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from the February 2021 issue

Letter to Ukraine

Questions of national and cultural belonging are at the heart of this poem by Danyil Zadorozhnyi.

Video: Danyil Zadorozhnyi reads "Letter to Ukraine" in the original Russian.

well, what are you anyway—waves?
or maybe particles—

this ain’t atoms, baby, piercing the air like pins,
freeing space from former
and discourses;

it’s poplar fuzz somewhere near granny’s place outside

of moscow, mosquito-bitten legs, genderless constellations like distant relations
who live past the city limits, skin ripped off an unpracticed hand
by the handle of a rusted ax, like the border between the word leave
and the concept of returning, like gps coordinates as far from home
as a cough is deep in the chest [where’s it from? where’s it going? what for?] and
     finally morning
runs, swings, stashes, orthodox singing by the cemetery
with the headstone shaped like a rocket, a stray dog sticking by your side and
beautiful black jeeps are parked in front of the church, bumper stickers proclaiming for rus!
on their rear windows; children

playing on the outskirts, children pitting life against death
like different kinds of insects, hiding in the bushes, made dangerous
by their desires
or their innocence, the eye of a kitten filling with pus,
the eye of the runt of the litter, the surface
of a crystalline lake
ripples like some special kind of matter, shifting into energy
in the milk-drenched pupils of the old man holding a fishing pole on the bank
—there’s no fish, but you’re allowed to drown
anything in there except yourself;

honey, chicory, a little wholesome food in the fresh air, solitude—gin, cognac—with granny,
     family stories told again and again
to one another with other tears; may nights—
still cold—spent with fragmented news about the malaysian
boeing shot down four years ago in the sky above ukraine
[thoughtful people that we are, we’ll give due consideration
to the bellingcat reports, but won’t change our minds]—day

of sentsov’s hunger strike, news stories
about the brotherland; the informational field
is burnt, lifeless: the novoe velichie affair, tortured prisoners, journalists
killed in the central african republic and the world cup
as an illusion of world community—international domestic violence
and there’s nowhere to run to
if you’re the weaker state: what am i doing here is a question not of place
but form of existence

the same old pain

the process of alienation in this country
unfurls just the same, you’re just on the other side
of what alienates you back home. that’s just because you’re an emigrant
the people who live here reply, but what does migration have to do with it
if i’m telling them about something i’ve felt all my life
not just since i got here? the feelings of immigrant workers
from the nearby republics
can be encountered
pretty much anywhere
especially at home but
at times even inside yourself


wearing hand-me-downs
from my other grandmother—the post-gender society
inside me—[whose death that winter
that almost never was was what was called a revolution, but the more i learn
and talk to people about what we mean by nation, patriotism, revolution,
the more i can understand them but the less i understand
what they’re talking about, the same word from another person’s lips is another word entirely,
     to be understood and studied

again from the start; all this before or after, removing her body from the crimean peninsula
to bury it in ukraine’s tenth-largest cemetery, carrying her away from annexation—if she saw
     all of this, she couldn’t have endured it
, and inheriting her cat,
losing her apartment], and washing away the difference between her deceased and living
girlfriends, meeting for the nth time with those
who cannot remember me; the shirt i wear
reminds them
of granny, and they call me by her name
[like her mother—in the last few months before she died, she talked
to all her former husbands, girlfriends, relatives,
children and grandchildren without getting out of bed and i answered her while i did my
     homework beside her hoarsely breathing body, yes, good, sure, dear, trying to guess
who to answer her
as today,
who she’s thinking about
who she sees

so long as so many dead people and strangers
that i almost forget who i should remain
after the funeral is over; i hope i didn’t mix anything up
and there’s no other me besides me left over inside me]

and one of her girlfriends had a son that works at the fsb right there on petrovka
and his daughter
who’s twenty
desperately wants to meet me, promising to visit after finals
who’s been hearing nonsense since she was a teenager about
me, that
i’m a journalist
and a poet
and i’ve still never been to the part of europe
they call
the european union—

and that i arrived as suddenly
as birds returning unexpectedly in spring, forgetting
no more, you remember them, you herald
the thaw [ah, what a shame,
not this time] [i can’t wait for her father to finally think it might be time to meet me
and read my work
but nothing will come of it, nobody here
in the final analysis
really cares, there’s no ideology here: 
you see the antics those young ladies got up to at the final match? he asks, looking at his plate
they were trying to make a point . . . it was rather dull, of course . . . but on the whole i’m for it,
i answer
and we don’t see each other again]

about [ahem ahem]

how i’m a grown man now
and smoking is bad for you
and it’s about time i got married
and how’s that tattoo going to look when i’m old
[what if my grandchildren see it?
or my doctor asks about it?]
and [in]dependence is freedom

and that last one makes me shiver,
nothing to say about abstractions: individual rights and public security
and the relationship between those things
and the desire-production of power in russia


leaving one country
crossing the border
going out, going into another
mixing up directions, sides, light and twilight
trans[lat/it]ing from kiev to kyiv


[ i ]  remain the same breach in my own understanding
of what i should do as a person who asks questions
and a person who writes, i hope, like a
of posthumanism



and despite the fact that you’re my favorite
chordate [though sometimes i want to classify you as
ungulate] animal,
beast independent from me,
an amusing critter in the hands of gods from the primate family hominidae

i tenderly nip the scruff of your neck
but still don’t understand:

well, what are you anyway—waves?
or maybe particles—
it’s not important; all that matters is you’re light.


A version of this poem appeared on the website of the Arkadii Dragomoshchenko Prize, a major award for young poets that Zadorozhnyi won in 2019. © Danyil Zadorozhnyi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes. All rights reserved.

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