Translator’s note on the poetry of Vasyl Makhno
Vasyl Makhno’s deliberately elliptical poems about the “multicultural cornucopia” that is New York comprise fragments of thought, experience and time “captured by a brooding wanderer groping to discover his new habitat”, observes Michael M. Naydan.
Vasyl Makhno’s latest collection of poetry, 38 Poems about New York and Other Things (2004), marks a dramatic shift in space for the poet to the urban landscapes of Brooklyn and Manhattan. America serves as the vessel that gives the poet shelter following his journey across the Atlantic. The younger Makhno from the time he lived in Ukraine shares strong similarities with the New York Makhno of today, particularly in terms of the complex metaphorical imagery and dense verbal texture of his poetry, as well as the nearly anarchic utilization of grammar in his works, with virtually no punctuation. No commas, no periods, no question marks, no exclamation marks – just an occasional capital letter. His deliberately elliptical approach to poetry suggests the absence of conscious beginnings and endings in his poems, which have just middles or stopping points in life’s journey. The middle is where the poet gravitates – a place in resident exile between two worlds, somewhere between his homeland and New York, somewhere between two languages and cultures. Makhno makes use of only one punctuation mark in his poems: the pausing dash that serves to divide words, notions, and phrases – and serves to link them as well. Oftentimes the dashes manage to do both simultaneously, creating a syntax that is highly flexible, that can modulate meaning back and forth between words in a given line. His poems comprise fragments of thought, fragments of experience, fragments of time captured by a brooding wanderer groping to discover his new habitat. Readers will discern verbal pictures of cityscapes in these thirty-eight poems. And pictures they are, for a visual orientation is one of the hallmarks of Makhno’s approach to his craft. To truly understand him, you must see the scene he sees or the dream he dreams through the eyes of his persona. Pure sound is relegated to secondary status in his poetics. In this collection he, like Lorca, is a poet in New York. For a Ukrainian reader the places have exotic names like Bryant Park, Astor Place, McSorley’s, the La MaMa Theater and Starbucks. These comprise the realia that Makhno observes in his new space and time. His poetry also captures a poet’s personal vision of the multicultural cornucopia that is the essence of New York, from his depictions of the Hassidic presence in Brooklyn to his poetic jazz variations on African-American life. Makhno has great empathy for both groups since, just like the poet, they are exilic wanderers. The poet, too, seeks traces of his homeland in exile. He begins the collection with the intentionally clichéd lines “a ukrainian poet must write rhymed poems”. He doesn’t, of course. Neither did many of his predecessors in exile from the Ukrainian New York Group of poets, to whom he dedicates a poem in the collection. Neither did the New York School of American poets whom he references in his poems and in his afterword. Makhno’s highly philosophical poetry in the collection is rife with a poet’s solitary wanderings through the city, the way a fox – an image he often uses in the collection – forages for nourishment in winter.