Writing Through Memory and Digging Through Secrets of the Past: Mykola Bazhan’s “Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul,” edited by Oksana Rosenblum, Lev Fridman, and Anzhelika Khyzhnia

By Olena Jennings

The poetry in Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul edited by Oksana Rosenblum, Lev Fridman, and Anzhelika Khyzhnia, spans the years from 1926-1931. The poems in the book begin shortly after Mykola Bazhan’s publishing debut in Ukraine in 1923, encompassing his early experimental works. They reach into a collective history and dig through its secrets. Mykola Bazhan himself was a kind of secret, many of his poems were lost and many more were never translated. In this book, the editors chose various translators to render the work into English.

The poems included in Quiet Spiders precede a tragedy in Ukrainian history, the Holodomor, or famine of 1932-1933, and the period known as the “Executed Renaissance” when a generation of Soviet writers and artists were wiped out by Stalin’s regime. Some of the poems accordingly seem braced for tragedy.

Each of the editors’ participation in the making of this book came about in different ways and each filled a disparate role. Lev Fridman came to edit this collection through one of the historical atrocities suffered by his ancestors. On September 29 and 30, 1941, German machine gunners shot 33,771 Jews who the local auxiliary police herded into the ravine of Babyn Yar. Fridman facilitated in the translation of a poem Bazhan wrote about this event. This spurred his passion to give Bazhan’s work space in this collection.

Oksana Rosenblum came to Bazhan’s poetry through her own translation of the poem “A Heart to Heart Conversation,” which is included in the book. Her experience in translating left a rhythm that carried through into her editing of others’ translation work in this collection. Expertly attuned to the Ukrainian language, she offered her editorial skills. Anzhelika Khyzhnia also offered her strict editorial pen and attention to language.

The book includes seven sections of poetry as well as an introduction and afterword. In her introduction, Halyna Babak stresses that Bazhan’s work belonged both to the Baroque and to the avant garde. The poems in each section are introduced by an essay by the translators. Thus, the book becomes just as much about an exploration of translation as it is about Bazhan. His varied styles in different periods call for different approaches to their translation.

In the first essay by Svetlana Lavochkina introducing the poems from the section The Seventeenth Patrol, she likens the Futurist poems to a wild horse. The words and their meter become unwieldy in their transformation into another language. Yet she writes “the translator easily falls in step with a ready-made Anglo Saxon vocabulary” (4). The language reflects with ease the alliteration present in the original. It is the pace of the meter that is more of a challenge to portray. Lavochkina’s rich introduction serves to propel us into the text itself and its complexity.

In her essay, Amelia Glaser characterizes the poems from Sculpted Shadow as meditations, as taking a sharp turn from Bazhan’s previous book. We learn that Bazhan moves his focus here to memory. “Both the form and imagery of Bazhan’s poems of the late 1920s suggest a relationship between time and matter, reminiscent of Henri Bergson’s conception of consciousness as dependent on memory. The landscape, as well as the dirt, stone, and brick of the ground jog the persona’s memory about the recent past,” Glaser writes in her essay (18). Glaser also stresses the importance of the technical aspects of Bazhan’s poetry and recreates the end rhymes successfully. Another poem in this section, translated by Yuliya Ilchuk, seems to follow the same philosophy of remaining faithful to the rhyme scheme.

This section also stands out with the poems that address plants that are part of a Slavic mythology. It returns to the focus of memory, in which these myths exist as a part of a collective past. In general, there is a folk tale-like quality as in this translation done by Iryna Shuvalova, “A bubbling chalice spilled, when she prepared her brew. / He drank his fill—and yet, his thirst and yearning grew” (39).

In the section Edifices, in the translations done by Roman Turovsky, Bazhan makes a comment on the writing process and possibly, the difficulty of it: “The dry hysterics of the quill / Convulse on paper, in silence” (51). This comment emphasizes the difficulty of extracting memory. The cast of translators in this section includes prominent Russian translator Ainsley Morse. The first poem we see her work on is “Elegy for Circus Attractions.” She completed the translation with Ostap Kin and Mykyta Tyshchenko. This poem stands out to me from Bazhan’s other work in its movement from the circus attractions to the human body, which in its emotion, is like a circus attraction. The title poem “Edifices,” translated by Myroslav Shkrandrij, uses architecture to express different styles and movements. The history and thus memory of their construction is brought into the poems: “Churches were erected by Mazepa, / The poet, / and Hetman, / and merchant” (67).

The center of the book seems to be “Heart-to-Heart Conversation” translated by Oksana Rosenblum and Jon Frankel. It brings us to an intimate conversation with the author. An unfamiliar figure shadows the narrator and we are given the space to wonder whether this is the speaker’s alter-ego. Of course, that alter-ego has a dark side, a heart like ground meat. It is interesting to note here that the heart-to-heart conversation seems to involve a physical heart, one that represents the darkness within. It also has a shadow, one that can be “holier / Than the shadow of a cross?”

The following section addresses Bazhan’s short poems. The poetry translated by Ainsley Morse, Ostap Kin, and Mykyta Tyshchenko is characterized by what they call “manic play.” The translator Sean Monagle also speaks of being at the crossroads of translation, having encountered a difficulty. “Readers of these lines in the original, we also reasonably surmised, would have been faced with the same conundrum” (99). He considers these phenomena as both a poet himself and a translator.

Later, in “Hoffman’s Night” translated by Svetlana Lavochkina and Pavel Gitin, we return to the image of the quill.  In the following poem, “Getto in Uman,” the poet states that “he is enraged by wandering.” Again, we think of writing, of not being able to find a solution to life’s quandaries in our wandering.

“Blind Bards,” translated by George Grabowicz, carries the aura of mystery. Parts in the poem that were hinted at seem to be missing. The editor, Lev Fridman was tasked with finding some of the missing pieces of Bazhan’s life, a task he went for with fervor. All the pieces circle around one central idea which is the collective Ukrainian experience and the right to address it—and what to see and remember. The blind kobzars in “Blind Bards” talk about this memory and collective experience.

The prose translated by Roman Ivashkiv speaks of the integrity of a poem. “And it’s sometimes surprising how people don’t see a poem behind the rhyme” (249). The prose helps us to read the poetry.

The afterword, written by Eleonora Solovey, explores Bazhan’s literary life after the poems in this book end. She describes him as a man “favored by fate” (263). Among other things, he was nourished in his creativity by people like the avant garde theater director Les Kurbas. He was also favored when Stalin himself wrote Bazhan’s name in a list of award recipients for his translation of a Georgian epic, The Knight. In his later years, he remembered the poetry of youth, a style he returned to in his writing.

Quiet Spiders ends with documents the editors might have encountered in their journey. One of them is Omeljan Pritsak’s letter to the Nobel Committee in 1970 recommending Bazhan. These are incredible testaments to the life of Mykola Bazhan that have been resurrected. This book digs through the work of Bazhan and sees what is behind the rhyme. There is more to Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul than meets the eye. Readers too are invited to dig through the texts, to unleash Bazhan’s memory as well as their own.

Bazhan, Mykola. Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul. Mykola Bazhan’s Early Experimental Poetry. Edited by Oksana Rosenblum, Lev Fridman, and Anzhelika Khyzhnia. Translated by Amelia M. Glaser, George G. Grabowicz, Yuliya Ilchuk, Roman Ivashkiv, Ostap Kin, Roman Koropeckyj, Svetlana Lavochkina, Sean Monagle, Ainsley Morse, Bohdan Pechenyak, Myroslav Shkandrij, Iryna Shuvalova, Roman Turovsky, Mykyta Tyshchenko. Academic Studies Press, 2020.

Olena Jennings is the author of the poetry collection Songs from an Apartment and the chapbook Memory Project.  Her translation with Oksana Lutsyshyna of Artem Chekh’s Absolute Zero was released in 2020 by Glagoslav. Her novel Temporary Shelter is forthcoming in 2021 from Cervena Barva Press. Her reviews have been published in LA Review of Books and East West Journal of Ukrainian Studies. She is the founder and curator of the Poets of Queens reading series.

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