Everything Thaws

A poetic cycle

by R. B. Lemberg


This item will be released on June 1, 2022.

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About this book

a poetry memoir about…

  • Soviet Jewish life
  • Climate change (everything thaws! Literally!)
  • arrow The Vorkuta GULAG
  • Losing a parent

About the Author

R.B. Lemberg is a queer, bigender immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Their work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues. Their book The Four Profound
Weaves was a finalist for the World Fantasy, Nebula, Ignyte, and Locus Awards.

Their pronouns are they/them/theirs.

R.B. was born in Ukraine, and lived in subarctic Russia and Israel before coming to the US for graduate school at UC Berkeley. They are a sociolinguist, and they work as an associate professor at a Midwestern university.

Their web site is at http://rblemberg.net/


Everything thaws. I learned this lately
when the permafrost in Vorkuta started to give way,
revealing secrets nobody asked for:
not wooly mammoths or ancient cave artifacts but
bodies of the GULAG prisoners thrown out – not even buried
because the snow would take care of its own.

You could trust the snow back then. And now you can’t
trust anything.

Let me tell you why this matters to me.
When I was four, my father came into the room where I slept and kissed me –

it was not “my” room. We only had two,
serving as gathering/art/working/sleep space as needed.
He thought I was asleep. I was.
My spirit hovered by the door, high by the twelve-foot ceiling
while I watched him lean over the slats of the bed.

He said nothing I could hear,
but he loved me, and he was leaving – that was clear,
leaving on the train and then on the train again,
three solid days of travel,
going north beyond the Arctic circle
to live for a while in Vorkuta
where once they killed people in the GULAG, but many
survived and either did not want or could not leave,

among them a distant relative of my mother’s, who said he would help
my father to find a job and stay there
because the KGB was bothering him
here in Ukraine,
demanding he inform on his friends,
but he would not.

A few decades later
I began to write a story about this: the GULAG
to the west of the Ural mountains, prisoners who flew around
as willow ptarmigans. “There was
no GULAG in Europe,” a crit partner informed me
with the usual confidence of white Americans.
She was an expert, you see,
having researched GULAGs for her own story,
and she meant no harm but she kept writing and I
stayed silent.

Long after we left Vorkuta, the melting permafrost
which I am witnessing over social media
disturbs me. Two continents and as many lifetimes ago
my father was happy there. Perhaps nobody else was, but he was,

far away from the KGB,
not so far away from my mother (but far enough),
snug in his wooden studio
assigned to him by the Soviet Artists’ Union.
Among plates of colored glass, among
his glass-cutters and chisels and his blocks of wood,
the snow forever clenching the ground
its vast masses hiding all the dead; there he was
as permanent as permafrost, just as silent
but warmer.

I do not know how to mourn him in my five languages (nothing serves),
across three continents, with all my eloquence (nothing serves),
with all my silence (nothing serves)
for readers who might not believe
there ever was a Vorkuta, a circumpolar town where
thousands of GULAG prisoners died of malnutrition and exposure, where
architects plotted victory against permafrost, where
schoolchildren bullied other schoolchildren

by tying dead lemmings to strings and spinning them about.

When I came back to Ukraine
after a year in Vorkuta
I drew the northern lights to show my classmates. I drew myself
dragging a little sleigh, head up to the vast shimmering road in the sky.
It was my road
that showed me the way when I was six –
white, wide, stretching across the black winter sky
in complete silence, under the immovable permanence of the cold.

“You’re lying,” my classmates yelled, and later
the whole class trapped me in the school attic
and beat me, screaming that I was a Jew
who believed in G-d (remember, these were Soviet times
and believing in G-d was forbidden)
and that I was lying
about the northern lights I saw in Vorkuta.

They had never seen the Northern lights, but they knew
what a Jew looked like.

A Jew looks like me.
A Jew
looks like this person with too much curly hair and an eating disorder
and too many academic degrees and too much
change, less than a model immigrant
from too many places
to too many places,
never believing that I will be heard

because people have trouble believing
that things exist that they have never seen.

Every time I open my mouth or flex my fingers to write
I am putting a brave face upon the thawing permafrost.

I am not lying. I am just
constantly changing languages, idioms, continents, genders, homes, and I am
not even sure how to mourn from this vantage,
let alone perform any other human activity
let alone be a good
a good child, a good immigrant, a good parent, a good spouse, a good
(only if I’m silent)
(squeezing my lips shut so tightly)
(clenching my fingers)
(trying to fit)
(always trying to fit)
(remembering that where I’m from, a Jew
cannot be good by definition, a Jew
must become a person instead, become a Jewperson and then simply
a good Soviet citizen
but secretly a rootless cosmopolitan

who never speaks anything but the purest Russian
who eats no herring or raw garlic under any circumstances
before going out,
because everybody knows that Jews stink of those two things.

This is the one permanent axis of my identity,
that I am a Jew: that is
a rootless cosmopolitan
at home nowhere
in no language, in no country, not even among other Jews, eating
herring and garlic with a sense of deep satisfaction
that comes with the hope that, living in the Midwest,
nobody’s going to surreptitiously sniff me for that
telltale stench of a Jew which
cannot be spoken of in polite society,
cannot be uprooted,
cannot be forgotten
or forgiven;
only silenced.