Poem: Buried in a human neck, a bullet

This poem by Lyudmyla Khersonsky begins in medias res with a dead body rather than the death itself, followed by a pile of urgent questions. We find ourselves suspended in a state of unknowing. The sequence of five practical questions in rapid succession mirrors a distressed mind’s movements, before we switch to the second person and the Lord’s critique of his creation. By the poem’s end, the speaker returns, attempting to transcend the merely practical into the first-person universal of a “we.” But that transcendence is only momentary. Readers find themselves returned to the matter-of-fact questions of war. Selected by Victoria Chang

Credit…Illustration by R. O. Blechman

Buried in a human neck, a bullet

By Lyudmyla Khersonsky, translated by Olga Livshin and Andrew Janco from the Russian

Buried in a human neck, a bullet looks like an eye, sewn in,
an eye looking back at one’s fate.
Who shot him there? Who gave the order, which man?
Who will bury him, and what’s the rate?
When it comes to humanity, war is the beginning and end.
Whoever attacks you, don’t turn your back.
Says the Lord: For my people are foolish, they have not known me,
they are silly children and they have no understanding.
But the children feel as strong as their machinery,
mass-produced, with plenty of seamstresses for repairing:
some ladies patch holes, others fix neck bones,
still more sew on buttons that were torn away from hands.
And the Lord says: They are wise in doing evil — but,
says the Lord — they do not know how to do good.
But the children, if they survive, say it was luck,
and if they die, they think that was yesterday,
today is another day,
and the seamstresses stand with a shroud, telling them, “Put this on.”
How long must we put up with the flags, the trumpets calling us
into the fray?
What beast has awakened? Where did our special forces land?
Who shot that man in the back? Who gave the command?
Who will bury him, and what’s the rate?

Victoria Chang is a poet whose fifth book of poems, “Obit” (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Time Must-Read. Her book of nonfiction, “Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence and Grief,” was published by Milkweed Editions in 2021. Lyudmyla Khersonsky is a Ukrainian poet and translator whose latest book is “The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear: Poems of Boris and Lyudmyla Khersonsky” (Lost Horse Press, 2022).