We also pretended we were children and other poems

Transitions №7

Author: Anna Halberstadt


                        “  … we played games near wealthy homes*
                pretending that we were children…”

We also pretended we were children
instead of fairy tales, fed with stories of the dead –
grandparents, murdered aunt and uncles,
tales of an idyllic childhood in a shtetl
family breakfasts, around twenty people,
according to my father auntie Tanya,
including a nephew, a student, aunt Sophie,
visiting from Kyiv, and others,
gathering at my great-grandfather’s house,
at the table with a samovar and fresh bagels. 

Most of us had no siblings,
or just one sister, or a brother.
Our parents were older than the ones
of our  gentile classmates, whose parents
did not experience the war
as soldiers in the Lithuanian division,
or Jewish partisans, like my uncle Emmanuel
one of the fifty teenagers, who had escaped
the Kaunas ghetto.
We played and laughed,
ran around playing Indians in wreaths of leaves
drew pictures of princesses and geese
teased each other, but somehow
a mournful veil was always hanging in the background.

Aunt Esther, a fifteen-year orphan,
was almost arrested during the war,
in a provincial library in Uzbekistan,
for drawing a tail and horns on a Stalin’s photo
but luckily let go,
used to write poems and make  clay figurines of gnomes
for my cousin Grisha,
she was mostly bedridden.
Esther almost died of sepsis, and already said good-byes to him
when he was thirteen.
She happened to outlive my uncle.

My father took me on long walks on Komjaunimo
and Gedimino,
long streets with linden trees in bloom
inevitably ending at the chess club
next to the Lenin Square,
a square statue of a balding man pointing his raised arm
towards the KGB quarters
and the conservatory across the street.  

Yes, we were children
and our parents loved us
and we embodied their lost families to them.
I wasn’t named for my grandmother Frieda
father changed his mind
realizing it would be too painful to utter
his mother’s,  who perished in Kaunas ghetto,
name daily.
Instead, I was named Anna, derived from Hannah,
God’s grace, in Hebrew,
and, yes, we represented God’s grace to our parents,
rebirth, carrying the light of our perished relatives
we never got a chance to meet.


From Jerome Rothenberg’s “THE STUDENT’S TESTIMONY”



Poets and poetry are insufferable.
Russian poetry with its insistence
on rhyme and meter
obsession with rank
and Brodsky’s Nobel prize
and  memories of him sneezing
in one’s direction.

proclaiming each poet a genius
a few days after he’s buried.
Labeling poets who you consider
your competition, graphomaniacs.
Worshiping Pushkin
or proclaiming a lesser-known poet of the era,
Baratynsky a better poet.
A stranger Including your email
In the list of recipients of one’s daily poem
without your permission.

American poetry fixated
on one’s feelings– feeling loved
and feeling unloved.
Feeling lonely among abundance of love.
Feeling unloved, and feeling lonely.
Writing about yourself
as a four-year old sitting
at the dinner table with a mouth full of macaroni
and cheese you hate and vomit.
Reminding your dead mother
that she is the cause of or panic attacks.

Insisting on poetry with no rhyme and reason
other than linguistic experimentation
or memories of abuse by your parents –
because you were different,
because you insisted on wearing a pink tutu to school,
because you parents did not believe
you  were in love with a flamingo.

Now a war is raging on
next to the country
where I was born.
And a bad poet, a recovered alcoholic,
began writing really strong poems.
Eastern Europe does not need to invent reasons
to suffer to write poetry that matters.



Blocks of gray buildings in Tyoplyi Stan
a windy suburb in the southwest of Moscow
where Napoleon’s army used to burn fires to try
to survive the Russian winter of 1812.
Three phone booths by the wall
surrounded by snow
a few anorexic trees on the road
leading to the liquor store, post office, and a grocery
with meatballs for seven kopecks, milk, and anchovies in tomato sauce.
Bus stop with drunken men falling out of buses
scattering their money and other possessions
on the dirty sidewalk every Soviet holiday
and once in a while a Good Samaritan
trying to get one of the completely plastered
back to the bus so that he won’t freeze to death.
My four-year-old, blue-eyed son, Sasha
on the way from his kindergarten
is getting compliments from an old woman on the bus.
She is telling him he looks like baby Lenin
and gives him a ripe, yellow pear
that it took her no less than an hour in line to get.
And he is asking his dad about the meaning of numbers
on the front of the bus.
Eventually, he gets it, that they are meant for directions
but says to his father that buses running in Africa have no numbers
because negroes are not yet human.
I am petrified, a drunk man says to him, “That’s right, sonny, that’s right.”
The road leads to our home—in one of the identical buildings
in the second “micro-region” of Tyoplyi Stan.
Most of the year, the road is dirty and wet,
which creates problems for Sasha when he begins school—he often falls
into one of the holes,
scrapes his knees and tears his school uniform,
which is next to tragic
because the label on the pants says the fabric is not washable,
and dry cleaning in so-called French cleaners takes two to three weeks.
Sasha gives me a gift on March Eighth, the International Women's Day—
a fake malachite brooch he bought for one ruble
he won in the lottery
and a card made of the French laundry ticket with a Lenin pin
pinned to pink paper.


Alan Davie, Entrance to a Paradise,
Tate Britain, London

The artist was born in 1920
and died at ninety-four.
The painting, that struck me
Was called “Entrance to a Paradise”  
(which paradise?)
A dark abstraction
with what looked like
industrial constructions
something like a river
flowing under a metal constructivist bridge.
The plaque next to the painting
said the artist was interested in the unconscious.
He painted over and over
the lines and forms
until they practically disappeared
and he thought
he got it right.
The dark river
if anything
looks more like the Phlegethon,
a river of fire  
leading to the vast palace of Hades
or maybe, the Lethe,
the sad river of forgetfulness.
But in the back of the painting
you notice reflections
 of golden light or a fire
like a promise of the sublime,
of love,
that seduces and teases us
and we keep chasing it
over and over,  like the artist,
until  we think
we finally  got it right.



One does not choose when to die
unless taking the matter into one’s own hands.
You can choose when and who to marry
even though this is hardly a choice
if  you are  a twenty-year-old student
already knocked up in the dorm
by a wise man of twenty-four
hiding the secret even from your mother
thinking she would get a heart attack from the news.
You can choose with whom to get involved
but you can’t choose with whom to fall in love.
Once you allow yourself to take off your clothes
and get next to another naked human
you already stepped into a boat without oars
and the current may take you anywhere.