Remembering a Handsomely, Admirably Constructed Life

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A bear broke into the hive last night and laid waste the bees' civilization. When we walked out in the rain to the beeyard, in a clearing in the pines just beyond the orchard, we found a little apocalypse: thousands of bees milling and fussing among the ruins of their elaborate work — white supers strewn here and there, frames with vandalized honeycomb scattered up the path the bear had taken when he lumbered carelessly away.

I had been thinking about Danylo Struk. It would have been Danylo's 60th birthday earlier this month. But one night last August in Munich, he complained to his wife, Oksana, that he felt wrong — something in the chest. They got to a hospital. He died there of a massive heart attack. His stepson Andrij called me later. I talked to Oksana when she got to Paris. His death seemed somehow more wanton, more unjust, than most.

Danylo Struk, who was my roommate many years ago when we were undergraduates at Harvard (Class of 1963), and who became a lifelong friend ("lifelong," alas, is the precise word here), amounted in himself to a one-man civilization — poet, scholar, Ukrainian patriot-in-exile, teacher, translator, editor, literary critic, art collector and chairman of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto.

I have been thinking about Dan for weeks, not just because of his birthday but because — this sounds odd, I suppose — someone designates April as National Poetry Month, and shows on National Public Radio and public television have been broadcasting a lot of poetry, and bookstores like Barnes & Noble have prominent displays of poetry on their racks.

Danylo had a virtually physical passion for poetry. He reacted to poetry he loved in the way a lightbulb reacts when connected to electricity. He would repeat favorite lines in that Slavic, declamatory way that makes of words a magically transporting physical experience, an illumination and a kind of intellectual drunkenness. In later life, Dan acquired a solidity of middle age, a gravitas, with even an air of the august. But I think of Dan the way he was when I first knew him at Harvard — thin, handsome, dashing in a Slavic style, with high cheekbones and curly brown hair brushed back from his high forehead, and a moustache, and the air of a 19th-century cavalry officer, a Cossack, or, possibly, the leader of a New York City street gang. He had in him the lightest touch of the thug (he had learned to handle himself as a greenhorn kid in New Jersey, fresh off the boat.) He walked with a distinctive gait, something between a strut and a shamble, broken by sudden, jittering bursts (his soccer moves). But he had an unusually focused energy. The most distinctive thing about Dan in those days was his sense of his own destiny. A sense of historical purpose is not something you encounter in American undergraduates.

Danylo had been born in Ukraine. His father, the director of the Medical Institute in Lviv, was murdered in 1941 by the Soviet NKVD because he freed some students who had been arrested. Causa pietatis, Dan (who made it to the U.S. with his mother in 1949) became an intellectual leader of the Ukrainian diaspora, working to keep alive in exile the culture that the Soviets were doing their best to destroy at home. Danylo presided (as managing editor and later as editor in chief) over a massive five-volume Encyclopaedia of Ukraine, which he assembled, with loving, exhausting labor, between 1982 and 1993. He became a translator and champion of Ukrainian writing. He enlisted me sometimes in college to help him polish English versions of such beloved writers as Vasyl Stefanyk. He had taught me about the great Ukrainian national poet, Taras Shevchenko. (He also taught me some overly colorful Ukrainian phrases that I was stupid enough to repeat in mixed Ukrainian company, to his embarrassment and mine).

Danylo went at his life with both hands, simultaneously industrious and romantic, flashingly intelligent and, always, very much alive. It seems a shock (and a hateful wrong) that such a life, so elaborately and handsomely and admirably constructed, should be smashed in a moment by the oblivious, passing bear.

But Danylo Struk's work remains. And those who loved him think of him, recomposing him in our memories.