836: A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck

836: A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck

836: A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck


I’m Jason Schneiderman and this is The Slowdown.

My favorite Pet Shop Boys song and my favorite Pedro Almodóvar movie share the same title: “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” It’s a question that assumes that the events in our lives are all rewards or punishments, that life is just one long Christmas, where our stockings are filled with presents if we were good and coal if we were bad.

On a recent news report I saw, a Ukrainian woman who was standing in the rubble of her city asked the reporter what she had done to deserve this. Of course, the answer is nothing. She had done nothing to deserve this.

There is an entire branch of theology dedicated to asking why God lets bad things happen to people who have done nothing to deserve it. How could a good and loving God stand by and watch the Holocaust happen, or allow four hundred years of slavery in the Americas. This branch is called “Theodicy”—spelled t-h-e-o-d-i-c-y, but every time I hear the word, I hear “The Odyssey”—you know, that pagan Greek poem about Odysseus spending ten years trying to get home after winning the Trojan War.

In the Odyssey, there’s no question as to why the Gods let bad things happen, because the Gods are just like people, only with immortality and more power. Why did Odysseus have to spend ten years fighting a war he didn’t believe in and ten years getting home? Because a Goddess wanted to win a beauty contest. For the ancient Greeks, the question wasn’t why does a just God let bad things happen? The question was which God should I make happy right now?

The Greeks in the Odyssey don’t have a concept of free will, but in our society we do, and so we hold ourselves accountable. For better and for worse, we believe that we determine our own destinies, which can be painful, but can also be transformative.

Today’s poem is from a sequence of poems about a town that has been invaded by an occupying force. Both sides believe that they are on the side of right, and both sides justify their violence by calling it a response to the other side’s violence. The poet’s sympathy is certainly with the occupied people, and as a Ukrainian American poet, Ilya Kaminsky’s poems have become relevant in a new way, as they speak to the atrocities we are currently witnessing in his country of origin.

At the very end of this short poem, Kaminsky starts with that question that motivates the study of theodicy. His response is one that has resonated strongly with me—by which I mean it has haunted me—since I first read the poem.

A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to the Neck
by Ilya Kaminsky

Alfonso stumbles from the corpse of the soldier. The townspeople are cheering, 
elated, pounding him on the back. Those who climbed the trees to watch applaud 
from the branches. Momma Galya shouts about pigs, pigs clean as men.

At the trial of God, we will ask: why did you allow all this?
And the answer will be an echo: why did you allow all this?

"A City Like a Guillotine Shivers on Its Way to a Neck" by Ilya Kaminsky from DEAF REPUBLIC © 2019 Ilya Kaminsky. Used by permission of Graywolf Press.