#RivetingReviews: Anna Blasiak reviews A NEW ORTHOGRAPHY by Serhiy Zhadan

Since 24th February, there’s been only one playlist on Spotify that I’ve been listening to during my daily walks. I was already familiar with the band in question – they are called Dakh Daughters and are an all-female, beautifully inventive ‘Cabaret Punk’, as they define themselves – but now their songs have taken on an additional emotional load. Rediscovering them has got me thinking that, while the war is raging in Ukraine, it might be a good idea to pay more attention to Ukrainian artists, writers, poets. After all, writing is – or at least can be – a political act. Serhiy Zhadan is certainly one of these Ukrainian writers whom we could all benefit from listening to more closely. His is a very distinct voice, both in poetry and in fiction. He is also a translator, radio broadcaster, rock star and, yes, a political activist.

Zhadan and I are the same age, we both come from ex-communist countries, and our experiences of emerging from communism most likely correspond in some way. In his case, though, they are of course marked with much more hardship – not just at the present time, although now even more so, but also earlier. Ukraine’s path since the early 1990s has been very different to Poland’s, with the latter’s membership of the EU and NATO.

A New Orthography is a selection of poems from three of Zhadan’s recent poetry collections, all written and published in Ukraine after 2014 – a period that has seen the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of hostilities with Russia. This is in fact the same war that has now erupted and is storming with terrifying strength. Zhadan himself has remarked on numerous occasions that 2014 was a turning point in his writing, a clear dividing line between the ‘before’ and the ‘after’. This particular English-language collection is indeed a chronicle of life in the time of war. As always in Zhadan’s case, his focus is on the everyday, the mundane, the seemingly small and unimportant, those things that – at least on the surface – are far removed from the frontlines. This also makes it more personal. As Samuel Hynes noted in On War and Writing, ‘There seem to be two quite different needs that produce war writing: the need to report and the need to remember.’ And Zhadan does seek to be a witness and to remember, while at the same time trying to make sense of it all, to understand. He even mentioned in an interview that these poems were written following the principle of a diary. The main point he emphasises is that war does not leave anyone unaffected, even when it is not so obvious and apparent as it is right now. It is impossible to remain uninvolved; it is impossible to live a normal life.

The soil emerges
the way facial features become clear,
fish will arrive in the floodplains of the Dinets river,
a bit of blackness will appear on the horizon,
there will be happiness,
there will be cattails.

You have to scream about it.
And so they scream.

Zhadan moves comfortably between free verse and rhyme, forever inventive when it comes to form and style. His language is precise, matter-of-fact, and this makes his metaphors even sharper and stronger. There is some irony thrown in, plus a good sprinkling of humour, but always a lot of empathy too. Most of the poems in the collection are untitled and narrative; all start with a character and his or her story. This, in fact, is a technique Zhadan that employs in both his poetry and his novels – he always begins with the character. I personally think this is a highly effective approach, and one that lends itself well to dealing with such a heavy thematic load.

Reviewed by Anna Blasiak

A NEW ORTHOGRAPHY

By Serhiy Zhadan

Translated from the Ukrainian by John Hennessy and Ostap Kin

Published by Lost Horse Press (2020)

March 2022 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Anna Blasiak is a poet, writer and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books, as is Lili. Lili Stern-Pohlmann in conversation with Anna Blasiak. annablasiak.com.

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Category: March 2022 + UkraineReviews

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One comment

  1. After ‘The Orphanage’, I am eager to read everything by Zhadan that I can get my hands on, including this volume.

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