Monday, February 11, 2013

We’ll Not Die in Paris

The Poetry of Natalka Bilotserkivets

Natalka Bilotserkivets is a poet whose work should be better known in the United States and Western Europe, her themes as ageless and timely as love and alienation, as Picasso and 9/11.  Inspired by the great Russian poets Blok, Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Mandestam, as well as by the French symbolists Baudelaire and Verlaine, her poetry nevertheless remains highly accessible to the Western reader.  “Life for Bilotserkivets,” writes Gerard Rasch, “has an indestructible integrity, with a hint of a mystic unity in which the sacred and the profane, the rose and the worm, the stench of urine and the aroma of spring can exist side by side…”

Here are two favorites of mine:

Hotel Central

for anyone

in one of the cities where at an uncertain time
capricious fate acknowledges us
where in the evening you can hear jazz in the restaurants
in the morning — bells from the gothic arches
water-lilies bloom in the canals there
people drink coffee there and later on beer
and the bicycles of radiant schoolgirls fly
in their sweet way in flocks

their backpacks bright and light
their legs long their hips slim
my God we once were like them too
ten twenty thirty years ago
but cast aside your itinerant pity
there's a Hotel Central in every city —
for those just like you who are no one for no one

here you'll unpack your ordinary things
remove the contacts from your eyes
wash your flesh get your drink
push the button of the pay TV —
there's everything you'd want; and how you'd want it too;
shut your eyes enter and take
nocturnal music knows no bounds
in the chambers of your Hotel Central

at three AM God like Bosch will come
to Hotel Central from the heavenly halls
with insects playing clarinets
with mosquitoes drinking submissive blood
with frogs and snails;
with fish, too;
and all your love —
is just caviar in the repositories of hell

just the struggle of a puny and a miserable slave
spread all over the walls,
of a human being — with a smiting Spirit
he sculpts and bends your body
then throws it into a tub of dung
removing it with his two fingers
shaking it looking and listening

like the first look of tender compassion
like the first touch of a somber "I love you"
like the burst of sun in the folds of a curtain —
Hotel Central meets the new dawn

and every day is like your last chance
and every night as though for the last time
and over the lily-flowered canals
the bicycles
of anxious schoolgirls fly

Grand Hotel Central
Rotterdam, June 22, 2002
© 2002, Natalka Bilotserkivets 

We'll Not Die in Paris

I will die in Paris on Thursday evening.
                                        — Cesar Vallejo

You forget the lines smells colors and sounds
sight weakens       hearing fades       simple pleasures pass
you lift your face and hands toward your soul
but to high and unreachable summits it soars

what remains is only the depot       the last stop
the gray foam of goodbyes lathers and swells
already it washes over my naked palms
its awful sweet warmth seeps into my mouth
love alone remains though better off gone

in a provincial bed I cried till exhausted
through the window       a scraggly rose-colored lilac spied
the train moved on       spent lovers stared
at the dirty shelf heaving beneath your flesh
outside a depot's spring passed       grew quiet

we'll not die in Paris       I know now for sure
but in a sweat and tear-stained provincial bed
no one will serve us our cognac       I know
we won't be saved by kisses
under the Pont Mirabeau murky circles won't fade

too bitter we cried       abused nature
we loved too fiercely
                        our lovers shamed
too many poems we wrote
                        disregarding poets
they'll not let us die in Paris
and the alluring water
                        under the Pont Mirabeau
will be encircled with barricades

*Translated by Dzvinia Orlowsky

From Three Worlds: New Ukrainian Writing.
Special issue (#12) in the series of Glas : New Russian Writing. Ed. by Ed Hogan
Zephyr Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 1996

Here, for those interested, is Bilotserkivets reading her poetry (in Ukrainian for those who know it; for those who don’t, listen anyway):

Natalka Bilotserkivets was born in Ukraine in 1954 and holds a degree in Ukrainian literature from Kiev University.  Some of her poetry can be found in the excellent compilation New European Poets edited by Wayne Miller and Kevin Prufer and published by Graywolf Press (

Peter Adam Nash

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