Poem: Headphones - The New York Times

Bob Holman calls Serhiy Zhadan’s poetry the “Canterbury Tales” of the Ukrainian people. It lists all the people, soldiers, farmers, dru...


Bob Holman calls Serhiy Zhadan’s poetry the “Canterbury Tales” of the Ukrainian people. It lists all the people, soldiers, farmers, drug dealers, and the poor that Zhadan tells the story of. The list continues until it includes everyone. How could he not? These poems were conceived in a scary world – where the desire to be free leads to an accumulation of corpses, where no matter what, you must always sing and always love. Selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts

By Serhiy Zhadan
Translated by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps from Ukrainian

Sasha, a quiet drunkard, an esoteric, a poet,
spent the whole summer in town.
When filming started he was surprised –
started looking at the news, then stopped.
He walks around town with headphones on,
listen to old gilded old people,
as he stumbles in burnt out cars,
exploded bodies.

What will survive of history
of the world we lived in
will be the words and the music of some geniuses
who desperately tried to warn us,
tried to explain, but didn’t explain anything
or save anyone;
these geniuses rest in cemeteries
and out of their ribcages
grow flowers and grass.
Nothing else will remain –
only their music and their songs, one voice
that forces you to love.

You can choose to never turn off this music.
Listen to the cosmos, close your eyes.
Think of the whales in the ocean at night.
Hear nothing else.
See nothing else.
Feel nothing else.
Except, of course, for the smell,
the smell of corpses.


Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and a lawyer. He created Freedom Reads, an initiative to organize micro-libraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, “Felon”, explores the post-incarceration experience. His 2018 New York Times Magazine article on his journey from teenage carjacker to working lawyer won a National Magazine Award. Serhiy zhadan is a Ukrainian poet whose latest book is “The Orphanage: A Novel” (Yale University Press, 2021). This poem is taken from “What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems” (Yale University Press, 2019).

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