Marie Iljašenko: a European poet

Marie Iljašenko, photo: Vojtěch Havlík

In a Europe of growing nationalism, Marie Iljašenko is a young Czech poet who defies categorization. She was born in Kiev into a family with both Ukrainian and Polish roots, but has lived in the Czech Republic since she was nine. Her poetry is in Czech, but her writing is filled with the rich influences of the languages, experiences and cultures that form part of her identity. In Czech Books, Marie Iljašenko talks to David Vaughan about the bonds between her life and work.

Marie Iljašenko,  photo: Vojtěch Havlík
Marie Iljašenko’s poetry is growing ever more popular, both in the Czech Republic and abroad, where her work has been translated into at least half a dozen languages. Her poems are intimate and internal, but also restless, as they migrate in place and time, taking us as far as the Baltic Sea, the Himalayas and beyond. When I spoke to Marie in the rather less exotic context of her shared apartment in the Prague suburb of Žižkov, she began by telling me something of her life story.

“My story is that I was born in Kiev and my first language was Russian. My parents used to read me a lot of Russian poets, Pushkin, Mandelstam – also Daniil Kharms who was an avant-garde poet and very funny, even for children. So I heard a lot of poets and writers, and it was natural for me. But when we moved to Czechoslovakia, there was a completely different tradition.”

And you were only nine years old when you moved to this country, just after the fall of communism. You managed to make the switch from your native language to Czech. Does it come quite naturally to you or do you think that in some way you are not quite a Czech poet?

Makalu,  photo: Ben Tubby,  CC BY 2.0
“My situation was very specific, because when we moved to Police nad Metují, a small town near the Polish border, everything in my life completely changed, not only the country, not only the language, but also my family situation, because my father left our family and we stayed with Mum. So I was completely cut off from everything. So, it is a good situation for switching! There was also another aspect. When we moved to Police there was a big Christian community – a Protestant community – and my mum became part of it, as I did too. It was something like a family for me. So I started to feel like a Czech person and to feel that the Czech language is my language. And the Russian language stayed at somewhere deep down inside me.”

We shall now hear one of your poems. You’ve chosen one called Makalu, which is the name of a mountain in Nepal.

“Ever since my childhood I wanted to be a climber. I wrote this poem when I lived in Letná in Prague. I was ill for a very long time and I was sad because my plans for climbing were disappointed. I felt like black coal.”

Makalu Jsem jako šálek čaje.
Křehká bílá schránka, hořká chuť.
To je jako: nemít své ruce v rukou.
To je jako: být v moci trojhlavého boha. Láska, říkáš. Makalu, říkám.
Pod ní jsou plantáže černého čaje.
Pod ní je základní tábor,
ve kterém bych měla být. Ale léto letos nebylo.
A proto ani zima nepřijde.
Černé uhlí ve sklepích spí
a za bílého dne sny se mu zdají. Makalu I’m like a cup of tea.
A white fragile case, a bitter taste.
It’s like not having anything to lean on.
It’s like being in the power of a three-headed god. Love, you say. Makalu, I say.
Below, there are plantations of black tea.
Below, there is the base camp/ I should be in. But there was no summer this year,
so no winter will come.
The black coal in basements is sleeping
and dreaming during the white day. [Trans.: Sylva Ficová]

How does it feel to you, hearing the English version after the Czech? Does it sound very foreign to you?

“It is very beautiful. I have no problem with this poem in English. It sounds very natural to me.”

That poem is from the collection “Osip míří na jih”, which you translate as “Osip Aims for the South”. When it was published two years ago, it was talked about a great deal and was nominated for one of the most prestigious Czech literary awards. Are the poems in the collection linked to one another?

“Part of this book is a long poem, ‘Osip Aims for the South’. It’s the story of a small bird, who is a poet and who lives in Libeň, where the novelist Bohumil Hrabal lived. It is a very special part of Prague. It is very beautiful and very ugly. There is a big mess and it still looks like twenty years ago. So this Osip, he lived in Libeň in a flat, in a cage, but his dream was to go to the south with the birds he saw through the window.”

You have talked about your complex childhood, with its different languages and cultures, and you also mentioned the strong Christian element in your upbringing, which also has its own language and symbolism. I have noticed too that there are quite a lot of references in your poems to the classical gods. You are a poet who draws from many different sources.

Gdańsk,  photo: Grzegorz Jereczek,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“Yes, I think it’s true, because I still feel like a very young person, but my life has been really very adventurous.”

And we are now going to hear a poem that features several languages and places…

“This poem is about and from Gdańsk. I was there three years ago. It was not only because of studying, but because my grandmother was from Poland. So I have Polish roots and I really love Poland. I was thirty that year, so I felt a little bit as though my youth was slowly finishing. And I was going to the university library where I saw very old pigeons that looked like they had come to die. And when I came back I saw very young pigeons and I was inspired to write this poem. It is about this contrast. And it is also about a contrast between the Polish part of Gdańsk and the German part of Gdańsk, because it was once a German city. When you come there you can still find a lot of memories from these German times. So that’s why there are German and Polish words in the poem.

V zimě mi bude třicet Staří holubi načepýření, předoucí jak kočky
chodí umřít na ochoz univerzitní knihovny.
Lehni si tak, ať na tebe svítí březnové slunce,
ať ti pobřežní vítr ochlazuje opeřenou tvář! V Jaskowě Dolině přepeřené holubičky,
ve slunci lesklé a soustředěné jak sklíčka fotoaparátu.
Pozři ho, pozři ho celé anebo aspoň půlku,
teprve pak budeš zářit, ó a jak! My ostatní mezi novou Oliwou a starým Wrzeszczem,
mezi německým beschlagwerkem a polskými fidrygałkami,
mezi už neumírám, ale ještě nesmím na slunce.
Trochu pošramocení, ale ještě schopní zaostřit.
Ve slaném a zpěněném a bezejmenném povětří. I’ll Be Thirty This Winter Old fluffy pigeons, purring like cats
come to die on the walkway of the university library.
Lie down, let the March sun shine on you,
let the offshore wind cool your feathered face! In Jaskowa Dolina, doves with new feathers,
shining and focused in the sun like a camera lens.
Devour it; devour it whole or at least a half of it,
then you will shine, oh, and how! The rest of us between new Oliwa and old Wrzeszcz,
between the German beschlagwerk and Polish fidrygałki,
between I’m not dying anymore and I have to stay out of the sun.
A little battered but still able to focus.
In the salty and foamy and nameless air. [Trans.: Sylva Ficová]

Do you enjoy the play with different languages?

“Sometimes I need some words which are important to make a context or to make an atmosphere. Of course we have some words for ‘fidrygałki’ in the Czech language, but the sound is absolutely special in Polish.”

And you’ve explained to me that “fidrygałki” means “trinkets” or “bits and pieces”. This brings me to another question about today’s Europe. You are a product of a Europe that is very complex in terms of nationality and language, and yet in Europe at the moment nationalism seems to be on the rise. Is this something that you see as an existential threat?

“For me it is an existential problem, because I feel myself to be a Central European, because I couldn’t cut myself into a Czech part, a Ukrainian part, a Polish part. It is impossible.”

And the country you were born in, Ukraine, is still gripped by violent conflict. That must also have had a significant impact on you.

“Yes. It is very sad, but I was in Kiev last year and I was surprised that the atmosphere in the city was very positive. People have a dream. They want to be a part of Europe. So it is also a time of hope. Everyone who comes to Ukraine can feel it.”

Let’s end with a final poem that, in a way, tells your life story. It’s called “Geraniums” and, among other things, it’s about God.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
“It’s a poem about God, but more it’s about two different types of faith. The first part of this poem is about my childhood. Kiev is a very beautiful city and there are a lot of churches – these gold churches and blue sky. So my memories in this first part of the poem are connected with religion, but more in a cultural way. Then there is the story of when I came to the Czech Republic. I was in a Christian community and this was an experience with a very strict kind of faith. It is an absolutely different perception of God. The name of the poem is ‘Geraniums’, which is a symbol for me. In all towns in the Czech Republic you see pots with geraniums, a symbol of family life and family harmony, but also they are a symbol of a very limited life.”

And then at the end of the poem, you have yet another version of God.

“Yes. It is a little bit surrealistic. It is an image of Jesus, which you can imagine when you come to Israel. You can imagine just a normal guy who lives in Jerusalem. In this part I return a bit to the first part of the poem, to my childhood, when the image of Jesus was of someone very nice, I would like to meet.”

Muškáty A přece si říkám, v dětství byl jiný.
Miloval vitráží zlatavé žilky, dotýkal se jich prstem,
obýval festony, matka ho nejraději
strojila do blankytu.
Niebieski kolor, říkávala, když mu oblékala modrou pelerínku,
na ní zahradní kvítka: hvozdík, mák, ostropestřec
a zvířata dosud nevídaná v zahradě překrásné. Mluvil polsky a zřídka rusky, ale nemísil jazyky
a nehandloval: opusť, odevzdej a pak ti daruju pokoj.
Protože věděl: největší požehnání není v pokoji, nýbrž v neklidu,
neklid, a ne guldeny vedl lodě na dalekých cestách!
A pokoj, to jsou muškáty, muškáty bez konce.
Měl vůbec jiné zvyky: rád cestoval, nejvíc na oslátku, pil syrské červené víno, četl kdejakou avantgardu
a každé ráno přecházel dolinu Cedron pěšky.
Bylo to dávno, v časech praotců, proroků, oslátek.
Jsou dávno pryč. A přece si říkám —
v dětství byl Bůh úplně jiný. Geraniums Yet I think he used to be different when I was a child.
He loved the golden veins of stained glass, touching them with his finger,
staying in festoons; his mother loved dressing him in sky blue.
Cerulean blue, she said when she dressed him in the little blue pelerine
with garden flowers, pink, poppy, milk thistle,
and animals unheard of in the splendid garden. He spoke Polish and rarely Russian, yet mixed the languages,
never tried to bargain: leave, surrender, and I will grant you peace.
Since he knew: the greatest blessing is not in peace but in unrest;
unrest, not guilders drove the ships on long journeys!
Peace means geraniums, an endless number of geraniums.
He used to have different habits: he loved travelling, especially on a donkey’s colt, drank Syrian red wine, read all sorts of avant-garde,
and every morning, he crossed the Kidron Valley on foot.
It was ages ago, in the times of patriarchs, prophets, and donkey’s colts.
Those were the days. And yet I think —
God used to be quite different when I was a child. [Trans.: Sylva Ficová]