Review of “Pray to the Empty Wells” by Iryna Shuvalova: A Reflection on Hope’s Final Refuge.
This column rarely features translated poetry, mainly due to the difficulty of understanding it without knowledge of the original language. However, Iryna Shuvalova’s collection, now translated into English for the first time, is a remarkable exception. Despite being written before the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, these poems offer a unique perspective on the current state of Ukraine. Born in Kyiv and a skilled linguist herself (having translated Ted Hughes into Ukrainian), Shuvalova collaborated with American poet Olena Jennings on this translation. She also holds a PhD from Cambridge, focusing on communities impacted by the war in eastern Ukraine.
pray to the empty wells is a heart-stirring, gallant and prescient collection that reminds you of the otherness of poetry, its territorial freedoms and viewless wings (what cannot be seen – only imagined – is critical). It is dominated by the spirit to survive, to embrace nature and to pray. The tremendous Ukrainian-Jewish-American poet Ilya Kaminsky hails Shuvalova as someone who “builds a country of dreams in order to survive in one of real drama”. He sees young, optimistic Ukrainian poets as among the most energetic working in Europe.
Shuvalova qualifies as an optimist although in “conversations about war but not only”, she considers the dirty work of euphemism, arguing that the politest words to describe war are the most frightening and ends in outrage at the enemy, euphemism pushed aside:
how dare they be so human and
Similar to us, as well.
how dare they be like us
how dare they
The content has a scattered and fragmented nature. In the titular poem, the author transitions from apple orchards to ash berries to her ancestors’ furs, yearning for the past to shield her from the present. The imagery holds a fleeting sense of bravery. This poem prompts one to contemplate: how does one find direction within a prayer? It is written without commas, with urgency and a desperate plea for hope. At times, fairytales offer salvation and banish nightmares. In other moments, a prayer transforms into a blessing.
Everything that has been, everything that will be, and everything that brings peace to the heart.
It belongs to you.
She creates landscapes that are twisted, sparse, and turbulent, straying from the typical pastoral scenes. Her nocturnes feature hidden creatures and eyes that are described as “dark as blackthorn,” a recurring image in her work. Themes of deep water, ancient stone, and wild winds are also present. Jennings clarifies that she has aimed to preserve the rhythm of repetition within her free verse.
There is a harshly critical, unnamed prose poem that delves into the UK’s deceptive politeness and underlying ruthlessness. It presents a scenario where the speaker offers hospitality, but also makes it clear that if the listener does not comply with certain rules, they will be forcibly removed.
The collision of nature and domestic spaces is depicted. Shuvalova compares the moon to a fragile clay dish and expresses that her heart is also made of clay. In her piece “orchard”, she portrays memory as a linen bolt. Despite interruptions and disruptions, there is a sense of continuity in this collection – the continuity of being alive. The crumpled sheets she mentions, the laundry that refuses to dry in the English rain, and the lover who cannot see with complete clarity – all of this unfolds as a single night, a never-ending poem.
An extract from pray to the empty wells
pray to the empty wells to the breakwaters to the apple orchards
Combine sour ash fruits.
sweet ash berries
Wear the lavish fur of your predecessors on your shoulders.
Pretending to be grass, crying is akin to being both an entrance and an exit, resembling the fluidity of water.
Not paying attention or retaining information.
The moon emerges like a round dish made of clay.
A massive sea creature known as a leviathan emerges from the depths of the ocean.
Please display the contents of your storage.
pray to the great light
The book “pray to the empty wells” by Iryna Shuvalova (translated by Olena Jennings) has been released by Lost Horse Press.