Lyudmyla Khersonska’s collection Today is a Different War (Arrowsmith Press, 2023) focuses on the way domestic life has been affected and eclipsed by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Khersonska’s poems bring shimmering emotion to the brutality. Her style is easily accessible in a way that invites the reader to trust the poet. The reader becomes part of the poetic world as well as an occasional addressee. For example, in the poem “You Are With Your Country, Wherever You Are” Khersonska writes, “you, refugee, don’t look like these tourists” (40). The reader becomes the displaced “you,” but the poem beckons the reader not to look the other way in the face of war’s brutality and injustice.
Khersonska’s ability to portray the complex emotion that war brings is an important aspect of her poetry. It seems to suggest that within anger and sadness, happiness can exist. There is also courage present in the way that she composes these poems and writes about these emotions. This is seen in word choices and punctuation such as ellipses and dashes that imply that Khersonska is staying with the poems after they have been written. Courage is needed to stay with the violence that is sometimes depicted. This courage offers inspiration to the reader, which can be invaluable to someone experiencing the war first-hand.
Born in Moldova in 1964, Khersonska lives in Odesa. The poems were originally written in Russian, bringing the issue of language to the forefront. It shows the unity of speakers of both Ukrainian and Russian in the Ukrainian experience. The first time I encountered Khersonska’s poetry was in the anthology Words for War, edited by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky, after Russia’s invasion of the Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014. Then her poetry had already taken on the weight of writing about the war, drawing important attention to what was taking place. Words for War brought together a variety of different translators just as Today is a Different War does on a smaller scale. Khersonska’s collection can almost be considered a chapbook at 44 pages, translated by four translators. Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco most often translate as a pair, recently translating the poetry of Vladimir Gandelsman. Maya Chhabra and Lev Fridman participated equally in the collection
Today is a Different War also creates a dialogue with Lyuba Yakimchuk’s collection of poetry Apricots of Donbas. Yakimchuk, who grew up in the Donbas region, writes about the war, beginning in 2014. Like Khersonska’s poetry, Apricots of Donbas also shows that despite the war life goes on. In one of her most important poems “Such People Are Called Naked,” clothes come off along with parts of a life. Domestic life comes to the forefront while war attempts to usurp it. Today is a Different War employs domestic imagery as well. It begins with cheery pajamas lodged in a poem about flying rockets. Other domestic images peek out, such as a snow-white tablecloth and clear glasses shaking while “the clear soul shakes” as well (11). The war affects innocent souls. It affects domestic life. Fear creeps in.
The domestic makes its way into a poem about Ukrainian women as well. The everyday takes on a fierceness and importance. “Fear Ukrainian girls, Molotov cocktails in hand,” Khersonska writes, “We’re painting our nails now. Get out of here – before it’s too late” (14). In the latter half of this quote, she addresses the Russian invaders. This powerful address mixes the banality of the everyday with the terrifying gravity of violence.
The cats in the poems seem to be a domestic symbol of helplessness. In “Leave Me Alone, I’m Crying,” “Me, I’m crying about the cat’s skin sores” (20). In “Ruscists are Firing,” “cats cry, dogs cry” (12). Other cats paw their way through the poems, leaving again a quiet domesticity.
The poems seem to be in dialogue with war itself, as grave situations are presented in casual conversation. We notice that the poems themselves sometimes include dialogue markers. This is seen especially in the poem “The Worst Is When War Catches a Man.” “And war answers” (19), Khersonska writes when it is asked why salt and matches are needed. Or, she writes in “War. Day 3,” “‘make some tea. we will drink tea’” (13). This poem is one in a series chronicling the days of war. However, many days are missing as if to suggest that they remain hidden to the world. The poems enumerating the days of war don’t fall one after another. They are rather thoughtfully interspersed throughout the book.
Khersonska’s writing shines with language that appears as simple as the household objects it portrays, but is only a way to deal with difficult emotion. The title poem is an example of this, “Today’s a Different War”:
Today the war’s different. We’ll die from a different war.
Everything’s a little bit mortal – arms, legs, stomach.
Everything’s a little bit eternal, living in blood and smoke.
It lives at the shelter and at home, in ruins and dust. (17)
The quiet rain in the poem and mortality lead to a background of bones, “The man lies, posing, on bones, on bones…” (17).
The poems chosen by the translators when they were putting together the collection reflect both different styles of translation and similarity in the type of poems chosen. The silent dialogue between the translators becomes important to the reading experience as their poems are intertwined.
Rhythm is important in the poems Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco chose to translate. In “War. Day 1,” the punctuation in the form of question marks pushes the poem forward. The reader moves quickly, wanting to witness what else will be asked, wanting to interrogate the war. There is also a lot of alliteration and repetition of words, “What is this red blob, flying outside the window?/ What is this, so frightening? Flying over our heads” (11).
The same rhythm occurs in “War. Day 4,” which seems to capture the sound of the drones with the biting lines “this war like some satanic marriage. Shame. Disgust” (16) and moves it forward again with the punctuation in the form of exclamation points and questions marks.
You old-fashioned, retrograde, cunning narc!
Gramps from the past, a cop’s used-up cigarette butt!
Why the hell would I need your planes? (16)
The poems Lev Fridman chose reflect an immediacy and a confrontational nature that combats the brutality of the war. The majority of them have short lines. For example, “What’s New, The Gawking” ends with the biting line, “whatever the psycho kremlin desires” (28). Further, the short lines of “There Was Once a Little Girl” bring the horrors of the war to the reader. It is one of the rawest poems in the collection.
so that it wouldn’t bite off a chunk
of warm human flesh
skewered on a Sarmat missile (42)
“War. Day 6” begins with “The enemy aims to destroy us. Right now, this morning” and ends with “Dot. Dash. Shock” (18), possibly alluding to morse code. The poem becomes like a call for help, an SOS, to the world.
Maya Chhabra’s selection of poems brings narrative to the book. For example, one poem “How Nice to Take a Walk in the Warless World,” tells the story of the destruction of art pieces. “He says offstage, if a Russian missile/ Destroyed the statue of David, I would die instantly” (22). Another poem “People are Tired,” in Chhabra’s translation tells the story of time and the way that it is affected by war: “24 hours a day without a break for seventeen days,/ like they say these days, 24/7 times seventeen” (35). Within the large arc of time, there is the minuteness of the neighbor Tanya, a quiet life story as she “did her spring-cleaning every year before Easter” (35).
In the last poem of the collection, translated by Chhabra, “So This is It,” we are submerged in darkness. The curtain falls. The reality of war changes all aspects of daily life. Unfortunately, war befalls our common lives without us having a choice. Domestic lives are eclipsed and trapped inside it.
In this collection, the four translators work together to do justice to Khersonska’s poems, to convey the ways in which these poems bring strength to Ukrainians in a brutal situation and to the reader in general. The book, released by Arrowsmith Press, is part of a Ukrainian-themed series. The series includes A Crash Course in Molotov Cocktails by Halyna Kruk, translated by Amelia M. Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk and In the Hour of War: Poetry from Ukraine, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Carolyn Forche. These books come to us at a time when Ukrainian literature is crucial. They offer solace and strength at a time when it is needed.
Khersonska, Lyudmyla. Today is a Different War. Translated by Olga Livshin, Andrew Janco, Maya Chhabra, and Lev Fridman. Arrowsmith Press, 2023.
Olena Jennings is the author of the poetry collection The Age of Secrets (Lost Horse Press, 2022) and the chapbook Memory Project (Underground Books, 2018.) Her novel Temporary Shelter was released in 2021 from Cervena Barva Press. Her translation from Ukrainian with Oksana Lutsyshyna of Nobody Knows Us Here, and We Don’t Know Anyone by Kateryna Kalytko was released in September 2022 from Lost Horse Press. Her translation of Vasyl Makhno’s collection Paper Bridge was released in October 2022 from Plamen Press. She co-edited the anthology of poetry Ukrainian American Poets Respond released from Poets of Queens Press and Yara Arts Group. Her textile art has been shown at Bliss on Bliss Art Projects and the NYC Poetry Festival. She is the founder and curator of Poets of Queens.