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 (1920–2004) was a Ukrainian writer, Soviet dissident, World War II veteran, human rights activist, and philosopher. He served as secretary of the Ukrainian Writers Union and worked in the tradition of “poetry in opposition” begun by Skovoroda in the eighteenth century. In addition to seven volumes of verse, Rudenko published novels and several popular books on science and economics. His “Metaphysical Poems” includes a mathematical explanation of black holes.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, AGNI, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College and Arrowsmith Press in 2006. (updated 10/2022)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.