Abba Kovner Listened

Winner of the Charlotte Newberger Prize

In November 1941 a young girl crawled up over the butchered bodies in the pits at Ponar and made her way eight miles through a frozen forest back to the Vilna ghetto. No one could believe her story—thousands of Jews lined up, shot, and piled in a ditch. But Abba Kovner listened to her.”

(from the introduction by Shirley Kaufman to “My Little Sister and Selected Poems” by Abba Kovner)

Chicken Little has come
half frozen, feathers stiff
with the blood of her flock.
Chicken Little has come
but this time
no one believes
the sky
is falling.

Chicken Little trembles, splinters
of fresh bone
on her hands and knees,
the frost of the forest
on her parched tongue,
a silent scream stuck
at the top of her throat.

Who will listen to the little bird?

She says there are beasts in the cities
walls, beasts in the woods
tearing down the sky.
I have seen, she says, the world collapse
in a pit of darkness.
I have seen the beast’s
red eyes.

One man listens.
Only one man is crazy enough
to listen.

He lifts Chicken Little
in the nests of his hands frightened
by her weightlessness.
He thinks, I am lifting
He says. Sister.
And in the cinders
of her eyes
he sees the sky fall.

He says, my love.
He says, daughter.
He says, wife.
He says, you.

He warms Chicken Little,
washes away the blood,
removes what splinters he can.
He builds her a coffin
to carry on his shoulders,
he builds her a coffin
of words and makes himself a coffin
of hope.

Then he carries them both
toward the edge of the earth,
the sky pressing down,
the sky forcing him to his knees
but he never lets go,
never lets Chicken Little go.

He says.
From here you can see the world
of the living.
From here a whole world watches
my face dissolve into blue.

He says,
I believe you.

And with that
they hold back
the sky.