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Larissa Shmailo reads from Sly Bang

I had the pleasure of being among the writers who read at Jefferson Market Library in celebration of Larissa Shmailo’s new novel, Sly Bang, published by Spuyten Duyvil Press, a book where haunting disturbing poems are found among the haunting disturbing prose. The author’s family history—Larissa Shmailo’s parents, although Russian Orthodox Christians, also suffered during World War II in European concentration camps—may be what gives the novel its real surreal quality, whose play of words though often scary are reassuring too, characters who find their voices, although oppressed by fascism, and speak their minds surviving to tell the tale. Say what you want, it’s beautiful.

When I visited Larissa Shmailo in her cozy Upper West Side apartment, we had a great time talking over coffee, Perrier, and strawberries, before she read three poems from Sly Blang, which are found in the Vimeo below. At the end of this post, I’ve also included Mitch Corber’s recording of the Jefferson Market Library reading, which is in two parts, and has been previously featured on his TV show, Poetry Thin Air. Enjoy.


Was micht nicht umbringt, macht mich starker:
What does not kill me makes me stronger.
Nietzsche said this about other things
Not this.

How did my family survive the camps?
Were they smarter, stronger than the rest?
Were they lucky?
Did luck exist in Dora-Nordhausen,
Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen?

How did my family survive?
They were young, my mother and father, in 1943
Twenty years old when taken as slaves.
No one knew my father was a soldier, a communist
So, he was not shot
Or taken to be gassed.
My grandmother said quickly to the Germans
He is a mechanic; they needed mechanics
My grandmother, Soviet businesswoman
Begged and bribed the Ukrainian kapos
Begged and bribed the Germans, not SS
They took my father, son of a commissar
And shot the other men.

How did my family survive?
They offered no resistance
Did they collaborate?
Is complicity possible without choice?

They marched to Germany, working
Following the German army
Following the front
Digging trenches, carrying metal
These were the good camps, Kalinivka, Przemyśl
There was still food:
My mother recalls eating an entire vat of potatoes
Fouled by kerosene, discarded by the Germans, not SS.

The treatment was not cruel, comparatively, not cruel:
In 1944, the Germans
Were as afraid of the Russian front
As the prisoners were of Germany
And of the other camps.
Where they went nonetheless
Where they were sent nonetheless.

How did they survive Erfurt, the selection?
My mother spoke good German
I see her now at the staging camp
Her keen wit dancing around the SS
Like her young Slavic feet
She was young and good-looking
Thin but good-looking
And the SS liked the Ukrainian Frauen.
On the cattle car to Dora
To the chimneys of that camp
My mother rode with her family intact
Thinner but intact
And ready for work.

How did my family survive?
Was it luck?
In Dora-Nordhausen
Where the air smelled of shit and gas
Where the sun rose but never shone
Was there luck?

The boxcar stopped
At the Nordhausen factory
The way out through the crematorium chimney in Dora
Here, my grandmother learned languages
Wstavach, Stoi, Ren, Schwein, Halt!

In Dora, where not to understand an order meant death
My grandmother learned six languages; after six months
My family could work, hide and ask for bread
In all the languages of Europe.
They learned English the same way.

How did my family survive?
When the Americans came, with chocolate and blankets
My father, six-foot-one
Was one hundred and twenty pounds
And still we were rich, my mother interjects,
Rich compared to the Jews.
A few months longer, though, a few months longer
We would not have been alive.

How did my family survive?
My grandfather, a teacher
Told this story:
When the Americans came and saw the camp
They invited the people to loot the nearby towns
Take anything, the well-fed soldiers said
My grandfather stood and spoke: We are not animals, he said
But we were, my father interrupts, we were.

How did my family survive?
Survive is not the right word.
I’m alive, my father would say, alive
Alive because I did not die; others died.
Keep breathing, he encouraged me in difficult times,
Keep breathing.


You, volunteer:
You choose to be here

You, volunteer:
You know the difference
Between cause and effect:
The people on the street
Are too stupid to have homes
Too filthy to wash
See them root through the garbage
Nicht essen aber fressen
Ni yest’ a zhryat’

They deserve to be there
They deserve to be there

See the dark people
Sitting in the cells
They deserve to be there
They deserve to be there
And the women of the Frauenblock
The Fraulein triple X
Control her, detain her
Pick her up
Cause and effect:
You know which is which.

You, volunteer:
We see you
On the job where you whisper
Half of what you think
And none of what you feel.

See the clock:
The digital tattoo says run now
Rush to the train the transport
Who cares who gets in
Who cares who gets out
Push into the car the transport
Who cares who gets home
Who cares who gets shot
Arbeit macht frei.
You choose this
You choose this

Hey, you, volunteer
We find ourselves together in the subway
The Grand Ka-Ze Zentral:
Here in Ka-Ze
Your face is not a face
Ni litso, a morda:
Your face is not a face
But a snout
We don’t eat here, we devour
Nicht essen aber fressen
Ni yest’ a zhriat

We don’t give an inch
And we don’t give a damn
Only weaklings fall to the tracks
God knows the difference
Between cause and effect.

The selection is over:
Look how it happened that you fell.
You choose this
You choose this


I am the Warsaw Ghetto
I am the underground railroad
I am a hero

I am the people who sang songs
Who said the Lord’s prayer and the Sh’ma Yisrael
As the Nazis led them to the gas chamber.

I am a five-year-old girl in Jim Crow Mississippi going to school
I am Rosa Parks: I stand before the policeman
Before his club and his gun
And I say: no.
You can’t have mine

They tortured me and I confessed, I couldn’t help it
They put electrodes on my—
And I screamed
I told them everything they wanted to hear
But I never believed them
I never believed their lies
I always believed in love
Could see, in the distance, the light
And wait—I know it will come
For help.

I am a survivor
Of Mama’s torture
And Daddy’s rape
At age one
Age two
Age three
And now

I survived the selfish fondlings
The inspection of my genitals
The picking, groping hands
The gangbang
The lies

I survived the prostitution
The mutilation and sedation
The betrayal and attempted murder of my soul.

Don’t tell me there is no God.
Who else helped me?
It wasn’t you.
I called on God to help me.
There was no one else:
No mother
No father
No teacher
No preacher
No Rabbi
No doctor
No friend.

My enemies were powerful
Like Hitler and the Ghetto
But I held out
And when I tried to collaborate, wanting to die,
When I tried to surrender
I couldn’t do it.
I had to stand up
Had to fight
No matter how many times they
Knocked me down
Called me crazy
Made me cry.

In the Ghetto
In the sewers
There is a record
A diary like mine
Of people who fought
Of people who fought and loved
Of people who fought and won
No matter what anybody says.

Sly Bang is published by Spuyten Duyvil Press. You can check them out here:


Extra! Extra!

Here is Mitch Corber’s Poetry Thin Air video of the reading for Larissa Shmailo’s Sly Bang with guest readers, Ron Kolm, Annie Finch, Thaddeus Rutkowski, and Don Yorty at Jefferson Market Library, March 6, 2019.

Part One
with readers
Thaddeus Rutkowski
Annie Finch

Part Two
with readers
Don Yorty
Ron Kolm
Larissa Shmailo

Larissa Shmailo

For links to Larissa Shmailo:



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