Dispatch 5, Winter, Republic of Uzupis: Crossroads of World Poetry 2016

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.

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

I like to open the Dispatch with additional articles from the Republic’s Constitution, sometimes repeating myself since I pick what seems to fit my mood while writing this. So, here are three that also befit my tardiness in composing this dispatch:

“Everyone has the right to sometimes be unaware of his duties.

Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not a duty.

Everyone has the right to be idle.”

Actually (smelly adverb that it is), I’ve been quite busy being idle about writing prose of any sort…and now I recall a wonderful book that has graced my Hermescourt shelves for years: The Right To be Lazy by Paul Lafargue (Karl Marx’s “flamboyant Cuban-born son-in-law”). My Charles H. Kerr edition has a tight, brief introduction by the wonderful surrealist poet (The Dust on My Eyes is the Blood of Your Hair), and political activist, Joseph Jablonski, in which he writes: “For the Labor movement to really start moving again, the famous surrealist slogan, ‘Down with Work!’ must become one of its central watchwords.” Jablonski’s ancestors hail from greater Lithuania, and I surmize that they must have stumbled around the Republic of Užupis when it was still in its tadpole stage. I imagine that “Joe” is also indebted as I am to Herbert Marcuse, one of whose ancestors was Lafargue. I can recall a few lines from a spoof of a biographical poem I wrote back in my youth (in mocking riposte to Phil Levine’s blue collar summer-job verse that he wore(out) like an epaulet) when I was willingly under the spell of Marcuse:

Now he’s a loafer-class poet
with long hair
and he don’t care
jackshit about no editor,
boss, newspaper, or rah-rah of camera.

All of the above to bring this dispatch in its round-about way to two poets who recently visited the Republic and which I will feature here. I refer the reader to a chapter in Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization – ‘The Images of Orpheus and Narcissus’, which, after referencing Rilke, Novalis, Horace, and others, concludes as follows: “The Orphic Eros transforms being: he masters cruelty and death through liberation. His language is song, and his work is play.” Now let us see how the American poet, Leonard Kress, illuminates American poetry with his semi-biographical, Orphic and playfully idle and at times grim journey into the depths of Americana, in his book, The Orpheus Complex (a necklace of over 70 sonnets). Kress manages to embody Orpheus, even to incarnate the ‘God’, in a way that Rilke chose not to, or could not do. I should insert here that Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus is one of my favorite sequence of poems, and to which my own poetry is much indebted. Early on, I translated a good deal of Rilke while learning German. Though both Kress’s poems and Rilke’s stress the ontology of hearing (sound) as an essential part of being in the very delivery of their poems, Kress’s content is waggishly rooted in a roadtrip across America and trots out his immersion in the great writing and poets of the past of which any excellent poet must by definition be an heir: Ovid; St John of the Cross; Pindar; Jan Kochanowski; Rilke;  Dante; Graves; Gluck (the composer, not the unhappy American hybrid); Catullus; the Greek Anthology; Kierkegaard; Saint Augustine; and on and on. Kress is also a translator of the Polish epic and national poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, and his references to Polish literature in his book bring him into the fold of the Grand Duchy.

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Adam Mickiewicz
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Adam Mickiewicz monument in Vilnius

The opening poem of The Orpheus Complex sets the transgressive, pilgrim’s progress tone and context of much that follows, though it only wheels across the crust of the earth’s inner core:

Orpheus On And Off The Road

A blinding locust storm in southern Illinois.
the kids who pick me up stole this Ford,
drinking and joyriding, reveling toward
the coast.  And when they stop to let me pry
the black gook off the wipers, they screech away,
hysterical, my rucksack in their trunk.

I have surrendered to the road and pray
as I hitch, buffeted by each passing truck,

it will provide.  And so it does.  Two more rides,
Iowa cornfield to sleep, dancing stalks
and whispers – to be found you must be lost.
Falling stars throughout the night, roads
almost abandoned – a Mustang of six-packs
and four small-town girls, heading nowhere fast.

And this lovely meditation that takes off from a poem by Leopardi:

Orpheus’ Infinito

I’ve always loved this isolated slope
with its dense hedge making a vanishing point
impossible from where I sit, as if to paint
over, no, obliterate the horizon. And I’d leap
into this unbounded space, frightened
by what I cannot see – and the total lack
of human voice, when the brittle leaves crack
from the wind, and I am awakened

to everything the day’s endeavored to deny,
kept in shadow, blotted out, disposed.
So much unseen, so much gone for good,
and more, ablaze, poised and counterpoised,
unstoppable and endless eternities
that make it sweet to founder in this flood.

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Leonard Kress

Kress is not just a master of the classical cannon and the sonnet form, but he also composes wonderful sestinas and free verse. Czesław Miłosz is a native son of nearby Vilnius, and here we can catch a bit of Kress’s self-effacing but sardonic humor:

Meeting Miłosz

I met Miłosz  but once—he hadn’t yet
turned 80. Far from Poland, far
from his perch in the Berkeley hills,

another conference about history and suffering
and witness, he wasn’t even the keynote
speaker. That was delivered in perfect

minor pitch by a priest  from South Africa,
or maybe a nun from El Salvador.
There were severed-limb visuals

and spontaneous collective weeping
and Miłosz  seated at the long table,
silent, palm propping his jaw like the apostle

three seats down from Jesus in Tintoretto’s
otherwise bell-and-whistle-boisterous
Last Supper.  (Betrayer, beloved disciple,

sycophant, cynic, sidekick, all or none
of the above) his mic like a drained goblet
of Galilean wine. I catch him during a break,

he’s leaning on a Corinthian column,
shy and scowling, smoking–not a cigarette
but something home-grown, home-cured

and hand-rolled, packed with dismay,
a smoldering pen or pencil, rising
steam from a container of coffee.    

I ask him what he thinks of X
and his eyebrows twitch, I am translating
X, I say, does he have any advice?

Milosz’s attention drifts. Sparkling ash falls,
lead snaps, ink smears, coffee scalds.
He’s gone and wherever he’s gone,

he’s gone fully, to a realm where the dead
are revived just long enough to deliver
their inexorable excuses for not being saved.

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Tintoretto’s Last Supper

We spent some time roaming around the Republic. I showed him the gaudy, kitsch angel-guardian that replaced the more bohemian and appropriate Egg (this massive shell resided in a stork’s nest for a while), a few galleries, the Constitution Wall, and at one point we were in a restaurant in Vilnius along with the poet, Tom Healy (whom I will write about later in another dispatch) and a few other poets when Tom remarked something about Orpheus descending as Leonard Kress teetered down the staircase in quest of the WC. That remark led to the following poem which will appear, it seems, in another book of Orpheus poems:

Orpheus Looks for a Bathroom in Vilnius

And finds he must descend two flights
to reach the urinal. His bladder’s full
soon to spasm from gulped shots
of Three Nines. He’s been wandering

through the Jewish Sheol with his
ex-pat friend who points out
the coded phantasms that surface
on apartment walls and storefronts

and the bearded bust of the stern Gaon,
Talmudic Master whom even the Catholic
peasants feared would expel God
from their kitchens and beds.

Orpheus is reluctant to descend
(and not for reasons you think)
he’s done with rigged dating
games and trials he’ll never win.

But here he is in Vilnius, unasked,
on behalf of his protégé Czesław Miłosz
to haul the poet’s friends and forebears
back to life, if only momentarily.

This place is as good as any
to enter, beneath this packed café
where piss does not overpower
the scent of root rot and chanterelles.

And so I will leave Leonard Kress behind in one of the moldy cellars of Vilnius, which undoubtedly links to the sewer system of Hell through which a few of the Jews (the poet and resistance fighter Abba Kovner among them) of Vilnius once escaped gruesome death and the Ghetto’s walls in the 40s ( the most even and best account of all of this is in Herman Kruk’s The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania).

from Abba Kovner’s poem, Part 1, What’s Not in the Heart

I

I do not hold a mirage in my hand–
my shirt’s in my hand. The plain filled
with my wheat. All of it. Soaked by dew
flat at my feet. Its beauty
turns each image pale. The returning heron
and the apple garden. Sun
plucks at my shoulders like my daughter’s fingers.
And this day
recalling soon
the smell of the harvest:
this morning (I say to myself)
even in the burned forest the bird
has come back to sing.

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Corner of Žemaitijos and Pylimo, 1944, Jewish Ghetto, Vilna, my current flat is about 80 meters beyond the wall on the right, the sale sanctioned by the Yiddish scholar and author, Dovid Katz.

Another wonderful poet who visited the Republic of Užupis  not so long ago, is the English poet, George Szirtes. I first encountered him at St Andrews in Scotland at the Poetry Festival, Stanza. He was on a panel with the Bavarian poet, Ludwig Steinherr. Then, we met in Norwich, and later at the Poetic Fall Poetry Festival in Druskininkai and Vilnius. The two poems below are by Ludwig Steinherr, who nearly stepped into the Republic two years ago, but got cold feet, thinking he might never want to leave.

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Ludwig Steinhurr

Orpheus

Weightless is
love
eye in eye –

Gods all
spare us the trial
may an impulse
a gaze
across the shoulder
mark its fate

Hallowed Twilight

Since when does your silence have
this gentle S-motion of a Gothic Madonna
who misses her child?

Since when have your shoulders
and loins and breasts
been sprouting
curl after curl
soft and fluffy hair
like in the miracle beckoned by St. Agnes?

The fragrance of linden wood emanates from your skin
invisible angels are carrying you upward
high above my ash-gray hairline –

I want to call upon you
but I stand here immured
by this semi-darkness –

creatures
all sorts of strange ones
and tendrils and leaves
are growing forth
from my mouth of stone

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George Szirtes

Immediately on listening to Szirtes, I recognized that here was a poet as prodigious (more so) and talented as say, Wallace Stevens. Szirtes is quite well-known and respected in England but it is a difficult country for any poet to be thought of as truly English if not born or/and well-bred there. Though he came as a child refugee from Hungary, Szirtes has mastered English prosody and has a depth like no other English poet I know of. Charles Simic was assimilated into the American canon with hardly a hitch, though his poetry had a strange and exotic appeal to it when he first came on the scene – a kind of East European humor and irony that those of us who were familiar with Vasko Popa or Ionesco recognized immediately. But to compare Simic with Szirtes would be like comparing a slippery banana peel to a date-plum (Dios pyros; Hebrew-צֶאֱלִים) – Szirtes is a grand master and his vast opus quintessentially English, including some forays into his Hungarian roots and life. Doesn’t Basil Bunting’s poetry cover half the globe from Japan to Greece, and yet no one would allude to his “foreignness”except to condescend to his Northumbrian milieu, nor would they do so with Shakespeare because many of his plays are set elsewhere. I say all this because I sense in the more recent-Szirtes an identity crisis which I suspect has come about from forces from without (that ‘benign’ British caste system) and not from within. Szirtes is also, like Kress, an Orphic poet – he works the music into masterful rhymes and cadence. He works with Death. And, he explores the underground of the psyche, though in a more dreadful and dark way than Kress. It also should be noted that Szirtes received considerable schooling as a visual artist, and is quite indebted to photography, and to photos as ob·jets d’art and ruins of history. I could go on and on and allude to Frost’s desert places (the fallen Frost) or Leonardo da Vinci’s hawkeye Notebooks, or Dryden (yes Dryden with the cool eye and wondrous prosody), but this post is not the place for scholarly probes and I have had little energy for it since my university days. I would suggest a thorough reading of the New & Collected Poems and John Sears’ book, Reading George Szirtes (both Bloodaxe Books, and the poems below also lifted from Bloodaxe). And as for the Underground, begin with a read of the haunting, many-voiced poem, Metro of which Sears remarks: “It descends allegorically into a past in which images are framed by words that signify and provide links between places, a space of Orphic resonance in which the poet can only look back ‘to find a history which feels like truth’, losing in the process that which he seeks.” The poet is searching for his mother and other figures from the past in Budapest and Ravensbrűck. She did make it to England.

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Ravensbruck, 1945, Liberation of camp

Here are a few snippets from Metro:

a description of his aunt as he perceives her as a child through the looking glass of the present:

“My aunt was sitting in the dark, alone,
Half sleeping, when I crept into her lap.
The smell of old women now creeps over me,
An insect friction against bone
And spittle, and an ironed dress
Smoother than shells gathered by the sea,
A tongue between her teeth like a scrap
Of cloth, and an eye of misted glass…”

She reads him a “Tale

That ends in triumph over the wild
Succubi of his imagination:
The dwarfish furies of the forest, the lank
Raincoated ghosts who pester
The living daylights out of night…”

And a rhetorical question:

“Now where are you, psychopompous?
Who’ll pick up your thread or catch your train,
Who’ll follow you and bear your moldered cross
Through tunnels tight as fingers in a glove?”

I will conclude with 3 poems, just to give a taste of the oeuvre to date, which must include well over a thousand poems, all of which are crafted with the utmost care, and incredible attention to detail and mood and tone, underlying a stark but accepting fatalism. Szirtes often uses strict meter and form to control the harrowing chaos of his inheritance and sorrow. At other times he maintains the reins through comic irony, as in the poem below.

Questions for Stan Laurel

How could the body not be comical
when the music it plays is the fiddling of bones,
the deep fart of flesh in the stalls,
the high whine of bagpipes in the ear,
a fusillade of drumming automatics,
a small rattling of hollow balls,
the faint harmonics of the queer?

How could the body not be comical when one
is fat, the other thin and the belly droops
to the crotch, and the sliding trombone
is the ripping of pants in the sunshine,
when comedy is being unhurt in the shadow
of the great cliff having fallen from air
and proving the hard ground harmless?

How could the body not be comical when grace
is the other name of loss, along with scapegrace, disgrace,
the un-grace entailed in clumsiness?
How could your body not be mine and mine yours
in the constant exchange of bodies, from the svelte
athlete, the ploughman with his lunch, the groan
of the almost defeated Bulgarian weightlifter,

when it is the child’s body that holds
no surprises? When the song and dance
you break into begins as something twangs
in the doorway and the barbershop boys sing
you into the eternal bar kept open for such as you,
and the terrible force of the mallet on your head
makes you break into your one true falsetto.

Silver

1

It was changing in the light as such things would,
moving from pearl to lilac and beyond
to something almost murky, bottomless.
I’d dreamt it once, as one might dream of falling
from a window or high steps into a flood
of coloured darkness, bank-details, address,
all memory gone. Now it was the sound
of moonlight, a voice on the edge of calling
yet present. And so the moon appeared
in silver packaging, the shape of grief,
too dazzling while her darkened empty face
observed the world with pity close to grace.
She held our eyes then stopped and quickly sheared
off into more dark, still murkier, still brief.

2

You don’t mess with the moon. Such symbols wreak
revenge, make visitations, suck the blood
from your veins. The moon taken at the flood
is what your mother thinks she is.  Don’t speak
ill of the moon, or her. That silver foil
is not what it seems. How many wakeful nights
have you spent under a full moon that invites
your nerves to fuse and the whole sky to boil?
Let her be cheap if she wants. Let her call
from her starry carriage. Let her complain
and vanish into you. Swallow her down
like ice-cold milk or chalk-juice. That white stain
on your brow, it’s permanent however small
it looks in daylight now you’re on your own.

Perdita

1

Thou mettest with things dying, said the shepherd,
but I with things new born, and the new born
are strange, not quite of the world, and yet
precise, just so, and of it, though we forget
the shapes of things, the violent way they’re torn
from us, as if we were no more than a cupboard
in a corner, forgotten most of the time,
then suddenly burgled by the realm of things,
the thing we are emerging into air
and light, the seeming freedom of just being there;
then loss of freedom, the dense tangle of strings
that binds us, the twigs painted with birdlime
that prevent us singing but which we must sing
like any voice that rises from anything.

2

The statue moves the way that statues move
in human voices, whether in speech or song,
the air empty then suddenly full of us,
the cry that escapes us, the brief preface
of a book we can’t read, however short or long,
because it’s still unwritten, at one remove
from anything we know. We are the thing
that’s written: the ghost-writer, the ghost
that now and then appears at the very back
of the eye, writing its history of lack
and hope, of which it is fated to make the most,
scraping the birdlime, cutting through the string.
Then suddenly the statue’s closed eye opens:
the baby’s world becomes whatever happens.

3

Of course she’s found! Everything is found,
because we keep finding things, and ourselves,
in the look of things. The collector, who delves
through boxes of junk, keeps his eye to the ground
and the look of the thing rises like some peculiar
whale, as yet unclassified by zoologists.
World is ocean: there are things beyond official lists
at the bottom, sightless things  such as we are,
not yet ready to see, like a baby’s eye
moving to light as rhythm, pain, intrusion,
revelation. We are found in our confusion.
We are the revelation, the expected reply
of the deep lost bed, in the least likely quarter
of the universe: the king and queen’s lost daughter.

Dead Child
               after Pompeo Batoni

The robes, the cloth, the vase, the veil, the bow,
The posy, the leaves, the rising cloud, the lips.
These were ourselves, this is the cloth that slips
into shapes of cowls and hoods we cannot know.
We cannot decode ourselves. We move below
our surfaces, our griefs, our flowers, the tips
of our fingers. We know what it is that grips
the child in her numbed sleep, what winds still blow
about her. We put our ears to the cloud to hear
vibrations of the air, we measure our wrists
for pulse. We mist mirrors, move in our sleep
as if awake, make energies from fear
accumulated in our veins. We have made lists
of the dead. Our metaphors run deep.

Yes, the metaphors do run deep, and this Dispatch is not the place to bear their fruit or to lay them bare. Rather, it is to introduce poets and their poetry, and the Republic where I usually can spare a few hours to show guest writers around, providing we share a few drinks – but keep in mind the Isle of the Lotus Eaters should I take you to a great micro-brewery bar, maybe Špunka in the Republic watched over by the kitsch Angel.

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Špunka Bar, Republic of Uzupis
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