Poetry: Headphones – The New York Times

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Bob Holman calls Serhiy Zhadan’s poetry the “Canterbury Tales” of ordinary Ukrainian people. It lists all the people, soldiers, farmers, drug dealers, and the poor, to whom Zhadan told stories. The list continues until it covers everyone. How not? These poems were crafted in a frightening world where the desire to be free leads to the piling up of corpses, where you still have to sing and still love no matter what. Chosen by Reginald Dwayne Betts

by Serhiy Zhadan
Translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps.

Sasha, a quiet drunkard, an esoteric, a poet,
spent the whole summer in the city.
He was surprised when the shooting began –
He started watching the news, then stopped.
He wanders around the city with headphones,
listening to the golden ancients,
stumbling upon burnt-out cars,
inflated bodies

What will be saved from history?
the world we live in
there will be words and music of a few geniuses
trying desperately to warn us,
tried to explain but couldn’t explain anything
or to save anyone;
These geniuses lie in cemeteries
and out of their rib cage
grow flowers and grass.
Nothing else will remain –
only music and songs, one voice
it forces you to love.

You can choose to never turn this music off.
Listen to the universe, close your eyes.
Think of whales in the ocean at night.
Don’t hear anything else.
Don’t see anything else.
Don’t feel anything else.
Of course, except for the smell,
corpse smell.


Reginald Dwayne Bets He is a poet and lawyer. He created Freedom Reads, an initiative to curate microlibraries and place them in jails across the country. His latest poetry collection “Felon” explores the post-incarceration experience. His 2018 New York Times Magazine article about his journey from teen car theft to working lawyer won a National Magazine Award. Serhiy Zhadan is a Ukrainian poet whose last book is “The Orphanage: A Novel” (Yale University Press, 2021). This poem is from “What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected Poems” (Yale University Press, 2019).

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