Imploring a Spark of Mercy: A Review of Mykola Horbal’s Details of an Hourglass: Poems from the Gulag by Nicole Yurcaba

In the latest publication of Mykola Horbal’s Details of an Hourglass: Poems from the Gulag, translated by Myrosia Stefaniuk, readers are privy to the only publication of Horbal’s Hourglass in which Horbal has been involved. Thus, the depictions of Siberia’s bleak landscape and barren prison surroundings develop a different tone when one enters these verses knowing Horbal himself had a clear role in helping with these translations. These poems read like clear Polaroid snapshots placed on a table for observation. As Stefaniuk explains in the collection’s introduction, Horbal’s poems are “Brief in form and without superfluous dressing” and “illuminated from within, radiating a dee spirituality and strength, a keen awareness of truth and beauty, and a stalwart faith in the innate goodness of humankind and the grace of God.” When read against the backdrop of the current war in Ukraine, Horbal’s poems in Details of an Hourglass: Poems from the Gulag ultimately embody the Ukrainian resilience, determination, and survival that has been on global display for nearly two years.

The collection is filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of verses that capture the human spirit’s ability to survive unspeakable circumstances. Adding to their allure and mystery is the fact that the poems are untitled, which makes each poem feel like an undated photograph luring in viewers. Then, many of the poems—like “At night, / when two enamored stars...”— utilize sparse, yet staggered forms, in which lines bleed across the page:

  At night,
      when two enamored stars pushed each other
    in opposite directions,–
      I was a poet,
                        roamed the world with poetry
                                  but in the morning I became as obstinate
  as a black

The line spacing and structure exaggerates words like “opposite” and “roamed” and “became” by forming an implicit polarization and an emotional tug-of-war. The line breaks also act as part of the poem’s slick trickery as the speaker transforms from a poet into a bull, and readers are quickly coaxed and effectively ensnared in the transformation.

Other poems in the collection draw inspiration from the region of Ukraine from which Horbal hails and its rich, cultural diversity. One such poem is “Where are they, / those three Lemko carols?” Such a piercing question from the opening lines refers to the Lemko, a subethnic group of Rusyns (not to be confused with Russians) inhabiting Carpathian Rus’, a region which spans Ukraine, Slovakia, and Poland. Even more than the Lemko reference, Horbal’s incorporation of em dashes in one particular line helps create the poem’s distinctive voice:

  —Give us a dumpling!—they wait...
            And I had stored hazelnuts for them
  for such a long time.

The em dashes create excitement and emphasis and also act as a structural shift. From this point, the poem transitions to objective observation to personal involvement, and the abrupt, dramatic change in point-of-view ultimately seals the speaker’s emotional and sentimental involvement.

Poems such as “Thunderbolts sat” diverge from prison life and cultural preservation. The possesses a metaphysical magic that, once again, thanks to Horbal’s line structures and spacing experimentation, casts a unique spell on readers. The speaker depicts the thunderbolts as sitting around an oak table with “lightning seated on the right” and “storms on the left.” Here, the poem relies on an effective structural break:

  and there was a moment of silence—
    and threatening.

The line break and spacing center the word “solemn,” and the poem concludes with phrase “and threatening.” Thus, the line break and the spacing solidify the tension and opposition naturally implied by the words “solemn” and “threatening.” Here, the poem’s emotional power fully develops, but the poem’s brevity severs the brewing connection.

“When we gather all the tears” is one of the collection’s paramount poems, especially when viewed through the lens of Ukraine’s current battle for sovereignty and independence. The speaker addresses Ukraine directly:

  O Ukraine,
        your wailing
    and your despair,
  your prayers
  from all the times
  of your way of the cross.

The lines allude to Ukraine’s historic struggle for independence and sovereignty. Its depiction of Ukraine’s “wailing” might make readers familiar with Ukrainian literature think of Taras Shevchenko’s “The Mighty Dnipro,” a poem in which the personification of the Dnipro River is frequently interpreted as a representation of the Ukrainian people’s continued struggle against oppression. The speaker continues:

          throughout the land
  and if the heart does not break
  from the weight of this burden—

The lines possess a deeply patriotic, defiant tone—one that resonates deeply with the likes of some of Ukraine’s contemporary writers, such as Serhiy Zhadan.

Horbal’s poems, too, hold a unique Zen-like spirituality. “I granted you silence for a year” is one such example:

  I granted you silence for a year,
  and the second year I granted you silence,
  because when I cried and prayed,
          prayed and cried—
  all that reached you
        was silence.

The poem is a profound meditation filled with frustration. The repetition of “silence” and “prayed” creates a maelstrom of internal conflict. Again, Horbal’s effective, and necessary, reliance on line breaks and extreme spacing serve an psychological purpose which swirls readers into the speaker’s chaos until the final line.

Deeply personal and riddled with powerful metaphors, Mykola Horbal’s poetry are an artistic testament to the human spirit’s resilience. They are also a reminder that even though the USSR has collapsed, Russia’s destruction of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture continues, and that Ukraine’s poets will always continue to serve as powerful voices amid the destruction.

Nicole Yurcaba (Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian American of Hutsul/Lemko origin. A poet and essayist, her poems and reviews have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Atlanta Review, Seneca Review, New Eastern Europe, and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University, and is the Humanities Coordinator at Blue Ridge Community and Technical College. She also serves as a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and Southern Review of Books.