Letter From Vilnius: 1

by Kerry Shawn Keys

Eastern/Central Europe and Excursions elsewhere

            Spring, 2011

To begin this first Letter From Vilnius, in what entertains to be a bi-monthly series for Poetry International, I believe some very brief background information is essential to the context and purport of the writing.

I first visited Lithuania a few years after its liberation from the Soviet Union in 1996 for a Spring Poetry Festival. Indirectly, it was a coincidence with Czeslaw Milosz that brought me here, and an invitation to read poetry in Prague, a city I hadn’t visited since the summer of 1968. I fell in love with the City of Vilnius and decided to make my move, and so sold my homestead, Oak-Omolu, in rural Pennsylvania and so shape-shifted in 1998 on a Fulbright professorship to teach Translation Theory at Vilnius University and composition at Vilnius Pedagogical University. I am a poet, playwright, wonderscript writer, and translator, and so immediately became involved with Lithuanian literature and many writers from this part of the world – that is from Norway to Russia to Poland and Slovenia, to the Republic of Užupis, and so on. Previous to this, I had lived and worked in Brazil and India. Once a year or so I return to Amerika to keep my hand in things, give a reading or two, and travel around the country to keep abreast of Moloch and the language, flamenco friends, the urban blues, and rural Appalachia which so much informed my writing and my early years.

As for these letters or chronicles, my intention is to ramble around between pensées and observations, and to present, with little comment or exegesis, interesting writers and writing from the region, and North American and other writers that have visited here of recent. All of this interspersed with on-going events and photos (when I get hold of some of interest), and some brief social or historical commentary when appropriate. “Footfalls echo in the memory down the passage” which I did take, and I will honor the stalking, naked foot of  reverie’s Muse as a living presence. It seems to me that cross-fertilization between literatures and language and culture should be a paramount endeavor, and thus these Letters to a world of Letters through Poetry International are my modest attempt to keep open the flow. Enough, more than enough said in this first Letter, as to setting and intent.

Poetry is so much a part of everyday Lithuania, often celebrated on the front pages of the major dailies and throughout the cities and rural countryside, but in addition there are two major Poetry Festivals held every year: Poetry Spring which begins with many small events in April and culminates in an intense festival the last week of May; and Poetic Fall Druskininkai usually held within the first two weeks of October, and swings between the forested spa town of Druskininkai and Vilnius. The Poetic Fall title is intended to be a bit ironic and comical at the same time. Both have lots of international guests, primarily from Europe, but North American poets and “exotics” from elsewhere are always present. Flowers and wreathes of oak leaves abound. As do flower girls and poets that look like pages. Over the past dozen years, many English-language poets have journeyed across the Drink to attend these two events and others. I could make a longer list, but a few come to mind just now: Carolyn Forche and James Hoch; Christopher Merrill and Craig Czury; Jerome Rothenberg and J.C. Todd; Sam Hamill and Michael Jennings; Irena Praitis and Julie Kane; Harvey Hix and Robert Bringhurst; Alan Berecka (whose recent book, Remembering The Body, was just published by Mongrel Empire Press; Benjamin Myers has written a succinct on-line review of these witty, downhome, and deeply spiritual at times, poems) and the slam man himself, Bob Holman; Rebecca Seiferle and Jake Levine, to maliciously juxtapose two contrary voices embedded in Arizona; Steven Schroeder and Patricia Goodrich; John Burns and Harry Smith; Peter Cole and Phillip Lopate; Anthony McCann and Sam Witt; Jonathan Garfinkel, and Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, and dozens more from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England, which would, indeed, make this list endless. This summer, the first two weeks of August, Rebecca Seiferle will return, along with Edward Hirsch for SLS Lithuania, Summer Literary Seminars with an exciting Eastern/Central Europe and Litvak focus interlaced with Milosz events, unfiltered beer, and Brodsky asides. Come and join in – it should be a good time for poetry and fiction and cavorting, and the local homebrew, and political incorrectness. Also a wonderful chance to meet and hear and hang out with Lithuanian poets and writers, and Mikhail Iossel and his bandito bards from Canada and Russia.

Many of these writers who have spent time in Lithuania and in Vilnius: City of Strangers (book by Laimonas Briedis), have written poems touching on their stay here. For me, Michael Jennings’ poem, “Vilnius Glimpses”, which appears is his recent book with Sheep Meadow Press, Bone-Songs and Sanctuaries, New and Selected Poems, is a powerfully lyrical poem. But I would expect nothing less from one of America’s finest poets. Here it is:


the window is a mirror
where the face merges
with dust and stars”

“In the lonely room of the poem
plaster dust
and spreading wall
maps of moisture
in the slow
garlic-sour crumble
of old Europe)
the heavy-faced poet ponders the book of losses
dreaming redemption
from the irony and ache of arthritis
or maybe the clatter and clash of sun-bright weapons
as the pagan suicide knights of the forest
vanish into the blood-smoke incense
of the crucifix
but no let up in the relentless walk of the world
eyes dead ahead
ghosts of the mind cops and word killers
and too little mystery or amnesia
in a quart of degtinė
no matter the glassy glitter of boutiques
no matter the smart fashion-girls with their cell phones
and small taut buttocks
and the roaring poets of cavernous taverns
blinking into the sun
to mumble poems like apologies
in the still sacred tongue of oak and linden
and placating shrines to the gothic gods of unmaking—
rampant St. George plunging
his lance into the waiting mouth of the monster
and interchangeable saints
wilting like flowers
I want to go home to make love
to my beautiful wife
on the timeless hill of our dreams
stolen from the Iroquois
I want to tear out my teeth in the soundproof
torture chambers of the KGB
and forget the cool-eyed women cut down
in the demystified forest
like a thousand Dianas
I want words to unsay themselves
and the clocks to stop
I want to drink till I drop
and sleep in the gutter
with the rain leaking into my brain
and be bathed in the blood
of inscrutable gutturals
and make a friend of sorrow and terror
I don’t want to be written into the heavy book
of the poet with his bitter grief
and Sphinx-like gaze
knowing it all might have been otherwise
though our eyes have met
and there’s no going back”

Michael Jennings is also a breeder and judge of Siberian Huskies, and has written The New Complete Siberian Husky. There is a small contingent of Husky fanatics here in Lithuania, and Jennings spent time “dogging” when he wasn’t drinking degtinė (Lithuanian for vodka, which essentially means firewater), or immersed in my garret- Hermescort library in Old Town, or mesmerizing the Lithuanians with recitations of his poetry, most of which he knows by heart. His poems were translated by the Lithuanian poet, Sonata Paliulytė. Another poet here at the same time as Jennings, was Nikola Madzirov from Macedonia. Like most bigger cities, Vilnius can get a little hairy at times, and one evening at a trolley stop, the “Athens of the North” turned up the adrenaline a bit when Madzirov without warning had his glasses knocked to the sidewalk by a hooched-up hoodlum in a Yankee baseball cap. Jennings and another poet came to his defense, and all was taken care of on the spot, the trolley stopped dead in its tracks like the clock in faraway Skopje. The hoodlum was saved from being impounded in a pothole by a good Samaritan who happened by on a bicycle. Such are the dire risks of an Orpheus, nearly having one’s glasses shattered and not being able to read a leaf of a book or see the moon or the maenads of Macedonia or a mad mosquito for maybe a week! Readers should check out Nikola’s recent book of suggestive but fertile lyricism in English translation, Remnants of Another Age, with a fine foreword by Carolyn Forche, whose forte is the poet-with-a-plight.

Back to Michael Jennings. Here is a poem about a wolf, a kind of demonized dog, or perhaps a dog (Husky) is a kind of domesticated wolf.

“Before Speech
was the wolf pack, the moon’s children,
her insignia borne in the whites of her faces.
There was high ground at the heart of their forest
sacred for long sight, steeped in their smells.
There was bow and gesture, a sniff of the ear
that meant home, that meant heart,
that meant abiding mother with her belly in the dirt.
There was signal flashed across space.
There was the will to sing
Anyone could start”

There used to be quite a few wolves in the endless bogs and woods of Lithuania, I am told. And I am told that now and then a straggler is seen is this country decimated by war and hunters (they saved Little Red Riding Hood from their own fear of the ‘other as Animal or alien’, be it a wolf in Red Riding Hood’s case, or a dragon – remember the chthonic female pythoness under the crusading spear of Saint George – or a Yiddish-speaking Jew), and the fur trade of long ago. I once was taken to a forester’s home deep in the woods of nearby Latvia where he was raising a few wolf cubs that had lost their mother. I was reminded of the Iron Wolf of Vilnius in a visionary dream of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas. Inside the iron wolf were hundreds of other wolves, and their resounding echo of howls were to define the boundaries of the city of Vilnius, according to the pagan priest who interpreted the dream. True, perhaps, but I would take the interpretation a little further, and say it also was an allegory of the wolf of nature confined in the rusted belly of the asphalt jungle to be. Just as that poor Lithuanian, Jurgis Rudkus, is confined by Upton Sinclair in Chicago’s meat-Baron stockyards. Though as far as urban jungles are concerned, Vilnius is a Baroque jewel of a city where wolves and stray bitches carry on their business with some dignity. Unlike much of North America, most of Europe is devoid of any wildness, and if I could say I miss one thing, it is that. I remember Czslaw Milosz decrying the near absence of birds and birdsong when he returned to the region of his childhood. For him the Dead once came “disguised as birds”. But how to feed (remember and nurture) the dead if there are fewer and fewer birds? And I remember the poet and polymath ethnohistorian Robert Bringhurst (see A Story As Sharp As a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World )  reciting a recent poem of his in my kitchen. Here are two stanzas from his “Birds On The Water”:

            “Birds break their necks
            flying into your eyes
            in the perfect belief
            that the brilliant interior world
            is as spacious and seamless and real
           as the world outside.
            There are birds on the water,
            birds in the air,
            and birds lying dead at your feet,
            who had never once feared
            that your eyes might not mean what they’re seeing,
            your mind might not mean what it hears.”

I can also say I miss the tribal diversity of North America, but one can travel just an hour by train for that – and yet there is still a huge black hole here in the Baltics, and the best and worst place to go and meditate on that could be over the bones of the massacred Poles and Jews at the pits of Ponary. Perhaps the local gypsies were not entitled enough for the pits, and were killed on the spot or shipped elsewhere. I don’t know. But I will dig deeper into this in a later Letter.

But now to conclude the first of Letters From Vilnius with a poem that pertains to much of this by the contemporary Lithuanian poet, Eugenijus Ališanka:

from the case of bones

for six hundred years the bones ached in the middle ages they were stretched according to the gothic canons of beauty during the renaissance soldiers whipped them on pillars with lashes of ox-leather in the era of classicism the architects put into practice the rule of the golden section for some reason called the bed of procrustes in soviet times during the first world war dogs dragged them from one line of the front to another during the second world war soap was rendered from them in postwar times each small bone was stripped there where it was even difficult to piss in the cold as well as here at cathedral square buzzing with flies in the century’s last decade one could see mechanisms crushing bones but more often arthritis and radiculitis bent them but as pseudo-eugenijus writes in the year two-thousand bones will disappear and the earth will ascend into the new eon of a new boneless god”

(translation, Kerry Shawn Keys)




Michael Jennings and his Siberians
Eugenijus Ališanka (credit to to Benediktas Januševičius)

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