Still City, Oksana Maksymchuk’s debut poetry collection in English, reflects life in the wake of extreme and unpredictable violence. Drawing on sources including social media, news coverage, witness accounts, recorded oral histories, photographs, drone video footage, intercepted communication and official documents, Maksymchuk tells the shared experience of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “By calling it a diary,” she reflects in a blog for publisher Carcanet, “I wanted to tie the poems to a particular time and place, and also, to convey that it’s not a fictionalised invention but a living poet’s journal of an actual historical process. Yet in writing it, I also attempted to transcend the particularity of individual experience, to bring out its universal features, while raising questions about the wilful transformation of suffering into art, the distortion it involves, its ethical and aesthetic implications. The poems are self-conscious about their authority and purpose – why do we exist, they ask, and what are we for?”
The three poems below vividly capture the bewildering brutality and surreality of the onslaught from up close and afar.

Drone Footage

When a shell strikes a person
there’s a scattering

resembling a flock of birds
taking off

hands flying in the air

feet levitating
in mid-kick

their avian shapes
casting shadows

lithe and carefree
from on high

Rocket in the Room

Workers sift through the rubble after a Russian drone attack on Kyiv, March 2023. State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Wikimedia Commons

what the rocket has in common
with the room full of children
is its current location

somebody thought the rocket
belonged in the room with children
and now it’s here

in time
someone else will come
and collect the pieces

of the rocket and of the children
weeping and shouting insults
at the sky

but for now
this rocket and these children
are an unsorted matter

a puzzle
awaiting a solution

Algorithmic Meltdown

I don’t know if the images of
bombings are what you yearn for
in your feed

Scrolling on my phone, I too prefer
funny puppy videos
flowers and minerals, food porn

Instead, I see pictures of ruins
blackened privates exposed
puddles of glass

Somebody’s liver
smeared over the asphalt
like melted ghee

Somebody’s daughter
sandwiched between the slabs
of concrete

Sight, the philosopher said, is first
of the senses, it reigns supreme
making sense of things

As I hover over the images —
toggling between the close-ups
and ‘dollhouse view’

peering into cracked mirrors
wedging doors with my cursor
what do I hope

to unsee?

Oksana Maksymchuk is a Ukrainian-American poet, scholar and literary translator born in Lviv in 1982. She is the author of award-winning poetry collections Xenia and Lovy in the Ukrainian, as well as a co-editor of the anthology of contemporary poetry Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine. Her English-language poems have appeared in The Irish TimesThe London MagazineThe Paris ReviewPoetry LondonPN ReviewThe Poetry Review and elsewhere. Oksana was a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts translation fellowship and a winner of Scaglione Prize from the Modern Language Association of America, Peterson Translated Book Award, American Association for Ukrainian Studies Translation Prize, Richmond Lattimore Prize, and Joseph Brodsky/Stephen Spender Prize. She holds a PhD in ancient philosophy from Northwestern University. In recent years, she has been dividing her time between her home in Lviv and various visiting appointments in the United States and Europe. Still City is published in paperback and eBook by Carcanet.
Read more
Carcanet blog: Diary of an Invasion

Author photo by Natalya Mykhailychenko