Marie Iljašenko

- Czech Republic -

Marie Iljašenko (1983) was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, into a family of Czech-Polish descent. Her family moved to the Czech Republic in 1992. She graduated from the Charles University, Prague in Comparative literature and East-European Studies. Her collection of poems Osip míří na jih (Osip is Heading to the South) was published in 2015 and won critical acclaim. It was nominated for the Magnesia Litera Prize in the category Discovery of the Year. She has also been nominated for the Dresdener Literature Prize (2015) and Václav Burian Prize (2016). Her second book of poetry Sv. Outdoor (St. Outdoor), was published in 2019. Among others, her poems were featured in the anthology Nejlepší české básně (Best Czech Poetry) 2013, 2014 and 2017, Polish anthology Sąsiadki (2020), Spanish anthology Antología de poesía checa contemporánea (2021). Her writings were translated into English, German, French, Polish, Spanish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Romanian and Japanese. Her poetry was set to music by French composer Philippe Manoury. Occasionally, she writes short stories, essays and columns. In addition, Marie translates from Polish and Ukrainian (Jury Andruchovych, Olena Huseinova, Dmytro Lazutkin, Halyna Kruk, Iya Kiva, Taras Prokhasko, etc; Anna Adamowicz, Zofia Bałdyga, Urzsula Honek, Agata Jabłońska, Iwona Witkowska, Urszula Zajączkowska, etc) and works as an editor in the publishing house and art gallery. She lives in Prague with her husband and a cat.

Through Marie Iljašenko's poetry, which she writes in the Czech language, resonates a rich interplay of influences from different languages, experiences and cultures that are part of her multicultural identity. Her poetic output began in 2015, with her debut poetry collection Osip míří na jih (Osip is Heading to the South), which was nominated for the Magnesia Litera Award in the Discovery of the Year category. Her second collection of poetry, Sv. Outdoor (St. Outdoor), also published by the Czech publishing house Host, which received an outstanding response from readers and Czech literary critics, was published in 2019. The cultural, historical and social aspects of the author's dispersion between different cultures and languages, as well as her sovereign and distinctive poetics won her several Czech and international awards – such as nominations for the prestigious Dresden Poetry Prize (2014) and the Václav Burian Prize (2016) – as well as numerous translations that have put her writing in touch with the breadth of European and world literature. 

The Central European "cultural mix" established in her early childhood through Ukrainian and Russian culture, the later influence of Czech literature and literature studies resonate strongly in her debut poetry Osip míří na jih (Osip is Heading to the South), which is introduced by verses of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam about memories of his years in Armenia, confronting the reader with the gap between the dreamlike, distant land of childhood and the grim reality of the present. Similar contrasts occur in the migrations within the poetic space and time of Iljašenko's poetry collection, as it takes us on an ambiguous journey between the narrative and the lyrical, between the external and the internal habitus, where a seemingly pleasant but also sometimes oppressive home alternates with real and imaginary journeys between European places and cities around the world, as well as spaces of the soul, emotion, and memory. The opposition of staying in one place and moving around is presented by way of many intertextual references and allusions, within which the author skilfully incorporates mythology, religion, and old beliefs while contrasting them with the everyday challenges of human existence, so that the whole can resonate together in a seeming timelessness. Through the eyes of a lyrical observer who, across centuries of cultural affinities, differences and distances of time, carefully searches for her place in the world, to be in motion, to change one's (geo)position, always means to transform one's destiny. In this respect, the collection, with its many contrasts, conceptually proves to be a well-organised whole, thought-out in detail, visible also at the very beginnings of the poems, where the author narratively throws the reader into the action and then leads them into the poetic dynamics, visible both within the individual chapters, which are concluded by a long poem with reference to the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, and on the level of symbolism of the longing to fly away into the liberating distance. Even on a line-by-line basis, with sensitivity to language and form, the variety of lyrical motifs and themes ranges from the questioning of human existence and pressing social issues to themes of love and meditative dreams, that suggest, on the one hand, the promise of the journey and, on the other, melancholic farewells and poetic halts. The latter are rounded off by elements of movement as the leitmotif of the collection, which the author, a perceptive observer of the external world, intertwines with the interior and leads the reader on a journey of introspection, even more visibly addressed by the closing poems of her debut. 

The author's second collection of poetry, Sv. Outdoor (St. Outdoor, 2019), again offers a unique poetic world in which we are greeted by wanderings, on the one hand a search for lost time, and on the other, reflections on the contemporary world. This can be traced in the very title of the work, as the title character is the patron saint of those who think it is better to be "outside" than "inside", and similarly to Iljašenko's previous work, we can again see the alternation of these two opposites and their combination, as the division into indoor and outdoor space is also a formal feature of the collection. The motto of the collection itself, "Now you can get up and go / where your heart and soul lead you", launches a journey that this time builds or centres around the "self" and explores its depths, together with different emotional states that take place in relation to places, objects and people, resulting in a longing for the lost or the distant, woven together with melancholic states, but at the same time with the inner dynamics of the subject, which guides us through the work with a melodic flowing verse. The lyrical subject is a transfixed observer of the outside world, silently internalising it, but also opening it up for otherness and distance, so she can reach out for freedom, even though in doing so she may risk pain and obstacles. In doing so, alongside mental and emotional states the author subtly suggests some of the social problems of today, with the foreground prominently inhabited by the thematization of the woman, whom she urges to move from stasis to dynamism, in order to confront herself and the world. The fragile, somewhat blurred poetic landscape leaves open ends and ambiguity regarding who the title patron may or may not be, what is home and what is the outside world, which, with simultaneous playfulness, existential distress and social observation, also work at the level of verses, where the collection proves to be carefully considered and, given its frequent absence of punctuation and otherwise minimalist approach, feels airy, open and moves smoothly from poem to poem. With its varied motifs, the whole does not lose its strength, but emphasises above all the moment of action, activity and rebellion, which the author implies very calmly and slowly at the otherwise open ending. The latter can be observed both in the mental and emotional landscape within the lyrical subject, as well as in the poems’s other characters, whom the lyrical voice either observes or, like the author, leads to transcend their own limits – from a hard stare into their own interiority toward a reach-out into the space of the external, perhaps as yet unknown, in order to take their own destiny in their hands.

With her distinctive lyrical language, interweaving diverse cultural traditions and searching for a poetic (and personal) space, Marie Iljašenko is a uniquely fresh wind in the Czech literary landscape, an already refined and strongly recognised voice of her poetic generation, with a message to be listened to.


Essay written by Aljaž Koprivnikar