[Essay] After “Life and Fate” — Margo Berdeshevsky

I’m rocking like a fear-slashed child in the dark. I’m not a child. I’m a grown woman of my time. Our time. Our days drenched in images of the lost and the wounded and the harmed. I’m not one of them. I might have been. I’m not. I’m safe across Europe, in a country that could, we have to know, be attacked, could, yes, be decimated by a dictator even now. A new Stalin. But I’m not there. I’m here. And that particular horror is not here, but its mourning refugees are. Not yet. Watch the flood of escaping bodies and torn victims and whisper to myself, that was my father’s homeland—once. Did he rock, but only inside himself, when he left it before the first canons of that land’s 1917 revolution sounded? These are days to hold oneself, in the dark. To be a writer with her own tongue slashed, never enough sounds for life or fate.  

Today I’m holding an old book written by a man whose mother was shot, buried in one of the mass pits in the same village where my father was born. Land of a thousand, thousand bodies left unburied—now—too dangerous to be gathered in dirt under missiles—mourned by soldiers who dare no love—.  

The old book I hold is Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. A book his country refused to publish for so many years. Why? Because in it he dared to compare Stalin with Hitler. “Vultures of a feather,” I whisper in the dark…

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

Grossman was first a journalist on the front lines of the Second World War, and then a novelist who people loved, at first. And then he wrote of a town called Berdichev. Yes, its name and mine bear an obvious root. A town where his mother was left in the pits of the dead. He wrote about the massacres and the war, that world war—and the Russia of his day imprisoned his book, but not him. He never lived to know that readers in the West would one day call his book a second War and Peace.   

A few weeks ago, in Moscow, a dissident silently held a copy of War and Peace. He was standing in front of a low wall that bore the word, “Ukraine” etched into its bricks. He was arrested. There is no further news of him now.    

My father had to know what he was leaving when he left another town, or the same town, filled with mass graves, filled with bones. Maybe he didn’t know enough, only to board a ship bound for a different history, the first canons of its 1917 revolution splitting birds like skulls. 

The monster who today’s monster struts to become and loves—not yet on his throne, but a glutton for empire, for every vein to force all blood to flow backward—this monster is pounding his fist to reign over the New Russia, the reborn, newborn—empire.  

My father’s blood had to know what evil was before he became a dictator in our home, pounding with his voice and his fist to warn that obedience was my duty. To shout cleanliness is next to godliness into the air of our twentieth-century New York life where I was growing up. A man who spoke Russian, but only once he ascertained that the person who wanted to speak to him in that language could speak it properly. Only now, now, I find the town where he was born, and see that on a map today—it is Ukraine. Not Russia. And the borders of then and now bleed, morph, whisper. And I rock inside, a child again. Daughter of a man born in Ukraine who always said he was Russian. Who sang Russian songs in the dark. But not to her. An angry immigrant who saw his past and his future, and had a growing daughter. 

Maybe he didn’t know enough, didn’t know the homeland he held in his fist would be filth in this morning’s war, a thousand more murdered by sons of grandfathers he left alive. When sun rose on a revolution, and he went west.  

Years later, when I journeyed to Moscow to see footprints, he was long dead and history was promising freedom, a summer after Chernobyl’s safety had failed—and I was promising peace to new girls—sister-souls—reaching hands. Peace warriors, we thought ourselves. We danced under snow between birches and my own soul thought she remembered women who’d hidden icons in their cotton underwear, sang alleluias in white silences. I thought then that my blood bore some memory that had kindness in it. Maybe it did.  

By then I was a writer and invited by the former Soviet Writers’ Union to translate poems and to see and to hold. 

When I rode with a woman from that land—to hear Russian boots from tombs to a black-eyed sea—she wanted me to hold how her land and its women had held on. She watched me eying teen-boy soldiers in the aisles of our tram, too young for their weapons even then. She wanted me to hold what a new day promised—and my skin was trying to shield my body’s stranger who did not know any war. The woman pulled a blood-stone ring from her finger and slid it into my hand—never forget us, daroyaga—some of us are good. 

Today, the once-tamed beast that birthed my father is now a butcher again. I dig like a rat in its nest of glitter to hold that ring and slide it on—she had to know how I would need to remember a blood-stone colored good in an evil dawn, alleluias buried in a vernal snow, Life and Fate, fallen open from my hand.                                                             

note: “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”  — Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate

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MARGO BERDESHEVSKY, born in New York city, often lives and writes in Paris. Her latest collection, Before The Drought, is from Glass Lyre Press, (a finalist for the National Poetry Series.) It Is Still Beautiful To Hear The Heart Beat is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Kneel Said the Night (a hybrid book in half-notes) is forthcoming from Sundress Publications. Berdeshevsky is author as well of Between Soul & Stone, and But a Passage in Wilderness (Sheep Meadow Press). Her book of illustrated stories, Beautiful Soon Enough, received the first Ronald Sukenick Innovative Fiction Award for Fiction Collective Two (University of Alabama Press.) Other honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her works appear in Poetry International, New Letters, The Night Heron Barks, Kenyon Review, Plume, Scoundrel Time, The Collagist, Tupelo Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Southern Humanities Review, Harbor Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, The American Journal of Poetry, Jacar—One, Mānoa, Pirene’s Fountain, Big Other, Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, among many others. In Europe and the UK her works have been seen in The Poetry Review, PN Review, The Wolf, Europe, Siècle 21, Confluences Poétiques, Recours au Poème, Levure Littéraire, Under the Radar. She may be found reading from her books in London, Paris, New York City, Los Angeles, Honolulu, at literary festivals, and/or somewhere new in the world. Her “Letters from Paris” have appeared for many years in Poetry International online. Here is one: https://www.poetryinternationalonline.com/letter-from-paris-in-march-2019-from-margo-berdeshevsky/

For more information, kindly see here : http://margoberdeshevsky.com