Natalka Bilocerkivec: Escaping the Past

Olena Jennings, University of Alberta

Natalka Bilocerkivec, a prominent Ukrainian poet, writes in her collection of literary criticism, In the Context of the Epoch (1990), that there is no clear boundary between the past and the present: the distant draws close and what is close becomes distant. In her 1999 collection of poetry, Alerhija, the boundary between the past and the present is also blurred. According to Vessela Balinska-Ourdeva, this type of treatment of the past proposes a solution to the problem of "the Ukrainian nation's formation in postcolonial conditions" (see "Reading as a Rite of Passage: Andruxovych's Rekreatsii," Canadian Slavonic Papers, 1989.) Balinska–Ourdeva uses the particular example of folklore claiming that "the centuries-old oral tradition of Ukrainian folklore is questioned and ambivalently rediscovered as part of the modern Ukrainian self."

In my paper I will examine the way Bilocerkivec' needs the past in order to escape from it. While folkloric images are part of her past, we also find her country's history and her personal past. Alerhija, her collection of poems, begins with the image of a train that leaves at midnight of the New Year, which alludes to both escaping and new beginning. Throughout the collection however, we are confronted with what was. In "Vyshyvka," Bilocerkivec' speaks of hating the pattern of black and red embroidery because it binds her. In the poem that begins with the line "Allergy begins again..." her lyrical voice at times wishes to vomit at gilded "sharavary," the stereotypical image of Ukrainian culture that the modernists rejected so vehemently. In a poem about the impossibility of love in Kyiv, she speaks about flying from the balcony, a haunting image of escape, and at the same time mentions the image of witches who come out of Bald mountain.

I will look at these poems from a postcolonial perspective exploring how Bilocerkivec' strives to form her own identity in a newly independent Ukraine. Though postcolonial theory isn't usually applied to Slavic literature, according to Roumiana Deltcheva, "the sociopolitical dynamics in the region's "modern history" allow us to view it as a "contemporary post-coloniality" (see "East Central Europe as a Post-Coloniality: The Prose of Viktor Paskov," in Colonizer and Colonized, ed. Theo D'Haen and Patricia Krus, 1997.) I will look specifically at the theory of Homi K. Bhabha and texts on historical memory, including the writings of Adrienne Rich.