“Stay with me, sleepless night as black as soot:” War, Home, and the Power of Collaboration—A Review of Ostap Slyvynsky’s Winter King by Nicole Yurcaba

Especially since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ostap Slyvynsky’s poems have become translated and more accessible for English-speaking readers. The latest collection of his poems, Winter King, translated by Vitaly Chernetsky and Iryna Shuvalova, brings together verses from three of Slyvynsky’s earlier poetry collection. Allusions to war, rooted in references to Ukraine’s diverse landscape, permeate these sparse, enigmatic poems which strip away reality’s layers to examine the meaning of humanity and home.

“The Haiku of the Revolution” threads together a set of haiku, each an individual reflection about the events in Kyiv’s Maidan Revolution in 2014. The events unfold singly and carefully. In one moment, the crowds arrive “at the city square / They bring with them life.” In the next, “Time has collapsed,” and woman “carry provisions / to the warriors on the ramparts.” The images speak for the situation, and rather than overshadow each image, the silence inherent in what the speaker does not depict instead reveals language’s fallibility. Thus, the sparsity required by the haiku form empowers the poem by elevating images which readers might overlook if they appeared in larger sets of text.

“1918” is a powerful poem in which the power and persistence of memory are initially personal. However, the poem develops a more universal relevancy when considered in the context of Ukraine’s history and its current battle for independence and sovereignty. On January 22nd, 1918, the Tsentralna Rada broke ties with Bolshevik Russia and proclaimed Ukrainian independence. Less than one month later, the Red Army seized Kyiv. In Slyvynsky’s poem, the speaker makes no direct mention of 1918’s governmental or political happenings, but the poem’s opening lines allude to the events’ historical consequences: “Sometimes even an expanding bullet / leaves merely a dot-shaped mark.” The speaker continues, asserting that they only remember one of the year’s last days:


a horse
  fell off a turning train, and there was no one
  to come back and get it, no one
  to move it from the slope,
  the kids fed it grass
  while it lay there.

The horse can be interpreted as a symbol of Ukraine, which, after 1918’s initial events, endured a series of socio-political tumults which continues to inform its modern-day identity. The horse lies with “its legs broken, its eye impenetrable,” left to the coming night’s uncertainty. The night, too, is symbolic, almost prophetic—of the impending uncertainty Ukraine and her people would continue to face, even after another declaration of independence in 1991 and into today.

Other poems, like “Autumn, an Improvisation,” are precise and compact:


The war still hasn’t
  fully rustled away
  but already
  in the former dwellings of leaves
  ravens have settled.

In poems like this, nature plays a paramount role, and it stands in careful balance with the most vile of humankind’s actions—war. Phrases like “rustled away” and “former dwellings” establish an ominous tone. Solidifying the poem’s forebodingness is the final line—“ravens have settled.” Just as in the poem “The Night of Taras” by Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko, the raven is a harbinger of a coming evil. Thus, Slyvynsky’s incorporation of images of Ukraine’s landscape and wildlife with the brief mention of war creates the sense that the war is utterly inescapable, gripping everyone and everything.

The poem “Something Always Shone in Front of Us” testifies to the Ukrainian resilience and independence which has long-shaped Ukrainian identity and has awed the globe within the last two years. The speaker attests to “something / a solidarity with us when we’re at a dead end” that has formed within an unidentified, collective “we.” This spirit is “Unchanging in times of war and peace” and is “deaf to requests” but “anxious when / we stay silent for too long.” Three overwhelmingly powerful lines conclude the poem: “And not hope, for / sometimes there is no hope, / but it is still with us.” The author employs an interesting punctuation technique in the line “And not hope, for” by placing a comma between the words “hope” and “for.” The comma creates a pause; it also creates a quiet break, but more significantly, it helps the line form a duality that forms when one ignores or observes the comma.

Of course, Winter King bears another unique testament—to the power of collaboration. Like many of the other Ukrainian poetry collections brought forth by Lost Horse Press, Winter King’s translation is the collaborative genius of Odesa native and University of Kansas Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures Vitaliy Chernetsky and poet, scholar, and translator Iryna Shuvalova, a current Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Oslo. Thus, Slyvynsky’s Winter King is a demonstration of humanity’s strength when it is adversely tested and an attestation to the magic, and the survival, that happens when individuals work together to uplift a common cause and a larger memory that informs today’s events.

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.