Essay / 8 November 2021

Prison will not Grow Big Enough to Reach the Sky

Authors of the Week: Ukraine

My most important Ukrainian poet is dead. He should have been an older peer of mine. Theoretically speaking, he could have written a fore- or afterword to one of my poetry collections.

A person experiences several abrupt leaps on their path to maturity. It is usually either a great personal loss or a society-wide calamity that launches an individual onto a new level.

Photo by Marjeta Marinčič

Poets mature when they no longer pursue preciousness in their utterance; when they turn away from the conventionally acceptable and comfortable text that is certain to succeed, and face rage, touch a naked nerve, enter darkness. When they climb a peak so high that its summit is a terribly naked and vulnerable place.

Communities grow up when they realize that they have fallen irredeemably behind; that there is a gaping hole where a potentially unique shared experience should have been, and there is no way to go around it: they have to go down to the bottom and climb out of the abyss on the other side. Their understanding of the structure of the ground beneath their feet will be radically different.

What is poetry for the different inhabitants of this ecosystem? Poetry is a health exam. Using poetry as a soap-box from which to sloganeer is just as unsound as attempting to deny its connection to the agenda of the day. Poetry first among every other kind of literature reacts to any changes in a society's breathing—and does it most sensitively, most precisely, and most rapidly.

Somewhere in the middle of their journey into maturity, all the above-mentioned players are also doomed to learn the measure of fear.

Prison will not grow big enough to reach the sky. Prison will eat dirt yet.


The year Vasyl Stus died on an autumn night in the Kuchino maximum-security prison camp I was three. When I could be certain he had been murdered, I was fourteen. I was eighteen or nineteen when I realized how great, how irreparable this loss was for me—this complete erasure of my chance to inhabit the same space with this poet. To be however far away, but breathing the same air. This is how you recognize a poet of one blood with yourself, a poet who ignites—and burns—at the same temperature. And then you realize he is dead. He had left you behind, and you will never have access to that people-and-spaces maelstrom of stories that spin so readily and naturally around any living thing. You will have to search for his poems, memories, letters; you'll have to reconstruct with your own hands the way he fit into the flow of time. Growing up begins from fighting—like this—against an injustice. We have been invisibly close since then: somewhere between his native village of Rakhnivka in my own home Vynnytsia region to the many editions of his work that fill my library.

Aside from the traditional and completely predictable shock of encountering Stus' texts for the first time (even those meant to make their author accessible within the school curriculum felt, next to other anthology entries, like living lava next to cold stone), I had another experience. In 2004, I attended the presentation of the CD titled “The Living Voice of Stus”—a remastered audio-archive kept by Leonid Selezenko in the 1960s and confiscated from his home in a search in 1972. Close friends managed to preserve copies. At the presentation, they played the incredible song by the Telnyuk Sisters “The Proud River Bluffs Will Bloom Once Again” composed for Stus' eponymous poem, and then, from a sudden silence on the recording, the poet himself called out his lines. “The blinded leaves felt the ravine before them” and “In autumn, let grass burn...” His sharply drawn, round R's like river pebbles. His measured, meditative declamation. The witching brew of his language that no one else could have summoned. I remember how the air in the room turned electric. Breathing was suddenly such a new thing to do that I had to go outside. I stood there, at the shadow-mottled wall of St. Sophia and thought of how different, how much nobler would have been a universe where this voice still spoke. Even if it just talked of everyday things, right here, at Sophia Square, or on Podil. Or did a reading at the Arsenal. Or delivered a Nobel prize speech in Ukrainian, which would have led us all out of the dark. It's as if you were looking straight down at the Earth's molten core, at the galactic forces of chemistry and physics—but you can only peer into this crevasse if you are standing on your own ground, on the solid footing of your own language. If not for the wolfhound of the Soviet repression machine, with its iron maw and spine of steel; if not for Stus' own suicidal sense of justice, if not for his destroyed book, Bird of the Soul, if not for what hunger had done to his body, if not for that last blow against his cell's iron cot in the middle of the night... This eternal, damned Ukrainian 'if-only'.


I love it when Stus is angry in his texts. It makes him feel incredibly alive, brings him to the right here and now—as if you were walking down the street with him, trying to match his furious gait. There's also something arch-angelic in his fury, something truly severe, stubborn, absolute. Yevhen Sverstiuk wrote that Stus, because he was constantly under threat, lived as though half-way between earth and heaven, and was for this reason able to write things that the rest of the century's poets could not quite pull off. This is why I cannot endure (with apologies for the pun) the quote so often taken out of its context: “Endure, endure, endurance works and shapes you.” I much prefer his, “God, give me rage—not age”. Rage is how a strong person fights fear, including their own. Rage is the growing pain that takes you once and forever off the ground, the dirt that prison will eat. The denial of inertia.

Today, as we so intensely reflect on the thirty-year experience of our uninterrupted statehood and everything with which we filled it, I am certain that we are growing. I am certain because suddenly I see so much fear and fatigue among my colleagues and peers, among the people who live a half- or a quarter-generation ahead of the nation, all those who had never before hesitated to break new paths and steer in unexpected directions. It's as if we can no longer wield the rules of our old lives and must shelter from the great, honest re-newal under the tent of moral relativism. Fear is what pulls out our fingernails, one by one, making our writing so painfully cautious; fear knocks out our teeth, fills our mouths with blood and won't let us speak out loud; the same fear that takes honest and precise definitions and replaces them with generalities that read like hastily invented horoscopes. Fear robs us of the most private, cherished, intimate thoughts and grinds them into quiet conventional hypocrisy. I, too, am afraid. I, too, feel angry. I want to grab those dearest to me by the shoulders and shake this living dying out of them. Or at least to witness it, out loud and without mercy, the way Stus witnessed Tychyna's slow death as a writer from the 1930s until the end of his life. When you choose to step away from your society's defining fractures, when you refuse to call things by their real names or to reveal the heart of what's happening, you should at least have the courage to step away forever. Our collective ability to keep growing depends on it. From prison into the clear air, from where you can see so clearly the red-hot rivers of language under the cracks in the Ukrainian landscape, language you believe.

I am struggling with this part of my essay. I fight against the rage and the cold inside me, which means I, too, am growing, I am fighting against the living dying. It is Stus to whom I must credit my difficult decision to be radically sincere and precise in everything I say or do every day, to honor my truth. Which also means being extremely vulnerable. But if one doesn't, and isn't—then what's the point?

“We will come back, yes, we will come back, perhaps—feet first, yet: not dead, yet: not defeated, yet: immortal.” These were Vasyl Stus' words printed on the black-and-red cover of the CD recording of his voice.

I have a tradition of ending my essays about poets who are important to me by quoting a brief, abrasive text of theirs, and I shall keep it this time. Because my most important dead Ukrainian poet is alive—while some of my peers who are physically alive tend to turn up dead, or dying right before my eyes, here and now. And to remind them about it is another signal of maturity.

A Poet's Evolution

A brilliant poet

has split apart

(into himself and his fear!)

the half of the poet

has split apart

(into a quarterpoet and fear!)

the quarterpoet

has split apart

(into an eighth and fear!)

the one-eighth of the poet

has split apart

(into a drag and fear!)

Now, when he walks down the street

a whiff of white smoke

rides above his head

and people


step aside with respect

to make way for him


Translated by Nina Murray