Poem of the Week – 16/4/2018

Babi Yar Revisited

We visited cemeteries, war memorials,
clubs and committees of old men,
sometimes a school full of young pioneers
or a cucumber-growing collective,
but always more cemeteries, more
rows and rows of Russian dead;
we visited the millions who starved
on the streets of Leningrad, dying
of fierce cold and no food at all,
now a vast field of white crosses
poppied with pioneer scarves.
We were told of a suffering people
a noble and tragic people,
the very lifeblood of Russia,
congealing, freezing, for her sake.

The monuments were huge, on a scale
I’d never met before; great grey granite
slabs of propagandist art. What ant
am I to find them ugly as war?
Conscripts eternally saluted flags,
dead marched along interminable walkways,
kept immortal flames alight,
to honour all the mortal dead.
We waited in long queues of buses
for our turn to show respect.
Mostly we were accompanied
by solemn old be-medalled men,
keepers of our dignity, lest we forget
dulce et decorum …

We were ourselves a group
of war heroes, Canadian Veterans,
amongst our ranks a first woman pilot,
a liberator of Murmansk, and
some who were not even foot soldiers,
mere hangers-on, like me,
come with my father, not Canadian then,
and not a fighter either,
though a veteran (with medal to prove it),
a corporal who spent his war in Derby,
ordering supplies,
chosen with usual army logic
for his ability to play the piano.

We were tired, Dad and I.
He’d been sick on the bus, sick
every morning, not able to walk much,
no wheelchair help to hand,
no help of any kind from the guides
for the sick and the infirm,
who should have been decently left at home,
whether War Heroes or not.
On our way from the War Museum
(today’s is in the Hero-city Kiev),
to yet another awful meal
in yet another miserable hotel,
we pass a large green space,
a gently undulating, flat expanse,
on which a solitary babushka
pushes a pram.

I feel it in my bones; I ask the guide
Is this Babi Yar?
Yes, she says brusquely, yes, it is.
But how can this be?
This old woman walks her grandchild
over a site of massacre,
a ravine once filled with corpses,
thousands and thousands of corpses.
“Please would you stop the bus?”
I ask. “What for?”
“I would like to pay my respects.”
“No time”, says the guide,
with usual Russian rage,
“Not on Itinerary”.
“What’s Babi Yar?” says someone on the bus.
No-one seems to know but Dad and I;
and the Russian guide isn’t telling.

Here is no monument.
No crosses mark these graves,
No-one mourns or celebrates
these noble and tragic people,
these sufferers, these Russians,
these Jews.
We have to get to the hotel,
so that we can get our dinner
(with cucumbers)
and be got to the circus by six.
Performing dogs and dancing bears,
the boast of the billboards,
are not in our philosophy –
we are tired, Dad and I,
we want neither cucumbers nor circuses.

It’s a while ago now,
that shocking time of Glasnost,
Perestroika … and Chernobyl.
I haven’t been back,
not even since the wall came down.
I don’t know Yevtushenko’s Russians,
or my father’s, I never met them;
though those I met were indeed suffering,
their spirits starving, angry, bitter.
No propagandist art can
sanctify the sacrifice of all those hearts
to war and government.
These deaths – of body, soul, spirit –
change nothing, mean nothing.
It was, and is, and always will be
an unredeemable, undignifiable waste
‘pro patria mori’.