English. Mr. Zhadan fellowships include: the Toefer Fellowship for a residency in Hamburg and Vienna 2001-2002, the Herman Kesten Fellowship for Germany in 2001, and the Kultur Kontakt for Vienna in 2003. He has also traveled to New York to work with the Yara Arts Group at La MaMa Theatre


  1. How this will all end I’m not able to say but I am categorically not happy with the ways things have gone so far: in these 22 years we have been practically building a system which has deprived us of our rights and our freedoms. This, of course, doesn’t mean that I am filled with any Soviet nostalgia.

  2. Hey! could you point me to the Ukrainian original of Funeral orchestra? I was trying to locate it but failed :)