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Wasted efforts, or The enigmatic minstrel of mysterious Volhynia

    16 January 2021 Saturday

    The coming October will see the 110th birth anniversary of Oleksa Stefanovysh. This country does not seem to be too eager to mark this anniversary. The same happened in the year of his centennial.

    Stefanovych is not very well known – to be more exact, almost unknown – in Ukraine and abroad. There are various reasons for this, such as the poet’s life in exile, his reticent and “enigmatic” nature, and the small print run of his works, which did and still does them difficult to access. Of course, now there is a good opportunity to find them in the Internet.

    Whoever could get acquainted with the poet’s oeuvre was in raptures. The prominent Ukrainian 20th-century prose writer Ulas Samchuk, a fellow countryman and acquaintance of Stefanovych’s, believed that the author’s literary legacy would “go down in the history of our literary language as quite an exceptional sound of our people’s poetic language,” and the Polish poet J zef Lobodowski asserted (not without good reason perhaps) that our neighbors would be glad to “borrow” Stefanovych, for “there is no poet like this in Russia or among other Slavs.”

    Stefanovych’s literary pursuit is not only interesting as such. Its destiny, as well the destiny of the creator himself, is an ample illustration of how talents grown on the Ukrainian soil wither away and become a wasted effort. Unfortunately, Stefanovych is by no means the first or the last example.

    DESTINY

    Very little is known about the life of Oleksa Stefanovych. Small wonder, for he was standoffish and shunned social and political life. Nor did he belong to activists of art and culture movements. True poets do not need this.

    Even the year and place of his birth are not quite well known. Documents show that he was born on October 5 (by the Julian calendar), 1899, in the village of Myliatyn near Ostroh. Yet, in a letter to Ulas Samchuk, the poet indicated a different year – 1900. This may have been a deliberate untruth. Stefanovych wanted to have been born in the year that puts an end to the 19th and begins the 20th century. The poet also told Samchuk that he had been born in the village of Sadky (“gardens” in Ukrainian – Ed.). Samchuk believed in turn that Sadky was not far from Shumsk (he had known this locality since his childhood). But there are a lot of villages thus named in Ukraine. There was also a village with this name near Myliatyn. While Stefanovych does not mention Myliatyn anywhere, he recalls Sadky in a poem appropriately titled “Reminiscences:”

    “A smooth and level road…/ Tesiv huts had flashed by, / And Suddenly Sadky displayed their little gardens.”

    Tesiv is a village halfway between Ostroh and Hoshcha.

    Stefanovych may have really been born or lived in Sadky. Some believe that he taught in that village after graduating from the seminary. But this may also have been another fantasy of the poet. He pictured Sadky as sort of a “promised land” of his childhood and adolescence.

    It is difficult to say if Stefanovych had a happy childhood. He was born into a family that was neither rich nor poor. It was the typical family of a priest in Volhynia. The poet’s ancestors, paternal and maternal alike, were priests. His father Koronat graduated from a theological school and then from a seminary in Kremenets. In 1898 he married Oleksandra Litoslavska, the daughter of a vicar in the village of Myliatyn, who was five years his senior. This seemed to be a marriage of convenience because Koronat took possession of his father-in-law’s parish immediately thereafter.

    The future poet’s father died quite early, leaving behind a 10-year-old son and two underage daughters. By all accounts, Koronat was not too much concerned about “grabbing riches.” Moreover, he left some debts unpaid. Yet this individual was not indifferent to belles-lettres. He even published a few small poems in Russian.

    Why in Russian and not in the language spoken in his village and in which his son began to write later? The point is that the Volhynia Orthodox clergy did not show too much national awareness at the time. Clerics were being purposefully Russified, and Russian was for them the language of culture and “exaltedness.”

    The verses Koronat published in the newspaper Pochayevsky listok can be hardly called masterpieces. Still, it was not a case of primitive graphomania, which one could find on the pages of this publication. One could see clearly that the author had a poetic talent. The trouble is that he failed to develop it.

    The father undoubtedly handed down some of his intellect to his son. After all, he grew in a family permeated with the mystical sensation of Orthodox spirituality, where the book was in high esteem. This was very important for the would-be poet. In any case, he had what his Volhynian peers, such as Oksana Liaturynska and Ulas Samchuk, who also embarked on the road of authorship later, did not. incidentally, Samchuk describes in the novel Volhynia the way he clung to books in his childhood (there were not many of them in his peasant house) and the great impression that prayer services and feasts were making on him.

    After his father’s death, Stefanovych, as well as his mother and sisters, lived a hard life, for they lost the breadwinner. They had no substantial incomes or any kind of assistance. Yet Stefanovych’s poems are full of extremely serene childhood episodes. It is reminiscences about Christmas and Easter celebrations as well as impressions of the beautiful Volhynian nature. Sometimes these reminiscences also reveal juvenile sexuality (the poem “In the Dew”), although the poet knew how to skillfully “hide” it.

    The would-be poet followed the beaten track of his forefathers. He first graduated from the Klevan theological school and then went to the Volhynia Theological Seminary in Zhytomyr. However, the whirlwind of wars and revolutions that raged during his seminary years radically changed Stefanovych’s life.

    The Civil War period and the early 1920s was a blank (or bleak?) spot in the poet’s life story. We can say nothing about him. There may be some hints, though, in his verses. They often have Kyiv motifs and echo the recollections of that-time Ukrainian liberation struggle. His poems “Kruty” and “Towards the Bazaar” very graphically depict the tragic pages of our history. It is difficult to say whether Stefanovych was the participant in or eyewitness to those events. But we should remember that pro-Ukrainian sentiments ran high in the milieu of Zhytomyr seminarians.

    As was said above, the poet could teach in the village of Sadky after graduating from the seminary. But he taught for a short time. Stefanovych decided to emigrate. He did so either in late 1921 or in 1922. What caused him to take this step? Did the poet see no prospects for himself in the “second Polish State?” Or, maybe, the point was an unhappy love? Some poems really hint at this.

    Stefanovych was lucky in exile. He settled in Prague. The Czechs took a far better attitude to Ukrainians at the time than they are doing now. They remembered being recently an as much enslaved “stateless nation” as Ukrainians were. After all, the Czechoslovak Republic also comprised an ethnic Ukrainian area – Transcarpathia which enjoyed certain autonomy. The Czechoslovak government furnished Ukrainian emigrants with ample opportunities for cultural and scholastic pursuit. There were even partially state-funded Ukrainian higher schools there.

    Prague saw the formation of a powerful Ukrainian literary milieu popularly referred to as “Prague school.” Stefanovych also belonged to it.

    It is in emigration that the poet’s talent fully revealed itself – not least because of nostalgia for his homeland. The poet never managed to come back to his native land after 1922. Yet reminiscences of it lived on and “trickled” into his verses.

    In Prague Stefanovych studied at Charles University’s Faculty of Philosophy (1922—1928) and then did a two-year literature and art course at Ukrainian Free University. Bereft of any wealth, he eked out an existence by doing odd jobs.

    The poet strove to become a university lecturer. In 1931—1932 he wrote a thesis, Amvrosii Metlynsky as a Poet. The research theme is quite telling. Stefanovych must have seen something close to him in Metlynsky’s poetry, for they both have a lot of sad motifs and the feeling of a tragic existence.

    However, things went wrong with the university. Stefanovych worked as a home teacher and a child-minder. But a relatively calm interwar life soon came to an end – World War Two broke out. Stefanovych stayed in German-occupied Prague at the time. When the Soviet “liberators” came, the poet headed for the Allies-controlled West Germany.

    Then the poet emigrated to the United States. He never became rich in that affluent country. Moreover, it is in the US that his poetic lyre ceased to play for a long time. The poet had to earn his living as a factory laborer. The ailing Stefanovych spent the last years of his life at a rest home in Buffalo, New York, where he died January 4, 1970.

    Ukrainian emigrants, especially those who hail from Volhynia, decided to honor the poet’s memory. They raised funds and put up a granite monument at Stefanovych’s grave in Bound Brook as well as posthumously published a collection of his works.

    The destiny of Stefanovych’s literary legacy was as unhappy as his life. In the interwar period he published the collections Poems and Stephanos I. The above-mentioned posthumous diaspora publication, The Collected Works, appeared in 1975 in Toronto. Soviet Ukraine did not publish, naturally, the works of an migr and an anti-Soviet to boot. In the era of independence, the Rivne-based Azalia publishing house put out a modest publication of the poet’s works titled Love the Very Blood of Her. That is all in fact.

    UKRAINE AND THE TOPOS OF A BIRTHPLACE

    Stefanovych, as well as Liaturynska and Samchuk, can be considered minstrels of Volhynia. It is through Volhynia that they perceived Greater Ukraine. It is therefore natural that their vision of Ukraine somewhat differs from that of “traditional” Central and Eastern Ukrainian authors. These Volhynian authors do not often show admiration of the steppe and the “Cossack glory.” Even if this occurs, it is of a somewhat different nature. But they still display love for Volhynian landscapes, rivers, and forests. The historical memory of Volhynian writers plumbs the much lower depths than the Cossack era. They turn to the times of Kyivan Rus princes or even the pagans.

    Volhynia motifs pervade Stefanovych’s poems. These are childhood recollections, the extolment of Horyn, Pochaiv, and Mount Bona. Volhynia emerges as an ancient land that slightly resembles a giant who is sleeping but must wake up.

    But Stefanovych, as well as other aforesaid Volhynian writers, were integrators. They regarded Volhynia as just a part (albeit the dearest one) of Greater Ukraine. Quite telling in this respect is Stefanovych’s poem “Portrait.” It is in fact his portrait of Ukraine, where Volhynia and the Dnipro Ukraine are organically intertwined:

    “Chrysanthemums and orchids / In spellbound darkness…/ But the best of what she has is feather grass / That dates back to the Tale of Ihor’s Campaign times. / She used to wail in Putyvl, / She used to go past the marquees, with the bow and arrow drawn. / But deep her heart is flags and winds…/ And perhaps… It’s terrible to imagine…/ No, don’t flatter yourself, Pecheneg. / Even if you have grabbed somebody, you won’t defeat him! / Now she is in Pyrohoshcha, offering a prayer. / And now she is putting up a sacrificial place for Perun / In an oak-tree grove. / At night she worships Yarylo, pandering to all his whims. / And in the morning the golden domes of Pochaiv shine to her. / Only yesterday she jumped over the fire on John the Baptist’s night, / And today she is slowly walking to the ringing of monastery bells. / Her icon is the same as that of the oldest goddesses. / She breathes the spirit of ancient Volhynia in dark forest.”

    Yet an idyllic Ukraine in “Portrait” is an embellished figure. In reality, Stefanovych often depicts her in bloody colors. This can be found in the poems “Kruty,” “Towards the Bazaar,” “To Brody,” and others. Ukraine emerges torn apart by different powers. She is looking for a way of her own nut never finds it (the poem “Doroshenko”).

    Gloom and even hopelessness spread through the poem “Bells Are Ringing on the Towers:”

    “Always besieged, fighting, alert and ailing…/ A bleeding heart is weeping somewhere in steppe winds: / Oh, woe is me, woe betide her, that wandering seagull…”

    Unfortunately, these words still remain urgent today.

    THE SACRAL

    The fact that Stefanovych was born into a priest’s family could not but reflect on his works. Christian religious symbols pervade the poet’s verses. Yet he never stoops to primitive and superficial apologetics, in which our religious lyrics quite often indulge.

    Her are just some of the poet’s religious-lyrical works: “Carol,” “Cross,” “Yurii,” “On Easter Day,” “Over the Cross,” et al.

    Stefanovych’s Christian religiousness arouses no doubts. For example, we can read in the poem “To St. Volodymyr:”

    “Worlds and dimensions are shaking. / See how many faiths and gods have been overthrown. / Only He is still standing, / The one you, Volodymyr, brought us to.”

    However, oddly enough, Stefanovych’s religiousness is in fact a dual faith of sorts, in which Christian motifs go hand in hand – even though not very peacefully – with paganism. This can be found in the aforesaid “Portrait.” Stefanovych also wrote purely pagan poems, such as “Perun’s Dream,” “Wood Sprite,” and “Dawn.”

    As a matter of fact, this “dual faith” is not so strange. Volhynia is one of the few regions of Ukraine, where some pre-Christian traditions held sway as recently as in the 19th century. An illustrious reflection of this is Lesia Ukrainka’s well-known fairy-tale drama Forest Song. Besides, Arsen Richynsky, an interwar-time Volhynian public and religious figure, who advocated Ukrainizing the Orthodox Church and, like Stefanovych, was born to a priest’s family and gained a religious education, claimed in his book The Problems of Ukrainian Religious identity that pre-Christian faiths were an important element of the Ukrainian religious world outlook.

    At the same time, Christian faiths do not look very “canonical” in Stefanovych’s poems, such as “A Christmas Fairy-Tale” or “On Easter Day.” This is a manifestation of the peculiar “folk Christianity” which views and reviews official Christian views in the Ukrainian folk spirit.

    Sometimes Stefanovych’s religiousness crosses the religious borderline as such, assuming a secular nature. In other words, his poems sacralize the secular and show fusion of the sacral and the profane. We can see this in the poem “Prayer” (“The home fields…”) which is a tribute to those who fell for Ukraine’s freedom and in the poem “A Strange Mysterious Image,” where the image of the Holy Virgin transforms into that of a beautiful girl.

    THE INTIMATE

    Nothing is known about Stefanovych’s intimate life, for the poet was a single man. He wrote a poem titled “Miss Halia.” We do not know who this young lady was. Yet the poem shows the authors holds a grudge against the girl who seduced an uhlan’s “hypnotic moustache.” This may have been the poet’s unrequited love.

    When in Prague, West Germany, and the US, the poet was unlikely to have ever fallen in love. He was taken seriously ill at the twilight of his lifetime. He refused to see anybody or eat. But there was a woman named Nadia Volynets who tended him until he recovered. He lived on a little after this. This must have been the poet’s last love.

    A subdued sexuality showed itself quite interestingly in Stefanovych’s oeuvre. He gave a few brilliant examples of erotic poetry which skillfully and organically combines images of the surrounding nature, pagan motifs, and a hidden aggressive sexuality. These poems are “You Have not yet Slept with the Sun,” “Wood Sprite,” and “Mermaid.” Nothing of the sort can be found in Ukrainian and other people’s poetry.

    On the other and, Stefanovych wrote a poem, where the woman is a “calm” and “Holy-Virgin-like” figure. It is the above-mentioned “Strange Mysterious Image” which is worth quoting:

    “A strange mysterious image from afar / Suddenly leapt into the room / And clung to the wall. / I beseech you sincerely: / Please protect this family from evil, the devil / And all kinds of woes. / But what I most of all pray you to do is: / Protect that pretty girl / On whose knees two braids are sleeping.”

    The poet may have been dreaming of a cozy home and children. His unachieved dreams were eventually reflected in such poems for children as “Ivasyk the Eaglet,” “Little Hares,” “In Lieu of a Lullaby,” “A Christmas Fairy-Tale,” “Christmas Tree,” et al. These are really valuable works. We can only regret that they are unknown to our children.

    EPILOGUE

    Stefanovych was the poet of a difficult destiny. At the same time, he was a poet of genius. A nation that has an author like this should honor him properly, and his works should be on library shelves. Unfortunately, it is not so. Will it be so? I wish it would.

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