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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

What We Live For,
What We Die For

Serhiy Zhadan

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To purchase What We Live For, What We Die For

Title: What We Live For, What We Die For
Author: Serhiy Zhadan
Genre: Poetry
Written: (Eng. 2019)
Length: 138 pages
Original in: Ukrainian
Availability: What We Live For, What We Die For - US
What We Live For, What We Die For - UK
What We Live For, What We Die For - Canada
  • Selected Poems
  • Selected from seven collections originally published in Ukrainian between 2001 and 2015
  • Translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps
  • With a Foreword by Bob Holman

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Our Assessment:

B : fine small Zhadan-sampler

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS A+ 26/4/2019 Askold Melnyczuk

  From the Reviews:
  • "Emerging from a context thatís nothing if not political, Zhadanís poems are forever doubting their own legitimacy. They are not, in W. B. Yeatsís celebrated formulation, merely arguments with the world. They are also unforgiving interrogations of the self. Zhadanís voice conveys disillusionment coupled with a need to bear witness to the calamities around him. (...) Masterfully translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps (.....) Read backwards, the volume offers a kind of index to the evolution of a world-class poet." - Askold Melnyczuk, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       What We Live For, What We Die For presents a selection of poems by Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan, taken from seven of his collections, originally published between 2001 and 2015. Interestingly, they are presented in reverse-chronological order; read from start to finish it is a volume that moves towards rather than away from the poet's beginnings, offering an interesting if unusual perspective on the evolution of his work.
       Zhadan was still in his teens when the Soviet Union collapsed, but turmoil has remained the norm for Ukraine for much of the time since -- the recent election for president, easily won by TV comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, is just the latest twist. So already, the first collection from which poems are included in this volume is the 2001 'Ballads about War and Reconstruction' -- two themes that remain everyday even in contemporary Ukraine.
       The first (presented last) collection opens with Music for the Fat, which amusingly is is itself prospective, its first lines:

in the home for senior citizens yuri andrukhovych
is a seventy-year-old cranky writer
       the author of half-forgotten detective novels
        Bu-Ba-Bu poet and novelist (Perverzion, Recreations, etc.) Andrukhovych was barely forty at the time (and without a detective novel to his name), but Zhadan imagines the future of this early leading light of post-Soviet Ukrainian literature, "writing into the void / in a country with agricultural oomph" -- and of:
thirty years without war
thirty years without a future
thirty years of old-time music
       A 2003 collection is titled History of Culture at the Turn of This Century, with the Soviet experience still haunting the present-day, including in poems such as 'The Sell-Out Poets of the '60s', while a 2004 collection is titled simply UkSSR -- with more plaintive and resigned lines among the poems, right down to:
Lord, pull me out from this shit,
if you can see me in this fog.
       In his Foreword Bob Holman suggests Zhadan's poetry is: "a Canterbury Tales of Ukrainian common people", and many of the poems do reflect local experience. Telling is the shift from the local and enterprising to the more resigned. 'The Mushrooms in Donbas', from a 2007 collection, is escapist -- "it's important to get high" -- but describes an effort at constructive, local initiative (though attacked, like any success, by the local gangsters -- inept though they often are: amusingly, it also describes a gang who burn down a gas station, forgetting to fill up before they do so and thus easily captured by the police). A 2015 collection, Life of Maria, on the other hand, tells of flight and abandonment: "The first to leave were the merchants", one poem recounts, while another describes refugees:
"We once lived in a city that no longer exists
We have come here tired and ready to submit.
Chaplain, tell your people, there's no one left to kill.
       And 'Take Only What is Most Important' suggests a complete loss of home and homeland:
You will not return, and friends will never come back.
There will be no smoky kitchens, no usual jobs,
There will be no dreamy lights in sleepy towns,
no green valleys, no suburban wastelands.
       One of the first (i.e. most recent) poems has a friend of Zhadan's come to the realization: "now I understand that better times / will never come", and if not entirely defeatist this opening collection the volume starts off with, Why I'm Not on Social Media (also 2015), is full of portraits of present-day stagnation. Perhaps, indeed, the editors were right in presenting Zhadan's work in this sequence, leading readers slowly back to the slightly more hopeful beginnings .....
       What We Live For, What We Die For is a decent little introduction to Zhadan's poetry, but even these fifty poems -- perhaps because they span so much time and so many collections -- feel somewhat just like the skim of the surface. Readers do get a good sense of his poetry, and range, but this is very much a sampler, rather than full-scale immersion -- and the samples do suggest full-scale immersion would be worthwhile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 April 2019

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What We Live For, What We Die For: Reviews: Other books by Serhiy Zhadan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan (Сергій Вікторович Жадан) was born in 1974.

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© 2019-2022 the complete review

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