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Oleh Lysheha

Oleh Lysheha was a Ukrainian writer whose poetry inspired a number of Yara productions. He was born in Tysmenytsia in the Carpathian region of Ukraine. He was expelled from Lviv University during a purge in the 1970s for his interest in contemporary American poetry and sent to do military duty in Siberia and in the Buryat Republic. When he returned to Ukraine, Lysheha was isolated from official Soviet literary activities and was not published throughout the 1970s and 1980s. His first collection of poetry The Great Bridge published in 1989 was like nothing else printed in the official sources. In 1994 Suchasnist journal published a cycle of his longer poems. He also published his poems and prose pieces in the journal Svito-vyd. He was Fulbright Scholar and writer-in-residence at Pennsylvania State University. The Selected Poems of Oleh Lysheha in English translations by the author and James Brasfield was published Ukrainian Institute at Harvard and was awarded the PEN Translation Prize.

Lysheha’s poetry has been incorporated into a number of theatre pieces created by the Yara Arts Group including: Virtual Souls and Flight of the White Bird. In 2003 Yara staged his poem Swan and in 2011 Raven, which was nominated for a New York Innovative Theatre award for design. “Raven incites this ensemble to glorious flight….The path flown by Raven is, by turns, intoxicating in both its simplicity and complexity. I encourage you to follow where it leads wrote Amy Lee Pearsall in “Perhaps the most amazing thing about Raven is the magical and masterful way the poetry has been transformed into stage reality. If I had to provide examples of the most organic translations from one form of art into another, Virlana Tkacz’s theatrical “re-readings” of modern poetry would certainly be on that list” wrote Kinoteatr’s. Roksoliana Sviato, In 2013 Yara created Dream Bridge, which incorporated Lysheha’s earliest poems.

In 2022 Lost Horse Press published Dream Bridge: Selected Poems by Oleh Lysheha, translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps. See below for reviews


Lysheha's Poetry
Lysheha's Poetry (translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps)
Raven (2002)

When did they sow this grass -- yesterday? today? –
Look – it’s coming up already..
I wonder if my millet will sprout? –
I scattered the seeds somewhere here, beneath the window..
The cherry tree bends low..
Behind it -- a grove of young ash trees,
A little further stand tall elms,
Beyond them the wall..
I should go get something for lunch –
Maybe some fish or eggs..
I walk out of the monastery,
The workers are finishing the work on the wall..
They are covering the roof above it with shingles, 
That shine in the sun
Even brighter than the polished copper domes
Of the Church of All Saint’s .. a softer sheen
Like barley straw..
On one side a girl is whitewashing it.
Alone.. probably a student..
Or maybe she is doing penance for some sin..
Her faded T-shirt has dark wet stains 
And hangs on her narrow shoulders..
She constantly brushes the hair away from her eyes with her left hand..
And, her shoulders seem to shudder..
But her paint splattered hand 
Never seems to quite reach the wall..
Walk up to her.. help her somehow..
There isn’t much left to do.. I wouldn’t mind..
I would just stand there and paint and paint
Till I died,
If only someone would bring me some soup..
I could live here, under these elms..
The wall is being whitewashed for them..
Who else?.. With her in the forefront
The trees seem denser, and taller..
Across the road..
People crowd around.. waiting for fresh peaches..
I get in line behind a young woman..
She holds a woven basket under her arm,
With some clothes in it..
The wind lifts the scarf around her neck..
How pale..
Have anyone’s lips ever touched her?..
“You probably walked far to get to the monastery..
But even you are tempted
By fresh peaches.. aren’t you afraid of them?..”
She moves her neck anxiously,
And suddenly the wall glows white behind her..
No.. I won’t stand in this line.. those peaches are probably still green..”
I’ll step inside the store..
The herring looks rusty..
The ribs are crusted with salt,
The meat separated from the bones..
Sometimes you want something..
From the very bottom of the barrel.. Nothing, but brine..
Back down the monastery alley..
Under the acacias there is a clay path
With signs of earthworms after the rains..
I stand there, and watch an old white dove
Drink from a puddle..
He drinks and drinks without stopping.. like a cow..
Then he steps into the puddle up to his chest to bathe..
And he flies up – to the very top
Of the Church of Our Savior..
Maybe, I should go inside?..
Behind the cast iron gate..
Juicy pale apples still hang..
Wild irises
Bloom light lavender and yellow..
Along the brick path,
I’ve been here recently..
Fishermen pull nets into their boat,
Their faces, the boat, and the entire sky
Are covered with fine hatchet marks,
As if they had been caught in a dark rain..
A dark iron rain.. their great wide-open eyes
Seem lost but still shine..
And a cloud, another, greater net,
Has caught both them and their sky..
How horrible.. all cut up by the hatchet,
Streaming with blood, blinded,
They throw the torn sweeping net 
Into the stormy sea again and again.. and hope..
Why did I walk in here..
The workers are having lunch –
I guess they don’t climb down,
But sit on their wooden scaffolding
Drinking and eat.. those who don’t drink,
Lie on the boards
Further in, playing cards..
I don’t see the girl among them..
But the bottom section of the wall isn’t finished..
Maybe she will return or, maybe not..
Who will finish it then?..
What about you..
I have my own penance..
Hunched over by the heat, hungry, 
I make it to the monastery’s office..
I grope my way down the long corridor..
Lined with steel lockers, so that I wouldn’t fall..
Every day the monastery feels
More and more like a bunker.. my steps
Echo like in a prison..
I reach my cell
And plop down on a stool..
Time for us to have lunch..
I pull what I had brought from home out of the bag:
A little bread, oil..
Pry open the can with a knife
And put it on the table:
There is a bright label on the golden can –
Inside some sardines 
Lay in a red wine sauce..
It was time to call Ivan..
But he is already on his way..
I recognize his footsteps from far away,
He drags his injured leg,
And the lockers shake
As he walks through the dark niches..
He is the last key master of the monastery.. 
We sit in silence, both thinking,
How can we enhance 
The stale bread with a little something..
And as I silently raise my head, 
To lick the tomato from the spoon,
I suddenly feel that behind him 
Someone is watching us through the window..
There is something dark behind the glass..
Then I see the beak..
So we interrupt our lunch,
Put on our dark work robes
And run outside into the blinding sun
In which thousands of people around the world stand naked,
And in our window,
On the hot white wall
On the narrow metal window frame 
A raven hunches over..
Chest pressed against the glass..
Squashed into it as if the sky had fallen..
Or maybe he just can’t fly any further,
He surrenders without a fight,
I tightly grasp the hard breast,
Sharp like a blade, he is nothing but a handful of dry feathers..
So what now, you loner of the forest, – 
Who should be holding whom?
Would you have pecked at my bones, still warm,
With your bearded beak,
And hid one for a meal, 
When the sun went down –
Only later to push it out of the nest in the wind and rain?..
We carry him inside 
And place him on the floor --
He stretches and freezes..
He has no meat on him,
And smells of old used up feathers..
I kneel down to open his beak..
It is awkward; I have to kneel on one knee
And see his inflamed throat
With a little saliva on the sides..
His tongue is covered with stale froth..
Opaque as the residue
That settles on the ground in early spring 
When the snow melts,
Porous and wilted..
A dried out throat..
That can only be healed with fresh blood..
But by evening he has come to life,
And Ivan lets him out that night..

I remember it as if it were today..
Ivan’s wife died towards the morning..
And maybe a week after that 
We set out for the Wilderness Reserve, 
He leads me through the pine forest,
Over the paths she liked to walk..
The ravines are covered with raspberries..
We sit resting on a fallen pine..
Then stand and walk on,
Leaning on our sticks,
We each make our way separately through the raspberry bushes..
The pines seem more dense..
The grass taller and taller..
Then we hear this piercing cry..
And what seems like a splash..
To our surprise beyond the raspberries 
There’s white sand and a little further a lake,
Dark and stagnant..
Suddenly I see,
How many people are hiding there!..
Wet, weak bodies
Gleaming, shaking, ready
To dive into the bottomless depth
At the first sign of danger..
To disappear into the shadow again
Each one alone.. 
Their skin lax and the bones stretched out, 
As they absorb the gift of the sun 
Inside this Wilderness..
In the center of the lake rocks a boat,
Alone, black against the bright sun,
No matter how hard I look I can’t see
The fisherman in it.. 
Maybe he’s fallen asleep lying on the bottom.. 
I turn around hoping to see Ivan -- 
But he’s disappeared, then further ahead,
Among the pines I catch a glimpse of him..
The shadow of a thick branch 
Cutting him in half..
His fingers reach through the raspberries,
Raking the branches aside, appearing,
And disappearing, floating,
Emerging into the sun..
It seems to me, that he had just found
The invisible path, 
That disappeared with his wife
She is not far away..
Not yet..
Then suddenly he turns..
Eyes wide open and says:
“Maybe we should go back?..” 
We return the same way,
We rest 
On the same fallen pine..
Strange.. no one else has been there..
No one has followed us..
As if we’d been there and not been there..
Had we been there? – my eyes ask.. 
He raises his eyes, 
Then I understand..
No, I had not seen anything..
I was swimming in a dream, and knew nothing
About that final hiding place, 
Surrounded so safely by trees..
Otherwise the raven would fly here again..
But when he appeared in the window, 
There was no fear..
He pressed his useless, barely warm body,
Against my chest and then
I could shut my eyes against the blinding depth 
Of the bottomless sky above me,
Over the still wet monastery wall
That the workers had drizzled with wine..
No, there was no fear..
No.. There was only pride,
On my chest rested 
A wise bird without pity,
He had flown all the way here,
Past the trees of the Wilderness,
From somewhere way beyond, 
Where Biblical beasts roam free,
Where they sleep under the stars, as they couple,
And avoid wells
That have been suddenly abandoned by humans.

2022 Lysheha book Ukr Mus poster.jpg
LYSHEHA Dream Bridge cover.jpg

Lysheha's Dream Bridge at Ukrainian Museum photos

Swan (1994)

God, I'm slipping.. 
This road can't hold me any more.. 
I'm not even that drunk.. 
Moon, come here.. 
I come out from under the pines -- you're hiding.. 
I go back under the pines -- you shine.. 
I start running -- you're at my back.. 
I stop -- you're gone.. 
Only dark pines.. 
I hide behind a pine -- and you come out.. 
I come out -- you're not there.. 
Not there.. 
Not there.. 
Not there.. 
There.. not there.. 
I can't move that fast.. 
Wait.. I want to 
Stand in your light.. 
Maybe you don't see me?.. 
See this is my foot -- 
Don't the wires holding my shoe together sparkle?.. 
My naked ankle's so pale it must glisten.. 
I need a cigarette, but haven't got one 
I look around -- nothing.. 
The night train just stopped here 
A bunch of them got out 
And stood here shivering 
I could smoke one of the butts.. 
I'll look -- I bend down over and over 
To search the ground.. 
Nothing.. just a filter.. 
Here's something. 
No, just an old bone.. 
Why don't you send me some company?.. 
How about a guy on his bike ringing his bell?.. 
After you -- I'll step aside.. 
The moonlit road is empty -- 
I'll wait.. 
Once I found a shot glass 
Under this pine.. 
Where the road splits, 
The glass stood right in the middle.. 
I picked it up and sniffed it.. 
Maybe someone had left it for me?.. 
It was warm, cut glass.. 
I was going to take it, but then I changed my mind.. 
In this very spot one night I pulled out a dried up pine, 
Roots and all, and dragged it off.. 
And when I had almost gotten to town, it started to drizzle.. 
I heard someone singing softly and so I stopped.. 
They stood in the road swaying.. 
In that spot near the puddle, in the shadows, 
Where there's a tree with very low hanging branches -- 
Maybe a cherry tree gone wild.. 
He stood there singing and staring at the bubbles in the water.. 
I dragged the pine through the puddle, 
In my other hand I held a bag -- 
With a bottle 
Of what they said was red wine.. 
He didn't step aside, but went on singing.. 
Maybe I should have stopped 
And joined him?.. 
Maybe he had found 
The tree of bliss?.. 
Nobody knows where it grows or what type of tree it is.. 
Or who is destined to find it.. 
As for me, I never stood under that tree.. 
Not once, not even to wait for the rain to stop 
While watching bubbles swell up
Between the raindrops..
He was humming and swaying..
The tree held him fast..
Otherwise, he would have fallen over..
If he had, the rain would have stopped..
His dancing brought the rain
To that tree..
I don't know how to do that..
On second thought.. maybe it was a wolf?..
Right here between the pines
An old woman ran by, looking over her shoulder..
The full legs were hers --
But further up there was only
A frowzy armful of irises..
Like sweaty children, they clung to her neck,
And feebly hung down her shoulders..
They had fallen asleep at her breast.
Their sleepy eyes were
Dusted with yellow powder..
She floated by, a full bright cloud,
And I also clung to her, 
Swaying at her breast,
Falling asleep, warm..
She carried us carefully
Like something precious, dear,
Hiding us in the shadows,
So that our poor, wheezing lungs
Wouldn't fill up too suddenly
With this world..
At the same time, I felt that
She had rushed out of my heart,
Disappearing with the whole world
Down this road,
Where no one will ever pass again..
I wasn't here all winter..
I managed to hide out..
A little further up the road-- over there..
Under the tallest pine,
The one under Ursa Major,
Where the Big Bear seems to fall straight down
Head first..
This winter Venus was on fire
And chased me further and further west..
In Danzig I couldn't find
Any shoes --
See -- I had to wire these together
And there's a hole near the big toe..
I stopped everywhere,
Walking up to every heavy carved door
With a crystal bell, and asked..
But do you think you could ever satisfy this foot?..
Finally I walked into this museum 
Right near the canal..
I had to get warm at least, 
The rain wouldn't stop..
No one else was there..
And in a corner under glass
I saw a dried out pair of ancient slippers,
Which must have lain in some swamp or bog
On their way to the next world.
The feet they once held
Have probably turned to dust..
Pointy, graceful,
With curved straps
I couldn't pull myself away from them..
A little past them stood
Funeral urns --- dark pots
With painted eyes and ears
Pierced with a awl, maybe a bone..
From which hung heavy brass earrings..
They were like one big family
That had just sat down in a clearing
For a picnic of fresh wild boar..
I walked around each one
Examining it, enchanted..
They were beautiful.. very beautiful..
Each one had a necklace of tiny,
Sharp beads, like mouse teeth --
The color of milky amber..
These were the urns 
Of young girls who died
After eating boar
Each stomach bloated till it burst..
Would anybody now believe
That I was actually there?..
That once my foot was so free
In those slippers?..
And my spirit didn't have to look
Into every pot?..
After the museum,
There was nowhere to go,
The evening had gotten cold,
Winter is winter after all, even without snow,
There was only the rain.. 
I waited for it to stop,
Then I left..
It was getting dark,
I passed some pines with low-hanging branches.
Under each tree there was a hole,
Where they once found amber..
Foxes dug and made the holes even deeper..
I almost fell into one..
But then managed to get past them.
It was dark,
When I got to where the land ends..
There wasn't a living soul,
Only wet sand..
I sat down.. and stared out for a long time..
So quiet..
Then suddenly out of the thick mist
A swan swam out..
It turned its head..
And disappeared.. Just as suddenly..
That long neck
Was like the last ray of the sun..
Was he the guardian who let me in?..
What a look he gave me!..
There was no one else..
So I ripped my clothes off and stepped in..
It was not high tide.. no.. on the contrary..
It was ebbing away, pulling me out..
Suddenly I felt the sandy bottom give way
And then I went under..
So I opened my eyes wide
And forced my lids to embrace
The entire sea at once..
It was only me and him
Eyes wide open,
Not bound by a bottom or a sky..
Now, when I walk 
Down this road again at night,
It's like I'm still there and 
My eyes are still wide open..
But who's behind that pine?..
Some poor drunk?..
Please, take these eyes..
I'll step aside..
Tell me, how do I get out of here?..
Just step into the shadows of the pines?..
Can it be so easy?..
But that will be my final move, won't it?..
Maybe it wasn't me 
Who came back from there?..
Well, who came back then?..
On that day,.. no, it was later,
It was a long time before I would've dared to..
Yes, it was later when I opened the gate
And asked Maria for an egg..
I had some money in my pocket..
She went into the hen house
And brought out three eggs.. and didn't even take a cent..
She said: Derhach, the guy with one arm
Who lived up the road, abandoned his house.
Now he begs at the train stop..
She gave me a knowing look
What a pity..
He always had such calm, clear eyes..
This road always leads some place again and again..
And I'm leaving..
Where can a tired man go at night
After he's been to the sea?..
What's left?..
Maybe the mountains..
But going up and down is so hard..
I touch the ground,
Only shadows of pines..
I always step over the same pine..
Is this the foot of the mountains?..
Was it a swan?..
How he raised his head..
Blocking the sky over the sea..
I don't know.. I only stepped in and now am swept away..
Look, I fling out my arms
And am rising towards you..
God, I'm falling..

Dream Bridge: Selected Poems
by Oleh Lysheha,

translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps


In the poems collected in The Dream Bridge, we deal with the poetry of a metaphysical poet, at ease with nature (it could have been called eco-poetry if these terms existed back in the day); approaching the daily routine of life slowly; pondering questions at a pace you won’t expect now, deliberating on the eternal that is daily at the same time. Thanks to the heavy influence of anglophone poets on Lysheha throughout his career, the translators Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps have found a voice that makes these verses sound natural in their translation… The reader can delve into this entirely private polyphonic world… created by one of the most significant yet not fully recognized poetic voices of eastern Europe of this and past centuries.

Review by Ostap Kin

in World Literature Today, May 2023

Order Dream Bridge from Lost Horse Press

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