Lesser Evil

Kyle McCord

          Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, 2012

In the display case

          rills of script fill the open ledgers —

                     Liga, Dzintra, Janis,

                     Oskar, Sandra

a single codex for the Nazis’ victims

          and tome after tome for Stalin’s.

Your hand taps lightly

          against the opaque case

as though some knuckle

          branded by frostbite

                     might echo,

a phantom the boxcars

          ferried back from

          Yuhnov or Vyatka.

Imagine having to choose

          between two butchers,

                     your brother’s murderer

                     or your other brother’s murderer,

a looped recording asks.

The tour huddles

          around a steel terminal,

the great leader

          in his admiral’s cap

                     looming on a display above.

Even in infamy,

          his Georgian brow

          is stern, confident.

A toddler returns

          his gaze, mouths a slur

                     of stumbling vowels.

Many Latvians greeted

          the Nazis as liberators,

                     a tour guide adds,

because at least they killed

          more discriminately.

Behind her, a lithograph:

the hanged bodies of nationalists,

          their limp feet dragging

          on a babushka’s fruit stand.

Two red army officers smile for the flash.

Here, it’s always

          one evil you know

          then another.

You imagine the cobbled square

          beyond these walls,

                     the onyx stallions

                     lining its rooftops.

Your choices now are simple:

          celebrate this statuary

          under hunger moon,

          or mourn the dead.

Is it a choice?

Before you: a violin

          molded from soup bones

          and strung with horse hair.

Will you play it tonight,

          wanderer, and

                     if so, for whom?

about the author