Tanks

I stand on an open plain
With sleet angling into my mouth.
The fur of my parka is no match for it.
It is morning. Gray.
It is cold, deeply chilled.
I have a warm knot in my stomach
from two shots of vodka.
My hosts tell me millions died here—
We call it World War Two but that is a luxury of nomenclature, viewed from a distance.

Here it is alive, seventy years young, the Great Patriotic War.
On this plain hundreds of tanks rolled and roiled.
On this plain, men ran behind tanks, among the exploding shells.
On this plain, men got frostbite inside bunkers where there was no tea.
On this plain, airplanes and bayonets killed all the soldiers once they had killed all the farmers and their children.
On this plain was fought the Battle of Kursk that lasted nine months.
Ask the children in Kiev, and in Berlin, who never knew their fathers.

I stomp the ground. I feel my feet, from a distance.
How can you understand Russia unless you stand here,
Listening to the nothingness?

My son is ten years old.
He is climbing over the burned shell of a tank.
After seven decades they still are here,
rusting witnesses to uncomprehending history.
The bodies long ago have rotted into the ground,
their grave markers are metal turrets, seeming toys.
What do my hosts think of us, standing here speechless,
warmed strongly by ice cold vodka,
while my child climbs the jungle gyms of death?

Numbers of people have no meaning in Russia.
History is a thousand years long gone
And a thousand years yet to come.
This plain has eaten them, chewed them, digested them, deposited them like dung on top of the frozen earth.
What is left is tanks.
And sleet and wind.
Here, have another drink.

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