Tikkun Olam* 

His mouth agape, as though still asking questions,
the Tsar lies at the end of his long reign.
(Blue lips almost struggle to explain,
caught in the halfway realm of last expressions.)

The Empress sprawls, hands crossing her stained bodice.
Behind her rest the bayoneted heirs,
blood in pools around their jewelled stares.
Yurovsky stands above the heap of bodies.

A Chekist* practiced in the art of killing,
he commends his men as gun smoke settles.
Their trigger-fingers, though, are cocked and curled,

their executioner eyes more than willing—
all of them, like him, poor boys from shtetls*,
still eager to help mend the broken world.

*Tikkum Olam: Hebrew for “the mending of the world” 
*Chekist: Soviet secret police
*Shtetls: small Jewish towns

 

Red Star,1933 

The Arctic wind impales us without halt
and in our wounds the devil himself leers.
The star above the gulag burns like salt
until we lose all track of months and years.

And yet we sigh again the wry insult
we let slip into comrade Stalin’s ears.
We sigh until we sigh it by default
and wrinkles are the riverbeds of tears.

 

Barcelona,1936

Perhaps there’s mercy in the skies,
although the Spaniards have seen none.
The tears of horror in their eyes
reflect the fury of the sun
lifting the curtain over dawn.
They know that Orlov’s Reds were there:
a priest lies bludgeoned on the lawn,
and Christian Spain lies struck at prayer.

 

Gulag Burial Marker

(Eastern Siberia)

In a graveyard on a hill near Magadan,
the heavens shed light on the skull and bones
of what looks like a halfway-risen man,

a poet or a priest who died a slave,
and, buried underneath dry brush and stones,
lay for decades in a makeshift grave.

But now he lingers in a paradise
of brambleberries, nettles, pines, and cones,
with shadows in the sockets of his eyes,

as if to show he doesn’t want to wake,
as if he wished to let out yet more moans,
and to protest against the wooden stake,

the crimson star, the absence of a cross,
the way, the truth, the light that mock his loss.

 

The Abandoned Station 

Here the shades of rust are manifold.
The rails resemble velvet, thick and plush.
A dark grease from the time of the last Tsar
rests deep within the wood of sunken ties.

The platform’s still, the station name in bold
Gothic letters. No pale mothers rush
their children to the last departing car
with brusque farewells forever in their eyes.

The car rusts at the edge. Has been there since
the day the Soviets sacked the sleepy town,
leaving a trail of bleeding girls and grief.

The station is a graveyard. Cleanse and rinse
it with your mind, and still a deep red brown
keeps it behind: thorn tree and nettle leaf.

 

Leo Yankevich’s latest books are The Last Silesian (The Mandrake Press, 2005) Tikkun Olam & Other Poems (Second Expanded Edition), (Counter-Currents Publishing, 2012), and Journey Late at Night: Poems & Translations (Counter-Currents Publishing, 2013). He is editor of The New Formalist. More of his work can be found at LeoYankevich.com.

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13 Responses

  1. Joshua Simon Harris

    These are all really great. The language is interesting and the rhymes are perfectly fitting. The imagery is dark and vivid, brimming with the brutality and insensitivity that accompanied the rise of communism. I love that the final poem brings us full circle, from the death of the last Tsar at the hands of “still eager” boys in the first poem, to the abandoned train station that has been rusting ever since the Tsar was killed. This is a powerful series of poems.

    Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    My dear Count Leo —

    As always, dark and deep the perfect form of a wine-filled lake, lapping insistently on the shores of human conscience,

    You have things to teach us all. It would be good to see more of your excellent work in this venue.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      I second the opinions offered by Sally Cook, but I would like to add that your expressions cut to the marrow.

      Reply
  3. Leo Yankevich

    Thank you, C.B. Anderson. The late Alfred Dorn (1929 – 2014) once wrote me of the poems in the first edition of TIKKUN OLAM, these among them: “that they are written in blood.”

    Reply
  4. Helen H. Gordon

    These are all truly excellent, Leo. The artistic language and description manage to amaze us with the ugly reality being observed.

    Reply
  5. Lew Icarus Bede

    “Tikkun Olam” reminds me of Melville’s “Shiloh” for its realism, its ironic tone, its parenthetical remark, and its casual metrical pacing; yet as Ms. Cook points out, it is dark. Its artistry can be seen in its arrangement, particularly the historical figures, the unique feminine rhymes, like “bodice/bodies” and “settles/shtetls,” and the neometaphysical phrasing. In its brief eight lines, “Red Star, 1933” contains both a terse simile and well-wrought metaphor, while the last two sonnets with their abrupt sentences and curt, variant, masculine rhymes show that the neometaphysical phrasing, perhaps via T. S. Eliot, is a typical trait in the poetry of Mr. Yankevich. Such rich, charged, historical writing, which I as a Classicist admire, though rare in New Millennial poetry, can also be found in the deeply religious sonnets of Mr. MacKenzie and the classically-oriented sonnets of Mr. Whidden, each of these writers using the sonnet for their differing vusions [sic].

    Reply
  6. Joseph S. Salemi

    I have seen some of these poems before. They continue to shiver my soul when I read them.

    Let it be noted (from the testimony of some of the degraded murderers of the Czar’s family) that a few of the shooters fondled the breasts of the female corpses, saying “This is the one time we’ll get to feel a Romanov tit!” The horror is beyond belief.

    Reply
  7. Leo Yankevich

    The Tsar’s Four Daughters
    Ekaterinburg, Russia
    17 July 1918

    The Tsar’s four daughters lie dead, bullet-riddled
    and bayoneted, gun-smoke thick above
    their heads. Out of pure hatred or out of
    Talmudic lust, the boys from shtetls fiddle
    with pudenda, buttocks, thigh and chest
    to celebrate the brotherhood of man,
    They touch the rosebud of each snow-white breast,
    the mother’s, too, the only time they can.

    21 November 2017

    Reply
  8. James Sale

    Bleak, memorable, brilliant – true poetry – wonderfully executed; the last line of Tikkun Olam, “still eager to help mend the broken world” is staggeringly good – conveying the evil perpetrated yet via the ‘innocence’ of kids thinking they are helping the world through murder! How all of us so easily deceive ourselves. So impressive this writing, the control of language as much as the ideas themselves.

    Reply

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