Transcarpathia (Nathanael O’Reilly)

Verity La Heightened Talk

We spent a summer late
last century in the former
USSR at the confluence
of the Tiza and Rika rivers
living in a Transcarpathian
valley with the mafia
the unemployed and the future
our students guided us
around town, to the castle
ruins, Gorodskoy park
the outdoor markets
and the plains of blood
accompanied us to neighbouring
villages, towns and cities
Rokosovo, Velyatyn, and Uzhgorod
we shot vodka with our principal
students’ parents, government officials
and gangsters, afraid to offend
our students competed for turns
to sweep the classroom floor
clean the blackboard, read aloud
take us swimming after classes
have coffee with us in cafes
serve us dinner in their homes
we arrived by train at the Hungarian-
Ukrainian border in the darkness
met our driver on the platform
loaded our luggage into his ancient
van and took our seats beside
curtain-covered windows
for the drive from Chop to Khust
through the unknown over potholes
to a pumping techno soundtrack
disoriented and alien, we arrived
in town near midnight, met hosts
who insisted on measuring us
before unloading, eating and drinking
declared our unusual Western height
qualified us for double rations
reading a novel in Gorodskoy
park I was approached
by local gangsters who took
up positions in front and behind
pistols tucked conspicuously
into tracksuit pants waistbands
demanded to know my business
and nationality before deciding
I was harmless, the leader
making homophobic jokes
in English about his comrade
my faggot buddy doesn’t understand
before inviting me to their bar
where we played pool in the basement
drank pivo with the local boss
local gang members climbed
our dark stairwell, pounded
on our steel door, demanded
in urgent fragmented English
that we come outside
hand over our passports
inside we stood silently
still against cracked walls
waiting for danger to fade
every weekday morning we walked
to school, past government offices
empty storefronts, crumbling
Soviet-built apartment blocks
past Romanian gypsies siting
in the dirt begging for kopeks
across the Mlynovytsya river
past groups of kids yelling
Hey, fuck you buddy! 
Hey, suck my dick, buddy!
mimicking Hollywood
bad-guy rhetoric
collecting our students
in ones and twos as we walked
we arrived at school in a gang
on scorching hot afternoons
our students took us to the Tisa
served us packed picnic lunches
cooked pig fat on sticks over fires
lit in the sand, ganged up
and threw us in the river
jumped with us off the abandoned
railway bridge into dangerous water
vying for our admiration
the teenage girls wore tiny bikinis
the teenage boys wore speedos
called us gypsies for wearing shorts
exhausted after swimming
we sat cross-legged on the sand
in a circle while Sasha played
Nirvana covers on his battered
acoustic guitar and the girls
sang mournful folk songs
on the road to Lviv
miles from the nearest village
we passed a Babushka
head covered in traditional
fashion, sitting on the ground
beside an upturned bucket
a lone cabbage perched atop
patiently waiting in the heat
to make the day’s final sale
we walked unpaved dusty streets
occasionally passed by a vehicle
a local riding in an engineless
Lada or Volga towed by a donkey
or a tracksuit-clad mafia man
driving a late-model BMW
the majority of the town’s men
unemployed filled their days
drinking vodka outside cafes
until they passed out with heads
and arms on tables or fell sideways
from plastic chairs onto concrete
the town’s women went to market
haggled over the price of bread
cabbage and potatoes, desperate
to save precious gryvnya
and kopeks, unable to afford
luxuries like meat or fruit
late at night we wandered home
from cafes and friends’ apartments
down narrow brick-paved streets
past abandoned Soviet army trucks
across the Khustet’s river
through the square where Father
Lenin’s statue stood, past the war
memorial, onion-domed
icon-filled Orthodox churches
concrete-block houses under construction
grassless front yards full of precious
cabbages, potatoes and onions
students’ parents took us in
to their homes, told us tales
of their lives under Soviet rule
showed us family albums of holidays
to Odessa and Chornomosk
kids frolicking on Black Sea sand
taught us their post-independence
mantra: under communism, we had jobs,
we had money, but there was nothing
to buy – now we have no jobs
we have no money
and there’s still nothing to buy!
on the train to Solotvyno we followed
the Ukrainian-Romanian border
southeast, barbed wire always
within view outside the right-hand
train windows, soldiers gripping machine
guns in guard towers watching over
the border, ready to kill if necessary
identically-dressed peasants working
the fields either side of the border
at Solotvyno we walked from the station
through unpaved village streets
browsed stores selling icons
purchased wooden jewellery, crosses
necklaces, bracelets and blouses
before arriving at the salt lakes
we floated on our backs in dark water
slathered each other in black mud
erased each other’s identities
on Voloshyna, Lvivska and Ivana Franka
students, friends and acquaintances
crossed the street to shake hands
men and boys kissed us
on the cheeks declaring affection
signalling their importance
as buddies of the Australianski
and Canadianski, local television
reporters stopped us on Karpatskoyi
to conduct interviews
Who are you? Why are you here?
Do you like our country?
on my twenty-fourth birthday
my students decorated
our classroom with banners
before my arrival, sang
Happy Birthday in English,
presented me with a gift
they purchased collectively:
a plastic mantel-piece-sized
Swiss clock replica
upon my departure
the clock was confiscated
at the Hungarian border
along with landscape paintings
gifts from students and parents
all declared National Treasures
by Ukrainian customs officials
too precious for export, worth
a few gryvnya on the black market
on the road to Lviv we passed
an abandoned nuclear power plant
ten times the size of any American mall
a VISA billboard between the road
and a wheat field proclaimed
defying reality and our experience
an advance party advocate for capitalism
convenience and Westernization

Nathanael O’Reilly was born and raised in Australia. He has travelled on five continents and spent extended periods in England, Ireland, Germany, Ukraine and the United States, where he currently resides. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in nine countries, including Antipodes, Australian Love Poems, Cordite, FourW, LiNQ, Mascara, Postcolonial Text, Prosopisia, Red River Review, Snorkel, Social Alternatives, Tincture, Transnational Literature and Verity La. O’Reilly is the recipient of an Emerging Writers Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. He is the author of Preparations for Departure (UWAP Poetry, 2017), Distance (Picaro Press, 2014; Ginninderra Press, 2015) and the chapbooks Cult (Ginninderra Press, 2016), Suburban Exile (Picaro Press, 2011) and Symptoms of Homesickness (Picaro Press, 2010).

‘Transcarpathia’ appears in Nathanael’s new book, Preparations for Departure, which has just been released by UWA Publishing. The book will be launched on May 23rd in Wagga by Lachlan Brown. Nat will also be reading in Griffith on May 25th and running the Booranga Workshop on May 20th as part of his duties as Writer-in-Residence at Booranga Writers’ Centre, where he’ll be in residence for the second half of May.