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Myroslav Laiuk

Myroslav Laiuk

Myroslav Laiuk

(Ukraine, 1990)
Myroslav Laiuk is a Ukrainian poet, novelist, dramatist, literary critic, and TV and radio host. He was born in 1990 in Smodna, a village in the Carpathian Mountains, and has lived in Kyiv since the age of eighteen. His work is influenced by the hutsul dialect, which differs significantly from standard Ukrainian, and by local folklore and traditions.

His verse, restrained and impersonal (in the Eliotic sense), ranges – and easily shifts – from seemingly prosaic everyday experiences to surreal and enigmatic images – like these in the final stanza of “Trees”:

your trees lively trees
will deliver three blows to the dead doors
cross the threshold and ask for some water
they will ask for a soul

Most of Laiuk’s poems, whose literary influences include Anglo-American modernists, in particular Ezra Pound, and Federico García Lorca, are written in free verse, which became widespread in Ukraine only at the end of the twentieth century. While it is common among younger Ukrainian poets, rhyme and meter remain widely used, and vers libre still has a very modern feel to most Ukrainians. Laiuk turns from time to time to rhymed syllabotonic poetry as well.

Laiuk’s long poem AERIS provides a metaphorical overview of the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war yet easily transcends time and space, turning into a meditation on war in general, memory, and identity. The original title of the poem is “Воздух” (“Vozdukh”). This is an Old Church Slavonic word meaning “air.” It is no longer found in the modern Ukrainian language in its original meaning. Ukrainian writers used this word when Old Church Slavonic was the main literary language (it was often mixed with Ukrainian). One such writer was the seventeenth-century author Lazar Baranovych, whose phrase “joy to the air,” alongside Gertrude Stein’s “rose is a rose is a rose”, serves as one of the two epigraphs to Laiuk’s poem. However, the word “vozdukh” is now used in the Russian language, which, in a sense, appropriated it – a typical strategy for the former empire that occupied most of Ukraine for three centuries. According to Laiuk, the Ukrainian language “surrenders” its Old Church Slavonic legacy too easily.

I know a wonderful word: “vozdukh”
they want to take it away from us
because—they say—it was ours so long ago
that it’s already foreign.

The poem starts with the events of March-April 2014, when Russia, with the help of local pro-Russian elements, staged a separatist "uprising" in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine (the region, known for its coal mining industry, had been heavily Russianized during the Soviet occupation). The so-called separatists, many of whom were actually Russian citizens who came to Ukraine from Russia, received tremendous military and financial support from Moscow. The conflict later escalated into a direct Russian invasion. The image of coal miners, introduced in the first section of the poem, refers to those locals who joined the “separatists”:

…one day they may not have time to wash
for as soon as they get out of their mine
black as mice
rat tsar will come out of the peat in the faraway bogs
and they’ll be given assault rifles

Laiuk's “rat tsar” combines and fuses two different meanings: a humanlike tsar and the rare phenomenon known as the rat king. The remnants of Russia’s political and cultural influence in Ukraine are viewed as part of a complex network:

rat tsar has one hundred bodies of mice
whose tails backbones and spinal cords have grown together
all of them feed him
those bodies eat anything –
even air and language

In Part 4, the poem diverges from the present-day context. We are introduced to “bog people”:

it’s a separate nation
even though they belong to different times and peoples
bodies in the peat are preserved almost whole…
today people dig them out and transport them to museums
to turn them into most valuable exhibits
you try to seize someone by the hand
and you choke on duckweed-filled water

At the end of “Aeris”, we hear the voices of unidentified people, apparently the miners, both underground and above, who were left without air to breathe, unable to escape this waste land:

…they’ve just turned off the light here
we’re counting aloud in order not to think…

…we’re inhaling words and parts of words
“voz”… “voz”… “voz” …
it transforms into letters

Laiuk has published four books of poetry: To Become a World of Your Own (2008), Sow-Thistle! (2013), Metrophobia (2015), and Rose (2019). His debut novel, Babornya, came out in 2016. It was shortlisted for the BBC Ukrainian Book of the Year Award. Laiuk's second novel, The World That Was Not Created, was published in 2018.

For his poetry, Laiuk has been awarded first prize in the contest organized by Ukraine’s major independent literary publisher Smoloskyp (2012), the Oles Honchar International Prize (2012), the Grand Prix of Poets’ Young Republic (2011), two prizes from The Coronation of the Word (2012 and 2013), and the prize of the Ukrainian website Litakcent, devoted to modern literature (2013 and 2015).

English translations of Laiuk’s poetry have appeared in the New Statesman, Agenda, and The Frontier: 28 Contemporary Ukrainian Poets (Glagoslav, 2017). He has also been translated into German, Polish, Czech, Lithuanian, Azerbaijani, and other languages.

[Laiuk holds a PhD in Philosophy and Literature (2018) from the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, where he teaches a course on literary theory and creative writing. He is the host of “Poetry Time” on Kultura (Culture) TV channel and has presented two radio programs dedicated to poetry.
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