Letter from Vilnius: 4

by Kerry Shawn Keys
Eastern/Central Europe and Excursions elsewhere
             Winter, 2012

Deep freeze here in Vilnius for 2 weeks now, and, in harmony with my genteel poverty, I keep the (brown) study garret temperature at 8 to 12 degrees C, but it suffices and there is no ice on the keyboard other than my icy fingers. And no poached venison to keep the blood warm as in the Golden Age in the hills of Appalachia, but at least rye bread and peanut butter and lard for calories, and the jazz is hot with the likes of Liudas Mockūnas and Vladimir Chekasin on sax as the heirs of Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins. Perfect writing conditions – leftover gloom from the short hours of daylight, walled in by my private Library of Congress, including chemical fusions of the Kama Sutra, the great Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz’ Words On Fire, and the chirping and squawking of the children surfacing through the floorboards – though for the moment abated as they rummage through their fairytale sleep. The children asleep and the bite in the air remind me of Coleridge’s Frost At Midnight and Graves’ Juan At The Winter Solstice, and many a poem by Hayden Carruth, though for me the frost lingers just out of reach in my roost and not outside, and the mask of snow is not so heavy as it is persistent and soft. Fortunately, the fluttering blue flame of Coleridge’s “stranger” and Graves’ White Goddess generously share the ministry of the Moon, which seems full, and which I just glimpsed from the balcony before settling down to tap one/two/three on my damned laptop. For conjuring poems, I still prefer the cursive flow of fingers, pen-and-ink, and paper. It has become a habit in these Letters to begin with some reference to the season or weather. First, the brooding of my friend, Sam (I wonder if other friends called him this back then), and then, it seems to me, Robert’s (surely no one dared to call him “Bob”) eerie echo.

from Frost At Midnight

“The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate…”

from Juan At The Winter Solstice

“Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses
There is one story and one story only.”

The blue flame must be the wraith of the one story only. Owlet becomes owl, while my company in Vilnius is closer to the accompaniment of a raven strutting on the snow on the roof. It is neither coincidence nor chance that two translations into English of major Lithuanian poets have wintery titles. Let me mention first Diana Senechal’s rigorous and fine translation of Tomas Venclova’s poems, Winter Dialog (Northwestern University Press, 1999), which includes a foreword by Joseph Brodsky and a dialog between the author and Czesław Miłosz. On reading the poems carefully, one gets the sense that Venclova’s orientation is as much Slavic as Baltic, and though he was beloved here as a groundbreaking poet (especially by the older generation), the admiration comes with reservations since he left when quite young and there is something cool and distant about his poetry that is not just a matter of his formal and historical bent, but seems to inhabit the stark tone of the poems. I recall Johannes Bobrowski’s “Memel” poems. One could almost imagine Robinson Jeffers as the architect of some of these lines if he had been born on the dunes of the Baltic coast. They are bleak as is much of the countryside of Lithuania most of the year, and Venclova’s poems capture this, though one could transpose the landscapes to most any other littoral setting in this part of the world – especially during the long haul from November until April. Here is the opening stanza and part of the second stanza of the title poem, Winter Dialog:

“Enter this landscape. Darkness still prevails.
Filled to the brim with voices, though unseen,
The continent takes arms against the seas.
Across the dunes, the empty highway wails.
A passerby or an angel in the snow
Has left a subtle covered trail behind,
And, in the blackish pane, the seaside’s glow
Becomes the bleak Antarctic in our minds.

The chasm, not frozen, froths beneath the land.
The pouring grains of sand pass their first mile.
Sometimes the pier grows vivid, sometimes veiled,
And, menacing, the winter space expands.”

This is poetry written before independence from the Soviet Union, and so the strapped, emotional chill is real, and I can feel the shadowy winds from the Baltic Sea, where Venclova lived for a while as a youth.

Tomas Venclova as a youth, credit- “Lituanus”

And here is a poem from Sigitas Geda’s collection in English, Biopsy of Winter (Vaga Publishers, 2002).

One Frozen Beet

It snowed early, back before All Saints Day,
you couldn’t get warm in any chapel, and so
we must go with mommy(already dead)to the beet field –
the collective – to catch escaped cows.
– Crack, crack! Crack crackling! – between huge
mouths and teeth, with protruding teeth and dung-soiled
tails…Snow is like sugar, and beets like
amber – why not Dachau, why not
Auschwitz? – to an animal all is sweetness, and we
have only half left, half-eaten, and my
rabbit-skin earflaps (the rabbit was blue,
I killed it – smashed its head with a rolling-pin!)
Crack, crack! – and thus all through Winter with mice
upon the dilapidated stove, everything is crackling now,
until today…
Will it be the same at God’s place, coming there – with
a beet, tucked away for eternity.”

A huge difference between these two poets. Geda stayed behind and suffered, and eventually died of his suffering, addicted to death and violence and poetry. His often consciously disjointed poems, nonetheless, reflect the studied craftsmanship of a master, and his poetry has had a huge influence on all who knew him and on Lithuanian poetry in general – from Eugenijus Ališanka and Sigitas Parulskis to Rimvydas Stankevičius, and on and on. His range as a translator and poet was unbounded, and it was for this reason that along with Venclova he was sometimes thought of as the ‘great snowy, Baltic hope’ for the Nobel. Unlike the angel in his poem, Angel Falling in Palanga, who continues to fall – “Nothing more no longer/Nothing more,/Only this falling,/Exploding, breaking/And the sound – Above our only world”, Geda hit bottom, but as for his soul, here is his own serene epitaph written a score of years before he died:

Epitaph April 16, 1985

 “ here – lies –
brother of the swallow –
Sigitas –
having died –
in the bluest –
of summers –”

To digress from Winter back to last Autumn, when Lithuania holds one of its two major poetry festivals, Druskininkai Poetic Fall. The founder of this festival and its ongoing honcho is the poet and former vice-Minister of Culture, Kornleijus Platelis. His generation is the immediate heir to Venclova’s and Geda’s. And Platelis’ finest poetry spans the Soviet era until the present, as did Geda’s. Platelis’s poetry has been fortunate in finding Jonas Zdanys as its translator, the American/Lithuanian poet and workhorse of a translator of many a contemporary Lithuanian poet. I thought of a poem by Platelis recently while watching a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker. Here, instead of the sacramental-Christian or mythopoeic Greek classical world that Platelis so often diffuses into our contemporary world through subtle metaphors and even allegory, an eerier, menacing present is depicted in a similar fashion.  We all remember the ‘Zone’ in the Tarkovsky film, a forbidden, alienated world – perhaps Chernobyl, perhaps our world – a Wasteland of iconic, Christian ruins. Though much of Platelis’ poetry is more classical in nature or theme, and more formal in construction, it is his poem Zone(from Four Poets of Lithuania, Vaga Publishing, 1995) I wish to feature here, and then follow it with two others.


Where does it end, where does it begin?
Ventilation pipes on the flat roof drone
Like eternity. The landing force,
As they are called, climbs
On a metal truss that holds bunkers of sawdust
To the chimney, extending
From the varnishing shop, reach the top
And smell the terrifying mix of odors
That the ventilator vomits into the darkened sky,
Holding on to the metal beams
With arms and legs.
They hang that way until they shake
Off this world and fall in
To the zone.

The physician’s assistant, cursing,
Puts casts on arms and legs,
Wipes blistered lips
And noses with stinking ointment.
The landing force, as they are called,
One by one return in
To the zone.”

an Image from Tarkovsky’s Stalker

And another poem by Platelis:

War’s Beginning

“The beginning of every great war is beautiful orchestras,
Snappy uniforms, the pounding of steps on the roadway
Like the pulsing of the heart
Coursing the nation’s strong blood
Through the indivisible network of veins,
Shining weapons
And eyes, and a lightness beneath the heart
Which is felt by the piercing falcon
Or arrow flying toward the target, or a fist
Between intention and blow…
The beginning of every war is beautiful.
Who at such a moment would think about war.”

And last:

Sunfish Heads

“Sunfish lose their heads
Before Christmas Eve Dinner,
Their bodies lie on a dish on the table,
Dejectedly pressed together,
And cannot speak, have no means to.
At the same time their mouths slide from a damp
Slimy plastic bag
And fall into the snow. A jay
Lands on a nearby tree
From an empty sky.

And it’s not clear who will sow their milt,
Who will fertilize their roe,
Who will carry our souls
To paradises or embryos…”

As the reader may have discerned from these poems, this is a land still aware of souls, and angels, and God and gods, and Death as nearby neighbors. Even war is shown here without drones or robots or cynicism – though with a touché of irony and a look at the eternal orchestration that accompanies the “shining weapons”, be they swords or the metallic wings of desire smashing into the World Trade Center or hovering above bin Ladan or timeless Persia and Waziristan.

There are so many poets at Druskininkai Poetic Fall, usually about 16 foreign guests and then the hoards of Lithuanian poets. One of the poets from overseas who is now a guest of honor and honorary Lithuanian (and thus I include him here), having stumbled with his cowboy boots and harmonica and firewater through many a festival, is the Berks Bard, Craig Czury.

poet Craig Czury hobbling through Vilnius serenading with his harp

If Robert Creeley and Sappho ever ‘engineered’ a child inside the black mountain of a coal mine, Czury might just be that dusty canary. His wild, gringo personality probably more than his elusive, innovative poetry had considerable impact here on a cross-section of Lithuanian poets. Perhaps if Anthony McCann and Bob Holman and the Welsh poet Robert Minhinnick had risked their livers and lives a few more times at the Little Heart Tavern in Druskininkai, I would be able to say the same for them (come again my friends, Exu awaits you!). But Czury was (is) unique. On one rambunctious visit he nearly broke a leg, and ended up hobbling around with a staff provided to him by the head of the Lithuanian Writers Union – ravishing red bandoneón in hand playing resurrected canyengue tangos on the streets of Old Town. Another time he was attacked in a dark Crime and Punishment hallway by two muggers who didn’t realize he was the arm-wrestling champion of the Festival (the American poet Sam Witt was a bantam contender but failed miserably) and an experienced fisticuffs’ brawler and piker, and they ran away into the night shrieking Russian profanities – though the bard himself got a rib busted in the bargain. And at a subsequent festival, Sam Hamill popped a rib while laughing uncontrollably at Czury’s flurry of amusing antics. But behind the comic façade, is a wonderful poet whose poet-mentors are clearly Nâzim Hikmet, Richard Hugo, Little Walter, Lice, and the femme-fatale Muse of Cemetery Hitchhiking. His stylistic mix of unusual line-breaks, off-beat pace, and open-ended stanza configurations was a breath of fresh air here, though it would be impossible to determine the extent of the influence. However, Lithuania’s most innovative poet-book designer, Tomas Butkus, was attracted to Czury’s work and published a book of his poems in Vilnius, in part sponsored by Sam Witt. This essay has been a letter from Vilnius, and now I will close it with some “Postcard” poems from Lithuania by the inimitable Czury.

Postcard  From Kaunas

“it isn’t always the same night
the familiar words written without paper
they aren’t always the same words
dialing your number in a phone booth without coins
line to line
posted in the vase at the end of the bar
it was the coldest night in europe
the oldest hotel
it isn’t always the same reaching
with a certain scent on my fingers
the thinnest blanket
between snow and adrenalin
the darkest corridor
you who i continually talk to in a dead language
the most sinister shadows
I know you too well to beg forgiveness
the loveliest laughter of women”

Postcard From Vilnius

“shadow branches
gnarled against a plaster wall
the walkway paved with headstones
from the old jewish cemetery
in another world
your father won’t return
his little sister won’t return either
don’t even mention the seneliai
deeper down
their names riddled with roots
a little more careful
having to lift one foot higher not to trip while looking”

Postcard from Klaipeda

“somebody asks what dedicates itself to you
what guides or sets your direction

I look back from a line of poetry
drawn across the window

line of poetry across the horizon
drawn across my eyes

and speak directly into an empty room

your face leads me into the sea”

Your Receipt
for Marius Burokas

“for the meals served steaming on tables with no teeth
for the deodorized rooms swooning with insomnia
for the clothes the dead have outgrown
in their inimitable shrinking style
outdated and redeemable only in the dark
this is your receipt”

At The Border

“air brushed
no way your photo resembles your face
passport   visa   driver’s license
how could it
crossing centuries back through the ash”

At The Border (2)

“they rifle what’s left of our pockets
the last poems we wrote in a language bloodsoaked and riddled
sand ash
the time it takes to ask our names
hair seed”

In My Silence To Justify
for Kornelijus Platelis

“we’re sitting in dark corners smoking
the middle of the day
sitting in dark corners talking in low tones
middle of night
in dark corners filled with our dead
hours into centuries
the dead who are also tucked away in dark corners
as if they’re thinking
as if they’re quietly reading the situation
as if almost an air of self-satisfaction
walking our women home at night
confident nothing’s wrong
our women who’re acting uptight
nervously pretending nothing’s wrong”

One comment

  1. Great essay/post, Kerry! Had me there and wanting to be there. About the poem, “War’s Beginning,” something almost similar from Book 12 of Adam Mickiewicz’s PAN TADEUSZ (Mickiewicz, as I’m sure you know, was Lithuanian and his poem takes place in Lithuania:

    War! War! In Lithuania there is no
    place so remote, no province so far
    away that sounds of war could not be heard.
    in forests, where peasants had dwelt for years,
    where generations had never ventured
    beyond the trees, those who had no other fears
    than gusting wind and cold, now heard strange cries.
    Men who had known no other guests than beasts
    that shared the wods, heard sounds they couldn’t recognize:
    the sky strangely aglow, something released,
    which seemed to stray from the field of battle,
    seeking the forest where it tore up stumps,
    shredded branches, uprooted the nettle.
    The bison in the moss raised up their rumps
    and shuddered, the long gray hair of their manes
    bristled as they propped themselves on front legs
    and gazed at the wondrous sparks in the heavens—
    when all of a sudden, amid some twigs,
    a smoldering shell whirled and hissed,
    and split apart a trunk like a lightning bolt.
    The bison had never before witnessed
    such might, and fled to hide from the assault.

    But where was the battle? The young men ask;
    they seize their arms; women throw up their hands
    in despair; and they all put on the mask
    of war, certain of triumph in their lands.
    “God’s with Napoleon!” they shout and weep,
    “And the great Napoleon is with us!”

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