“Of all the literature, of all the language:” A Review of Serhiy Zhadan’s How Fire Descends: New and Selected Poems by Nicole Yurcaba

Translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps, the poems in Serhiy Zhadan’s How Fire Descends: New and Selected Poems consider all the ways language matters not only during wartime, but also in the historical context of one’s existence. When read in the context of the continuing war in Ukraine, the poems read like snippets from a frontline diary, and its metaphors drawn from daily life possess a magnetism which gently eases readers into the collection’s pages and settles them into philosophical conversations about life, death, love, and what it means to be human when one’s humanity is stretched beyond its means.

First and foremost, one cannot, and should not, overlook the collection’s eloquent foreword written by another poet whose voice and writings have spoken admirably since February 24, 2022—Ilya Kaminsky. In the foreword, Kaminsky describes Zhadan as “arguably the most beloved Ukrainian poet of his generation.” Kaminsky also examines the role of the poet in contemporary Ukrainian culture—an oddity that Western readers, and particularly American ones, may not be able to fathom. However, as Kaminsky asserts, “in newly independent Ukraine, the people looked to poets for guidance on how to rebuild a vibrant cultural life.” Currently, Zhadan also provides guidance to his audiences about how to remain strong in the face of an enemy threatening cultural destruction.

Therefore, poems like “‘Of all Literature’” carry a reverent, yet somber, note when one enters its first stanzas. The speaker declares, “I am most interested in words / used to address / the dead.” The line breaks create succinct lines, and the succinctness creates an emotional impact as the phrase “the dead” concludes the first stanza. Part of the poem’s power, too, lies in how the speaker blends declarative and interrogative statements. The second stanza consists of two lines which form an interrogative statement: “What if someone spoke a sentence / that could stir the sonic field of death?” The repetition of the word “death” is clever. It creates an echo effect that resonates with the word “sonic.” Thus, when read aloud, “Of all Literature” is not simply a poem to be read—it is a poem to be spoken.

The act of speaking, too, is a sacred one in Zhadan’s collection. Poems such as “‘They Didn’t Tell You’” again reflect on death, but the act of verbalizing death is imperative to the poem. The speaker initially asserts, “They didn’t tell you the most important thing.” For the speaker, “the most important thing” is that no one warned “that death is limited / by the silence that comes with it.” The speaker establishes death’s expectations and parameters, and to reinforce the restrictions set by these expectations and parameters, each stanza is a distinctively blocked. The line structures are a careful blend of enjambment and punctuated lines:

  You do not understand why the living do not unite
  when one of us has died; where is the solidarity
  of those left behind, or the parting song
  that becomes memory?

The line breaks accentuate the words “unite” and “solidarity.” Nonetheless, when read in the context of the current war in Ukraine, the lines develop a tone of abandonment. As the poem concludes, the lines are succinctly punctuated, and the speaker forms a blunt tone:

  Life fills everything with itself.
  First of all—our fear of death.
  First of all—our dependence on experience.

Such lines, both in structure and tone, bear a striking resemblance to Ukrainian poets of a different generation, specifically Dmytro Kremin and Mykola Horbal.

“Waiting for Snow” bears a spiritual tone. It opens with the stark line “Waiting for snow, like waiting for the war to end.” The lines carry an ominous tone, but the opening balances as the speaker continues: “Now this is your light—hold onto it and defend it. / Get used to it, embrace it, embrace it. / Only a twig turns dark in the winter.” The optimism is private, almost confidential. The poem discreetly transforms from a keen observation of nature into a metaphysical take on how death balances life:

  This happens every time winter arrives.
  This actually happens to all of us.
  It will happen to me too in the end.
  I will come to the lake holding a lantern.

At other instances, the speaker maintains a romantic tone:

  And your uniqueness, your letters
  will be about the slopes on which we stand,
  about our souls, about our fires.
  This is how I want to remember you.

The romantic tone and the metaphysical analysis of existence combine, especially as the speaker makes assertions like “Now these words are yours, embrace me.” The speaker returns their focus to language’s necessity, but the images also attest to how that necessity must be carefully balanced with another—silence.

“The Boats are Loaded with Grain” is another of the collection’s poems which bears a striking immediacy. Simplistic language fuses with a stunning narrative to form yet another of the collection’s metaphysical and romantic standouts. If considered the context of Ukraine’s role as the world’s breadbasket and the various grain deals that have been established and broken since the current war’s onset, the poem develops political undertones that readers cannot overlook. The poem opens with the blunt line “The boats are loaded with grain.” Other lines, such as “The ripe grain falls and falls” and “no one will be left wanting” tactfully emphasize the importance of Ukraine’s contributions to the global grain market. The poem turns romantic as the speaker observes, “She’s been waiting for him / and will continue.” In the subsequent lines, the repetition of the phrase “as long as” echoes a return to the grains falling:

  As long as they’re loading the grain,
  as long as they take it to sea,
  as long as the smallest of the good Lord’s
  fish continues to swim...

As the poem concludes, the speaker references the Azov Sea, which Russia blocked off to Ukrainian access after it captured the city of Mariupol. As readers finish the poem, they encounter the simple, yet startling, line “The wait last and lasts”—a concept repeated in a number of the collection’s poems.

How Fire Descends: New and Selected Poems allows English-speaking readers to access a new Ukraine, one fortified in resistance and defiance. Nonetheless, its poems explore pain and bravery, national identity, and daily life in a way only Zhadan has mastered. The simplicity of its language and forms are searingly deceptive and urgent, and each poem is a reckoning with Ukraine’s violent past and present.

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.