Republic of Užupis: Crossroads of World Poetry, Dispatch 3, Autumn, 2013

Republic of Užupis: Crossroads of World Poetry,
Dispatch 3, Autumn, 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 this is the first of thirty-nine articles: everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, while the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone”.

– the author of the Dispatch, 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.

Vilna River at Užupis Café, Republic of Užupis, 2013, photo by Lamont Steptoe
Vilna River at Užupis Café, Republic of Užupis, 2013, photo by Lamont Steptoe

Much time has elapsed since the last Dispatch, but time is eternal in the Užupis Republic, and my Cardi Vostock Russian watch runs in circles, as I have been of late. If as one Master said, “all time is eternally present”, then I will begin this dispatch with 3 poems by a marvelous Polish poet who visited Vilnius and the Republic not too long ago: Tadeusz Dąbrowski. These poems, I believe, identify the major concerns and obsessions of the poet to date – Identity (and the poem as identity); Love and Eros; and God as Ontology itself in the flesh or spirit. Often, they are intermeshed, as in these poems from the book, Black Square, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, published by Zephyr Press in 2011:


Today I chose myself an eye from your nude photo
and enlarged it to the limits of the screen, to
the limits of resolution (and that’s high enough
for one to believe in you). I enlarged

your right eye, wanting after the final mouse click
to jump to the other side, to examine your soul
or at least my own clicked-on self. Around
the forty-fourth enlargement

I saw my own foggy silhouette,
at the sixty-sixth the outline of the camera,
readable to me alone. But beyond that
there was nothing but grey rectangles

neatly laid like bricks in a house, like the
stones in the wailing wall I stand in front of
day and night, doggedly swelling the cracks
with notes filled with my poems.


I carried you unintentionally in my arms from a go-
go club straight into my bed and thoroughly
rubbed you into the bed clothes so that now hardly do I awake
fall asleep or dream that without fail

before my eyes stands a pastel image of quivering
breasts and every single time I feel a delicious
pain as if I don’t give a sniff about conscience. I decided
to be done with it and sprayed the bedclothes with a perfume

that’s my mother’s; despair came over me when
it turned out to be the very same scent (something
like apple). Ever since, when lying in bed
I feel at the same time both good and bad.


God has not retired – as Simone Weil
would have it – a huge distance away, but He’s
right here, so close that I can feel His

caring non-presence. (Which is a word passed over
in silence, an aborted gesture, a suspended
a breath held for a moment. That
not breathing, that’s your life.

I met Tadeusz just once during Poetry Spring in Vilnius, and a group of poets ended up the evening in the courtyard of Literatura ir Menas, the weekly, literary journal helmed by the poet, Kornelijus Platelis. He was intense, and right away one could sense quite learned. I was intrigued enough to pursue his poetry in the English, and early on read many of the poems that would soon appear in Black Square. I then wrote him some brief comments on my response to those poems and to his reading in Vilnius. I see no reason to edit or change my evaluation of what I sensed was going on inside his poetic pilgrimage. And so here is my immediate, epistolary response to a clearly gifted and passionate poet –

“I slowly read through your poems today…finally. Quite to my liking, and the English is very fine…I have no idea of the correspondence to the originals. They read as almost-poems in English, which to my mind is the way translations should be—giving a little mystery of the other syntax and spirit in the original, and not displaying the ego of the translator. I suppose not. I like metaphysical conundrums with an almost tautological query and closure — though your closure is often “open.”

Though they are invariably brooding and self-absorbed, I think this is probably appropriate because I sense that you are …. a poet should go with his/her innate flow, disciplining it at times. The narcissism is restrained and deflected into something much more impersonal. They also reflect a very urban consciousness, very unlike my own, but avoid the triviality of the urban, the banal cataloging. We talked a bit of Czesław Miłosz while we were in Vilnius, but you are also a non-believer believer….and this provides a certain energy. Milosz, unfortunately, eventually used this “halfway house” as a tactic later on in life….. and it became a too easy tactic for him.

When you escape the “I” poems into the “we” poems, the tone is a bit different. I like both. Later on, if you, on occasion, escape the “I” and the “we” poems into another realm, it will be interesting to see how your images work, whether your poems will entertain more classical or historical issues. What is refreshing to me, is the lack of cynicism and refusal to engage in ironic posturing. Your Muse is lucky that you have love for your family and are curious about a God as a being or non-being, and “that is the question” for now.”


In the above, when I mentioned “correspondence to the originals”, I could not help but think of Michael Hofmann’s hysterical and inane review of Alissa Valles’ translation of   Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems. Hofmann goes on and on, in a funny, if he weren’t so serious, breathless rant, comparing her translation with the earlier “authoritative” translation by John and Bogdana Carpenter, which is much to his liking. Though Hofmann admits he cannot read Polish, he bashes Valles’ translations for their inaccuracy in capturing the tone of the original – as if he possessed some magical access to Herbert’s idiom. And for anyone who knows no Polish, it surely takes a lot of hubris to comment on how well a translation captures the original. And when Hofmann cites examples from the Valles and Carpenter versions of the poetry, regarding the quality of the poems as poems in English, it seems to me he is lost in some emotional attachment of his own making since his comments are ass-backwards. But I am not surprised, since Hofmann’s penchant is to wrap a poet up in his own MH narcissism, bowtie and all – as he did so blatantly in his introduction to Durs Grünbein’s Ashes For Breakfast. Fortunately or unfortunately, here in Užupis and Vilnius, we have only one book-length translation of Herbert’s work that I am aware of, and that is Eugenijus Ališanka’s Selected. Z. Herbert was the contemporary Polish most admired in Lithuania until recently. As of late, Milosz has gotten much more attention, but this is primarily due to his honorary status as a “fallen” Lithuanian who should be accepted back into the Church, if only hesitantly. And besides, Milosz touches more of a chord in the thoughtful elderly like myself as duende slowly dances off into the sunrise. Wisława Szymborska, of course, has her cult of followers, but mostly female I am reluctant to say…Lithuania remains decidedly patriarchal and ‘male’ in its tastes in poetry, though there is a sea-change under way. However, I would also say that she is a minor poet compared to Herbert. Like comparing Bishop to Lowell. Fashion and receptivity change rapidly, and it is Tadeusz Różewicz’ poetry that is now championed most by the younger generation of Lithuanian poets, and also by Dąbrowski. Z. Herbert still ghosts Vilnius, his literary and moral quarrel with Milosz. And he had a huge influence on the Lithuanian poet, Marcelijus Martinaitis, as I mentioned in the previous Dispatch. There’s no sense in featuring the Herbert poetry here – easier to go on line and read Michael Hofmann’s tirade and Mark Rudman’s “curtsy” to an additional translation. All of this controversy being ancient history to many, but hopefully not to a younger generation of  readers of Poetry International. I also would suggest the reading of the earlier joint translation by Peter Dale Scott and Czesław Miłosz, which Valles graciously or judiciously included in her book. I particularly enjoyed Valles’ comments on the response to the different versions: “A truly great text—whether a Bible verse or a Paul Celan poem—has no final translation. It will go on inviting new attempts by arrogant young poets who want to measure themselves against the greats. At best, translators engage in the ongoing unfolding of a text, seeing their occupation, as the great philosophers of translation have, as a branch of applied metaphysics. At worst they are like old prostitutes arguing about who gave Napoleon his best night (my italics). The insights one may gain from these squabbles may be thrilling, but they are rather narrow if not informed by broader knowledge.”

Though Lithuania and Vilnius surround the Republic of Užupis, Užupis remains a decidedly independent Crossroads, entertaining and being entertained by poets from many a country. Hordes of such would-be poets and poets descend on Vilnius and the Republic of Užupis every year for Vilnius’s Poetry Spring; SLS Summer Literary Seminars; and Poetic Fall Druskininkai. This year has been no different. Heather Thomas from Reading, PA was here for Poetry Spring. Here is a poem (a pantoum – which has become a fashionable form since the publication of The Making of A Poem, where there are a few delightful examples, including the enigmatic “Pantoum” by the enigmatic John Ashbery) of hers that touches on Vilnius and her partner-poet, Craig Czury.

Odysseus in Amberland
for Craig

Feathery web above my single bed
makes darkness visible, home a lung.
I breathe as if I lived, as if you, precioso,
turn sheets and rain to sails,

make darkness visible, home a lung.
Reach back inside to hold the globe.
Turn sheets and rain to sails.
My dream was once a sleep I heard.

Reach back inside to hold the globe:
a self you saw in me I wonder who.
My dream was once a sleep I heard.
The sparrow calls the dove to sing

a self you saw in me I wonder who.
The deer look back at us, we drink their gaze.
The sparrow calls the dove to sing
as I attach more feathers to the web.
The deer look back at us, we drink their gaze.
Awake you’d rather be a foreigner
as I attach more feathers to the web
and wander mossy gaps of afternoon.

Awake you’d rather be a foreigner
arriving with a book when wine is poured
and wander mossy gaps of afternoon
through amber trails of Vilnius hotels.

Arriving with a book when wine is poured,
I breathe as if I lived, as if you, precioso,
through amber trails of Vilnius hotels
find feathery web above my single bed.

Heather Thomas declaiming a poem; with her, Lithuanian poet, Marius Burokas
Heather Thomas declaiming a poem; with her, Lithuanian poet, Marius Burokas

And this summer at SLS Lithuania (summer literary seminars), so many writers and would-be writers visited and were hosted in the Republic of Užupis, notably the Canadian (of Lithuanian heritage) fiction writer, Antanas Sileika, whose novel, Underground/Pogrindis, was recently translated into Lithuania and featured at the Vilnius Book Fair this past Spring, with a notable reading and presentation at the Užupis Café. But among the poets present, faculty and workshoppers and students, it was Lee Sharkey (along with the heady Russian/Ukrainian poet, Linor Goralik) who stood out (ironically, both had bones busted by treacherous Vilnius promenades).  Lee Sharkey came on a stipend when her poem, In The Capital of A Small Republic, won the Abraham Sutzkever prize for SLS judged by Edward Hirsch despite Dovid Katz’s orchestrated attempt to sabotage the whole affair. Here it is:

In The Capital Of A Small Republic

Tonight I am walking backwards
If I were blind I would know better than to do this
I would use my toes to grip what I walk on
I would sweep my path with a thin white stick
I would dare the crossing but not court misfortune
But tonight it is true I am walking backwards
Bending my right knee so my heel disappears in my trousers
Bending my left knee so my heel disappears in my trousers
If I were sleepwalking I might wander in the aura of God’s protection
But I refuse the illusion of God’s protection
I put my cap on my head my head in my pocket
And set out over the cat’s-head cobbles
Tonight I am walking backwards

How steep the stairs are to this attic
The stone is crumbling my steps are faltering
I climb up extending my right heel backwards
I climb up extending my left heel backwards
I enter backwards so as not to see God
Here in a room where His ghosts are milling
Waiting their turn to sleep in the forest
But tonight as ever they can never leave here
And we keep walking backwards in circles
Passing each other without touching
Weighing each other without glancing
Maybe I’ll take my head from my pocket
Maybe I’ll use it for a flashlight

The dead poet is walking the street again
I am listening for him through my window
The orphans are sleeping the poet is singing
Under your white stars hold out your hand to me
I place my white hand on the railing
And work my way backwards down the broken staircase
Lowering my right foot cautiously
Lowering my left foot cautiously
All the streetlamps have been extinguished
The poet is a chimera a shimmering lion’s face
With angel wings that drag on the cobbles
The stones are what knowledge I have to go on
Down the seven stinking streets of this plague

The street is crawling with cats bone-thin and skittish
But when I walk backwards they prowl forward
The poet has melted the alphabet for bullets
On every balcony he waits a weapon in his hand
In the courtyard children have chalked their names
In an alphabet that is not the poet’s
They are playing a game that is oddly familiar
Jumping in and out of a loop of cord
Hooking it over their footsteps
I am walking backwards through a swarm of bees
Thinking honey is no amulet fury no solace
The poet is flying over the brick wall whispering
Hush   live it backwards   recall

A harsh and gloomy but at the same time lovely and lyric poem. The staircase is stone in this poem, concrete stone. Still, it evokes for me a poem by perhaps the greatest of Vilna’s Yiddish poets, Abraham Sutzkever, after whom this award was established. It goes like this (try not to mind what seems to be an awkward translation):

Wooden Steps

for Freydke

I don’t remember faces. People erased. Of many stairs,
Only the creak of wooden steps without a bannister.

The wooden steps up to my garret, six by six,
Where under the roof sparrows come to parties
And drink and cry and laugh till daybreak.
I don’t remember faces. Their heirs are ruins.

The creak of wooden steps up to my garret winces:
Ah, the poet Leyzer Volf,  not the creak of my princes …
Who taught a shadow to play in the nights?
A flash inscribing in the clouds sky-notes.

Fiddle cases of wooden steps. Inside — the musicians,
Their music drew us off to different regions.
Up to our neck in silences: catastrophe —
But I caught Sirius in a single strophe.

The garret went off to Ponar. The faces too. Of many stares,
I remember the creak of wooden steps without a bannister.


Lee Sharkey’s most recent book is Calendars of Fire, Tupelo Press. A must read of poems engaging the natural world around her in inland Maine, and the political and social barbarism of much of the world around us – and she does the latter without falling into rhetorical truisms…her innate lyricism has finally overrun and seamlessly absorbed the didactic nature of some of the earlier work, without losing the mission of the latter. For example, the last section of the title poem, Calendars of Fire:

Too many rich men
Too many poor men

Hand wringing hand
The moth of famine

Too many poor, amen
Too many rich, amen

Echoes like tin
Through the silence of hemlocks

A creature who slides
Her eyes up a tree trunk

The route sap takes
And imagines

The dead hair
Lifting and falling

The great sail of the body
Borne off by sudden clouds


The moth of famine
Hand wringing hand

Too many rich, amen
Too many poor, amen

Lee Sharkey, 2013, photo by Gregory Talas
Lee Sharkey, 2013, photo by Gregory Talas

As for Sutzkever, I will quote a couple of his poems here, and include more in a future dispatch (all the translations of his work included here are by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav). But for the time being, I would suggest a quick review of his poetry and the links via Wikipedia. An incredibly impressive poet, a romantic by heart (witness his poems from the Omsk, Siberia of his youth, where his father and his father’s iconic violin died) who then had his world torn apart early on in Vilna just before WWII and during the war and after. He was a member of Young Vilna, a partisan fighting in the forests, and his mother and newborn son were murdered by the Nazis in Lithuania. He died in Tel Aviv at the age of 96 in 2010, and had continued to write extraordinary poetry in Yiddish well into his 80s. Here are two of his shorter poems ( he was prolific and wrote many longer, semi-narrative poems), one from the Siberia period, and one written after he had taken up residence in Israel, but looking back to his time in Lithuania.

The North Star

North Star, you who walk along with me,
I’m your snowman in a cloak of skin.
From my coldness, all the neighbors flee,
Just the birches at the fence stay in.
North Star, faithful to the death, I see
How much mildness you recall and stir!
Every summer, fire snows on me,
Winter brings your ringing in my ear.
Let the memory that never passed
To your bluish smile above be sent.
Let these sounds, let this demanding quest,
Over me remain a monument.

(from the Siberia poems)

and see what a star becomes not so long after in the Vilnius ghetto:

A Moment

A moment fell down like a star,
I caught it in my teeth, for keeping.
And when they chopped open its pit,
It sprayed on me a kingdom of weeping.

Each drop mirrored back to me
Another dream, another sense:
Here — a road winged with thousand arms.
Here — a bridge to a dream ascends.

Here — my grandfather, a snake at his head.
Here — my child smashed on a stone.
I also found there one free drop
In which I closed myself alone.

Vilna Ghetto, April 7, 1943

The North Star North Star, you who walk along with me, I'm your snowman in a cloak of skin. From my coldness, all the neighbors flee, Just the birches at the fence stay in. North Star, faithful to the death, I see How much mildness you recall and stir! Every summer, fire snows on me, Winter brings your ringing in my ear. Let the memory that never passed To your bluish smile above be sent. Let these sounds, let this demanding quest, Over me remain a monument.          (from the Siberia poems) and see what a star becomes not so long after in the Vilnius ghetto: A Moment A moment fell down like a star, I caught it in my teeth, for keeping. And when they chopped open its pit, It sprayed on me a kingdom of weeping. Each drop mirrored back to me Another dream, another sense: Here — a road winged with thousand arms. Here — a bridge to a dream ascends. Here — my grandfather, a snake at his head. Here — my child smashed on a stone. I also found there one free drop In which I closed myself alone. Vilna Ghetto, April 7, 1943
.Vilna Ghetto, April 7, 1943

To close this dispatch, I would like to feature some poems by Benediktas Januševičius, better known as Benas. Not only is Benas famous or infamous for his avant-garde poetry (avant-garde in the current Lithuanian context), but he is also the indefatigable cameraman that officially and unofficially haunts many of the poetry events in Lithuania. And it is this combination of sound and visual art that makes him a rather unusual craftsman in Lithuanian artistic circles. The only other Lithuanian poet I can think of who straddles the same domains so successfully is Tomas Butkus ( a bio-technic, Mumford visionary of sorts who constructs poems more than he hears them). Benas’ poems are extremely hard to translate since many of them of late play on sounds and puns within the Lithuanian language. However, he also does conceptual poem-art that could serve as visual ads if they weren’t so ironic or witty. I’ve collected a few of these images where English is employed ( I suppose they are translations) and will paste here as a kind of post-trailer to Dispatch 3.

Benediktas Januševičius
Benediktas Januševičius
Benediktas Januševičius
Benediktas Januševičius
Benediktas Januševičius
Benediktas Januševičius

Written on All Hallows’ Day, November 1st. So here is a grave-cleaning video Link:

Other Links:

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.

American Poet Kerry Shawn Keys Reads in Prague – YouTube

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s