Letter from Vilnius: 3

by Kerry Shawn Keys
Eastern/Central Europe and Excursions elsewhere
            Autumn, 2011              

                                    as gathering swallows twitter in the skies…
                                    the dead google away and facebook their lives
                                    bees honeycomb their pesticide hives
                                    and from the chimney top a raven eyes my weary eyes

Listening to Thelonious Monk’s version of “Just You, Just Me” with Charlie Rouse on tenor sax , Larry Giles bass, and Ben Riley on drums as I begin this letter, I am not sure if I am in Vilnius or back in the Lucky Seven Bar in uptown Harrisburg that I frequented for the jam sessions in the afternoon before the musicians went to their paying gigs in the evening or home to dream it all way, or to some bar to reminisce of times past on the New York to Chicago circuit which happened to pass through the Susquehanna Valley. Some of these musicians retired there, finding the provincial atmosphere congenial and very receptive to jazz.  Sammy Banks was one of these – what a drummer, learning his chops in the 40s and 50s with the likes of Roy McCoy and Bud Powell, and playing along with Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young on 52nd Street. I seldom listen to music while writing, and never if working on a poem since I fear the rhythms might overwhelm my own. But since I don’t consider myself much of a prose writer, jazz might just be the right swing to percolate the thinking and the lines, and get the bones jangling. Another corruption that will percolate into this epistle, is my recent reading of Ireland’s Dennis O’Driscoll’s selected prose writings, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams – his sharp and unsparing critique of much contemporary poetry, sometimes laudatory but just as often wryly caustic. This succinct jab from an essay entitled “Pen Pals: Insider Trading in Poetry Futures”: “Poetry is an increasingly parthenogenetic art in which poets earn their living by producing new poets. Eliot Weinberger, the translator and critic, believes that poetry is now perceived to be a ‘middle-class career’: ‘American poetry has now become a sherry party in a faculty lounge.’” This essay by O’Driscoll was published in 1997, and I think applies to an era from the late 70s to the early 90s. To extend it to 2012, I would change the wording a bit: an assembly line of soda pop bottles in which MFAs (Masters and Mistresses of Finishing Academies) try to make a suspect living by cloning new MFAs in an endlessly jaded daisy chain. Here is a poem by Dennis O’Driscoll, “In Memory of Alois Alzheimer” (New and Selected Poems, Anvil Press Poetry, 2004), that was translated into Lithuanian for the Poetic Fall Druskininkai festival this year. It involves a couple, but little to do with Tranströmer’s  “The Couple” from which I will quote later on:


                                     Before this page fades from memory,
                                    spare a thought for Alois Alzheimer,
                                    called to mind each time

                                    someone becomes forgetful,
                                    disintegration vindicating
                                    his good name.


                                    His is the last image assigned
                                    to the ex-President who has slipped
                                    from public view; soiled sheets
                                    give credence to his thesis;

                                    his territory is marked out
                                    by the track of urine
                                    dribbled along the corridor
                                    of the day-care centre. 


                                    Lie close to me in the dry sheets
                                    while I can still tell who you are.

                                    Let me declare how much I love you
                                    before our bed is sorely tested.                       

                                    Love me with drooling toxins, with carbon monoxide,
                                    with rope, with arrows through my heart.

O’Driscoll has written much about Seamus Heaney over the decades, and a recent book that I have read excerpts from but haven’t gotten my paws on yet is: Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. Hopefully, it will dislodge Helen Vendler’s insubstantial and ‘easy listening’ of Heaney, and give us more of the fodder and faience of this very Irish, and, yes, English poet. Looking a century hence, I think O’Driscoll’s poetry will enshrine an international canon of great verse ( he is a consummate craftsman, and attuned to Ireland’s literary history and verse, and Albion wit and meter like few others); and Heaney’s poems will enshrine the Irish canon along with quite a few regular appearances in outlander English-language anthologies, especially in America where his truly wonderful workhorse ‘plodmanship’ (ships and horses and men and the Craft, I mix them as I see the fit: of shoes and ships and Lithuanian hot air balloons, and kings and duchesses – they all bring a spot of joy and cheekiness) is exotically foreign and down to earth enough not to be discomforting. I find Seamus Heaney to be one of the few masters of our poetry of late, though when talking to poets from other countries it is clear that he is not so accessible or interesting as one might imagine. This may be because he is a very Irish poet and much of his poetry steeped in the culture and history of the British Isles, and he is not particularly an internationalist in his poetics…too subtle and composed in his compositions for a quick and easy visual read.

In Dennis O’Driscoll’s essay, “Foreign Relations”, he speaks of Seamus Heaney’s enchantment with East European poetry, especially, it seems, Polish, 20th century. Though Heaney’s crowning lyrical achievement in this vein may be his co-translation with Stanislaw Baranczak of the Polish classic, Jan Kochanowski’s (1530-1584) Laments, an elegy consisting of 19 poems for his daughter, Urszula, who passed away when two and one half years old…one can’t help but be reminded of the sentiments in Ben Jonson’s lovely poem, “On My First Sonne” which I suppose the readers know brick by brick, or if not they should recite the word ‘lament’ over and over for an hour or so in punishment, or in language-“poet” fashion type or copy and paste 333 times: ‘lament lament lament la ment cement sea meant what did we mean nOOO I’m not calling you mean but oh us in this seachange exchanging and suffering shells and Byzantiums richly deranged’. But here is an excerpt from the Laments, “Lament 13:

                         Sweet girl, I wish that you had either never
                        Been born or never died! For you to sever
                        All your attachments, take such early leave –
                        What else, what else can I do but grieve?
                        You were like one of those recurrent dreams
                        About a crock of gold, fool’s gold that gleams
                        And tempts our greed, but when we wake at dawn,
                        Our hands are empty and the gleam is gone.
                        Dear daughter, this you did in your own way:
                        Your light appeared to me but would not stay.

and the stanza goes on and then ends thus with an epitaph for her stone…

                                    “Ursula Kochanowski lies beneath,
                                                Her father’s joy that slipped his loving hands.
                                    Learn from this grave the ways of careless Death:
                                                The green shoot is mown down – the ripe crop stands.”

And here is a section of “Lament 5” from America’s foremost lyrical voice, Michael Jennings, in a sequence of love poems for his wife, wherein he broods on death, and loneliness, and our ephemeral lives, and where children are also mentioned:

                                    You see in it the eyes the soul speaking eye
                                    to eye for the last time drinking the last horizon
                                    And the faces strange and the rooms we wake in
                                    with a start the floor moving and the windows dark
                                    are no more ours than the clouds are or voices of children
                                    Is it the book misplaced that makes me weep
                                    or tortured animals slaughtered children rape
                                    by bayonet or any gone world’s going…

Well, I digress, I digress. From Heaney’s essays we can assume that Z. Herbert, Mandelstam, and Holub had considerable influence on him – their intellect and their suffering, but not their prosody, though they are all superb poets. At the same time, however, this triumvirate – and  there are many others we could include ( Vladimir Holan; Vaska Popa; Tadeusz Rózewicż; Lithuania’s Sigitas Geda and the scantily translated Vytautas Blozė; Latvia’s Vizma Belševica; and scores more) – helped facilitate a dumbing down of the aural/oral and metrical richness of English-language poetry into an international style depending mostly on metaphor and message. Except for the rare few practitioners whose gift will surface under any circumstances. Concurrently, American poetry was whacked – by the flatness of most translated poets, by the awful, simplistic influence of William Carlos Williams, and by peer-group poetry in the Finishing School racketeering beginning to flourish throughout the States. On the other hand, for those American poets not totally lost in the work of their workshop peers or fashionable guru-in-residence, or the confessional toothpaste poets (I’m not speaking of Lowell, Plath, Berryman, and a few others), or the aesthetics of the past (the great work of Eliot and Stevens and Frost and Pound and Marianne Moore, and the emerging recognition of Emily Dickinson as a voice equal to Whitman’s), the writing from East Europe and Russia was profound in its display of ontological tension and a deep sense of history and communal suffering. And the influence was beneficial and a good antidote to the prevailing decadence of emerging formalists. I wish I had the space here to visit the Latin American and Spanish poets who perhaps had even more impact on American poetry than the East Europeans. I’ll leave that to a future rambling letter, where I’ll stress how important Robert Bly’s essays and translations and promotional work were. I suppose it was due to Pastor Bly’s (Bly’s wonderfully dynamic readings made many of us think we were in Church in Lake Wobegon) early on proselytizing of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry (the snow ball effect) combined with a certain collegiality within the Nobel committee that such a decently proficient poet received the Nobel Prize this year. I remember way back in the 70s when Bly stayed with me for a week or so at my hunting cabin in the Blue Mountains, and we would sit by the fireplace and he would declaim his own lovely, zany poems and recite some of the much tamer poems by Tranströmer. “Tomas” is much beloved in Lithuania and the cultural press now full of kudos and ‘rubbing-shoulders’ comments. I’ll add mine. I read with TT some years ago in Riga, and later on I dedicated a poem to him and his playing on the piano that evening, “Sorrow Gondola No2” by Liszt – the title also of a poem and book by Tranströmer. The Swedes requested my poem, “The Left Hand Speaks” and archived it somewhere in the snowy north. While writing this Letter now, I just went to look for a book of Tranströmer’s on my shelves, but realized that someone must have borrowed it years ago, and so quickly found the poem, “The Couple”, online. Here are two of its stanzas:

                                 The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
                                 but their most secret thoughts meet as when
                                 two colours meet and flow into each other
                                 on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.

                                 It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer
                                 tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.
                                 They stand close up in a throng, waiting,
                                 a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

Certainly a fine poem, but ah, give me “(two)petals on a wet, black bough, and the couple in the diner in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, or O’Driscoll’s “before our love is sorely tested.” Robert Haas is the perfectly congenial fit of an editor for Tranströmer, and he did edit a Selected some years ago. Caveat: all my comments in these ‘Letters’ on poets writing in languages other than English are subject to the lens and sonic system (a bit bat-like in its self-echoing in my peculiar case) of my native tongue, eye, and ear.

After the above aside, back to the train: this nexus of the East European and the Latin American is a tidy way of bringing this supposedly Vilnius letter back to Vilnius. This past summer as in 2009, Mikhail Iossel’s brainchild, Summer Literary Seminars (SLS Lithuania in our case here) brought a lot of aspiring writers and a few teachers to Vilnius for two weeks of workshops. Fiction, poetry, non-fiction. Most all of those involved now reside in America or Canada – the workshops are in English. There were also readings and panels with Lithuanian writers. The two poetry instructors were Rebecca Seiferle and Edward Hirsch, very different poets but both excellent teachers if I can go by hearsay. Rebecca Seiferle has translated two books by César Vallejo, and was surely involved with his poetry for years, and during a panel discussion she gave a hearty nod to Robert Bly as a curious translator, and as an indefatigable promoter of the Spanish language poetry that had such a profound influence on her poetry and her generation’s. As it did on me, early on. As a young poet, I don’t know if she was much indebted to East European poetry but I do know she is a voracious reader and must have read deeply. These final couplets from Seiferle’s poem , “The Discovery” in her book, Bitters (Copper Canyon Press, 2001) takes a look at the “New World”:

                           When nothing came of the sacrifices but more
                           sacrifices, Copán was abandoned, its doors ceremoniously closed; 

                           the Navel of the World was buried.
                           But now a new age is drunk with discovery. 

                           And though the ants stream up out of the disturbed
                           crevices like the enraged children who survived the flood 

                           that drowned the last world, though tonight
                           José will be beheaded with a machete,

                           though in the morning Pedro will be run over,
                           though it will rain in the hours when it never rains, 

                           and an earthquake will collapse the sacred
                           tunnels, nothing will stop the relentless unearthing, 

                           deeper and deeper into the earth, until the mind crosses
                           a threshold of salt and disturbs the baby snake: 

                           its black body and red head, no less venomous
                           for being newly hatched.

Edward Hirsch also referred again and again to the Spanish language poets and the East European and Russian poets that he turned to for inspiration. Here is the last stanza of Hirsch’s poem: “Marina Tsvetaeva”:

                                    Wherever you are, I’ll reach you, love.
                                    I’ve named my lust for you “holiness.”
                                    We’ve come to ourselves in a fresh hell
                                    in our century (a godless Russian hell),
                                    but we’ve also created passionate holiness.
                                    I would be a wing that soars for love

Edward Hirsch photo Julie Dermansky

(Many poets that I have talked to, share this fascination with Marina Tsvetaeva,  More so than her compeer, Anna Akhmatova)

Edward Hirsch on the bridge into the Republic of Užupis, Vilnius, Autumn 2011 photo by Laurie Watel

Hirsch remarked that Eliot and Pound and Stevens were too “fascist” (not sure if this was his word choice) and conservative in their thinking to suit him and his generation – and, besides, they were too thoroughly incorporated into the canon and his previous instruction to be heard afresh by poets craving something more ‘naked’.  Hence the incredible popularity, in the early 70s, of Berg’s and Mezey’s anthology, “Naked Poetry”, a milestone of anthologies introducing for many a whole new generation of American poets seemingly liberated from the three giants mentioned above. I can’t include myself in this, since I loved it all if it struck me as fine poetry, especially Pound’s Cantos and Stevens’ opus. It is unfortunate that the smaller East European languages were never much translated back then, and so much great poetry is missing, from the Baltics and elsewhere. As is still the case, but readers that are hungry enough can find recent books by incredible poets from Lithuania: Sigitas Geda (Biopsy of Winter); Kornelijus Platelis ( Snare For The Wind); Vytautas Blože (Four Poets of Lithuania); Eugenijus Ališanka (City of Ash; and the just released from unwritten histories); Agnė Žagrakalytė (Artistic Cloning); Laurynas Katkus (Bootleg Copy); Sonata Paliulytė (Still Life); Marcelijus Martinaitis (KB: The Suspect); and I am sure others that don’t come to mind just now.

Yes, mid Autumn in Vilnius now, going on Winter. Let’s let the recently deceased Lithuanian poet Sigitas Geda close this letter with section III from his poem, “The Light Of Distant Summers”:

                                                            mosses faded –

                                                            my body,
                                                            the white snow
                                                            of Summer…
                                                            now I’m the shepherd
                                                            of shining silver
                                                            ferns and fire, 

                                                            legs hurting
                                                            prick of sweetbriar
                                                            in the blue flame of Autumn. 

                                                            opened I’ll remain
                                                            a white blossom
                                                            by the foaming,
                                                            bottomless sea…



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