The full-length translation of A. Dovzhenko's The Enchanted Desna will be available from House to Water in early spring 2006. For further information, please contact Dzvinia Orlowsky

Photo of Dzvinia Orlowsky by Max Hoffman

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Alexander Dovzhenko

Alexander Dovzhenko

Translated by

Dzvinia Orlowsky

Excerpt from The Enchanted Desna

We didn't know who built our cottage or when. To us it seemed as if no one had built it, but rather, that it sprouted by itself, like a mushroom, between the pear tree and the cellar. It really did resemble an old white mushroom. It was a very picturesque cottage. The only thing we, rather Mother, didn't like was that the windows sagged into the ground and the doors didn't have locks. Welcome everyone! Would you like to come in? For her, it was also too cramped inside. But for us kids, there was plenty of room. When you looked out of the windows, you could see sunflowers, the pear tree, and the sun. And inside, on the white wall just below the icons that reached up to a wooden dish rack hung a colorful array of paintings of the Pochaiv Lavra and the Kiev Lavra, as well as views of the Nove Afon and St. Simon of Canaan monasteries near the town of Sukhumi in the Caucasus. Over the monasteries hovered figures of Virgin Marys, as well as white angels resembling a flock of geese.

But of all these paintings, the rendition of the Last Judgement struck the most fear. Mother had traded a hen for it at the fair, and she used it to torment her great enemies — Baba, Grandfather, and Father. The painting was both so terrifying and illuminating that even our dog, Pirate, was afraid to look at it. Grandfather and saints resided in the top half. In the middle, the dead crawled from out of their graves, single file, some toward Paradise, others straight down to hell. A large blue adder, thicker than any snake we killed among the pumpkins, twisted in the middle, along the bottom. Condemned souls and devils smoldered there. At the very bottom of the painting, separate scenes in cage-like frames listed punishments for sins that had been committed. Those who lied or mocked others hanged on a hook from their tongues over a fire; those who forgot to fast hanged by their bellies. Those who slurped cream or fried eggs with ham during fasts sat bare-bottomed on a hot frying pan. Others who had cursed were condemned to lick it.

There were many different punishments for many kinds of sins, but no one seemed too concerned.

At first, I shuddered at the sight of the painting. But eventually I got used to it the way a soldier gets used to the rumble of artillery.

In our family, almost everyone was a sinner: our means were paltry, our hearts, passionate. There was plenty of hard work and hardship and we shared an inclination toward the sharp word. Although we dreamed about Paradise, we knew we'd probably end up in hell at the bottom of the painting. There, everyone had a special place set aside.

Devils poured hot tar down Father's throat for drinking and for hitting Mother. Baba licked the hot frying pan because of her backbiting tongue and for being an expert sorceress. As Mother predicted, the devil himself gripped Grandfather for his sorcery as well as for reading the magic Psalter every Sunday during which he cursed her casting a spell that made her sick for three years, and for the fact that when she secretly shredded the black book, scattering its pages in the barn, the cattle shed, the pumpkin patch and under the raspberry bushes, the pages seemed to fly back into the leather cover all by themselves. Besides, it was suspected many years ago that Grandfather's deceased father, Taras, was regularly visited by a serpent that came down the chimney at night to bring him money.

Sure enough, in the right-hand corner of the painting, Grandfather sat in the devil's hands clutching a full purse of money. He didn't look exactly like our Grandfather because, banished, he was stark naked, and unlike Grandfather, his beard was red from the scorching fire, not white; his hair stood straight up, crackling with flames.

My older brother, Ovram, had been condemned by Baba years ago and ever since had been flying headfirst into hell from the upper left corner of the painting for destroying the pigeons' nests in the attic and for stealing pork fat from the pantry during fasts. His soul also craved cream that he skimmed from the milk pitchers stored in the cellar and pantry.

Only Mother imagined herself destined for sainthood. A martyr, she'd fed her enemies — Grandfather and Baba — and been good to them.

She prayed to Saint George whose steed trampled the serpent to drown them, as well as Father, for ruining her life.

Once, when she was young, she swore that Saint George, dressed in white vestments, riding a white horse and wielding a long spear, came to her in her dreams. When he heard her moaning in fright, he asked:

“Is that you, Odarka?”


“Don't be scared, it's me, Saint George. I've come to give you a sign. Henceforth, Odarochko, you'll carry out good deeds in my name.”

From that time on for about ten or twenty years, Mother considered herself a mystic. She began healing those who suffered from toothaches, the evil eye, or faintheartedness, although she herself was always sick.

“Take a look. There's my place,” she'd say, pointing at some saint near the Holy Mother at the top of the Last Judgement painting. “Do you see?”

Mother had poked that pious soul so often that instead of a face it now had a brown spot resembling a capital city on a geographical map. Later, Mother's affairs took a turn for the worse. Once, she didn't give Baba anything to eat for a long time. So Baba bought a lot of church candles and placed them upside down in front of God. After such damnation, no one could hope to reach Paradise. From that time on, Mother's health began to deteriorate. At nights, the goblin that lived in our chimney choked her more frequently. They said he never uttered a sound and looked like a black sheepskin coat turned inside out.

The truth of the matter was that I was the only holy person in our household. And my holy status had just ended. I should've never pulled up the carrots. Left alone, they'd still be growing. Now I was a sinner. What could I do?

Entering the room, I quietly sneaked up to the painting of the Last Judgement. Diligently, as if with new eyes, I stared at the infernal punishments depicted at the bottom. I was afraid to look at the top of the picture, as I no longer existed in the top row.

What punishment did my recently damned soul deserve? For a first sin, perhaps nothing too grim. Perhaps only the ankle-high flame in the left corner of the painting. Oh dear..!

I looked up at the full communion of Saints seated together for one last time. Overcome with sorrow, I recognized that I wasn't among them. Banished from their company, I was doomed to eternal hell. I couldn't bear it any longer. I leaned my head against hell just below Grandpa's purse and bitterly wept.

* * *

Alexander Dovzhenko was born into a peasant family in the Desna River area in Northeast Ukraine in 1894. Along with Sergei Eisenstein and Vasevolod Pudovkin, Dovzhenko is considered one of the Soviet Union's greatest early filmmakers; his silent film Earth (1930), a poetic tribute to Nature and Ukrainian village life, is still often regarded among the top ten best films of all time. In addition to his legacy as a silent film poet, he produced a brief autobiographical article of approximately twenty-one pages and two hundred and forty-five pages of notebooks that he kept from 1941 until his death. These record an intimate account of the Ukraine during the German invasion and occupation in the Second World War as well Dovzhenko's inner development as film artist. Much has been lost; little exists in English print today. Dovzhenko died in 1956 after suffering two decades of Stalinist oppression. He left behind several scripts, most of which had also been banned by Soviet censors. His wife and creative partner, Yulia Solntseva, produced some of these including a 1965 Mosfilm and Dovzhenko Film Studio production of The Enchanted Desna (Zachrovannaya Desna) based on his 1942-1948 autobiographical film-tale.

Dzvinia Orlowsky is the author of three full-length poetry collections published by Carnegie Mellon University Press: A Handful of Bees (1994); Edge of House (1999); and Except for One Obscene Brushstroke (2003). Her poetry translations of contemporary Ukrainian poetry have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies including Leviathan Quarterly, A Hundred Years of Youth: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Ukrainian Poetry (Lviv Press, 2000) and From Three Worlds: New Writing from the Ukraine (Zephyr Press, 1996). Translations of Dzvinia Orlowsky's poetry into Ukrainian by Natalka Bilotserkivets were published in Vsesvit-Reivew of World Literature 2003.