Letter From Vilnius: 2

Eastern/Central Europe and Excursions elsewhere
            Summer, 2011
Summers in Lithuania are usually quite lovely. The cities are not overwhelmed with zealous tourists taking photos of something they surely know about only for the moment. No fireplugs in Vilnius for them to mark like an impoverished version of a wise Ferlinghetti dog, but lots of empty churches to file away in sacred cameras. By comparison, Cracow and Prague, are infested with Tough Guides and Lonely Heart Clubbers. I cross my pagan fingers and knock twice on an imaginary oak table as I say this. And the climate is fine, ranging from the 60s at night to the high 70s on a typical day. Though a young Turk of a poet, Jake Levine ( Poetry Fuckfest and Spork Press), living here now on the leftover fallout of a Fulbright, suffers from asthma, no bagels but his own, the gloomy dampness, and the lack of a 100 degree Tucson sun. Balmy, comfortable, showers almost tropical in their brevity this last week. If one is from the Northwest Coast of Amerika and enjoys rain, better to come in late Spring or early Fall. Sam Hamill  ( http://www.poetsagainstthewar.org ) was to return to Vilnius in June for the Miłosz conference but he is quite ill as is his wife, the activist, Gray Foster. Hamill was the visionary founder and director of Copper Canyon Press, but got booted out for shoddy reasons. Here is a brief, untitled lyric about rain by the writer that many Lithuanians consider their greatest, living poet, Vytautas Bložė: 
there were such cloudbursts then
one small cloud running in
beat the dust flat in the road
five minutes cycling
start to finish
rooftops and drains
all at once turned on loud
we danced barefoot
splashing the world to all sides
and all I still wanted was
a girl to come out of the poems
out of the rye/out of the sounding river
when braids run wet
each drop a clear note
there were such cloudbursts then

translation, Vyt Bakaitis

Bložė was born in 1930. His story is a long one with much suffering and literary persecution under the Soviets since he refused to conform. His father was sentenced to death, and eventually his mother and father and sister all died in Siberia. He hid out, taking odd jobs, working as a musician. His ban was lifted in 1982. Much of his poetry is long-lined, complicated in its metaphoric leaps and in a way, surreal. Tomas Butkus and I published some of his previously banned poetry about a decade ago – in Lithuanian. A small hand-sewn chapbook, Tuštuma, and this was the first time many of the younger generation had a chance to read these poems of Bložė’s at length. He is idolized, and quite deserves his reputation. In 2005, the poet Tomas Butkus along with the alternative press, kitos knygos, published the book in English under the title, Emptiness, translated by the prolific translator and poet, Jonas Zdanys. Below are a few lines from this more tortured, and enigmatic poetry currently more acceptable to the masochistic and guilt-ridden taste of the West when it comes to European poetry. A liberal ritual of soul-cleansing of which I don’t exempt myself.

I can’t breast feed them because I don’t have the means
we’ll have to starve, I say to them, we need spiritual cleansing
we need clarity in our creative work, purity and intimacy
we have to heal that which has been crippled by not catching mice
they are outside, I inside, they are in my exterior
how will I show them my rooms, my littered hallway
where manuscripts are on the floor, letters are on the floor and newspapers
only I alone am near the ceiling like that sprouted bean waiting  for my head to be split
Bložė’s 81 now and lives in the west of Lithuania, surrounded by Hari Krishna maidens who take care of him in his sly dotage. He’s nearly blind and seldom comes to Vilnius. He is an icon that hovers over all of Lithuania, a country that idolizes its poets and its tabloids, its “purity” and its gloom.

As for highbrow culture or lowbrow, much more of the latter in summer in pop music and DJs mixing and spinning in the endless courtyards and cafés that dot this city. Vilnius may be the European capital of stunning theatre productions, but summer is definitely not the theatre season here, and many of the companies are travelling abroad. As for writers, most of the Lithuanians are off in their villages fixing fences or laying low with beer and fly agaric lovers in their garrets, or visiting other places in Europe, especially Poland or Ukraine or Germany. And Georgia, that country of dreams, is now a much cheaper option than before with Aerosvit (a Ukrainian airline) now expanding its services. And, yes they fly into NYC and Toronto quite cheaply now, via Kiev.  The young poet Marius Burokas and his wife, Katė, just came back from wine-bar hopping with their Kerry-shy infant through that mythical wonderland. Since my tequila digression has wandered to Burokas (Red beet in English – and there are real Buckwheat poets that aren’t minstrel pickaninnies in blackface drag; fun to make fun of names in other languages, but I do remember in my Amerika days encountering a Hymen Gross and a Krystal Dick), here is a prose poem of Burokas’s from his recent book, I Learned Not To Be. Its setting is a street in a ramshackle neighborhood near the Vilnius Train station where Burokas lives:  

The Station – Džuku GatvėThe nightly station susurrus. Sad train animals rumble past. An inspector on the pedestrian bridge: the haves demanding from cowards. The moon glints like a gypsy blade through the smoke. Along the way a couple of holes-in-the-wall full of Hopper’s blue ghosts. Beer, a drunk fraternity, a dog crossing the street. All of us here have crossed the line. Beyond it are only the murky hills that we don’t trust. Children whom we fear, trees that turn to snakes underground. It’s only in the morning that the station resembles a comfortable stable. You returned, saw how the natives soap the sides of trains. Shrieks, the occasional sun, and a wind from the direction we will travel in.

translation, Medeinė Tribinevičius, The Vilnius Review, 2011, no 28

Yes, Lithuania does have its gypsies, though they are a small and persecuted minority of descendents of those that survived the Nazi exterminations, pretty much ignored by the West since they aren’t so musically talented as their compatriots in southern Europe. Still, in their drug-ridden conditions and dilapidated housing, they fit the exotic bill for surface-surfing, curious international journalists or anyone with a soft spot for the pariahs of modern Europe. The Amerikan/Lithuanian photographer, Andrew Miksys, who is not a surfer but a genuine and professional friend of this community that squats near the airport in Vilnius, published a fine album of photos, Baxt, of the community with an introductory essay by Andrei Codrescu.

“Baxt” could have many translations – fortune, fate, kismet, luck, karma, and so on. I prefer “karma” since I used to cavort with the Romanies ( Banjaras ) back in the mid-Sixties while working the fields in south India, and thought of their ways as their karma, their Ram Ram, that Lord’s ( Rama ) desire and their desire to keep their way of Being despite the poverty and outsider status. A plug: visit Miksys’ website ( www.andrewmiksys.com ) and get this book, no bullshit, just wonderful photography.

A conference on Czsław Miłosz and his poetry – a centenary celebration of his birth – has just finished. Many devotees came to Vilnius for the opening few days, including Szymborska’s excellent translator, Clare Cavanagh, who also translates the much lionized in the West but ‘conventionally derivative’ and  mediocre Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, not much admired by the younger generation of Polish poets. Though, I must admit, Miłosz was also dismissed by his Polish comrades. Ah, but what a world of difference – I think of Wordsworth and  Heather McHugh. Jane Hirshfield, the Zen-American poet also came for the conference. She was a friend of Miłosz and his wife, and she read a poem at the opening ceremony in Vilnius. An interesting couple. It took Miłosz years of living in California to come around to and accept Buddhism as an integral part of much of American poetry – he despised it at first, but, I believe, her delicate and accomplished poems (and Hirshfield herself) and the poetry of other “Buddhist-Amerikans” effected a partial cure for his Roman Catholic-ridden, dualistic brain. I love Miłosz’s poetry and prose, and think that much of his strength as a poet comes from his willed adherence to what he knew was the strawdog of transcendence – imminence was too Eastern and suspect for his taste, and he needed to suffer a spiritual ambivalence to the end.

The major international literary get-together this summer will be SLS, Summer Literary Symposium (Concordia University and Fence related, brain child of the Russian émigré and prose writer, Mikhail Iossel). From July 31st to August 14th. If you intend to go to Vilnius this summer, don’t miss it, at least to eavesdrop. There will be workshops in poetry taught by Edward Hirsch and Rebecca Seiferle. Fiction workshops by Joseph Kertes and Josip Novakovitch. And non-Fiction by Robin Hemley and Laimonas Briedis ( yes, another one of the those names in Lithuanian – Briedis means Moose; I think of Mason Williams’ wonderful rendition of his bucolic poem,  “Them Moose Goosers”. You tube it and die laughing. There will also be lots of panels and discussions, and readings, and mini-tours and vodka and non-filtered beer – wonderful stuff that sends you flying into the arms of the Blue Angel after one bottle – and so forth. Writing, and then Lithuanian and Eastern/Central European literature is the focus  – Miłosz; Seiferle (on Vallejo) on a translation panel; Michael Kimmage, the Lionel Trilling and Philip Roth expert, will be on the Miłosz panel – his expertise, The Captive Mind. Lots of Lithuanian poets will be participating, and Marius Burokas will be involved in a Q & A on his recent Selection of Ginsberg’s poems in Lithuanian. For example, how in the hell does one translate “Howl” and “Kaddish” into Lithuanian – the language and even more difficult, the sensibility. I have, on occasion, taught literary translation in theory and practice, but how to deal with the so-Amerikan and strange lines in “Howl” like “.. an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone/cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio…”. Borscht and Moloch, no problem. But how ’bout “Kaddish” in a country where the history books have nearly forgotten that the Jews were once a majority in the city of Vilnius. Of course, I remember the one or two paragraphs given in school textbooks to the First Nations or “Indians” over a 150 years after the American Revolution. Herstory and History and Theirstory and Ourstory take time, and things are “a changing” here. Let me close by juxtaposing  a few lines from “Kaddish” with Ginsberg addressing his mother, Naomi, with a few lines from Miłosz from his poem, “Bypassing Rue Descartes”. I’ve chosen the first because of the reference to Emily Dickinson, whose poems only finally appeared in Lithuania in a Selected Poems translated by Sonata Paliulytė in 2009. The former Soviet Republics did not share the extensive underground literary exchanges with the West that the Soviet Bloc counties did, and so it is with patience that one watches their self-protective xenophobia slowly emerge from the underground cells of a necessary national mythology into a more profound communication with the belles-lettres of contemporary and 20th Century world literature. All of this, one hopes, without a loss of the strong folk and Baltic consciousness and lyricism that continues to resist an easy and trite globalization. And with this in mind, the closing lines from a poem by Miłosz will follow the excerpt from “Kaddish”.

Now I’ve got to cut through to talk to you as I didn’t
when you had a mouth
Forever. And we’re bound for that, Forever like Emily Dickinson’s horses
– headed to the End.
They know the way – These Steeds – run faster than we think – it’s our                             own life they cross – and take with them”

from “Kaddish”

There is no capital of the world, neither here nor anywhere else,
And the abolished customs are restored to their small fame
And now I know that the time of human generations is not like the time of the earth.
As to my heavy sins, I remember one most vividly:
How, one day, walking on a forest path along a stream,
I pushed a rock down onto a water snake coiled in the grass.

from “Bypassing Rue Descartes”

This water snake in Miłosz’s childhood is the still sacred grass snake in Lithuania, žaltys. The Christians in Lithuania feared its pagan influence so much that they did a very Christian thing and conflated the žaltys with the nasty serpent in Eden in the Bible; and so only a few weeks ago when I was talking to my pre-school children in English about the snake and Adam and Eve, they corrected me and said “it’s not a snake, but a serpent”. I wonder how they will reconcile the two.  See the power of the word and how we can christen and “charge” things by naming them, and thus ye poor poets were dismissed by Plato and outlawed by Mohammed because you also share this magic power with philosophers and religious leaders. Perhaps, we should ask Gabriel’s opinion? Angels flourish in Lithuania.

Photo by Andrew Miksys
Photo by Andrew Miksys
Photo by Andrew Miksys
Marius Burokas, photo by Dzoja Barysaite
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