Thursday, March 28, 2013

Sorrowful Mother

Today is the first day of Lent for Christians in Ukraine.  Something I enjoy doing in my free time is translating Ukrainian poetry into English.  Pavlo Tychyna is one of my favorite Ukrainian poets.  His works are tremendously moving, and his life is fascinating.  Michael Naydan gives a great introduction to his translation of this poem, and I will quote it word for word: "The imagery from this poem comes from the tradition of the Khodinnia, the "walking" of the Blessed Virgin from the Apocrypha "The Virgin's Descent into Hell."  In the story the Virgin descends into hell on Great Saturday.  There she sees the tortured souls and pities them, allowing them to be released for one day.  In the Eastern Slavic tradition any land of sorrow becomes the land of Mary.  For the Eastern Slavs, a native redeemer becomes a new Christ, who grows out of the native land."

As you prepare your hearts for the Lenten Season (and Holy Week for my friends back in the states) I hope that my translation of this poem is meaningful to you. The original may be found here for Ukrainian speakers.

Sorrowful Mother, a poem in four parts, translated by Michael Airgood.

In memory of my mother

Through a field she passed
And on trails, down a path.
Her heart irradiated
With each knife's brilliant gash.
As she gazed - silence reigned.
A corpse rotting in the rye...
The sleepy grain refrained:
Rejoice, Mary! was their cry.
The sleepy grain refrained:
Remain with us, stay!
The blessed mother remained,
And tears broke away.
A starless sky, and no moon,
Yet the day was slow to start.
It's scary!.. How poorly hewn
Has grown the human heart.

Through a field she passed -
In forests green and airy...
She met her Son's Disciple cast:
Rejoice forever, Mary!
Rejoice forever, Mary:
We've been searching for Jesus
Which way, then, shall we terry
To take us to Emmaus?
Mary raised her pale hands,
Judea is not for you.
Pointing with her lilly hands,
Turn from Galilee, too.
But rather, go to Ukraine,
Stop in cities and the sticks -
Perhaps there it can be seen
The shadow of his crucifix.

Through a field she passed.
A field with graves so scary
Against her face, the wind, contrary
Christ is Risen, Mary!
Christ is Risen? - uncertainly,
I haven't heard, I don't know.
There won't be heaven, though
In this bloodsplattered land of woe.
Christ is Risen, Mary!
We are the flowers of thistle,
We sprout at blood's whistle
On the field of battle.
Silence in distant towns.
A field with graves so scary.
A flower sings so swan-y:
Be merciful, Mary!

Through a field she passed...
- and must this country die? -
Where He was born the second time, -
The land he loved till dying's cry?
As she gazed - silence reigned.
The wild rye has thrived.
-Why were you crucified?
For what have you been killed?
She couldn't stand the sadness,
Or more of torment's tricks,-
Her knees crumpled to the grass,
Her arms crossed - the Crucifix!...
Above her the grain and leaven
"Rejoice, Rejoice!" - quietly whispered.
But the angels up in heaven -
They have neither known nor heard.

Translated by M.B. Airgood(c)
December 2012

I did not presume to be able to translate this poem more accurately than previous translations, but hoped that I would be able to make it more lyrical and graceful without straying too far from the text.  As with all translation from short line, rhythmic, rhyming verse - a direct, accurate translation is virtually impossible.  For many months I considered translating this piece, but was uncertain if another translation was necessary. 

However, having lived in the Slavic world for some years; and having experienced the Lenten fast and Easter festivities many times within a Christian community, I had never heard this story of Mary's descent.  I was fascinated by the love of a mother facing hell itself to save her son.  I translated this in honor of my own mother, who loves me so and loves the people of Ukraine so fiercely without even the most tenuous of ethnic connection to this country. 

We are, however, connected by faith, in each reading of the line "Христос воскрес", I remember the call and response of the Easter Sundays of my childhood. Christ is Risen. He is Risen, Indeed!

It is the tenuous, frightened, unbelieving recital of this liturgy throughout this poem that draws me to learn more about Tychyna's faith.  The young son of a deacon who grew into this tremendous poet, who grew into perhaps a puppet of the soviet government.

I am most intrigued by the religious views and writing of Ukrainian poets of this time period, and hope to research the topic more thoroughly in the future.

 I have tried to italicize all of the spoken lines of the poem to help the English reader make more sense of what becomes less apparent in the absence of Ukrainian grammar!  I hope this translation will help others understand this apocryphal, beautiful story more fully.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


We survived Snowmageddon!  In early March, we had the most perfect weather imaginable.  It was in the low 50s and sunny for three or four days.

When a team from Duke university arrived, apparently Lviv wanted them to have the full experience.  It snowed the day they arrived.  Because most of them were from the south, there was a lot of joking and laughter about the joys of snow.

On the final day the team was here, Lviv was pelted with 24 inches of snow.

It was an intense experience.  

Some snowdrifts were over my head, but most were between my knees and waist. 

Early in the morning, a tram went off the tracks and the people were trapped inside for some time.  Basically all public transportation was shut down after 11 am and all taxi services stopped running by mid-afternoon.  By the evening, buses were back up and running - but many bus stops had literally hundreds of people waiting for a coveted seat on a bus.  All the available young men stood in the streets and pushed cars and buses along as they got stuck in snowdrifts and lost traction on icy intersections.  

I was faced with the task of gathering ever more documents - and had to walk more then ten miles throughout the day.  It was exhausting.  By the evening, I was free to help push buses and cars along the road.  When I finally got home, the outdoor stairwell behind my house had still not been shoveled.  I made it up the first three flights, but on the fourth I had to make three running attempts before jumping up to the next ledge.  On the fifth, I had to crawl on my hands and feet over the snow wall.  

It was pretty intense.  

Today there is a general sense of dread, as the weather improves, all of this snow will melt - and it will have to go somewhere.  Basically, we are bracing ourselves for our city to look a bit like Venice for the next few days.  Yesterday we had a few hours of melt, and there was a lot of standing water and backed up sewage! There is still so much snow left to melt!

It will be pretty intense! 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Nothing to say

This isn't an apology blog.  This isn't a blog writing about not blogging.  This goes beyond blogging.*

I live a fair share of my life in a language I'm not comfortable in.  I speak Ukrainian, and I understand most things.  I routinely have full conversations where nothing remains a mystery.  I'm never afraid to charge into a sentence and figure out later which case to use.  I speak poorly, but comfortably.  I have gained a certain sense of self-awareness and courage in the truth that I don't speak perfectly and I probably never will - so I should probably just go for it with what I've got.  But it's like wearing shoes one size too big or too small.

It's something you notice constantly.  It is a constant irritation, a constant discomfort.  Well, truth be told, because I grew rather rapidly and my family was pretty poor; wearing shoes one size too big or small was almost always a reality.  We would always buy shoes to grow into, and it seems that the moment I grew into them would be the moment I would grow out of them.  This is not a new condition for me.

I often wonder when speaking in a foreign language will become comfortable for me.  At home I spend a lot of my time in silence.  My household is Ukrainian speaking, - my neighbors are all Ukrainian - even the cat and dog speak Ukrainian - and most morning I don't speak English until I get to a class or get a Skype call.

I find that I spend so much more time these last few months just sitting in silence.  I will often sit with friends and say nothing.  Although I understand the conversation, I have no desire to jump in.  I enjoy Skyping with my sister because I can just sit and listen for hours.  Sometimes we will call each other, and when we are done talking she will put on some TV show we both like and I will listen to it.

I think in general I have nothing to say.  In my prayer times, I just sit.  I don't really have anything to say to God.  It's not a bad prayer time.  It's just a much quieter prayer time.

I have nothing to say.  Nothing to contribute.  I would rather sit in silence or read or book, or watch a quiet movie.  I don't feel like I need to apologize for this.  I think that I'm in a good place.  I've said so much, and now I've found some time to listen.

I'm reminded of the pilgrim's phrase "not all who wander are lost" - and if I were at my pithiest most creative point I would come up with a similar statement but having to do with speaking.  This is officially a make your own slogan challenge.

*To be fair to everyone, I'm rather bad at blogging these days.  It seems that life fills up so fast, and sitting down at a computer to write up something original gets pushed out of the way.