Oleh Lysheha is not particularly well known among the general readership, despite his stature within intellectual, literary, and academic circles. Lysheha’s poetry should perhaps be better known than it is, speaking personally based on the impact it had on me when I first discovered it (serendipitously) only recently. Lysheha’s work risks being misclassified into a category of nature poet-philosophers who went the way of Thoreau and his imitators. Many “followers” took their turn living alone in a cabin in the woods, swimming in icy lakes, and not interacting much with society. Then, lo, presto, after a long period of social isolation, people ask why such poets aren’t well recognized. But Thoreau is misunderstood. He was an urban man and did not forget it or forgo it. Lysheha is misunderstood in a similar way, I think. Though I am not sure I can call him a “Ukrainian Thoreau,” the urge to do so is clearly there.
One of Lysheha’s poems moved me: “The Swan” (read it here). Imagery aside, it seems to me that Lysheha, while seeking links with nature, still seeks out human company. Even though Lysheha certainly knows the secret pathways of the woods that lead to anthills and secret ponds, he also knows the pathways tread by ordinary commuters. The poem’s climax comes when the poet is enraptured with a glimpse of a swan on the lake as he is about to go for an evening swim, but the preamble to this point is quite a contrast. Although he is on a “deserted” road in the early evening, when shadows form eerily among the pine trees, the path is clearly not too far from civilization. The road leads up from a train station. Somewhat like Thoreau, who wanted to be “away” from people but loved to hear the Boston to Fitchburg express every day as it picked up steam past Walden Pond, Lysheha is firmly rooted in society and cannot detach himself from it.
Lysheha’s poetry confirms this. He does not deny the modern world. He simply has found ways to selectively skirt past industrial obstacles which the rest of us seem so unable to escape. Thoreau likewise remained connected to society. He entertained visitors at his cabin and wrote about them, lovingly sometimes. Lysheha likewise stays rooted to the world of people in “The Swan,” even though his mind wanders in and out of the nearby woods. He picks up cigarette butts near the railroad station, after the passengers have gone home. He buys eggs from a local villager. He yearns to know the identity of a woman picking flowers in the nearby woods, but she clutches her irises and disappears.
So much for my interaction with Lysheha by myself, without a guide. I, too, have been to Walden Pond many times, but to take my daughter swimming with the other thousand who do the same thing each summer weekend. Lysheha still remains a mystery. From what I know of him – and all I know, really, is a much-edited and re-edited Wikipedia article, which, two years after his death, fails to tell me what critics think of his work in general and what impact his poetry has had on society. Krytyka, a magazine (which is, coincidentally, edited by Oleh Kotsyuba at the moment) features a 2014 obituary for Lysheha by Kost Moskalets, as well as a 2011 article comparing the works of Lysheha and his generation to those of the previous generation. Perhaps there are other journals or articles about Lysheha that are not as readily available? Without knowing more about Lysheha’s contemporaries in style and spirit, there is a danger of over-emphasizing the importance of serendipitous discoveries and revelations. Dr. Kotsyuba is making the case clearly. I wonder when others will step forward to sound out their agreement that, yes, Lysheha was an important figure in modern Ukrainian literature. It’s important, I think, to understand who Lysheha’s circle was (and is).
So it was with heightened expectations I attended Dr. Kotsyuba’s talk entitled, “Oleh Lysheha and His Creative Circle” at HURI. Here was a chance to get to know the poet AND his circle better, I thought. Although I found Dr. Kotsyuba’s selection of Lysheha’s poems fascinating, Dr. Kotsyuba’s guidance sensitive, and open-ended interpretations insightful, I still worry a little about Lysheha’s real legacy. I thought the talk would discuss more of Lysheha’s contemporaries, followers, and fans, but it instead focused on the poets and writers who influenced him, as well as the tradition of writing where he felt at home. Nonetheless, I was left wondering: Since Lysheha died in 2014, who takes up his mantle, so to speak?
Not all of Lysheha’s works are readily available online. “The Turtle” and “Song 551” were a revealing surprise to me. “Song 551” is a poem that Lysheha himself chose to read on the Maidan (see this YouTube video). The imagery of the carp beating their heads at the winter ice over the frozen lake was moving and psalm-like. Dr. Kotsyuba revealed an interpretation beyond the obvious imagery: Was it possible the poet was exhorting the carp, or exhorting Ukrainians, to break through the barrier above their heads? In a rush, suddenly “Song 551” to me was a Zen-like equivalent to Shevchenko’s “Zapovit” (“Testament”, see text here). Rise up! Break through! It is not the fish I am talking about, stupid. It’s you!
As for “Dog,” I was not so sure about this one. It contemplated the decomposing remains of a dog in the forest. This was a Buddhist-style reflection, as Professor Grabowicz suggested. I recall a dinner party attended by intellectuals from my alma mater. In attendance were an ex-hippy, a college librarian, a visiting Chinese Communist Party member, and a Buddhist nun. As we ate our dinner, the nun looked at her plate and related her experience contemplating the decomposing body of the leader of her monastery for three days. The whole thing turned me off my dinner. I am squeamish. I encountered a dead dog once on my way to school as a kid, and was terrified of the memory ever since. This conversation only brought up those awful images and reinforced my aversion.
I thought Lysheha’s dead dog would do the same all over again. Exit the talk, Anatole, and lose your dinner, I thought. But no. I was impressed with Dr. Kotsyuba’s invitation to go deeper into this revealing work by Lysheha. Dr. Kotsyuba stuck with the poem and its imagery until we came to some surprising and different interpretations. Far from a depiction of a rotting carcass, this was a superbly controlled poem with clean imagery relating to resurrection and hope. Indeed, I recalled to myself how in some Australian Aboriginal cultures, the image of maggots in a carcass is likewise associated with clean, bright, refreshing symbolism. After the larvae have done their work on dead fish, the women of the tribe celebrate the appearance of white, shining clean bones on the beach (see An Appreciation of Difference: WEH Stanner and Aboriginal Australia by Melinda Hinkson & Jeremy Beckett). Our usual Western categorization of death as a degenerative experience is turned on its head as a cleansing and transcendental step forward into something new – both poetically and spiritually, if one allows the metaphors to inspire one’s inner self a bit. With these examples, this was clearly a different Lysheha than I had previously encountered. It may take time before we call Lysheha “Ukraine’s Thoreau,” but I was certainly moved by the discussion, and my interest in Lysheha acquired both a necessary adjustment and reinforcement.
Anatole Sykley, after a long career in the high-tech and telecommunications industry in Boston, is now an instructor in history and culture at the Cambridge Adult Education Center. He is currently enrolled in HUSI’s Ukrainian language course.