Republic of Užupis: Crossroads of World Poetry, Dispatch 2, Spring, 2013

by Kerry Shawn Keys

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 hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof”;  “everyone has the right to be idle.”

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

We tended purple irises each year
and pink peonies, with their lush petals
and heavy heads that showered water beads
that soaked my clogs after spring rains came through.
Marytė’s voice in the book, Straws and Shadows, Irena Praitis

Mid-Spring and the budding trees and birds of Lithuania are tangled in a mosaic with their distant relatives in Southern California, and a few cactuses and butterflies and telephone wires thrown in. Sitting on the back deck at Angie’s lovely home in San Diego, I have been thinking of the poems and fiction by the Korean novelist, Hailji (Rim, Jong-joo), who just visited Lithuania and the Republic of Užupis over Winter in a forlorn search for the smile of Julija that he hoped might be fluttering somewhere between the watering holes, of My Cafe and the Cactus, the former’s current alias. Rim used to haunt the dark streets and pubs hours on end, after that Cheshire grin. Besides writing novels and dabbling in film scripts for his novels, Hailji made his mark as a poet in a lovely little book, Blue Meditation of the Clocks, where time and a gun and clocks and snakes and virgins share the woof and warp of his Lila’s loom.

Where to begin? I suppose back in the early 90’s in the Mayflower dorms at the University of Iowa, where the International Writing Program (IWP) then interned its participants. Accomplished writers and tipplers and not so accomplished writers and tipplers have been coming to that font for over 50 years to cavort, to write a bit, and to get a taste of greasy, good old American fries. They stay about 2 ½ months and travel a bit around the States. “Rim” was among these elite. At that time I happened to be the American writer-in-residence for two Autumns running. I also served as Ombudsman, Ganymede with tequila, and pub crawling companion for this talented and very often delightfully dissolute batch of writers. While there, Hailji, whose English vocabulary was probably limited to about 1000 words ( Jerry Stern used to do a hilarious imitation of Hailji’s mantra, “in my country…”), decided to embark on his first book of poems – and he would write it in English, and I would be his guinea pig to applaud and tidy up the grammar a bit, including the “a’s” and the “the’s”. He soon finished a manuscript. It was, to say the least, quite unusual, and then the question arose as to what to do with it. I decided on the spot to resurrect my funky little press from the past, Pine Press, ISBNs and all. I don’t remember the exact count, but I think I printed about 800 copies, keeping half for myself to give away, and bestowing the other 400 on Hailji. He had suddenly become a poet; and I had suddenly become a patron of the arts. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to Blue Meditations…, followed by the first poem in the book:

“The poems have a kind of mechanical and Leibnizian universality about them. Unlike Melampus, Rim’s ears were never licked by any snakes, including those of his poems. Nothing organic here. No flesh and blood animal except Rim, himself. The words are about something else. There is a precision to them, the gears skirmish with Death, Time, and Kali. And there is a position, a kind of existential mythos, the human stance of the hands or the digits of a clock, a kind of mythical blending, maybe even a “happening.” I feel the weird haunts of Camus and Mishima as pentimenti housed in the poet. A week after his expulsion from the “Fox-Heat” bar in Iowa City for attempting to insult the bartender Ssaurabi fashion, I remember him saying, “Let’s go back. We will have an event.” He wanted his watch to go back in also, he wanted to take his allotted time back to the watering hole. By making up an “event,” a fight, a mythic happening, his time could be protected from passing Time. He could freeze it with an act, a stance, an architectonic set-up. Rim’s poems act in the same way. They are lyrics taken to the extreme – obsessional rhythmic repetitions, Annabel Lees as mute virgins, outside Time, inside the poem, outside the poet’s grasp, outside. The eternal nature of all this, however, gives everything the dull sheen of an incorruptible, cold icon.”

A Watch In My Dream

So many times, I’ve dreamed of a watch,
a watch with two or three hands, of course,
a watch like the dance of a snake, like darkness
on the night of the birthday of an old sawyer,
like death without survivors, like the nipples
of Marianne.

I think that I have the right to dream of a watch,
a watch with two or three hands, of course,
like everybody dreams of a frog,
a frog with four legs, of course.

It’s true, other days
I dreamed of other things,
some things sour, some blue.
But, one day, I decided to dream of a watch.

So many times, I’ve dreamed of a watch,
a watch with two or three hands, of course,
a watch like a cigarette burning itself,
like the debauchery of the clerk’s wife
in the stationary store, like the scale of vowels,
like a cold moon…
a watch that will kill me.

To make a long story a bit longer, Hailji soon returned to South Korea as a fashion model all decked out in a wardrobe chosen by the Russian poet, Mark Shatunovsky (who is also featured in the book in a poem titled The Night of Mark Shatunovsky). The third stanza from that poem:

During the night without night in his night,
my Russian friend Mark Shatunovsky
goes out to solicit a blue night,
a triangular night.
But nobody has an unmarred night
to rent him.

Well, both Hailji’s new, camelhair Pushkin wardrobe and his poetry were a hit. A very fine press decided to publish a Korean translation, and it was greeted with some avant-garde success. Shortly thereafter, I moved to Vilnius. Over the years, Hailji visited me and Vilnius and the Republic of Užupis many times, and soon started to write a screen play and script for a road movie that he entitled The Republic of Užupis that he envisioned would be produced in Lithuania. A well-known Korean film maker came to scope out the possibility of a film, but filming in the former Russian and Polish colony was not so cheap as imagined, and the project fell to the wayside. But a decade later the script had become a novel, and was translated into English, and soon thereafter into Lithuanian under the guidance of the Lithuanian poet and former Minister of Culture, Kornelijus Platelis.

This brings us to the Winter of 2013, and Hailji’s triumphal return for the Lithuanian launching of his novel at the Vilnius Book Fair. A heavy and hectic two weeks of readings and presentations throughout the country and, of course, a recitation at the Užupis Café, the heart of the poetry scene in the Republic. Julija’s smile remained wrapped in the clouds of his imagination, but Fortune smiled on us with an abundance of vodka and whiskey. And so it was a marvelous two weeks with a perilous and very eccentric teller of tales. To get an idea of this eccentricity, here is an excerpt from a short road-story, Orbit Kalnas, by an ‘Anon’ Lithuanian author. The lead protagonist is the culprit we are describing:

“In the end, it wasn’t such a bad trip. I took the bus straight to Nida. Lithuania is a land of fields, forests, heavy-air balloons, lakes, and beautiful lasses. I counted exactly 333 hitchhiking girls I would have died to pick up. I even tried telling the bus driver to do so, but he only understood German. So, no luck. When in desperation I designed an hourglass figure in the air (the perfect San Diego type), he stopped the bus for me to take a leak.  The consensus of the passengers was that I was diagramming my bladder. I went into the woods but there were so many mushrooms, and not wishing to offend Karangola or any of his possible offspring, I just pretended to pee. Soon I thought my bladder would indeed burst like a puffball full of beer. The other passengers must have thought I had prostate problems the way I was moaning and fumbling with the door of the WC. Or they might have thought I was too shy to squirt or take a dump in the woods. Unfortunately, the WC on the bus was locked. I was later told that most of the toilets suffered from leaks and that an extra yellow line had developed on the highway causing a lot of traffic chaos, and so a law had been passed to keep all bus WCs locked. It was a beautiful trip after the bus again stopped and I managed to relieve myself on the back tire, not even attempting the woods again. I had earlier been a little apprehensive when Neringa was referred to as a spit, but then had heard that a spit is a peninsula of sorts. It was late afternoon. The bus dropped me off in the center, and fortunately – I thought at the time – the Tourist Bureau was right there and still open. Mr. Indus hadn’t drawn me a map of Nida, and I had no idea in the world how to proceed to Orbit Kalnas.” Karangola is a Brazilian orixa; and rumors have it that Mr. Indus refers to the Lithuanian poet, Kornelijus Platelis.

Hailji, early on in the 2nd Millennium, Vilnius.  Photo by Kerry Shawn Keys
Hailji, early on in the 2nd Millennium, Vilnius. Photo by Kerry Shawn Keys

And now what follows is an excerpt from the novel, The Republic of Uzupis, where the deadpan almost miniaturist style contrasts so much with the almost surreal and flamboyant poetry of the Blue Meditation of the Clocks. What they do have in common is a kind of grey and sinister sheen:

“And where is your final destination?”

“The Užupis Republic.”

When this response was relayed to them, the two agents once again conferred, this time at some length, and then appeared to reach a decision.  After one last directive to the woman they left.

The young woman produced a form and asked Hal to sign it, and when this was done she stamped his passport.  “We are admitting you for forty-eight hours.  If you are unable to exit the country in that time, it’s your responsibility to report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs authorities who deal with foreign nationals; the address is here,” said the woman as she returned Hal’s passport along with the form.

After thanking her, Hal was proceeding toward the arrival area when she asked him one last question.

“The Užupis Republic?”

“That’s right.”

“Where is that, anyway?”

Hal looked dubiously at the woman without answering.

After changing money Hal left the terminal with his overcoat draped over his arm.  It was snowing and there was a sodden chill to the air.  Hal quickly donned the coat.  It was stylish and of high quality but looked too lightweight for the severe winters of this country.  Evidently Hal didn’t realize what winter was like here.

The plaza outside the terminal was nondescript and there wasn’t much activity.  It reminded Hal of a train station you might find in a small city in the countryside.  A file of yellow taxis, a dozen or so, awaited fares, and a short distance off, a blue metro bus sat idling; there were no other vehicles.  The plaza had turned into a sheet of ice, and beyond it spread a grove of birches.  Hal looked as if he didn’t know what to make of it all, as if he had never seen such a small, unprepossessing international airport.

“Where are you going?”

One of the taxi drivers had approached Hal, a man who looked to be in his mid-forties at the most but whose hair had already turned white.  His English was passable.

“Užupis,” said Hal.

“Užupis?” said the taxi driver, as if he had never heard the name before.

“Yes, the Užupis Republic.”

“Užupis Republic?”  The taxi driver looked even more puzzled.

Hal produced a postcard and offered it to the driver.  “Here’s the address.  I think maybe it’s not so far from here.  Because the postmark is Vilnius, Lithuania.”

Hailji is due back in Vilnius and the Republic this Autumn to explore once again his idea of filming a road novel here. With the book as the groundwork and Hailji’s persistence, it seems this time around we may have a film in the works.

During my recent visit to the States, I got the sad news that the very much esteemed and important Lithuanian poet, Marcelijus Martinaitis, had died. He was 77. Marcelijus Martinaitis had been a professor of Lithuanian literature at Vilnius University since time immemorial (very unusual in Lithuania for a poet to be a professor and also teach writing), and had been quite active in the upheaval through which Lithuanian won its independence from the Soviet Union. A risky business back then, and so, besides being respected as an accomplished poet, his activity during the last throes of Russia’s occupation gained him much admiration. He was also much beloved by his students, and one in particular, Laima Vince (Sruogonis), an American poet and professor who has translated  a considerable amount of Martinaitis’s poems. And they are fine, carefully wrought translations. White Pine Press under the direction of Dennis Maloney has recently published Martinaitis’s K.B. Suspect. Like his earlier book, Ballads of Kukutis, it is masterpiece in its own right in the lineage of such great masters as Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito, and in a small way to Italo Calvino’s Mr. Palomar. The lead narrator is a kind of persona of many a citizen of these parts – one foot in the Soviet Union of old, the other in the strange new world of ‘post-independence’ Lithuania ( though independence is a tricky term when globalization, Russia, Guilt-mongers, the European Union, shale-sharks, and PC ideological and cultural control are breathing down your neck, and many in the countryside are more dependent on alcohol and unemployment than hope of a better future).

Here is a poem from K.B. Suspect:

K.B.: Trash Angels

At dusk
they suddenly appear out of nowhere –
as if from a painting by Bosch, as if from the beyond,
or from a world of shadows.
Surrounding the dumpsters, they go to work,
their arms sunk in up to their elbows,
as if looking for signs of life
above a butchered beast:
for lungs, the heart, the liver.

Who is this trash-pickers’ community?
The Starving? Bums?
Alcoholics? Former hot-shots?

They work slowly, concentrating,
until they’re replaced
by stray cats
sitting a bit off to the side.

They pull things out and stuff them into sacks,
what’s still usable, what can still be civilized.

All the rest, they throw back –
torn family albums a book without a cover
a canary in a plastic bag ragged
suede gloves shreds from a ballroom gown
splinters of cut-glass drafts of poems
dentures a collection of old postcards
an invitation to a celebration
election promises of politicians
a torn in half wedding photograph –
everything already anesthetized:
hopes trust appreciation
mourning intrigues pride
turned to garbage…

As if they were the last judges,
angels from the world of shadows –
alongside the dumpsters, furiously sorting
bringing history to a close.

translation, Eugenijus Ališanka and Kerry Shawn Keys

photo of Marcelijus Martinaitis, photographer unknown
photo of Marcelijus Martinaitis, photographer unknown

Another book of immense popularity in Lithuania was his much earlier (1977), Ballads of Kukutis. Here, Marcelijus Martinaitis follows the voice and character of Kukutis around Lithuania. K is the wise fool or rustic in the tradition of the Third Brother. Here’s a poem from this:

Kukutis’ visit in Vilnius

– How big Vilnius is!
At one end a stork perched on its leg,
at the other – one hears rat-a-tat-tatting!
On one side folks cut rye,
on the other –
bound sheaves,
on one side –
a child cries,
on the other –
wipes his eyes;
on one –
somebody sings,
on the other –
the accompaniment …

How big Vilnius is!
Like so it spreads over the fields of Lithuania:
through Dubysa,
through Luokė,
through Žematija,
till it ends up at the sea!

translation, Kerry Shawn Keys and Eugenijus Ališanka

I often lend out KB and believe it gives some excellent insight to anyone thinking of coming to Lithuania – a few weeks ago, the poet Heather Thomas was prepping with it for her travels here to participate in the Poetry Spring Festival. Lee Sharkey also had a copy squirreled away in the forests of Maine. Certainly, I hope to have a few of these poems featured in the summerliteraryseminars (SLS Lithuania) this summer. Below, one more poem of Marcelijus Martinaitis from KB. All of these were co-translated for a gallery exhibit of Lithuanian poets that will travel from the National Gallery in Vilnius to Leipzig, Glasgow, and elsewhere in the second half of the year when Lithuania holds the presidency of the European Union.

Seen Somewhere

People say that they ate each other up.

Gingerly when young
they devoured each other with their eyes,
especially him:
her lips, cheeks, breasts.

Later impassioned
they fastened lip to lip –
clear to their brains,
blending into one body,
over and over, insatiable.

It was called love,
until life befell them:
suspicion, poverty, discord.

Old folks
they gnaw away at each other – until the bone:
out of habit, loneliness,
not knowing what to do,
already deaf.

While life ebbs away,
they nag and gnaw from morning till night
bodies eroded by time –
like old coats
shackled together.

Neither one takes its eyes from the other:
jabbing blunt dull looks
already almost past death
at the gates of the hell.

translation, Eugenijus Ališanka and Kerry Shawn Keys

What better way to end Dispatch 2, than to come full circle with a Užupis Republic poem about its native tongue that was first spoken in the Republic in honor of Hailji on his recent visit there along the Vilna River which borders the Republic, shortly before St Patrick’s Day when the waters flowed green, and a couple of months before April 1 when all of us bohemian Užupis Fools come out to play:


stonewalls do not a prison make
nor steely barbs a cage
– Dick Lovelaced

I speak Užupiškey.
Sometimes I speak firewater or whiskey.
I used to speak Anglitzkey
’til I lost the keys
to my native language tree.
Heaven and Hell are my linguae francae.
I also converse my Cuntree Tis of Thee
and stutter a Tarzan-Lootoowishkey.
Everyman knows of the Man without a Country
and so in precaution I speak pure polyphony
talking my head off daily
to Everywoman whose nothing to me.
Nightly, I invoke a femme fatale’s hospitality.
As payback, mostly I speak Purgatory
or mime the silence of Eternity.
But today, sentenced by the testimony
of my jailbait-Muse’s jealous treachery,
I languish in solitary
confined to this soliloquy
in my tongue’s unfettered Užupiškey.

Photo of the Vilna River, bordering the Užupis Republic, Lily Neill from FB
Photo of the Vilna River, bordering the Užupis Republic, Lily Neill from FB

“Verde que te quiero verde. Verde viento. Verdes ramas.” Can you spot the mermaid?

She wandered down from near the Vilnius airport with a Mexican poet, Zorro, and now lives in that little alcove above the Vilna:

“Sobre el rostro del aljibe se mecía la gitana. Verde carne, pelo verde, con ojos de fría plata.”

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