What does it take to break out of the story,
To free oneself of its confines,
Not to be its victim?
What is needed to overturn its humiliations,
Those blockages to the heart?
How do you steel yourself to the tyrant,
A vulture to grievances,
Hungering to starve you of freedom from anger's shackles?
How can you face your nearest,
Those mired in the myth, and say to them, "Enough?"
For as long as you remember your own hurt through the autocrat's filter
You walk the earth tatooed with dead children,
Living as a prisoner to be fattened with lies and devoured.
Putin has called his war "a special military operation to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine." While this description may seem absurd to most of us, it taps into grievances still felt in Russian families, perpetuating a viscious circle of never-ending self-victimization. Putin needs this sense of indignation to run strong in order to maintain public support as his war brings hardship upon his own people. For years there has been a neo-Nazi battalion in the Ukrainian army (see the Azov fighters), but, unpalatable as their views are, the reality is that they are a small group, many of them have Russian as their first language, and their ideology is more similar to Putin's ultra-nationalism than any brand of nationalism to be found in Ukraine. The idea that Kyivs "fascist junta" wants to cleanse East Ukraine of Russian speakers is exaggerated.
Victory over Nazi Germany in 1945 represented both a high point in a humiliating Russian century and a low point: During WWII Russians lost more of their countrymen than any other Soviet Republic, and the Soviet Union more citizens than any other country. There are many Russian families with a story from the Great Patriotic War, as WWII is known in Russia - Putin has shared his version of the fate of his own family's suffering in public repeatedly. The rapid onset of the Cold War meant that this loss of life went relatively unacknowledged by the rest of the world, a humiliation that was compounded both by the miserable conditions of the Soviet Union as well as ironically its collapse in 1991. For a few years, world leaders attended Victory Day on the 9th of May, Russia's biggest annual celebration, until Putin's invasion of Crimea in March 2014 made attendance unpopular.
Putin has long worked hard to erase the Soviet Union's duplicitous role in WWII in which it forged an agreement with Hitler to divide up Eastern Europe until the Reich turned on it with Operation Barbarossa in 1941. It is no coincidence that even discussing this period in Russia today is regarded as a criminal offense. Between Putin's tampering with history through his memory laws and the earlier relentless Soviet propaganda machine, Russians have had limited opportunity to come to terms with their nation's role in this traumatic event.
This type of grievance is notoriously difficult to shed, even in societies that are free. For example, while some German families continue to cultivate a sense of victimization for their unrecognized, unmourned suffering and war losses (I come from one of them), their standard of living improved rapidly and to such an extent as a result of the Marshall Plan and West Germany's integration by the liberal democracies that this sense of grievance didn't have the chance to affect political stability. Importantly, citizens have the option of access to facts if they so choose. It is no coincidence that in the 2000's the far right in Germany flared up in the eastern part where, under the East German totalitarian regime, myths about the "fascist" west blanketed any serious confrontation with history. The same has been true in other parts of the former eastern bloc, including in Poland where it is illegal to claim that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust - the myth that they were solely victims must be upheld in order for governing politicians to play on the public's sense of grievance. Ukraine's very own Azov fighters might be seen as a symptom of the same problem.
Efforts by descendants to face their families' and communities' pasts with honesty must continue for these old bombs to be diffused. Even without Putin, the same will be necessary for the emergence of a peaceful Russia.
It was the only thing he left to me
Father, O, of mine,
That book of our small blunders
All marked with those red lines.
“We could have had that living space
If only we’d manoeuvred high,
If the people hadn’t betrayed us,
Understood that might was right.
Black soil melts through my fingers,
Butter we deserved to till,
To know one’s dreams but never taste them
Is an injustice to the will.”
“Ola!” squawks the parrot,
A reminder a thousand times,
The black soil, it eluded us,
Spat us out to distant climes.
Concerning a book that my grandfather - a Nazi and SS man with ambitions in Ukraine whose life ended in hiding in Latin America - left to his son about the reasons their efforts to overtake the region failed.
Look the tyrant in the eye
And you will see a fatherless boy,
Or one whose father, called away,
Left the gaps that filled with hate.
Don't be tempted by your fear,
See the boy's loaded tear,
Falling, without a father's notice,
Into the mud of gangs and mobsters.
Pierce forthright into his soul,
Inject the vial, with even flow
Refill the gaps with all you know,
Love that boy, never let go.
Written for my friend and mentor, Emerich Roth. A Holocaust survivor who devoted his life to overcoming hatred with love, especially among boys deserted by their fathers.
Gnarled by discernment,
Petite as out of a doll's house,
or another dimension where the unicorns roam,
Sort the fast slow food she would rather dignify with a fork,
At a PEN meeting, of all places, where there should be porcelain
- it's cultured, for goodness sakes -
But there is only this plastic box that rattles and shifts like an inmate's tin cup.
She is the only one
A bite cannot be wasted
- once there were just five lumps of sugar left in her whole world.
What would happen when those were gone?
Maybe the unicorns would come,
although, in as much as she held fast to them, she knew one could not think that way.
Her whole town had - now she was one of the few left.
Authors in the room
Anoint one another,
Assuming importance by meeting other significant authors,
the importance of which is so oppressive -
heating and swelling the temples - that one looks for a way out,
Any way out at all.
She, so near her food,
Remains cool and silken
- it's just another association meeting,
Faithfully to be attended.
Those slim fingers,
Of vein-marbled hands,
Are topped by brittle ribbed nails,
Filed to a point like thinly painted fish teeth.
"May I sit here?" I ask.
She looks up,
Across the table
- eating is not a game.
I cannot hear her reply under the drone of transactions overhead,
Only see her by herself,
quintessentially alone, from beginning to end,
The mirror of everyone else - the reason no one talks to her.
I fill her long, ancient ears
With my sad tale,
And she says,
Deflated, I recount.
"You musn't concern yourself about such things,"
In my notebook,
are scribbled in retired teacher's hand
Under my to-do list that never got done,
All seemed once so urgent
- no more, now that I know,
She took Alice in Wonderland with her on the train to Auschwitz.
Part I of a series dedicated to my friend, Adéle Schreiber, who died of complications due to COVID just shy of 100.
Each band is a tone
from the string of a violin
Playing shades of a year, a decade, a life,
in a split second of crisp winter.
Purity is in the mix,
in the crossing to another hue,
In the warm lining between colour and ice.
Don't you see?
The yearning skyward is the way back to my heart,
The long journey of learning to love.
Anything born in darkness grows toward the light,
like all that is pale and bloodless flows into a rainbow,
A river of stillness,
the seed of a new song, a year as yet unplayed.
Wishing you and yours a rainbow in winter.
Like the first glistening snowfall
Over you, over me,
Nothing was cast, but grew from timeless olive eyes.
Quiet as the focused night
Holding me in its cupped hands,
Listening close for the sea inside the shell.
A thousand stars are raining,
Feeding our skin of trust,
Already wetted by the dew of grateful tears.
On meeting a doctor who listened.
A pin-prick window into universes strung together
By the child's searching eyes through the looking glass,
Alice, what do you see in the swaying?
A pearl rolls shyly in her palm,
Where should it go in this reckless world of gold
To avoid the jaws of jewellry?
In the shallow water hours pass,
Small things flicker and swish
A toy ocean of holed white calcium tumbling.
She knows herself in the tide,
The memories threaded close around her neck
Waiting for a new wave to sift out the sand.
A childhood memory of diving for Puka shells on Maui.
It was their cries that could teach you,
A pure piece of heart sung from the mouth, needing you to swallow and take it to your own
If you dare, you might fear your fear of crying too,
An aria of your sliced red muscle that maybe no one would catch.
It was their freakish smiles that could reach you
Amid the rude schedule and the unkind commute, time bangs his tyrannical scepter,
The toothless gap ignores, widening and narrowing as it mimics your uncertainty,
The eyes so sure you will show it how, they don't blink,
Only the gums shine worry.
It was their sticky hands pasted on the nape of your neck, never letting you go,
So strong, they tugged you across an ocean beyond time,
To the warm cave they never forgot and clung to through the storm of becoming,
Holding you so you will know how to hold
An unbreakable connection.
On the completion of a manuscript about mothers and children.
A glove rests on a traffic light,
A child fallen asleep mid-play
Someone picked up off the ground and tucked in lovingly on a perch.
Above the mud and the melting sleet it dreams of the hand at home,
Of dry warmth and sticky sweets.
A mask hangs limp near the front door,
Exhausted by the burned landscape,
Smoke rising in thin dancers tempting rain.
In the flood, a sea horse drags the mask, parakiting in reverse,
The burden it must bear for my breath.
The sewing lady came to stitch them onto me,
My uniform of glove and mask,
Steeling me in the confusion of traffic
When the red light begins to flash.
On finding a child's glove at the traffic light.
Behind the cement wall, an engine rises in my belly,
Unseen but for the shark's tail
I, with the mind-less courage of a warrior
Run lithe, muscles gleaming steely bronze in the blistering sun
A swan yearns its neck skyward, the paradox of everything
Belief suspended before I see the nose
Breaking into "I don't know"
Shout after a bird in the distance,
"Tears for your freedom!"
Fallen on trails through heaven left by a smirking cigar,
"Nothing is for free."
On watching an airplane take off after a long period of not flying during the pandemic.