Nonconformity as inspiration

Lina Kostenko is not the only one to celebrate her birthday

I can remember almost the whole class heaving a sigh of relief at a literature lesson when the subject was Lina Kostenko. We were glad to have an opportunity to be absorbed in special poetry and feel a true civic stand as well as pure – without an embellished official interpretation – thoughts and actions. Lina Kostenko clearly stood out against the background of not only textbooks’ pages, but also life as a whole. In other words, this poetry was about much more than iambus and trochee. It was about real steps. I do not think it is the same to be a nonconformist in different epochs. For example, the Sixtiers were in my view a generation of titanium-backboned titans. To defend the right to think, act or idle, not to be afraid of dissident views, and to struggle to have a civilized country – were there many homo sovieticus who dared embark on this path?

Paul, a character of the novel All Quiet on the Western Front, was aware that his generation would never remain young in the traditional sense of the word after the war, for something had been irreversibly lost. This statement is quite symptomatic for the post-Soviet population: it became far more difficult for people who had lived in the USSR to form a new, independent, progressive, and, what is more, intellectually uncommitted state. The impact of the Soviet Union must have affected the civilization string that is supposed to keep the body in an invisible corset. But, luckily, far from all had this string broken. Some still managed to keep it unharmed – they shut themselves off the world in the era of total Soviet conformism and fell into deliberated anabiosis.

Lina Kostenko put this brilliantly into practice – she shunned publicity, showed no visible signs of public life but still worked uninterruptedly. As soon as favorable conditions emerged (or was she no longer able to keep silent?), Kostenko fired a sniper shot at the hypothalamus of public opinion with her first prose novel and, a little later, a collection of poetries. This caused a stir. There were admirers and opponents, but there was a debate – the thing that had been lacking for years on end. The debate attracted Ukrainians of different social statuses and ages.

This is all we, our problems, and our own way of solving them.

Of special pleasure is the fact that students and young people as a whole boast in their social networking site blogs that they have gift books with Lina Kostenko’s name on the cover, post a photo of a meeting or a book presentation, or say that they are going to see a play based on the poems of the author of Berestechko. After all, I cannot say that Kostenko is just a poetess. She overstepped these limits long ago – when she refused to go with the stream.

And, thank to this attitude, we have a unique opportunity to read the thoughts of an inimitable Oxana Pachlovska.

Lina Kostenko is now inspiring us to create a civilization reality.

By Nelia VAVERCHAK, The Day


Serhii TRYMBACH, cinema critic, Kyiv:

“I received a letter yesterday from a relative in Russia. ‘I am reading Diary of a Madman. I’ve forgotten everything, and I’m recalling it now. How interesting! If you didn’t read it, do so.’

“A characteristic reaction: everything is forgotten, even though the plot of Lina Kostenko’s book begins in 2000. ‘We live under ourselves, heedless of the country,’ another poet said. But, maybe, the point is not only in this: we forget most quickly what happened yesterday. And the time link breaks. We are quietly breaking apart. Where is the elixir of life to sprinkle on and heal us?

“This is what great poets are first of all concerned about: they want us to hear our own country, ourselves, after all. In architectural terms, this often looks as follows: the poet is a belfry that towers above the space, above this quiet wilderness. His job is to ring, and then it is up to God to decide.

“But is it really a belfry? Or is it a different structure? ‘And that’s all. I seem to live in a gun emplacement. Goodbye, cockatoo birds! My world has stopped on the horizon and says: I won’t go farther. For what is further on, beyond your fate? What pleasures and wonders are there in that place? You, the mute, disillusioned, and weak, do you really need my words?’

“The space has closed in. There is only a desert beyond your own fate. But is it your desert? Here is a passage from Diary of a Ukrainian Madman: ‘Soros came here and said that Ukraine has a very bad reputation in the world. But what does it have to do with Ukraine? It was substituted. And where were we, when it was being done? Serves us right! I was suddenly conscious of speaking with myself.’ In Gogol’s book, Popryshchin also speaks to himself about Spain. Oh yes, some great events occurred there. ‘April 43, 2000. Today is the most solemn day. Spain has a king. He was found. I am this king. I only came to know this today.’

“The hero of Diary… lives in the same fictional year 2000, and its space – at least that of information – is open into all the four directions. Websites, newspapers… ‘If only you loved living as much as you love reading!’ his wife says. This is an allusion to Gogol, which seems a little formal to some, but, in reality, it is far more meaningful: both characters live in cloud cuckoo land, and the coincidence of chronologies is not mere chance. They were embedded in ‘Marchober 86…’ Yet it seems to Kostenko’s hero that he is doing all this in order to ‘break his way through absurdity.’ Popryshchin also had the same feelings. He comes to the department he serves at in order to upset this absurdity at least to some extent. For example, he sings a paper as Ferdinand VIII… Well, that’s right, for this will make the internal and external worlds meet.

“But the hero of Diary… has a wife. The woman is in fact trying to liven up her husband’s awareness at least a little and put it out of bounds of guided automatism. Asked ‘Why do you think the Ukrainians still fail to identify themselves as a nation even in their own state?’ she says: ‘And can a seagull cooked with a cereal identify itself with itself? No, only with the cereal…’

“It is the answer of Lina Kostenko herself to us, Ukrainians, especially men, who look like local Ferdinands, the men who have taken to the informational needle which keeps turning zillions of heads and fates, as a stylus does on a gramophone record. Which words does the poet need to break the daily absurdity of our life?

“Which words? You just turn on a television – and here they are, the Ferdinands. They are not yet kings, but they are… kings. Look at the way they comport themselves. See how many medals, stripes, and golden bling they wear. They look so stuck up and bloated – on the left, on the right, on the top, and at the bottom. ‘But I am still wondering at how they managed to reduce Ukraine to this condition in such a short time, cheat and rob it so much, knock it out of the streamline, grab its resources, seize the press, radio and television, and in fact put back the clock of our history!’

“The ‘desert-inverted Lion’ from Kostenko’s book offers a metaphor: before assaulting a ship, sea pirates placed an axe under the helm. The ship veered off its course, and they boarded it. ‘He’s well read. He has a metaphor for anything,’ we read about the Lion. This may be the author’s self-assessment. Her verses strike us, above all, by being able to explain the overall picture of existence with one touch or even a small image. Look again at the pirates and the ship that is helplessly turning around without a compass, helm, and sails. It is a piece of cake to rob it. You’d better pull the axe from under the helm and use it for a better purpose.

“Meanwhile, society has to content itself with two options. Some may opt for Ferdinands – let them play in kings and subjects who are on the point of taking to the capital’s squares to win back the throne for the former. Others will be left with a usual inferiority complex. This is our malady, a malady more dangerous than AIDS. The point is that ‘megalomania will make you a Spanish king, as was the case with Gogol’s Popryshchin, while the inferiority complex will make you feel an insect, and you will crawl up the wall like Kafka’s Gregor.’ This is another metaphor that offers a clear photograph of ourselves, a picture that was exposed to the light of mental images.

“Disillusioned insects need no prayer. They do not have a horizon, nor do they know the direction of movement. ‘My horizon is where you are not. I will go to where I came from – like the tribes of Incas and Mayas. Goodbye, cockatoo birds!’

“The poet lives ‘like in a gun emplacement’ in the space of a ‘blocked culture.’ She says ‘I wrote my first poem in a trench,’ penetratingly adds ‘I’ve only lived in the word,’ and concludes with a doubt in her voice: ‘And, maybe, I am a shadow of my word, that’s all.’ This emphasizes the primacy of the Word, while the Poet is its derivative.

“And whence is the Word? Boris Zaitsev once wrote about Gogol: ‘His own life and fate are also part of his oeuvre: he himself was the pen.’ Oleksandr Dovzhenko understood at the beginning of the war that only the Word could change something in the life of a people. Only a life that sprouts with a word can change another life. ‘Writing by means of yourself’ is the principle which I think Lina Kostenko also adheres to without undue declarations and lamentations. She is so interesting because her Word is she, and she is part of her oeuvre.

“Incidentally, Lina Kostenko recently told, perhaps for the first time, Oxana Pachlovska about a meeting with Dovzhenko. She was impressed by his story that he wanted to make one film but was forced to make another. No, it is better to hide in a hidden gun emplacement and keep those ‘enforcers’ at bay. Over there, you can keep your Word, You are You.

“Not all like this. Not all accept this. For it seems to many, including poets (those who ring out like a church bell), that the world is a theater in which they must play a part. The word is inscribed here in the mask of a role and its text has been dictated to us – so let us play! So let us ride on the carnival or masquerade merry-go-round and let us not lay the blame at somebody else’s door, for it is not we who introduced all this. But Lina Kostenko behaves differently. Her Word is born by her and lives off her – it cannot be put on like a theatrical costume. We would also like so much to grow in the Word and by the Word. Maybe, this will show at last the world – not a fake, false and feigned one but the original and true one which we have been seeking for so long. A word can only be born, not made.”

P.S. “I was finishing the text, when my wife called to the TV set: ‘Look, it is smoking!’ I saw dense white smoke billowing from the Vatican chimney, which meant that the Catholic Church had elected the Pope, its leader. And, looking at the smiling and radiant faces of pilgrims, I suddenly thought about us, Ukrainians: when are we – We! – going to elect a Ukraine of our own? When?

“But, so far, our chimney is only emitting thick black smoke. Yes, there is a metaphor for everything. It is the Poet who shaped my vision…”

Hanna CHERKASKA, journalist, Zaporizhia:

“In brief, ‘Ukraine is lucky to have two geniuses: Lesia Ukrainka and Lina Kostenko.’

“In broader terms, it is ‘My own difficult road from hate.’ I hated poetry since my childhood. I hated being forced to rattle off some stupid verses. I did the same in school. My brain finally produced a brake: I could voluntarily learn pages of a prose text but not a poem. I had no copybooks with lyrical verses, nor did I shed romantic tears over a booklet. I read poetry just to be abreast of the curriculum. Even when I worked as a teacher, I would tell children to recite poetry at their wish only.

“And here is the stage production of Marusia Churai. I fly to Kyiv, where the Zankovetska Theater was on a tour. I buy a gallery ticket and then live with the heroes with bated breath.

“A crowd gathered near me during the interval: everybody asked an autograph from Lina Kostenko who happened to sit next to me. A proud and beautiful Ms. Lina took my prospectus and affixed an autograph to it.

“From then on, I thoroughly read all her collections. I keep her works and speeches on a shelf. Sometimes I open a volume at random and relish the thoughts that sound like a sure shot: ‘Nations never die of a heart attack – they are first stripped of the language,’ ‘Courage cannot be hire-purchased,’ ‘There are no baroque barricades.’ I enjoy the filigree facet pattern of each of the following phrases:

Come off the barricades, / You, heroes until the first trouble, / And stop your philistine argy-bargy. / There should only be insurgents, / Enemies, and medical orderlies / On the barricades.

So, for me, Lina Kostenko is a discovery of exalted and wise poetry.”

Rostyslav SEMKIV, director, Smoloskyp publishing house; lecturer, Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Kyiv:

“For a huge number of people who consider themselves Ukrainians, Lina Kostenko is the No.1 poet of our era. This means her word is trusted like a revelation and the gospel truth embodied in a refined and perfectly polished verse. People know her poems by heart, quote her dictums and aphorisms, and set her stanzas to music. Not only for people of her generation, but also for those still to come, Kostenko has become both a physicist who explains the laws of life and a lyricist who looks deep into the unknown.

“A nation in the making must have a national poet or a number of poets who will speak out on its behalf and project a poetic image of it. This process of collective self-identification assessment always requires a large-scale generalization of experience and comprehensive descriptions of the surrounding world. At the turn of the 21st century, the Ukrainians are forced, as they were at the turn of the previous century, to try to identify themselves as a separate symbolic and political body. Lina Kostenko is exactly the national poet who will speak out on behalf of the awareness of a whole nation.”

Ihor ISICHENKO, archbishop, Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church; Doctor of Letters, Kharkiv:

“Lina Kostenko’s poetic record is unique in a powerful creativity of the word. The author’s courageous talent proved capable of resisting its profanation. Her word was never ambiguous and never lost its authentic meaning and national identity. It preserved an imprint of the Eternal Word through Whom ‘all things were made’ (John 1:3), His benevolent freshness, inspiration, and the joy of discovering the prospect of eternity. This is what is gifted to each of us together with a talent to create the word and what we waste so often. And when in my student years, in the era of the Brezhnev-Suslov stagnation, the course of time seemed to be the rivers of Babylon full of sorrow and hopelessness, she reminded us in 1977 that the poetic word could always open – over the banks of the eternal river of life – a prospect for freedom to return to the Promised Land, the freedom that is born in our soul and manifested in an honest and sincere word whose model is the poetry of Lina Kostenko.”

Maryna HRYMYCH, writer, Kyiv:

“My contact with the poetess Lina Kostenko was perhaps different from those of other readers. Growing up in a milieu of writers, I heard her name well before I began to be interested in poetry, i.e., in childhood. This name was always pronounced (I mean in the late 1960s-the early 1970s) almost in an awe-struck whisper. I did not know all the circumstances at the time, but I know for sure that the word combination ‘Lina Kostenko’ always reflexively stirred up a state of alarming agitation – something that you feel when you approach the forbidden fruit. And the acquaintance with her poetry occurred through the romantic song The Warsaw-Bound Train Evoked Memories. It was a tradition in our family to sing romantic songs accompanied by the piano on any occasion – be it a family celebration or a reunion of friends. The Warsaw-Bound Train was always on the repertory. Every time I sang it and accompanied myself on the piano, I went through the drama of love, as if it were for the first time. As a matter of fact, I did not know that Lina Kostenko had written the lyrics to this song until I entered the university. And when I was a linguistics department student and met with her different – very intellectual – poetry, I found it difficult to associate The Warsaw-Bound Train with the poetess, for the text looked too lyrical for her civic stand. But the fact remains the fact, and I accepted it in a proper manner (I’m joking!). And The Warsaw-Bound Train has been since then high on the list of my family’s song list. But now I rarely accompany myself on the piano: my husband Ihor Ostash and I usually sing this song to the accompaniment of his guitar.”