from Babyn Yar

by Marianna Kiyanovska

I hold a bullet under my tongue it tastes of plumbum
transporting me to the verge of a change as the sky gets closer
my heart feels as small as a throbbing vein beating slowly
don’t be afraid, I beg it, don’t cry you must breathe and speak
schneller schneller they shout but it’s hard to walk when
you know this is the end your whole body stinks of death
the wounds that no longer bother to heal; what a miracle
I still manage to put one foot in front of the other
passing the shoeless corpses, shoes taken off by the shooters
I’ve gotten so used to them I no longer avert my eyes
sometimes I even want to take a closer look to find out
why that woman for instance was shot in the back
though she so wanted to love and she so loved singing

I enter a burning cloud a wheezing fire
Here’s another body – now a child’s
I have to lower my eyes so small all alone
I’d pick it up but every minute feels like
a bullet under my tongue a tiny nail
driven into the heart I follow in the footsteps

of Ezekiel Aaron Hur Adam Micah Yehuda Sarah
they’re right here before me we enter a cloud of smoke


I would lie in the street collapsing right here or around the corner
but the guards don’t tolerate any disorder
my shoulder bag doesn’t hold much for the road
the way people gear up for the road as of late
just a set of keys and some letters and photographs
a brooch and some cash hardly worth mentioning a few banknotes
we stomp across the summer dust so heavily as if it were snow
avoiding the whirlpools of bodies traces of waste

they burst into the house told us to get our things
I took a blanket some bread a bottle of water
the SS officer frowned at the shabbiness of the place
which caved in under his gaze, I too now collapse
as I depart never to return I comprehend I see
through the offering of this dense light: we’re doomed

I would die right here in the street and that’s why I don’t weep
I set my bag on the side of the road I carry only a name
I am Rachel


in order to bear witness I need not survive –
I only need to persist for the sake of the voice
to survive in this war cursed by all that’s divine
would be a betrayal a mortal offense

I lie under the weight of the hardened sky
bodies still warm or at least so they seem
I have a bullet lodged in my chest do not
disturb my circles, clot nicely, I plead

the sky’s within reach so close to the heart
in order to bear witness I must persist get out
they shoot in short bursts to build up suspense
to terrorize the survivors; it’s fear that terrifies

I’ve now feared twice: first when Alec was shot
but all I could feel was weariness thirst no despair
and then mama told me that our David got burned
alive in the front of their house in Irpin near Kyiv

the lot fell to me – to persist for the sake of those
all around to the left to the right everywhere
I heard someone’s breathing a moment ago now it stopped
I need to persist to witness to speak please forgive me


my bedridden mother said never mind me
pack up and go, Yosha, save yourself
couldn’t leave without her this isn’t the end, not yet
I thought sensing a great sorrow rolling over me

when she died I packed up her things
didn’t sell them didn’t exchange them for food
even as I got desperate yesterday, just now
barely managed to escape yet another raid

I saw the major the other day at the parade
and today again pointing a gun
never mind the wound I can deal with it
I’m used to surviving on shoe leather scraps

we’re all in the same boat, all the redheads and blonds
all of us hungry for hope in this Kyiv of ours
the SS guard leads the four of us but his eyes are for
pretty Rosa alone as he’s humming a song

couldn’t it be that we’re already dead I think
as I follow along down the street but because
I can think – ergo sum not yet dead
here’s the ravine where it comes to an end

all I want is to love


I don’t know if it’s proper to cry in this state
I enter the metamorphosis like a blade enters grain
the smell of sweat and urine human scent comes off me
like dried blood off the wound someone sings in a tree

could be a bird but I know it’s not
all the songbirds are gone at this time of year
they’re leading us by the city wall it dawns on me
we’re all going to get killed in the nearby ravine

the gestapo officer’s smile young and sincere
I examine his blinding grin carnivore’s bared teeth
perfect facial features his temples his cheekbones
I had barely noticed such things in the past but now

I perceive everything for instance this butterfly
on the city wall, bearing witness to me
soon it will die the air sparkles the leaves
are blown by the wind the cries of the guards

break the silence over the ravine I see I see
there’s no death. walking through little rainbows of dew
Shelah says: it only seems barren and dark
come and see – joy and light, boundless, stark

Translated from the Ukrainian

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