translated from the Ukrainian by Askold Melnyczuk
“The last Tasmanian was destroyed at
the start of the 19th century.”
—From a history book
I am he. I am the last. That means I’m king.
There is still a Tasman Sea and Tasmania.
A country must have a king—
This is the part I was sentenced to play.
Every crown rests on bones. Not for medals
Will I raise this sepulchre of skulls,
But to record how they suffered: my people.
These human skulls I snatched from the dogs.
From the dogs, the trees . . . Study the gardens:
Each apple-tree in them lapped native blood.
They slew us for fertilizer, certain
Our bodies nourished sweet fruit. A bargain.
There is no more fertilizer. I gather bones
For my pyramid. Dreadful.
Soon I’ll sit higher than the noblest trees.
I, the king; below me, my people.
Wherever I turn: foreign money.
The only familiar souls are the sleek kangaroos.
In them ancestors blossom. When I die
We’ll meet in green furrows.
Far from here foreigners race to my country
To poach on our fields, spade gardens.
I’ll be the customs man bribed by their gin.
The worship of kings, don’t they know, is a duty.
To them I seem mad. That’s nothing new.
My pyramid grows, and it grows.
There is a sacred prophecy I pursue:
A tower will outlast the empire.
Though my nation’s extinct, the original faith
Of the fathers and grandfathers survives:
Who hopes for swelled harvests from corpses
Reaps nothing but corpses on corpses and dies.
Mykola Rudenko was born in 1920. Formerly secretary of the Ukrainian Writers Union, he continues the tradition of “poetry in opposition” begun by Skovoroda in the eighteenth century. He is currently imprisoned for speaking freely. In addition to seven volumes of verse, Rudenko has published novels and several popular books on science and economics. His “Metaphysical Poems” includes a mathematical explanation of black holes. (1981)
Askold Melnyczuk was chief pencil sharpener at AGNI for a number of years until, finally eliciting a groundswell of sympathy from staff members (who affectionately refer to him as “Socks”), he was allowed to translate a poem with close supervision. He is currently under heavy sedation in a Massachusetts state institution. (2002)