Winter Reading: Poetry by Vasyl Makhno

Ukrainian writer Vasyl Makhno traveled to Israel between 23 June and 2 July 2023 to discuss the intersection of Ukrainian and Jewish literature and culture in Ukraine and abroad. His presentations before Ukrainian-, English- and Hebrew-language audiences were met with widespread enthusiasm and praise. While in Israel, Makhno recorded several of his poems for the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter's traditional "Winter Reading" segment. The readings are in Ukrainian, with English-language translations provided below.

Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, prose writer, and essayist who has been living in New York since 2000. He is the author of fourteen collections of poetry and, most recently, the book of selected poems One Sail House (2021). He has also published a book of short stories, The House in Baiting Hollow (2015), a novel, The Eternal Calendar (2019), and five books of essays. Makhno's works have been widely translated and published in Israel, the United States, and throughout Europe. He is the recipient of many prizes, including "Encounter: The Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize "(2020), sponsored by UJE with the support of the NGO "Publishers' Forum" (Lviv, Ukraine), for his Ukrainian-language book Eternal Calendar.

Vasyl Makhno's trip to Israel in the summer of 2023 for presentations and research was supported by UJE.

Sermon On The Mount

Vasyl Makhno

I heard: the rustling of a lizard and a snake on the slope of the mount
on Galilee's mount of the sermon my
shadow — I listened to the sounds of the pines and Lebanon cedars
that St. Matthew listened to then
what is it to live like birds — don't reap don't sow
sing and clean your golden feathers with your beak

He also spoke about the eye with which we touch the mound
He also spoke about the heart in which a fire burns
"blessed" — spoke that no one can save anyone
a house built upon the sand will not stand — salt in your bones
a flower lives as a flower — a bird lives as a bird
and here is a molecule of light for you — "Our Father"

your body is your home — and your eye is its lantern
but when its light goes out or the sea wind tears it away
who will light the way for you — and later about the cheek
they listened and didn't know how these words could come to life
how they could ease breathing — ease your soul
and a honeybee swayed on a thistle

"clothe yourself in this air and become blessed
with His words — He spoke quietly — they live among you"
"and where are they? — they asked those that listened"
"those who forgive and who live as an example
and don't fear evil and look themselves in the eye"
having its fill the bee flew away I think

when He left the hill — no blessed or righteous were
found in the village — neither wheat nor millet
the shepherds herded the sheep home — drank their fill of milk
Matthew followed Him — thinking "it's not possible
to live by His words it's impossible and difficult"
and with each new written notation his hand shook

I returned on the bus towards Jerusalem
a lone tractor stood by the roadside among the olive trees
shepherds herded goats past cactuses and rocks
I thought about the house and about the eye — how Matthew followed him
how should I understand "don't worry don't reap don't sow"
and how can one forgive everyone
and how can I write a verse?

©Vasyl Makhno
Translated from Ukrainian by ©Olena Jennings
From Paper Bridge (Plamen Press, 2022)


The Garden Of Gethsemane

Vasyl Makhno

According to St. Mark: in the viscous air of the olive grove
He summoned Simon and spoke of solitude
brisk winds from the mountain slope carried
the coolness of the stones resembling the voices
approaching the garden — fewer than one hundred

where can you hide? behind the trees of the Garden of Gethsemane?
at the foot of the mountain and you become disheartened
and when will they arrive? at half past four?
and if you see in the garden a trampled shadow
it will attest to their presence and their movements

sleep has oppressed His eleven disciples like a stone
when the Father passed over in silence and did not reveal: Son
the traitor had a tormented gaze
when he kissed you — and when they tied His hands behind His back
he leaned against a shadow darker than the shadow of an olive tree

St. Mark who later will record the events of Gethsemane
as related by Peter meaning from the words of Peter
that place is important because in the Scripture
it separates life from death — it is an entreaty
to hang on to this mountain — to hide in the midst of the grasses

when they will lead Him down the alleys of Via Dolorosa
with covered arches and well—trodden stones
life — the length of the street — is as fragile as hair —
the words which pave the way so that all is fulfilled
so that the olive trees remember all in their trunks and seeds

and that which St. Mark will record onto the indestructible paper air
of the Gethsemane Garden — the olive oil
the Aramaic words of His nocturnal prayer
the time of death which cannot be changed
and neither can a single word in the text — nor the place of the event

©Vasyl Makhno
Translated from Ukrainian by ©Orest Popovych
From Jerusalem Poems (Krytyka, 2016)


Between The Mount Of Olives And The Temple Mount

Vasyl Makhno

during the night on the French Hill
above the olive orchards
the rising rush of air reached
up to the borders of the Palestines

bustling about were lambs and chickens
in the most remote of villages
even the children seemed surly
I could tell that for certain

walking in sneakers into the Kidron Valley
or to the Jaffa Gate
in the aroma of olives and cedars
with a bag full of years

with the hunger for knowledge above the tents
during these nomadic times
you're not likely to agree with the likes of Sartre
about the key concepts

above the Mount of Olives and the Temple Mount
the night and a damaskeen sky
and along a somewhat crooked road
there's the pattering of sheep's feet

in this air steeped in words
in just one breath
the olive trees have risen like warriors
and have settled on the steps

on the stone terraces of the mountains
looking out for the shepherds
you see there on the asphalt road
a sheep—like movement of tourists

and the pilgrims on these slopes
in the Garden of Gethsemane
and with air — as a garment — of an ascetic
you swaddle your soul

©Vasyl Makhno
Translated from Ukrainian by ©Orest Popovych
From Jerusalem Poems (Krytyka, 2016)


The Second Psalm

Vasyl Makhno

Lord — if every plant is Thy flute
even a thistle and its bumblebee
and the saliva of a silkworm that glues together
the air of words — brittle is its chalk —
and even a moth hidden by the shade

how does this cosmos flow along Thy paths?
how can they pass without colliding — how should they move?
we don't hear the music beneath our feet
stones are breathing with twelve hearts
with the hillock — and with Thy golden city

and if one could liberate
the flute from its voice — the thistle from its bumblebee
what kind of milk must fill up the air
how to knead fluffy dough in the bakery
so that the earth would swallow the stones

from the beginning conceived by thought
the point of departure of comets and stars
even if one were to feign being a mouse
even if we both leave these hillocks
with dust on our sandals

and because Thou art the Lord of each plant
and Thy spirit resides in each sound of the flute
in the bakery chicory smells like smoke
in the golden baked apples
in the bread in the first line of the prayer

and therefore no one will surmise Thy design
— a transparent ladder and shaky floors —
turtle doves above the olive trees of the Garden of Gethsemane
and the fiery baskets of meteor showers
at the distance of an outstretched hand

©Vasyl Makhno
Translated from Ukrainian by ©Orest Popovych
From Jerusalem Poems (Krytyka, 2016)


A Yacht Sails At Night

Vasyl Makhno

The ocean licks up the shore's sand
That dried on the wings of gulls
Yachts sail into the bay for the night
In the logbook—only shallow water
The sails flap, windmill blades
Hurry to arrive

There along the gnawed coast of Sea Gate
On the ashy garment of sea crests
There from port cities and villages
Music and light echo
There a comet's tail—a broom
Of mother—of—pearl greenery

Among the summer rains and night insects
The lights go dark in these distant homes
There, no one waits for yachts or storms
No one cares for the sailors
Who seek the bay as they arrive
With the evening tide

At night they increase their speed by several knots
Wet and angry from a sleepless night
As if close to that shore and that village
But they sail toward light, toward fear and danger
Imagining rainbows on the waves
Or in the sky, a star that leads the way

They look up and what are they thinking?
When do yachts keep their word?
When the bay is covered with warm rains
And they need to get to the shore
They leave traces of their journey on the pages

Of the logbook
At night

©Vasyl Makhno
Translated from Ukrainian by ©Olena Jennings
From Paper Bridge (Plamen Press, 2022)