Kornelijus Platelis is a world-class poet whose work, in translation, I discovered a decade ago when visiting Lithuania, and it gave me an extraordinary window into the troubled soul of the place: the voice of a graying man in gray weather in a crumbling gray city (as the title poem of this new collection so lucidly portrays). But also the moments of beauty and transcendence, as in the flash of color in the opening poem “Milk and Tomatoes,” which turns out to be a quietly witty extension of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say.” These are quiet, meditative poems, for the most part, mixing history, myth, reality and dream in linguistically cunning small stories of the alone speaking to the alone. How Jonas Zdanys has managed to translate poems from the oldest surviving Indo-European language (which is extraordinarily complex) into such naturally flowing, colloquial, American-sounding poems is a complete mystery to me, being hopelessly monolingual, but one suspects it points to the deep resonance of the original poems as well as his genius as a translator.
Given the depth, range and subtlety of the work, it is not surprising to learn that a small part of Platelis’s resume includes translating Keats, Pound, Eliot, Cummings, Ted Hughes, Heaney, Milosz and Szymborska (among others) into Lithuanian, or that he, himself, has been translated into Armenian, Belarusian, Chinese, Czech, Estonian, French, Gaelic, Galacian, Georgian, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Macedonian, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish and Ukrainian, as well as English. There is an ease and inevitability of metaphor and classical allusion that bespeaks both great learning and great learning worn lightly as the poems conspire toward a rich and layered complexity of haunting lucidity. Whether the subject is love, architecture or Passover, the poems are full of remarkable invention, entering through mysterious, surprising doors and exiting through equally magical ones. They intrigue and satisfy.
For example, one of the shortest in the book:
The Descending Swan
Into the pond’s mirror
A swan descends silently
And its reflection
Perches on the bottom of evening
And its black feet
Touch the top of the water
And both swans melt into one.
Bending down you whisper something to me without a sound
Then put your head on my shoulder
And disappear behind the fluttering shroud of dreams.