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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Patriarch of Ukrainian poets in Poland

Some touches to the portrait of Ostap Lapski
20 March, 2007 - 00:00
OSTAP LAPSKI / Photo by Volodymyr PANKIV

This year the poet Ostap Lapski was awarded the Shevchenko Prize for his collections of poems In Search of Myself and On Both Sides of the Truth. He was not destined to receive it personally from President Viktor Yushchenko at the National Opera of Ukraine. Lapski celebrated the occasion in Warsaw, where he has spent the greater part of his life. He observes the world’s changeable nature from a high-rise window on Dickens Street and describes things with his indefatigable pen despite his venerable age. In six months Lapski will mark his 81st birthday.

They call him the “patriarch of Ukrainian poets in Poland.” Ostap (Eustachy) Lapski’s literary biography began when Ukrainian culture came out of the underground, where it had been driven by Polish communists. This happened in the mid-1950s, when the new political winds in the “socialist camp” moderated the official attitude to Ukrainians, who had found themselves on the territory of Poland after World War Two, never having left their ancestral lands - the Podlachia, Kholm, Sian, and Lemko regions - during the “repatriation” to Soviet Ukraine in 1944-46. Deported to Poland’s northern and western territories in 1947, the “Curzon-line Ukrainians” were allowed to resume legal cultural and educational activities. A Ukrainian civic cultural society was organized, which began to publish the only Ukrainian weekly in Poland, Nashe slovo.

Lapski was invited to join the weekly’s editorial board as stylistic editor. Nashe slovo, its monthly supplement Nasha kultura (from May 1958), and the almanach Ukraiinskyi kalendar also became a tribune for the Ukrainian literary community in Poland, which included Lapski.

Professor Stepan Kozak, the current holder of the Chair of Ukrainian Literature at the University of Warsaw, who nominated the poet for the Shevchenko Prize, noted as long ago as 1965: “I think Ostap Lapski is the most original of poets. Lapski’s poetry clearly stands out against the overall backdrop of the literary conglomerate. Its authenticity and force lie in the philosophical and emotional weight as well as semantic wealth. This applies equally to his original works and translations.”

On closer examination one can see that Polisia in the 1920s-1940s, the land of Lapski’s childhood and teenage years, was the prime source of his inspiration and the object of lyrical description in all his works. “A living child of Polisian nature,” as the poet calls himself in a characteristic comment to a poem from the collection In Search of Myself.

Although Lapski was brought up in a traditional Ukrainian milieu, he has never lived within the borders of today’s Ukraine, for he was born and raised in a village between the two historical towns of Kobryn and Berestia (Brest). The Berestia area, Ostap’s homeland, once part of the Kyivan and later Galician-Volhynian principalities, was for centuries separated by political borders from Volyn and the Kyiv region.

The situation was the same at the turn of the 20th century. For this reason, the Ukrainian national spirit began to awaken only in 1917-19, when the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine set up its first cultural and educational organization in Bila-Pidliaska. Eventually, the Berestia and Kholm regions, as well as Podlachia, were annexed to the Ukrainian National Republic, and Berestia became the seat of a Ukrainian gubernatorial administration.

The seeds of Ukrainian national identity that were planted then did not perish even after Poland annexed the Berestia area. Lapski, who was born in 1926, had to attend a school where Polish was the language of instruction, and pupils were forbidden to speak Ukrainian even informally. At this very time he came across Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar, which helped shape his national awareness. As he wrote later in My Reader, “love for Ukraine ripened in us outside the official school, as if it were coming from the very air!”

In the fall of 1939, the “Soviet liberators” made the Berestia region, contrary to its ethnic composition, part of Soviet Belorussia. In July 1941 the poet’s family was supposed to be deported to Siberia, and only the outbreak of the Second World War saved them from privations and possible death. In June 1944, when the front line was approaching again, the Lapskis, together with many of their fellow countrymen, fled westward. But they never saw the faraway West and had to settle near Lodz, in central Poland.

When it was time to choose a profession, the young Ostap decided to be a linguist. He first completed Russian studies at Wroclaw, and in 1953 he began Ukrainian studies in Warsaw, where he started teaching Ukrainian language and literature in 1957. A crisis of communist power and the social ferment of the 1980s also had an impact on the poet’s destiny: he joined the Solidarity movement. When martial law was imposed, a military commission resolved to dismiss Lapski from Polish Radio, where he had worked since the mid-1960s, because of his political stand. However, since the “security risk” had health problems, “the Lapski case” was handed over to doctors, who sent Ostap on an “extended vacation.” He “vacationed” for nearly 10 years, battling with his bodily and spiritual maladies.

Nevertheless, this professional and creative hiatus (the poet published the lyrical poem “Windmill” only in 1983) was simply an interlude before the most fruitful period of Lapski’s literary career. The author links his renewed literary work with Ukrainian independence. He resumed his collaboration with Nashe slovo and other Ukrainian publications in Poland, and returned to Polish Radio, which was now broadcasting a program for Ukrainian listeners.

It was not until 2000 that Lapski’s first collection of poems entitled My Reader was published. This work is full of autobiographical comments and reminiscences, as well as reprints of articles about the national situation in his native Berestia region. Three years later two more of his books were published, which earned the poet the highest acclaim - the 2007 Shevchenko Prize.

This is only a fraction of the poet’s rich heritage. He has several more manuscripts in his drawer. Lapski first wants to publish the anthology Meeting Myself, which he prepared together with the Warsaw photographer Volodymyr Pankiv.

Conceived on Polish soil to the sounds of the Ukrainian mother tongue and the songs and words of our bard Taras, then educated in excellent literary schools, but constantly struggling with material and moral difficulties, in the past few years Lapski has created absolutely original works of particular mastery and force. This is the opinion of the Lviv-based poet and literary scholar Ivan Luchuk, who declared after reading the collection On Both Sides of the Truth that Lapski “does not resemble any other Ukrainian poet” and that “his poetical style and world, and manner of expression are unrivaled.” But Ostap Lapski continues to walk along “the road to the heights,” pouring, drop by drop, his “spirituality brewed on a hard day’s path” from his soul onto paper.

By Yurii HAVRYLIUK, special to The Day