Republic of Užupis: Crossroads of World Poetry, Dispatch 4, Autumn, 2014

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.

image001
Vilnelė River at Užupis Café, Republic of Užupis, 2013, photo by Lamont Steptoe

And another article from the Constitution: “Everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty”.

I’ve been remiss on this Dispatch for some time, but the excuse is a good one, legit. Robert Johnson (“Mmmm, the sun goin’ down, boy, dark gon’ catch me here”), himself, whisked me away from the crossroads before sundown. Not Eshu, but the ‘man’, himself – Carangola and Robert are both itinerants of the Muse, with a lot in common. I suppose it was the kitsch Angel that presides over the circle near the Užupis constitution that prompted us taking a little breather, and to hang out under its predecessor, the gigantic and colorful Egg that incubates in a stork’s nest in a derelict plaza off of St. Stephen’s Street at Pylimo in Old Town, Vilnius. See the photo below:

Egg As In Egg

As in sulfuric sorcery.
As Easter is a shattered egg in an urn.
My uncle’s ashes melt the snow.
A subdued pastel, our mecca is the dawn.
These shamans are jokers painting themselves red and green
to look like eggs embalmed in traffic lights.
Stop the sun and breathe in your tracks.
Earth is the most delicate of eggs.
O’ Firebird, eat your red snakes with green wings.
Eggs break the heart.
My grandmother lays jumbo eggs and sells them
as Brazilian footballs after they harden in the sun.
It’s an unlucky egg that becomes a chicken.
When the bantam was goosed it laid a golden egg.
I bought half-a-dozen for Chagall.
I tremble at the idea of cleaning up after a fallen egg.
A broken egg binds two souls in sorrow.
Omega   Omega   Omega
The Socratic egg gravitates toward a newspaper
with catastrophic headlines.
My left eye is an egg named Iris with a filament
of blood creeping across a cloudy sky.
We stole an egg from the angel’s nest.
A clear voice surrounds the yolk.
Philology smells like a missing, broken egg.
Ovid—Ovum—Orpheus
Apple   Apple   Apple
Brown eggshells are incubating folktales.
Bread not stone. Fish not serpent. Egg not scorpion.
Open   Open   Open
It’s a professional egg that comes out last.
The eggs in my basket are the size of a Golden Eagle’s
but the color of a Great Blue Heron’s.
My eggs roll around like whole notes
when the Muse mouths them.
She’s singing an Easter Psalm.
Tristan’s plucking the harp for Iseult of Ireland. Mark
who’s watching.
I’m giving birth to a poem.

painting by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1902 – “Mark who’s watching”.
painting by Edmund Blair Leighton, 1902 – “Mark who’s watching”

After some months in the former bird market waiting for something more to hatch, Bob departed disappointed for Memphis, but my compass pointed elsewhere, and I boarded a magic carpet with a local streetwalker, Jasmine, and we headed for  Kyrgyzstan. It was there in the once green city of Bishkek, that this Dispatch finally came together. Bishkek reminds me a bit of Skopje now, but once, I hear, it was the greenest of cities, greener than Greenpeace itself, greener than a polyploidy of a Dali/Garcia-Lorca and a Chagall violinist, greener than a kornucopia of belissimo green mangoes from Belo Horizonte. To escape the green smog and the ash-green patina of the streets, I started to recite over and over the following Garcia-Lorca love poem:

Verde que te quiero verde.
Verde viento. Verdes ramas.
El barco sobre la mar
y el caballo en la montaña.
Con la sombra en la cintura
ella sueña en su baranda,
verde carne, pelo verde,
con ojos de fría plata.
Verde que te quiero verde.
Bajo la luna gitana,
las cosas le están mirando
y ella no puede mirarlas.

            And then out of the blue a love poem by the American poet, Lamont Steptoe, came to mind – must have been a flurry of associations from the poet Rick Kearns’ Oswald Suite back to Miles Davis’ ‘Blue in Green’ and then Lamont. One of his many for his mother:

There is a house
with all the rooms filled with Momma
but there is a river
that separates me from this house
it is a wide river
a river so wide that
it must be called a sea
yes, a sea
a sea so wide
that it must be called time
yes, time
a time so wide that it must be called death
yes, death

and this from another poem that deals with Steptoe’s Vietnam horror:

Mama said, pointing to my high school graduation photograph,

‘That’s the Lamont I want to see.’

In the image I’m clean-shaved, with close-cropped haircut, eyes bright with promise, wide smile.

The rage of black life in white America not yet etched in my face.

Unlike the bearded, afroed, intense black dude that sat in the Pittsburgh kitchen across from her. …

He died in Vietnam, mama.

And a love poem, or perhaps just a poem of an encounter with passion, shades of Cavafy in its matter of fact tone:

Strange Room

He’s tall honey colored passionate
I enter him like a strange room
Where I will spend the night
Beautiful objects from exotic places
Decorate the interior
There are silk covered pillows
Oriental rugs copper lamps with green shades
Bed, chair, dresser, nightstand
All antique
From another time
We close an ornate oaken door
We oil the night
With our sweat

            Lamont read many of these poems in Užupis, in Druskininkai, in Vilnius. Steptoe comes at you from everywhere. He harbors a walking stick that might be a wand, and I believe he might have been a rabbit’s foot in his previous life. Though he is from Pittsburgh, mostly he has haunted Philadelphia and Camden, and is an heir to Whitman in his range and fluid intensity, his humanity, his epic scope, his gift, his prodigious output. Some might want to categorize Steptoe as an African-American poet but this only partly true – like referring to Obama as the African-American President and not just President. A way of reducing or distorting him to an Other or an exclusive US-Black-Dudes, rather than the Inclusive US of much of his poetry.  Here are two more examples from a thousand I could chose from.

Wooden Indians

America
Keeps its Red nations

Imprisoned in history
Books

Trapped in wired landscapes
Frozen in wood

On the front porches
Of trading posts

Stored in countless
Warehouses in celluloid universes

Staggering and maddened
By powerful visions

Of what was lost
Like Blacks some escape

Into the modernity
Of a white machine

Air conditioned and computerized
Haunted by sun dances and ghost dances

Spooked buffalo
Charging in lightninged

Landscapes

 

At the Shore

At the shore
Shackled and chained
Hobbled in iron
Many of the African captives
Grabbed fistfuls of earth
For the last time
Filled their mouths with Mother Africa
They swallowed their culture
Filling their bellies with Black Power
Before sailing into the unknown
The sun was a bloody mucus
That sizzled as it slipped beneath the horizon
They ate the continent they were leaving
An unusual kind of grieving
The was the last meal of the condemned
The stink and confinement of the ships hole
Awaited them
The rage of whips and curses and rape
The cruel jaws of sharks
The deep dungeon of unmerciful salt water
Stood as their future
The journey they faced
Left them zombies if they survived
Death was a blessing
At the shore
They swallowed their land
Like a communion wafer
Of a religion the other side of nightmare

 

T(h)omas Chepaitis, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Užupis, appointed Lamont Steptoe the Republic’s Ambasador to African-American Poetry, and from this perspective, he is certainly heir to Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and, in his more politicized poems, to Dennis Brutas, the South African poet whose example had a profound influence. Steptoe brought an oracular enthusiasm to many of the younger Užupis and Lithuanian poets who listened to his wisdom, his tall tales, his travel with extra-terrestials( must have had Sun Ra as a sidekick), his shell-shock and Agent Orange versions of shock-and-awe, and the manner in which he transformed his anguish and brilliance into the integrity of an accomplished poet.

And to conclude with two shorter poems:

For Emily Dickinson

Found the house of Emily
Stood in her bedroom door
Marveled at the light she left
Polishing the floor

In The Womb of Woman

Invisibility grows in the womb of woman
Tumbles out
Drenched in the rains of heaven
What blood there is
The price of separation from the stars

  Lamont Steptoe being appointed a Republic of Uzupis Ambassador by the Foreign Minister Tomas Chepaitis, 2013
Lamont Steptoe being appointed a Republic of Užupis Ambassador by the Foreign Minister Tomas Chepaitis, 2013

 

Sun Ra the Cosmic Philosopher and Jazz Musician, painting by Mister ISK
Sun Ra the Cosmic Philosopher and Jazz Musician, painting by Mister ISK

Another poet I am featuring here is the Lithuanian poet, Sonata Paliulytė. I’ve shyed away from this to date in the Vilnius and Užupis Letters and Dispatch because she is my camará (as in capoeira) and spouse, and nepotism runs rampant in these parts. Yet, it would be remiss and negligent to continue to avoid her poetry, especially since she just received the Salomėja Neris Prize for her last book of poems, and is also the translator of a Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, and a Selected of the Welsh poet, Menna Elfyn, in addition to being Lamont Steptoe’s translator, and many other poets writing in English – Alissa Valles, Ilya Kaminsky, Michael Jennings, J.C. Todd, Tom Healey, Anne Sexton, Irena Praitis, George Szirtes, etc. The Salomėja Nėris Prize has little to do with the awardees’ poetry echoing Nėris’ style, but in Sonata’s case they are both lyrical poets, and meter and rhyme are very central to both their prosodies, though Paliulytė’s poems are more monochromatic in their subject matter, and subdued and simple in their monotonal touch. There is no penchant for experimentation, a touch of irony at times, at times embittered, but no ironclad, ironic mask, no playing around with life. It is this directness and a melodic poetry attuned to the ear, much avoided by her contempories, that sets her poetry apart, and early on brought her to the attention of some of the formalists. I’d like to begin by juxtaposing a few stanzas of a poem by Salomėja Nėris (written duirng her Russian “exile”) with one of S. Paliulytė’s.

from I’ll Be Back

Ice carries clear down the Nemunas,
While apple trees turn white.
Think of this. Wait up for me
By the white apple trees.

Summer will run by, barefoot
In the yellowing rye.
Moonlight can make a dewdrop
Bright as a tear.

North wind rides in on horseback
To sear the apple trees.
Meet me there, toward evening,
In the storm whirling through.

(and then the closing stanza)

Gravel by the highway howls.
A cut twig still turns green.
Wait when there is no one else
Waiting anywhere for me.

translation by Vyt Bakaitis

The original rhymes, but I am not sure rhyming in English can keep the strength of her lyrics.

For example, here is the concluding stanza translated by Lionginus Pažūsis, a very fine translator who nearly always goes for the rhymes.

Sticks will bud and start to grow,
Even stones will stir…
Wait for me as long ago,
Now and evermore.

But before I go on to a poem by Sonata, here is one by Edna St. Vincent Millay, who shares a similar sensibility and tone in much of her work:

I shall go back again to the bleak shore
And build a little shanty on the sand
In such a way that the extremest band
Of brittle seaweed shall escape my door
But by a yard or two; and nevermore
Shall I return to take you by the hand.
I shall be gone to what I understand,
And happier than I ever was before.
The love that stood a moment in your eyes,
The words that lay a moment on your tongue,
Are one with all that in a moment dies,
A little under-said and over-sung.
But I shall find the sullen rocks and skies
Unchanged from what they were when I was young.

and a poem by Sonata Paliulytė:

The Beautiful World

An icy wind will blow through white silk.
The world’s as beautiful as a leaf of grass in a field.
Delicate as a dandelion after the bloom,
Delicate as light swallowing moonbeams.

Yellow flowers will float through white palms.
I’ll catch sight of the grey sky through clouds,
Pick a cornucopia of ears of grain –
Hiding one at a time behind my gleaming teeth.

Veiling my weeping with a weather-beaten hand,
I’ll be striding alone down a flaxen country lane.
Names will disappear. Just two shadows will float
In a rubber boat, not even seeing the riverside banks.

Sonata Paliulytė reading at Poetry Spring event, 2014
Sonata Paliulytė reading at Poetry Spring event, 2014

Salomėja is hopeful, “evermore”. Edna says “nevermore”. For Sonata, just “two shadows.”

In all of these poems, pathos or longing reign. A soul out looking for the soul. Bob Dylan as in Nashville Skyline or “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”; not Dylan as Rimbaud in a brothel of wonderfully wild masks and chains. Her quiet but stoic disquiet is an indication of why Sonata Paliulytė is popular among her reserved, Baltic countrymen and women, and with the traditionalists who are nurtured on rhymed verse from childhood. The common but often sophisticated reader that Whitman courted but could never find. Her strength is her lyrical terseness, her, at times, monodic melancholy with its musing monotone, and every so often a touch of wry, understated whimsy. There are no pyrotechnics applied for their own sake. There is no agenda, gender or social, and the denotative style rarely deploys a hidden design, though one senses the springs to be deep, and hence her current uniqueness in the Lithuanian ‘scene’. Three more examples should do:

Potato meditation

Squatting near the garbage,
I peel potatoes.
The ritual’s simple.
Just slitting off the buds.
Just gouging out the eyes,
throwing the peels in a pile.
Thump…thump… the potatoes
clonk the sink.
I’ll grate a big bowl
and cook potato pancakes –
you loved them most of all.
One pancake for the mom,
another – for the dad,
the third – for aunty,
for the grannies
gone now in memories,
for the little one,
for myself,
for all the days and nights,
for all the spilled tears
to be swallowed today with pancakes –
salty pancakes they’ll be.
If someone overdoes it – it means she loves – folks say,
but there’s no mercy today.
Just the frying-pan,
just the well-aimed pop
of the oil;
the bare face
the bare hands –
the center of the target –
the raw potatoes going grey,
and the awkwardly grated
pancakes –
slightly burnt,
like you liked,
steeped
in oil,
steeped
in remembrance.

And:

Auto-da-fe

The sky’s calm
pitches hailstones
into the mute silence.

On the cold palm
the prick of glass
begins to speak.

Above the slow swirl,
white so white,
snowflakes crash.

In heaven’s vault,
snails out of black
clouds take shape.

Slowly, slowly,
on the damp palm
they rush to die,

And earthly angels
try on black robes
for size.

About Time

High amid the birches
the branch-beribboned moon
pours a rill of silver light
into my room.

Lying back on the bedspread
splashed with night’s mosaic,
I touch the skin of time
slithering between the minutes.

So calm, just the hammer
hammering in the clock’s forge,
nailing one more nail
into the passing of time.

Well, I’m still here in Kyrgyzstan, but will doctor this Dispatch after my return to the Republic. I’ve just taken a walk to hunt for an espresso (hard to find) and some camel kvass, and a pint of vodka to bring back to my garish room in the 7 Days rooming house, hotel. It’s close to downtown, a few hundred meters back a gravel road and an abandoned field, with lots of empties and a few torn condoms in the weeds. Snow-capped mountains peer down through my windows, and I will miss them, the kiosk-yurts by the roadside, and Issyk Kul Lake, the mother of all lakes overseeing this part of the world clear to Istanbul! Jamine has rejoined me – she was making some quick bucks in a Green Spa resort not far from Bishkek. Nice work if you can get it. But I dread trying to go through customs at Vilnius Airport with her – Užupis does not yet have a landing strip for Condors, magic carpets, or disenchanted strippers.
Got here. 3 Nines in hand. And will close after this Roethke quote below, by posting a few lines with a clumsy translation of a Kyrgyzstan epic poem, not likely familiar to most workshoppers who seldom get out into the “far field” for a little adrenaline and inspiration, though it does get a bit cold and the air a bit thin at times –

“I dream of journeys repeatedly:
Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel
Of driving alone, without luggage, out a long peninsula,
The road lined with snow-laden second growth,
A fine dry snow ticking the windshield…”

And I went down to the River Vilnelė and recited this on my return to the Crossroads –

on the birth of Manas from the Kyrgyz Epic, MANAS:

When the boy came out crying
Dust arose from the place where he dropped,
When that boy cried
Our hearts leapt and our souls departed.
Those poor nine old women
Experienced a great shock,
Saying that he wasn’t a baby but a monster, indeed,
They [almost] died of fright, I heard.
Those who saw him were troubled.
On the nape of your son’s neck
A gray-black mane was to be seen.
When your Manas dropped to the ground,
He suckled while light shone [from him].
When women were to wrap him
They noticed his other sign,
A black-striped tiger
Pounced from his [left] side.
He jumped over the boy
Three times back and forth
And disappeared from sight.
No one then could see him
Or know where he went.
A gray lion with a short tail
Pounced from his right side.
Seeing the lion,
Women ran away screaming,
‘What kind of a creature is he?’
All the people at once
Ran away all together.
By sniffing the right shoulder
And then the left shoulder
Of the newly born baby Manas,
Making the sound “kür-kür ” and slinking
The hero and the lion
Lay together ready to pounce.
At one glance, he looked like a normal baby,
At another glance, he looked like a gray tiger.
If he grows up safe and sound,
He won’t spare his enemy.
When the enemy’s head hits the ground
The heavens will light up
And the earth will shake.
Your newly born son Manas
Is the beloved child of God,
He is a boy whose each body part
Has the value of ninety thousand animals, indeed.
If he survives,
He will grow into a brave man.
He’ll be a gray-black maned lion
Full of wrath.
He will leave a trail of flame.
His bullets will be steel.
He has been given the name Manas,
There will be no one like him in the world.
We had been exiled from far away,
He is the man who will find for us
Our relatives, the Kyrgyz.
He is the great hero who will erase your grief,
He is the great hero who will treat us with respect.
He came into the world in Altay,
As you see, the Holy Night has arrived.
Think about it, Jakïp khan,
That day for which we longed has come,
Your long-time wish has come to pass.
Today, the event which matched your dream has taken place.
Jakïp bay, your dream came true,
Chïyïrdï gave birth to a boy,
And he was given the name Manas.
Have you ever seen such a thing among your people?!
His figure and looks
When he was born
Matched those in your dream,
Jakïp blessed by kïzïr, listen carefully,
Such a thing occurs but once in an age!
Every sign of your son matched…

Elmira Köçümkulkïzï, translation
from Saiakbai Karalaev’s Recitation

LINKS:
The Kyrgyz epic Manas, online | Amgalant
Sun Ra Arkestra – Face the Music / Space is the … – YouTube► 9:08► 9:08

Sun Ra Arkestra – Face the Music / Space is the … – YouTube

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One comment

  1. Labas Rytas…I was in your country last Fall and wished I would have ventured into the Republic of Uzupis…I spent most of my time in Kaunas and on the Curonian Spit…Vilnius Old Town was wonderful and I shall return…Aciu for all the great poetry you share in your piece! regards–Peter of San Diego

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