Yesterday John came back from the mailbox with a package: a book by a Ukrainian poet, Oleh Lysheha. He’d ordered it without knowing anything about the poet but wanted to read poetry rooted in the country we are about to visit next week. He opened the book at random and read a poem aloud. It was “Father” and it couldn’t have been more beautiful. Here’s the opening:
Oh, he liked to bathe..
Best in late summer,
In the Crow River, a mature sun overhead..
—Once, there was a deeper place here—
He entered patiently, his turn of wrist,
The elbow high, slipping the hand into the water and out,
As if still dry—in the manner no one sees anymore—
Swimming to a shallow place:
—Would you wash my back?
Almost every day we swim, early, in the lake nearby, and we’ve noted that we can tell it’s late in the season by the later rising of the sun over the mountain to the east of the lake. I wouldn’t have thought to call it “mature” but that’s a perfect adjective for the sun at the end of August.
Reading on, to himself, he kept saying, There are poems for animals and birds! Fish! John’s own new book arrived earlier in the week, This Was the River, with a cover detail from Tintoretto’s painting “The Creation of the Animals”, chosen because a sequence of poems named for the painting is at the heart of the book.
I’ve been looking into Oleh Lysheha’s poems (translated by the poet and James Brasfield) and find in them something rich and mysterious, anchored in the earth, but also filled with divinity. A horse dreaming of escape to the mountains, an old dog in the woods, “His skull a cobweb of veins” (the poet imploring, “Young nettle, be kind to him—listen—/His heart can’t endure any more the arc of your leaves..”).
I have been trying to learn a few phrases in Ukrainian but wish now I had time to commit one or two of these poems to memory. That father, in the Crow River, “He walked out like a blind man/and fell face down into grass, in sunlight..” and the horse who remembers,
A man outlined
In red on the cave wall
Shadows of my friends
Coming down slowly,
One by one, to water flowing
From a subterranean river..