Letter From Vilnius: 5 (by Kerry Shawn Keys)

From Poetry International


Letter From Vilnius: 5

by Kerry Shawn Keys
Eastern/Central Europe and Excursions elsewhere
             Spring/Summer, 2012

Spring is a swift season in Vilnius. Winter lingers into the lilac blossoms, cold nights and frost bitten orchards, and then Summer magically appears, a lukewarm affair that, to much of the world, would be Spring. And to Sigitas Geda, all the seasons mix and a poem that seems at first to be about Spring or Summer often simmers like dry-ice pitched into the stark frozen sea of snow and Winter. Such is the climate and color of Lithuania, and such was Geda’s sensibility, perhaps Lithuania’s finest poet ever. Here is a section ( yes a rhododendron and not a rowan) from his bilingual book, Biopsy of Winter, from a poem for the red one, Lament of the White Ashberry:


                                     of the endless earth –
                                     I’ll be talking
                                     in the summer night:

                                     take off this mask,
                                     your hour’s
                                     too bright for me,

                                     my bones
                                     blown to the winds,
                                     the sea and night
                                     too high for me,

                                     when the hour
                                     of the voiceless earth strikes,
                                     let me fall asleep
                                     in the snows of summer…

Self-portrait against a green background with blue iris, 1906, Paula

Not a rhododendron nor an ashberry, but a tribute to Sujata Bhatt’s poem, Was it the Blue Irises, and a self-portrait by Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Given the climate and my lack of gringo get-up-and-go, much of my time is spent indoors. Looking out through the windows of my Vilnius garret, I see bricks, chimneys, TV satellite dishes, clouds and clouds, blue-gray skies and gray-blue skies, swallows and crows, and rooftops plastered with pigeon-shit. A limited world, perhaps, given the vast expanse of previous ‘lives’ and the Southern Cross I slept under, the kissing bugs and vampire bats, and the brutal sun of the Deccan where once in jest I fried an egg on the steps to my block office home – the extravagance of a duck egg. This simple poem from Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Complete French Poems  (Graywolf Press), in the sectionLes Fenȇtres The Windows, translated by A. Poulin Jr.), is dear to me. Rilke did not include it in his cycle of  poems but it was in the manuscripts:


                                     Window, just how long have we
                                     played you with our eyes!
                                     Like the lyre, you should be
                                     one of the constellations!

                                     Tender and strong instrument
                                     of our successive souls,
                                     tear out your permanent
                                     form at last from our fates.

                                     Climb! And from afar
                                     spin around us who created you.
                                     Be the rhyme, O star,
                                     found at the end of our end.

It may not be one of Poulin’s more successful translations, but there is a mental lyricism to it, a slight poem with a weighty, eschatological mission. Though now, I can hear Pablo Neruda ranting on about Rilke while climbing Machu Picchu with a Rainer voodoo doll replete with needles in his rucksack ( ah, those silly exclamation marks). His poem, Poets Celestial, has this to say: What has it come to, you Gideans,/Rilkeans, intellect-mongers,……what did you do/in the kingdoms of agony/in sight of nameless humanity/…….Flight and escape: nothing more/ “pure Beauty”, “sorcery”… But then Rilke would never have written an Ode To Stalin as Pablo did, unless perhaps he had time-traveled forward and seen Stalin’s bronze torso in the Gruta Park open air museum of mutilated statues from the Soviet era ( near Druskininkai, Lithuania where we hold our Poetic Fall Festival) – Archaic Torso of Apollo (Rilke):

                                     We cannot know his legendary head
                                     with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
                                     is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
                                     like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

                                     gleams in all its power…

Jacques Lipchitz, who happens to hail from Druskininkai, was also fond of torsos – his marvelous sculpture, Bather, is one of the great cubist works of the 20th century.

After this digression to the campus of Cornell University, back to the lyre in Les Fenȇtres which is what evoked for me The Sonnets to OrpheusIn summer, on clear nights, the constellation, Lyra, can be seen by me when I am a bit tipsy playing pythagorean rhythms over Lithuania, along with NATO airplanes and shooting stars. In China, this part of the night sky is a bit more romantic, and diffused with the story of  Niu Lang, a cowherd who fell in love with a princess, a weaver, Zhi Nu. It is one of my children’s favorite tales, with beautiful illustrations. Here is a song for a weaver, written by another cowherd, Gopinatha:

                                     Song For The Weaver

                                     Weaver, red-haired lover, silver-scaled daughter
                                     of wind and water, weave us a sweetgrass
                                     hammock to make love in, weave the earth
                                     a song to sway in, a fire to dream in.

                                     Make the warp our cries, the weft our laughter,
                                     the evening sun pokeweed and madder,
                                     the morning sun turquoise and soft, white angora.
                                     Weaver, weave the moon into the water.

                                     Spin your hair for the fringe and border
                                     with fingers lovely as the falling rain,
                                     weave us a sweetgrass hammock to lie in
                                     in summer’s easygoing deepest green.

                                     Then, weaver, summon your sisters in Autumn,
                                     weave me a hammock of blue dahlias and snow,
                                     weave me a hammock with your heart for a coffin
                                     fastened to the wind and moonlight in the forest below.

And suddenly, this free-association brings me to the Chinese poet, Mindy Zhang, who now lives in Los Angeles, and was here in Vilnius this end of May for the Poetry Spring Festival. The poem that follows, translated by the author in collaboration with Neil Aitkin, is from a chapbook, Apples Trees and Chopin,:


Windows of airplanes, ships, cars, and even houses,
things that are cloudy or transparent,
all limit a poem to a fixed vision: mobile or stable.

To break through or not, from inside or outside?
Hamlet never resolved it, we’re waiting for an answer too.
Shock waves, submarine torpedoes, even tsunamis…nothing helps.

This morning, I find a crystal snowglobe on the bookshelf
that seems to solve every problem. I tilt it and autumn’s sky falls
below the glass lanterns raised high by seven dwarfs, Snow White

sleeps in the castle – I tilt it again, the world rises
in blue and white. Poetry was my cage, now my universe,
with a little shake, the physics of distance shifts.

 Glass, chemically inert, won’t deliquesce into life, but only
creates a vision of fixed space. The margin for error
between window and reality – only correctable by time.

I was surprised by Mindy Zhang’s repertoire of poems – so lyrical, so intense, so learned in their associations. Erotic, deep images on the move, but nothing static as they flow into a sensual music – unlike the quirky leaps of Bly’s imagery, worlds cohere, and the East is West and the West is East and the twain does meet and breeds throughout so many of the poems in this marvelous collection. Like this one, translated by the author and Tony Barnstone with a little of my doctoring:


                                     East, a huge camellia, the snow you walk in,
                                     your red jacket flutters like her lips opening.
                                     You approach where she breathes, then turn
                                     down the cliff of her jaws, slippery as a sampan.

                                     Before you, the wind, the water, everything flows
                                     colorless. You continue to walk, so small, leaden,
                                     like a bullet of an unfired gun, a murder
                                     without blood, an empty word, a preposition, a particle.

                                     Adjectives have failed, you look for the unconsummated
                                     verb, but it fails to drift or vibrate – 
                                     it just goes on little by little, soundless, 
                                     but heavy like breathing – death turns

                                     its camellia’s face, an eagle struggling on petaled wings,
                                     greedy for a new life. People watch, and sigh.
                                     Only you have gone there, and returned to tell me:
                                     it’s so white, bring along a flowery dress.

Mindy’s poems are often like paintings and music, and she enters into the compositions.

Mindy Zhang, 2012, Vilnius, photo by Michael Augustin, poet

Another wonderful poet, Sujata Bhatt, came to Lithuania from Bremen where she lives with her husband, the German poet, Michael Augustin, who was also a guest. Sujata Bhatt is from India but spent much of her life in Amerika and now in Germany. She writes in English, and many of her poems deal with this quagmire of two languages – Gujarati and English, and two cultures and two literary traditions that want their due. I couldn’t put it more succinctly than this remark on the back cover of a selected poems from her first three books, Point No Point ( Carcanet Press )she is “alive in a unique way to language, to issues of politics and gender, to place and history.” Ms Bhatt has quite a readership in the U.K. and India, and a quality readership, I would say, in the USA. For me, it was a revelation to discover her work since we both have written extensively ‘about’ India, and have had deep connections with Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, where we were both fellows and where my archives are housed, close to my native ground. And yet, as is so often the case, we were ships passing in the night, or should I say dinghies. Here is an excerpt from a long poem that deals with Bhatt’s “tongues” – her mother tongue and English, and how rooted they both are in her psyche. Most of the poem is in English ( the language she writes in) but throughout there are phrases and mini-sections in Gujarati script followed by a Roman alphabet transcription that may be a phonetic-orthographic notation system – I don’t know.

                                     from Search For My Tongue

                                     II (an excerpt)

                                     You ask me what I mean
                                     by saying I have lost my tongue.
                                     I ask you, what would you do
                                     if you had two tongues in your mouth,
                                     and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
                                     and could not really know the other,
                                     the foreign tongue.
                                     You could not use them both together
                                     even if you thought that way.
                                     And if you lived in a place you had to
                                     speak a foreign tongue,
                                     your mother tongue would rot,
                                     rot and die in your mouth
                                     until you had to spit it out.
                                     I thought I spit it out
                                     but overnight while I dream,

                                     (the Gujarati and the transcriptions fall in here)

                                     it grows back, a stump of a shoot
                                     grows longer, grows moist, grows strong veins,
                                     it ties the other tongue in knots,
                                     the bud opens, the bud opens in my mouth,
                                     it pushes the other tongue aside.
                                     Everytime I think I’ve forgotten,
                                     I think I’ve lost the mother tongue,
                                     it blossoms out of my mouth.

On first reading this poem, I recalled a dramatic flamenco piece that I heard once in Huelva where a woman strips the tongue out of her lover’s mouth and then says “I wanted it. That wordless root, flush to my lap.” That is how visceral and strong this language is in its nightmarish agony. In a more recent book, the tongue comes back in the voice of  Paula Becker to Rilke in the title poem, A Colour for Solitude. An excerpt:

                                     Nights I sleep with my paintings around me.
                                     But most of all, I keep
                                     your portrait in my mind, my dreams –

                                     What can I offer you that is more
                                     honest, more passionate?
                                     Look, here is my secret,
                                              look, I have hidden it
                                     beneath your tongue –
                                     Your tongue that no one can see
                                     in this portrait I have done –
                                     your tongue, there, inside
                                     the darkness of your eternally open mouth.

Pure poetry – the rhymes, slant and internal, and the cadence.

This book of Ms Bhatt’s is A Colour for Solitude, 2002, (also Carcanet Press). It is a book-length sequence of poems focusing primarily on the painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker, a close friend of Rilke’s, and on his wife, the sculptor, Clara Westhoff. There are so many other poems I could highlight in Bhatt’s work, but since Rilke has sneaked into this Letter I wanted to keep him here. Also, because the painter painted an unusual proportion of self-portraits, and much of Sujata Bhatt’s poetry is an attempt to paint her fugitive self into words – a wild-goose chase in which one hopes the poet does not surgically produce a golden egg. Then the poems might end – though perhaps such an egg could also be fried on the steps of a house in the Deccan, and an up-to-date Panchatantra omelette be born, ants and all. Another poem, too long to quote at length in this Letter, that highlights Ms Bhatt’s dilemma as a poet with multiple languages in her blood (not words learned by rote or in school), is Self-Portrait with a Lemon (1906/07), very loosely based on a painting by Paula Becker:

                                     from “Lemon”

                                     The blue border
                                     on the end of her sari
                                                     covering her head
                                     cast a blue shadow –
                                     a soft, cotton blue shadow
                                                     across her face –
                                     And there, where the blue darkness
                                                         of her sari
                                     met the darkness of her hair –
                                     was another shadow,
                                     another border – it was
                                     a fast brush stroke – thick cobalt
                                     blue disappearing into a maroon, ochre black –
                                                                 an orange, olive black –
                                     a hungry blue
                                          plunging into black –

Don’t let the palette mix of colors fool you – there is no sari in this painting. Sujata Bhatt and Paula Becker are inhabiting each other, in a dream of an uncommon language, which is poetry.


Sujata Bhatt, 2012, Vilnius, photo by Benas Januševičius, poet.

Let me round off this Letter with a poem by one of the most respected poets in

Lithuania, Antanas A. Jonyas. Jonyas translated Ms Bhatt’s poems from their German and English versions for the Poetry Spring Anthology, 2012. He is loved for his lyricism, his dexterity with the Lithuanian language, and his translations from the German ( Faust ). He also writes poetry for children and plays. The consummate outsider and troubadour in his youth, he is, since last year the chairman of the Lithuanian Writers Union, and fresh airs are blowing in the wind with a band of young writers assisting in a little post-modern and non-Soviet renovation. Vilnius has an enclave, an independent, bohemian republic, the Republic of Užupis; and Antanas, a former hippie, of course lives there. Both Poetic Fall and Poetry Spring hold readings there. I will post the Užupis Constitution here, and then end with a poem by Jonyas, where he walks uphill in Užupis, and looks down at the jewel of a city which is Vilnius, the Athens of the North that was also once the Jerusalem of the North, given this name by Napoleon since in many respects it was then a Jewish city and a high-seat of learning, though nestled in a watershed sacred to the ancient Balts.

The Constitution of the Republic of Užupis

Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, while the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.

Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.

Everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty.

Everyone has the right to make mistakes.

Everyone has the right to individuality.

Everyone has the right to love.

Everyone has the right to be not loved, but not necessarily.

Everyone has the right not to be distinguished and famous.

Everyone has the right to be idle.

Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat.

Everyone has the right to look after a dog till one or the other dies.

A dog has the right to be a dog.

A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times.

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 happy.

Everyone has the right to be unhappy.

Everyone has the right to be silent.

Everyone has the right to have faith.

No one has the right to violence.

Everyone has the right to realize his negligibility and magnificence.

Everyone has the right to encroach upon eternity.

Everyone has the right to understand.

Everyone has the right to understand nothing.

Everyone has the right to be of various nationalities.

Everyone has the right to celebrate or not to celebrate his birthday.

Everyone shall remember his name.

Everyone may share what he possesses.

No-one can share what he does not possess.

Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.

Everyone is capable of independence.

Everyone is responsible for his freedom.

Everyone has the right to cry.

Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.

No-one has the right to make another person guilty.

Everyone has the right to be personal.

Everyone has the right to have no rights.

Everyone has the right to not be afraid.

Do not defeat.

Do not fight back.

Do not surrender.

and the poem by Antanas:

                                     A Library 

                                     And when the street ascends the hill
                                     where the tract of Polocko begins
                                     the city opens from the slopes
                                     through luxurious folios of churches
                                     and the ephemeral brochures of the new districts

                                     it seems I might live a thousand years
                                     in this eternal library

                                     an old spider among the bookshelves
                                     is spinning a barely visible thread
                                     from which mice are weaving a story 

                                      and at night in the graves of the Bernardines
                                     the crisp pages of trees turn
                                     in  the wind, the persistent reader

translation by Kerry Shawn Keys and Judita Glauberzonaite

Antanas A. Jonyas, 2003, photo by Džoja Barysaite

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