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In Memoriam Bohdan Boychuk, 1927–2017

by Askold Melnyczuk


I first met Bohdan Boychuk at a huge literary celebration for Stanley Kunitz’s eightieth birthday, but I’d heard about him years earlier.  My mother read his poems, and my godfather illustrated some of his books.  In fact, my godfather, the painter Liuboslav Hutsaliuk, was his neighbor at their summer place in Glen Spey.  Boychuk was one of the few émigré poets of his generation to penetrate through the thick skin that once sheathed the American literary world against incursions from non-Anglophone writers.  He even had an American publisher for one of his books, which was unheard of for a Ukrainian of his generation.  Among his translators were the poets Mark Rudman and David Ignatow.  I translated and published versions of four of his prayer-poems in AGNI.  He himself was a prolific polyglot translator, from the Spanish to the Ukrainian, and from Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian into English.  He published eleven books of poetry, including a two volume Collected Poems, eight plays, and nine novels.  A cycle of his poems was set to music by Virko Baley.  Boychuk also wrote the libretto for Baley’s seminal opera about the Ukrainian famine, Holodomor.

His poems were fully of their time, and their time spanned a good bit of some of the worst parts of the twentieth century.  Born in the village of Bortnycky in Galicia in 1927, he endured a German work camp during World War II, followed by years as a refugee in a displaced persons camp before emigrating to the United States in 1949.  Unlike so many writers and intellectuals forced into exile, Boychuk refused to fall silent or succumb to despair.  Despite the hardships endured, many of Boychuk’s poems were playful and erotic.  Others were philosophical.  Trained as an engineer, he was an unusually reasonable man, for a poet.

A consummate man of letters, Boychuk was also an editor.  He edited several literary journals, as well as anthologies of writing by the so-called “New York Group,” which he cofounded.  That group is another story—in Ukrainian literary circles it is already legendary, the subject of many theses, and books, and even, last year, a rather wonderful film, Aquarium in the Sea, by the young filmmaker Oleksandr Fraze-Frazenko.  Theirs is a story worth repeating because it can and ought to serve as an inspiration to the countless writers and intellectuals—I think of them as spirit-carriers—who have been hurled out of their homelands by those who fail to understand that not all regions of the imagination are worth colonizing.  This group of poets—Boychuk, Bohdan Rubchak, Yuri Tarnawsky, and Patricia Kalyna formed the core, with two younger writers, Vasyl Makhno and Maria Rewakowicz, playing a major supporting role in extending the legacy—this group of friends, managed to find each other in exile in New York. 

Writers displaced from their native tongues face several choices.  They can choose to try writing in a new language; or they can continue working as they had in their mother tongue and accept the that their audience is bound to be miniscule, since only a small percentage of any population reads poetry and those who find themselves diasporans are forced to confront urgent demands which might make poetry feel like a distant luxury.  The writers of the New York Group realized all this.  Though they were soon fluent in English, they chose to continue writing in Ukrainian.  But they refused to work as though nothing had changed.  Neither did they revel in nostalgia.  They entered the present and inhabited it with conviction.  Above all, they supported each other’s projects, by meeting regularly, encouraging each other, reading each other’s work, writing about it, and publishing it.  And the work they wound up producing eventually did something remarkable—half a century later, it found a new audience of readers back in the homeland they’d been forced to flee.  Is there a precedent for this anywhere else in the world?

Boychuk himself returned to Kyiv to live sometime in the nineties, becoming a potent and revered presence in the city’s burgeoning literary scene.

I crossed paths with Bohdan no more than half a dozen times after that initial meeting in New York, but I always found him warm, genial, witty, and utterly unpretentious.  He loved poetry and lived for it and by it.  He closes out the Fraze-Frazenko film with a question he poses to himself—What is poetry?—which he quickly abandons because, he says, it’s simply too broad a phenomenon to bear definition.  He then asks himself what poetry is to him, and for this he has a ready answer:  “Poetry is what makes me happy.  For a moment.  It even makes me immortal.  Also only for a moment.”  But I suspect that that moment will last a very long time.

 

Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI. (10/2017)

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