Letter from Uzupis

Republic of Uzupis: Crossroads of World Poetry, 

Dispatch 1, Winter 2013

 the Republic of Užupis exists independently in the heart of Vilnius…a bohemian port with its own mermaid and angel…home to artists and vagrants, gentry, moonshine, ravens, one buzzard, and pigeons, and especially to poetry…its Independence Day is April 1st…it once gave birth to a 300 kg egg…it predates and postdates the Known, the Unknown, and No-Nothing Worlds…its Vulgar Tongue is Užupisky… it is a sovereign nation with its own Constitution of which these are two of thirty-nine articles: “everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty”; a cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times.”

 – author, Kerry Shawn Keys, Užupis Ambassador to the World of Poetry, has lived in Vilnius, a stone’s throw away on the Far Shore, where he found his way some years ago.

Suddenly, late Fall and Winter have taken away four poet colleagues of mine, all in some way connected with Užupis or Vilnius, or about to be. Harry Smith, founder of The Smith, a literary magazine and Smith-Publishers, a small publishing house where he supported and published many poets considered by Harry to be too fringe for the mainstream houses. He later became a chief patron behind Presa S Press, which continued to do the same. Harry was a poet, himself. And it was through his love of Dovid Katz’s father, the poet Menke Katz ( remember Bitterroot ) who hailed from this region (in what is now Belarus) that I later came to organize a publication of a bilingual selection of Menke Katz’ poems translated from the English into Lithuanian by several of Lithuania’s bright, young poets and academics. Harry with his wife Clare visited Lithuania several times on literary missions, once to Druskininkai’s Poetry Autumn Festival, as an honored guest. A slight and very recent lyric of Harry’s but appropriate here in the context of this tribute:

 Last Thought

I’d like to think my last thoughts will be love,
a celebration of a slight caress,
a calm exaltation of holding hands,
Or simply words, the simple words for love.

In most ways Harry was a simple and unassuming man, though an iconoclast in his way. And here is a photo of him with his dog, Toby, that expresses this and how I would like to remember him.

Harry Smith    from a Smith family collection
Harry Smith from a Smith family collection

And Lȇdo Ivo, foremost of Brazil’s older generation of poets, died in Seville at the age of 88 by the side of his son, the Paris-based artist, Gonçalo Ivo.  Lȇdo Ivo, like his dear friend and fellow poet, João Cabral de Melo Neto, loved Spain and Spanish poetry. Lȇdo had just expressed his willingness to come to Lithuania’s autumn poetry festival if invited. He was an inveterate traveller until the end. Speaking of “ends,” I translated and published the only book of Lȇdo Ivo’s poems to appear in English, Landsend, Selected Poems, 1998, Pine Press. We had become friends during my years in Brazil in the late 70s and then later in the early 80s. I well remember the first restaurant in Rio where Lȇdo took me to lunch and jocularly translated its name, Cabaço Grande, explaining that it was slang for the Great Virginity or Great Hymen. I knew we would be fast friends, feasting, not fasting, where “the mouth becomes a cave / in the clear jungle where two beasts / bite and lick each other.” New Directions also published his novel, Snakes’ Nest, thanks to the editor, Peggy Fox who finally took a look at it after I had crouched for hours in the hallway outside their office in NYC in the late 70s, refusing to budge until someone would at least take a look at Kern Krapohl’s superb translation. It never made any money for New Directions, but it is a gem of a book, sly and menacing. Still available, and a classic to be read.

Last Poetry Autumn in Lithuania, the Spanish poet from León, Juan Carlos Mestre, read this tribute poem he had written for Lȇdo.  You Tube it,  and you can listen to Juan Carlos’ magnificent rendition of:

 Cavalo Morto

Cavalo Morto es un lugar que existe en un poema de Lèdo Ivo.

Un poema de Lèdo Ivo es una luciérnaga que busca una moneda perdida. Cada moneda perdida es una golondrina de espaldas posada sobre la luz de un pararrayos. Dentro de un pararrayos hay un bullicio de abejas prehistóricas alrededor de una sandía. En Cavalo Morto las sandías son mujeres semidormidas que tienen en medio del corazón el ruido de un manojo de llaves.

Cavalo Morto es un lugar que existe en un poema de Lèdo Ivo.

Lèdo Ivo es un hombre viejo que vive en Brasil y sale en las antologías con cara de loco. En Cavalo Morto los locos tienen alas de mosca y vuelven a guardar en su caja las cerillas quemadas como si fuesen palabras rozadas por el resplandor de otro mundo. Otro mundo es el fondo de un vaso, un lugar donde lo recto tiene forma de herradura y hay una sola tarde forrada con tela de gabardina.

Cavalo Morto es un lugar que existe en un poema de Lèdo Ivo.

Un lugar que existe en un poema de Lèdo Ivo es un río que madruga para ir a fabricar el agua de las lágrimas, pequeñas mentiras de lluvia heridas por una púa de acacia. En Cavalo Morto los aviones atan con cintas de vapor el cielo como si las nubes fuesen un regalo de Navidad y los felices y los infelices suben directamente a los hipódromos eternos por la escalerilla del anillador de gaviotas.

Cavalo Morto es un lugar que existe en un poema de Lèdo Ivo.

Un poema de Lèdo Ivo es el amante de un reloj de sol que abandona de puntillas los hostales de la mañana siguiente. La mañana siguiente es lo que iban a decirse aquellos que nunca llegaron a encontrarse, los que aún así se amaron y salen del brazo con la brisa del anochecer a celebrar el cumpleaños de los árboles y escriben partituras con el timbre de las bicicletas.

Cavalo Morto es un lugar que existe en un poema de Lèdo Ivo.

Lèdo Ivo es una escuela llena de pinzones y un timonel que canta en el platillo de leche. Lèdo Ivo es un enfermero que venda las olas y enciende con su beso las bombillas de los barcos. En Cavalo Morto todas las cosas perfectas pertenecen a otro, como pertenece la tuerca de las estrellas marinas al saqueador de las cabezas sonámbulas y el cartero de las rosas del domingo a la coronita de luz de las empleadas domésticas.

Cavalo Morto es un lugar que existe en un poema de Lèdo Ivo.

En Cavalo Morto cuando muere un caballo se llama a Lèdo Ivo para que lo resucite, cuando muere un evangelista se llama a Lèdo Ivo para que lo resucite, cuando muere Lèdo Ivo llaman al sastre de las mariposas para que lo resucite. Háganme caso, los recuerdos hermosos son fugaces como las ardillas, cada amor que termina es un cementerio de abrazos y Cavalo Morto es un lugar que no existe.

And here are two brief poems of Lȇdo Ivo that I translated for my Pine Press edition of his work:

The Eternal Calling

Like the ant that climbs the bed of a man
drawn by the sweet urine
damned up in the lagoons of the night,
so you climbed up to me and called.

Death is a foolish matron, a loony ant
that gets drunk on the urine of men.

The Open Gate

The closed gate
is open today.
What was far away
is now nearby.

Like this, the beginning
turns into the end.
All roads
lead to the garden.

We’ll never know
if it’s day or night
beyond the gate.

It’s necessary to dream.
A spider weaves
our paradise.

A recent poem and elegy of sorts of Lȇdo Ivo’s, Requiem, appeared in English in Rebecca Seiferle’s www. thedrunkenboat.com. Here is a photo of Lȇdo Ivo and yours truly taken in the early 80s outside of his countryside villa in the rainforest not far from Rio de Janeiro.

Lȇdo Ivo and the author, early 80s, at Lȇdo’s sitio near Rio de Janerio.
Lȇdo Ivo and the author, early 80s, at Lȇdo’s sitio near Rio de Janerio.

And here is a photo of Lȇdo Ivo and Juan Carlos Mestre taken not so long ago:

Juan Carlos Mestre with Lȇdo Ivo,  photo from tamtam press
Juan Carlos Mestre with Lȇdo Ivo, photo from tamtam press

And now we go to the Irish poet, Dennis O’Driscoll, who died unexpectedly on Christmas Eve. I have already featured him and his fine poetry in the previous Letters from Vilnius. Dennis was fascinated by the Baltics and Eastern European poetry in general, so palpable in his essays on poets and his tome of interviews with Seamus Heaney. And like many of us, fascinated by the poetry of Czesław Miłosz. I offer up this poem of Dennis’s as a tribute to one of our great contemporaries. I culled it from the New and Selected Poems, Anvil Press Poetry, 2004.


someone is dressing up for death today, a change of skirt or tie
eating a final feast of buttered sliced pan, tea
scarcely having noticed the erection that was his last
shaving his face to marble for the icy laying out
spraying with deodorant her coarse armpit grass
someone today is leaving home on business
saluting, terminally, the neighbours who will join in the cortege
someone is paring his nails for the last time, a precious moment
someone’s waist will not be marked with elastic in the future
someone is putting out milkbottles for a day that will not come
someone’s fresh breath is about to be taken clean away
someone is writing a cheque that will be rejected as ‘drawer deceased’
someone is circling posthumous dates on a calendar
someone is listening to an irrelevant weather forecast
someone is making rash promises to friends
someone’s coffin is being sanded, laminated, shined
who feels this morning quite as well as ever
someone if asked would find nothing remarkable in today’s date
perfume and goodbyes her final will and testament
someone today is seeing the world for the last time
as innocently as he had seen it first

Though it is only a benign fantasy, I imagine that Dennis was sitting down to his last feast of buttered sliced pan (simply pre-sliced bread) as in the poem above, just as Lȇdo was feasting at a restaurant in Seville when he begin to feel ill. Dennis wrote in a poem entitled Christmas: “Christmas is always brandished above your head / a carving knife;”.  We eat and we are eaten.

Long ago I discovered the word eat buried in the word death.

And now to the Lithuanian poet, essayist, and chronicler that was so dear to many of us, and especially dear to Bacchus, Stasys Stacevičius, who shortly into the New Year vanished while returning home from his uncle’s funeral, an uncle who had hanged himself, in what seems to be a Lithuanian pastime, especially in times of crisis (forever in this part of the world), and perhaps especially so in the relentless Winter-witch gloom. Stasys’ body was found about a week later frozen in the snow. He had no car, no money for a car, nor did he seem to care. He walked the fields and country roads all the time, a Baltic John Clare, and his poems welled up from within them and from within his Being in them. Stasys was the Last Jotvingian, self-proclaimed. Wonderful lyrics. A generous man. A born poet, who like any true, lyric poet seldom veers from Eros and Thanatos. While folks were searching for him far away in “dark” Merkinė, I had decided to teach my daughter a poem in English since she was memorizing poems and reciting them. By chance, I opened a favorite anthology of mine compiled by Robert Bly among others, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, poems for men. Well, not really. Poems for everyone. Even Bly and Rich, as I can attest by their banter while once sharing a car ride with them, were friends of sorts, each with their own distinct spiels. I flipped the book open to quickly find something, and the first poem my eyes fell on was a translation from the Spanish of a poem by Federico García Lorca, Little Infinite Poem. It begins like this:

To take the wrong road
is to arrive at the snow,
and to arrive at the snow
is to get down on all fours for twenty centuries and eat the
grasses of the cemeteries.”

I stopped short and closed the book, and thought I’ll teach her this at a later time. But here is a poem of Stasys’ that the Lithuanian poet, Sonata Paliulytė and I co-translated a few years back.

Sonata was, is, particularly fond of Stasys – they share a certain pathos, as we all once shared the firewater with him to excess:


Should you wake at dusk, my painter, while we’re alone,
should you paint a picture of both sides of a coin:
on the first side us, giddy and young, on a hilltop,
on the second – two graves perhaps, and the wind whistling.

On the coin’s second side – the wind blows harder,
and the bed-sheets flap – the blank cloth of consciousness.
On the first side I’m shaking my fist at thunderclouds,
on the second – I’m watching the night, my hands gripping my head.

You would paint lots of money; we’d choose among the boats
perhaps the coziest one, perhaps we’d buy an island –
to start our small tribe… I would seed lots of late oaks.
But… On which surface of the coin, yesterday, did we freeze?

There aren’t any coins, and there won’t be a lovelier oblation
than the news or flames leaping out of a shelter of stumps.
On the first side of the coin, at dusk, I’m carrying a bride
up a steep hill, on the second – the hill’s buried in snow.

No title except perhaps the 3 Xs, number 30 or as here just a separation, can be a coded title for our purposes, 3 kisses to his battered, beloved Muse with whom I think his wizened self still roams in his heart calling out for Redemption in the wooded countryside despite their “two roads (having) diverged in a yellow wood.”

And here is another poem we translated by Stacevičius:

Don’t be too upset when I die,
my mom
kept repeating,
keep tapping away at the computer,
don’t be too upset
when I die.

the cemetery resembles
a huge keyboard to me,
and the tombs
resemble the keys,
but the screens don’t always
look like the glare of

It must be clear
which key I need to tap
to begin what are for me
the most beautiful lines.

not about the flowering keyboard,
where the newest key
is endlessly bright
while the others are hidden
by needles, pinecones, grass.

On All Soul’s Day
candles are lit
on an infinity of keys –
so I’ll not be too quick
to write or to ruin
what was written by others.

And sometimes I’ll burn
more than just my fingers
though afterwards not harbor
a bad thought about the fire.

It should be clear
which key needs to be tapped
in order to be able to mail
the tardy letter.

not about the darkening keyboard
by people, shadows, rain,
and it is hopelessly clear which key
I must use to erase
the saddest lines.

Perhaps not those about the keyboard at dawn,
which sometimes is full
of fresh snow,
whose keys it seems
to a secret musical instrument.

The keys probably
are connected with home
though the windows make a sound
at rare intervals like “Te Deum”
as a bird hits the glass

and vanishes
and above the old key
there’s a scent of a new one.

I don’t know how to plug in
that keyboard,
but sometimes
it plugs itself,
and it’s not important then
if it’s warmer in the past
or if it’s snowing throughout the keyboard.


above photo, at Stasys Stacevicius’ grave, Merkinė, January, 2013. Photo by Benas Janusevicius
above photo, at Stasys Stacevicius’ grave, Merkinė, January, 2013. Photo by Benas Janusevicius
Lithuanian Poet-laureate, Stasys Stacevičius, Merkinė, photographer unknown
Lithuanian Poet-laureate, Stasys Stacevičius, Merkinė, photographer unknown

And to end this Letter with a poem by Lȇdo Ivo:

Steps In The Snow

I’m looking for a place
to hide
and find light.

The day passes
within reach of my hand
like a bird.

Under the protection of a diamond
the hay is stacked up in the barn.
Light inhabits the perfection of ice.

I see forever
the crow that squawks in the pines
and the white mountains of God.

Together with the frozen river
a motionless horse waits
for the brilliant night.

I’m looking for a place.
And I wander in the snow
like a foreigner.

tr. Kerry Shawn Keys, from Landsend, Selected Poems of Lȇdo Ivo, 1998.

It’s snowy now in Lithuania and Užupis – my son, just, an hour ago, plastered me in the ear with an icy ball of soot and snow. We were on our way home from a courtyard where everyone was dancing and singing while they burnt the Witch of Winter to welcome in the Spring. My coat caught on fire – a revengeful witch!




kerry shawn keys wikipedia – Google Search

Night Flight by Kerry Keys

Vladimir Tarasov Quartet, “Nada” – YouTube   (2009 Russian Theatre Performance, Kerry Shawn Keys deconstructing his poem “Nada”; Joelle Leandre and Vytis Nivinskas bass; Vladimir Tarasov, percussion.


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