Writing with Foreign Blood: A Visit to Ukraine

By Naomi Foyle

From the moment someone writes with foreign blood
they begin to write with their own

                                    from ‘From the Moment’ by Ihor Pavlyuk (translated by Steve Komarnyckyj)

If your heart has lost its way, your feet are sure to also.

                                                   Hryhorii Skovoroda (translated by Naomi Foyle)

Going to Oxford would have been highlight enough. It was a bright March day, I was staying with old friends and reading at a poetry gig in the evening – the perfect mini-break from a dreary winter in my Brighton basement flat. Jonathan Meades’s abrasive defence of Brutalism still scouring my perception of urban space, I insisted on a cycle tour of the monstrous grey jewels in the university’s crown of gargoyles and spires, further amusing my hosts by bursting into phrasebook Ukrainian whenever we sat down for tea. No linguist, I simply hoped my pronunciation was not too atrocious. Invited to join the English PEN launch tour of A Flight Over the Black Sea by Ihor Pavlyuk, I wanted to at least try to say dobryi vechir – good evening – to the poet and our mutual translator Steve Komarnyckyj. That night, my apparently singular preoccupations converged in an image that haunts me still: Ihor, clad in a traditional black and red embroidered shirt, reciting his pagan poems of sea and steppe between the slender concrete pillars of St Antony’s College. What at first seemed an elegant coincidence soon started to resonate rather more unnervingly. As Steve’s translations scattered blood and thorns into the room, the ecclesiastic, Brutalist-lite columns began to ghost a painful history, their slim grey trunks and ceiling branches evoking the dark forests of Russian Orthodox and Soviet repression that subtly shadow Ihor’s poems. An inescapable synchronicity was at work: looking back I’m not surprised that before the year was out I had been compelled again from my writer’s bunker, this time straight to Ukraine.

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