“Patrick Miles, an academic, so I think we can take seriously his high praise for Alexander’s poems, which he has clearly read in the original Russian. He have reviewed the book and recommended it to his readers”
If you want to know what the war is like for a flesh and blood Ukrainian, a poet of international standing who knows his native country and his people, read this book.
Soon after 24 February, Alexander Korotko started writing ‘in complete prostration’ two or three poems a night. There are 88 in all, numbered and mostly without titles. They are printed in their original Russian, with Ukrainian and English translations.
At first, they are short, conventional and declarative (‘we pay/the West/for help/with blood,/but the West/makes no haste/to deliver’ (13)). Then Korotko finds his form in quite long poems of only two or three words a line, rhymed at various intervals. The effect is zerfetzt, finely torn up, and jagged down the right hand side like the bricks of a wall that a missile has passed through. There are anapaestic overtones of Mandel’shtam (e.g. 48), which is utterly to the good, and the verse is never without musical concentration.
But the body of the book presents a world that has flown apart — literally. Like a figure in a Chagall painting, a dead soldier finds himself ‘flying/in a wooden envelope/with friends./I am the moon,/born early/in the sky’ (34). Angels fly, souls fly, dreams, a steamer, houses, stars; the commonest tropes are blood, death, sun, sky, moon, night, life, dawns; the commonest word is ‘pain’ (in at least fifteen poems, and it becomes the central obsession of the latter half of the book); the commonest phrase, ‘eyes charred with tears’.
This is a sequence that conveys unbearably powerfully the trauma of a nation; but it enacts also the terrible trauma of a poet. Korotko reminds one of no-one so much as Georg Trakl. Certainly he often slips into incoherence (which the English translator faithfully conveys), but what else would one expect? The truth of the Ukrainian war demands straining the rationality of language and imagination beyond breaking point. For all its unevennesses, Korotko’s War Poems is a masterpiece that will be read and pondered to futurity.