“Questions for Lyudmila” by Marie-Aline Roemer

Marie-Aline Roemer


In winter, we have hours of trembling light
to be together. The evening is spent
just you and I,
and all the questions about your country.
Masha, Masha, you say. That was my name
you gave me here, always a name
that rolled from the tongue to the heart of the heart.
We order blini and wine,
and you explain.
Your grandmother’s name was Lyudmila. In her kitchen,
you ate with the dead. The walls were grey with their faces,
wondering down at your new childhood
of pink roller skates and bubblegum jeans. She
clicked her tongue because you
no longer dreamt of being a cosmonaut. You
were a princess with beach-braids
and eight TV channels. They taught you to say your name in English,
and there was a power in that.
You show me how to fold a blini, and describe your grandma’s hair.
It was wavy beneath a tight scarf. At night,
she brushed it in the darkness, like writing a poem to a lover.
That is how you said it, like writing a poem to a lover,
as you wrap white cream into a roll. The times
were the times. There were many who loved her.
In her kitchen, jars sat on the shelf like poltergeists.
They dropped themselves,
and she would beat you out back,
then taught you about cherries in winter
gherkins in spring. She was happy,
growing children like sleepy cabbages,
plucking yarn from her good dress. She was happy, and do I
understand that? I say yes.
There is no other way to describe it. And you,
you prepare me that blini, and it isn’t a blini,
it is your grandmother’s ghost,
curled up in the way she held her knife
to spread smetana on a round cake
and say,
Vnushka, vnushka, because that was always your name
there, in that cellar-kitchen, where the light bulb trembled on a string,
where it was just you and her,
rolling thick blini with cream, and taking them
from the lips to the heart of the heart,
asking nothing.

Poets Respond
March 8, 2015

[download audio]


Marie-Aline Roemer: “I was unfortunate enough to happen across a Buzzfeed article concerning the recent murder of Nemtsov, leader of the Russian opposition. ‘Even in Russia, murder is always a shock,’ stated the article so generously. This tagline is hurtful, unjust and judgmental in so many ways; I am seething inside as I type this. I am not defending Russian politics in any way—and I am certain that, within the Kremlin (and many other places of power), murder is no shock at all. But the use of ‘even’ here implies that a whole country is somehow usually immune to inhumanity, crime and human pain. Having lived in Russia for almost five years, I can say that nothing is less true. There is a great propensity for suffering here, stemming from long years of doing just that, but this does not reflect upon the warm-heartedness of the general population. I am saddened and shocked, but not surprised—I have heard such preposterous statements claiming knowledge of the hearts of an entire nation before, and it is no longer a shock to me that the situation is so entrenched on both fronts. I am not defending the choices made by the politicians in Russia. I am defending a common humanity and asking for a little bit more understanding and thought than a line like the one above would have required.”

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