In praise of peace

A clear day
and no memories
I sip coffee at daybreak and
stare out at the ragged horizon
drawn by the ancient woodland

Overnight it rained gently
but enough to subdue
the giving earth—
summer is its busy season
so much bloom and blossom
so much fruit on the vine
so many nests to find
for new arrivals
from distant lands

I hear the constant coo
of pigeons and the thin
trill of the dawn chorus
as nature stakes its claim
to a life of peace

Wherever
there is war in this world
the birds will always
rise above it

John Lyons


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Schevchenko – Testament

Schevchenko statue

When I die, make me a grave
High on an ancient hill
In my beloved Ukraine,
Out on the endless steppe:
Where one may see vast fields of wheat,
The steep banks of Dnipro
And hear the wild river’s
Turbulent roar.

Not until Ukraine’s forces
Have swept the enemy’s blood
Into the deep blue sea
Will I depart from these hills
And wheatlands forever :
Leave all behind, and ascend
To the throne of God
Where I’ll make my prayer.
But until that time
I’ll know nothing of God.

Make my grave there—rise up,
Throw off your shackles,
Bless your freedom with the blood
Of the enemy’s evil veins !
Then in that great family,
A new and free family,
Never forget, with kindness,
Speak of me fondly.

Taras Schevchenko

(version by John Lyons)


Taras Schevchenko (1814-1861), is Ukraine’s national poet and the personification of the Ukrainians’ thirst for liberty and independence. The statue stands in Taras Schevchenko Park opposite the National University in Kyiv. 

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Schevchenko – Do not envy

Schevchenko - a peasant family
         The peasant family, Taras Schevchenko (1843)

Do not envy the rich man,
He knows nothing ever
Of friendship nor of love—
For those he must pay.
Do not envy the powerful,
They are obliged to bully ;
Do not envy the famous
For they know well enough
It’s not they who are loved
But their bitter fame

Which in order to please gushes
From the blood and tears of bitter pain.
And to the young they meet,
All is quiet and blissful
As in paradise—but see :
Something is really wrong.

Therefore, envy, no one ;
Look around—and you will never
Find paradise on this earth,
Nor, indeed, in heaven above.

Taras Schevchenko

(version by John Lyons)


Taras Schevchenko, (1814-1861) is Ukraine’s national poet and the personification of the Ukrainians’ thirst for liberty and independence. Schevchenko was born into serfdom, but in 1838, a group of artist friends purchased his freedom with the proceeds from a sale of their paintings. Schevchenko was an accomplished painter of landscapes and historical canvases

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Rosario Castellanos – The absent-minded

Some were unaware.
They believed that the earth was still habitable.
They didn’t look at the crack
that the earthquake opened up; they weren’t there when the cancer
appeared on the frightened face of a man.

They laughed the moment
an apple, instead of falling,
flew off and the universe was declared insane.

They didn’t witness the decapitation
of the innocent. They never distinguished
between an innocent and one who is not.

(On the other hand right from the start
they had approved the death penalty.)

They kept turning up to the places,
demanding a more comfortable chair, a tastier
menu, a more appropriate treatment.

My dear, if they wait on you ungratefully, punish them!

And on the walls there was a strange disorder
and on the tables there was no food but hate
and hate in the wine and hate in the tablecloth
and hatred even in the wood and in the nails.

The absent-minded whispered among themselves:
What’s going on? You have to complain!

Nobody was listening. Nobody could stop.

It was the time of emigrations.

Everything burned: cities, entire forests, clouds.

Rosario Castellanos (1925-1974)

(translation by John Lyons)


Poetry is universal. Rosario Castellanos wrote many poems about the dispossessed of Mexico. When we read her poetry we are all Mexicans, and in our minds and hearts in this tragic moment, we are also all Ukrainians, as Zelensky says : Shakespeare is Ukrainian, Dante is Ukrainian, Cervantes is Ukrainian. All cultures are one human culture and culture, by definition, resists and denounces all tyranny and inhumanity for all time.

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Vasyl Stus – The world was hiding

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stus

I knew: the world was hiding from me,
behind all things another thing hides
and snaps at my heels. All the while
it refuses to show me its true face,
because the trust and friendship between
man and the world have now been lost.
Not for no reason do the smallest birds
recoil from me, or fish scatter
the moment they recognise a human shape,
or with their fragile beauty do flowers wish
to save themselves from me (the final
shred of hope that human beings
are not entirely beyond redemption). After all,
I thought, the harmony of worlds
has not bypassed humanity, instead
a certain distance has been established:
you belong to the world only thus far.

Vasyl Stus

Version by John Lyons


Vasyl Stus (1938-1985), was a Ukrainian poet, translator, literary critic, journalist, and an active member of the Ukrainian dissident movement. For his political convictions, his works were banned by the Soviet regime and he spent 13 years in detention, until his death in a Soviet forced labor camp for political prisoners.

AROUND THE WORLD, EVERY CULTURAL VENUE AND SPACE CLOSING IT DOORS TO RUSSIAN PERFORMANCES SHOULD OFFER THEM TO UKRAINIAN CULTURE

The sea sorts shells. . .

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The sea sorts shells
        on the seashore
while white plumes
        form in the foam
and tonight
        a scattering of stars
will shine down on us
        and we will continue
on the tick tock of our sad
        misadventures

Nobody knows
        where the words
are heading
        but in these times
of war our hearts
        beat for peace
for human nature
        to regain
the upper hand
        for love to rule
in the house
        of verbs

John Lyons

In these times of war

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In these times of war
        how precious is silence
language is overrated
        words words words
when what we want
        is human warmth
a gentle touch
        a relaxed smile
for time to flow
        uninterrupted by
extraneous sound

In these times of war
        it’s love that will
pull us through
        and the courage
that love brings
        to our hearts and
to our resolve
        for birds to return
to the city centre
        for palpable peace
to reign

        in the silence

John Lyons

Spain – Take this chalice from me

If Spain falls

Children,
sons of warriors, just for now,
hush your voices, since Spain’s energy at this very moment
is being parcelled out among the animal kingdom,
tiny flowers, comets and humankind.
Hush your voices, for she is
close to death, which is very grave, not knowing
where to turn, and there in her hand
the skull spouting words words words
the skull, the braided skull,
the skull, the skull of life!

Hush your voices, I beg you;
Hush your voices, the syllables of song, the weeping
of matter and the slightest murmur from the pyramids, and even
from those temples that walk with two stones!
Hush your breath, and if
your forearm droops,
if the vicious rulers ring out, if it is night,
if the heavens are squeezed between two terrestrial limbos,
if there’s noise in the sound of doors,
if I delay,
if you see no one, if you are afraid
of blunt pencils, if mother
Spain falls — you know, I’m just saying —
go out, children of the earth, go out and find her!


Above is a fragment from a poem by the great, antifascist Peruvian poet, César Vallejo (1892-1938), written during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The parallels with the violent Russian assault on Ukraine, which jeopardises the security of the whole of Europe, are all too clear. Translation by John Lyons.