The seventh edition of the European Poet of Freedom Award will go down in history as exceptional. The Award Jury, with the support of Mayor Aleksandra Dulkiewicz and the Gdańsk City Council, has decided to double the pool of prizes and give two equal distinctions to Marianna Kiyanovska and Luljeta Lleshanaku. This decision was based primarily on the powerful poetic expression of both poets, backed by Adam Pomorski and Dorota Horodyska’s impeccable translations. It is not the first time the Award finalists include a pair of poets whose volumes were almost equally excellent, and the choice between them was dramatically difficult. For the first time, however, the jury was unanimous in its choice of two equally outstanding poetry books: the Ukrainian Бабин Яр. Голосами / The Voices of Babyn Yar by Marianna Kiyanovska and the Albanian Ujë dhe karbon / Water and Carbon by Luljeta Lleshanaku.
There is something else, though, that undoubtedly helped the councillors of Gdańsk and the jury to make this unprecedented decision; something that helps us understand the power of Kijanowska and Lleshanaku’s poetry. After 24 February, we were faced with the threat of a world war. We understand that the heroic sacrifice of Ukraine is made not only in the name of the freedom of the Ukrainian people but also in the name of the civilisation of freedom to which, as Europeans, we feel we belong. Freedom has become a hated target of aggression by the genocidal regime of Putin’s Russia. And yet the crisis of our world has an inner source too: our path to non-freedom in the post-truth era. By choosing autocracy over democracy and the lust for wealth over the enslavement of the weak and excluded, we are corroding from within and strengthening dictatorships that violate the freedom of other countries and their own citizens. We are strengthening their military and economic power, as we have realised with horror in the case of Russia. But is this all? The foundations of our spiritual life are crumbling. The language that once served us to describe the world is less and less relevant to reality. The imagination struggles to encompass modern forms of evil. In the face of the destruction of Aleppo and Mariupol, the words that were to describe our future, uttered on the debris left by World War II, now ring hollow: Never again. Being oneself, so important in the culture of freedom, seems to give way to Primo Levi’s recurring words: if this is a man. Our time is marked by an urgent need to restore the credibility of words and the visionary power of imagination. That is why we now listen to the voice of poetry with the utmost attention. For a long time – perhaps since the first Solidarity and the arrival of Czesław Miłosz in the city – Gdańsk has not been so thirsty for the presence of poets as it is this year. And we are greatly fortunate that the new names of freedom are being written today by Marianna Kiyanovska and Luljeta LLeshanaku. For they are doing it like no one else before them, not only in Ukrainian and Albanian but also in world literature.
The poetry of Kiyanovska and Lleshanaku leads us to places deprived of freedom. It is a journey through the circles of Dante’s hell to the bottom of the abyss. For it to be possible at all, the poets renounce freedom, both individual and that contained in the Latin saying: Fac sapias et liber eris – they do not aspire to the wisdom that would make them free. They are more concerned with other people, inhumanly enslaved, and often already dead. And they remember the words of Hannah Arendt: Freedom is only possible among equals.
In just several weeks, Marianna Kiyanovska wrote almost two hundred poems from The Voices of Babyn Yar series. She kept adding to the list, ultimately producing more than three hundred texts, only some of which entered the book. All of them take place during the ten days after the Germans entered Kyiv on 19 September 1941. The worst began on the eve of Yom Kippur when 33,761 human lives were slaughtered in 38 hours. Kiyanovska hears their voices. She hears them now. In present-day Kyiv, with the ongoing was in Donbas in the background. She mostly hears the voices of Jewish victims, but Ukrainian and German voices are also there. The poet gives herself over to them, turning into their instrument and rewriting them in a poetic form in ecstatic trance. The resulting poems resemble incantatory lamentations, artfully orchestrated with the classical order of rhythm and rhyme, and brilliantly conveyed in Adam Pomorski’s translation. In the semantic dimension, though, they are governed by completely different rules, disrupting the usual train of thought with violent enjambments, chaotic sensations, oneiric visions, and sobs that interrupt the speech. Kiyanovska’s poems, written outside the framework of legal and historical inquiries, outside the matrices of literary conventions, are shocking through their direct, bare first-person account. They render irrelevant any questions about the right to speak using other people’s voices or blurring the boundary between the voice of the victims and speaking on their behalf. Serhiy Zhadan wrote that the voices haunting the poet exist within a single space, in a polyphony that includes victims of both the Holodomor and the Holocaust, making it impossible to hear the voice of only “your” dead while suppressing the others. Kiyanovska’s poetic act, which eludes the boundaries of cultural or national divisions, represents a living testimony of the after-time, thanks to which all the lives martyred in the “bloodlands” become “ours” – because, as the voice of Babyn Yar tells us, “to die is really to be together”. Freed from the “dark pit” of collective oblivion, condemned by History to anonymous nonexistence, they create freedom and spell out its new name.
Luljeta Lleshanaku gives herself over to the fate of those who lived before her, inherited through family ties and experienced together with people struggling to survive in a world enslaved by the regime. “To persist is a duty, not a choice: / three generations awake in me each morning”. The translator Dorota Horodyska, who has accompanied the poet for many years, sees this “vertical reality” as crucial for her poetic diction: “In the deep layers of her own corporeality, which is also a reservoir of memory, [Lleshanaku] hears the voices of her ancestors and humbly accepts the fact that there is no escaping them, that they constitute part of her difficult heritage, a building block of her identity”. The circles through which Lleshanaku descends into the abyss are Albanian prisons and labour camps, which are among the cruellest in the world. Your ID card here is poverty (“wherever you are, poverty makes you a local”) and humiliation (the daily torture “left no time for thinking”). The title Water and Carbon refers to lessons students were taught in communist schools: “Man consists only of water and carbon”, as a consequence of which “suddenly we were all the same”. Lleshanaku’s poetry does not accuse or settle scores. What it does is create a separate, highly original world of poetic expression, in which, contrary to the ghastly “school of life”, passed on from generation to generation under the regime’s supervision like a vendetta, she fights for a place where you can serve others, take responsibility for their fate, feel empathy and ordinary human warmth. Does someone told he’s free after forty-five years of prison hell know where to go? The voice recorded by the poet says that to him, this is like a “second execution”. Is it possible that this regained freedom will not become tantamount to capital punishment? Almost each of Lleshanaku’s poems turns into an alchemical lab of restoring dignity to another human being. And only in this sense are these poems political. There is nothing a dictator fears more than an upright man looking him straight in the eye: “Because dignity / even if it is not hereditary / can be contagious”.
Marianna Kiyanovska and Luljeta Lleshanaku, European Poets of Freedom 2022, embody freedom in a community of memory and fate. Their unique poetic voices are born of deep listening to the voices of the martyred and enslaved. Readers of their poetry become aware that the only freedom they can have is the freedom they help win for those with whom they share this world.