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Anna Halberstadt, psychologist, psychotherapist and poet, living in New York, returns after many years to Vilnius – and poetry returns to her: nostalgic, limpid, yet ruthless as memory. Her work has three layers: a nostalgia for the old, vanished Vilnius; memories of the dreary Soviet world’ and lively images and descriptions of the United States. The motifs of her writing focus on the contrast between past and present, and on the human being tossed about by the powers of history and memory. According to her poetry mentor, the leading American poet Eileen Myles, Halberstadt’s poetry “guides us wisely, richly and satirically across continents, tough choices and the gorgeous pithy details of otherwise overwhelming tragedies and truths.” Her writing is another important look into a multicultural Vilnius.

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Vitaly Komar, Black candle (from series Allegories of Justice).
 

VILNIUS—DOES IT EXIST?
            Inspired by “To Go to Lvov” by Adam Zagayewski

When I walk the streets of Vilnius
I search for daydreams
for what’s no longer
not for Proust’s madeleines
but for my mother in her blue
polka-dot dress
making strawberry jam
in the kitchen
I’m tasting the pink foam from a spoon.

Windows open into the courtyard
with old storage sheds
no foreign or any cars parked there.
The Tolerance Museum is still a movie theater
Pionierius
the city had more movie theaters then
than open churches.

Our neighbor, a theater seamstress,
is making a plaid pleated dress for me
on her foot-pedaled Singer machine
Father playing chess until dawn with
Sinioras, the journalist from
Literatura ir menas.

At the park across the street from
Kronika old women in babushkas
sell bouquets of blue cornflowers
and blood red and purple mums.
It’s July and dry shells with seeds
are already covering paths
between old linden trees.

I am still fourteen
we have not moved to Antakalnis yet
from the tiny apartment on Pylimo
but now we have a gas-heated
bathroom,
a new tub installed by my parents.
Last year when I’d shown the house
where I grew up to my son
a man in a wifebeater was stripping
the floors in my parents’ living room
the view of old Vilnius from the seamstress’s
little room was as magical as it was
when I was six
the door to the bathroom was open
and the old gas heater installed by my parents
was still there
looking antique.

 

LETTERS FROM RUSSIA

Cherie Niusha,
nostalgia forced me to return earlier.
Life overseas is not bad
Venice continues drowning
mold  is eating up the frescoes
the tower in Pisa continues  falling slowly
there is nothing else to see there, anyway
the speed of free fall is the same as always- 9500 mm
per second.
It’s quiet in Verona
the youngsters are not there
they’d been asleep for a while now.
Vesuvius and Aetna are also sleeping.
In the Naples art museum
St. Mark and the lion look bored.
In Pompeii men are still jumping through windows
and women are covering children with their bodies
the amphitheater is empty
the audience was buried under the ashes.
Tourists are stupidly staring at the erotic frescoes
At Villa dei Misteri.
In the Viennese Opera Theater
they are no longer staging Parsifal     
but  still serving apple strudel at the café.
In beer shtubes locals are drinking
veisbeer from thick mugs
In the old zoo the depressed gorilla with the baby
makes chalk  drawings.
In Poland they are selling orchards
nobody picks up apples from the ground.
In a Jewish restaurant in Krakow  
two Americans in skullcaps
are discussing the Spielberg  family tree.
There are Jewish museums in Vilnius
but there are no Jews.
The  cepelinai with the mushroom gravy in the best restaurants
do not compare to Aunt Ida’s  cepelinai.
In Moscow
gilded church domes glitter in the Sun
in the city center.
Traffic is horrendous any time of the year
In the Gorky Park
gardeners planted rows of white peonies
already wilted from heat
there are no more statues of  young pioneers with trumpets
instead there are cafes with striped linen chairs
and a museum of alien to the masses contemporary art.
I forgot to tell you
that women abroad are not as feminine
and attractive as our Russians girls
in low cut blouses, heels and short skirts.

 

GREEN AFTERNOON

Most pleasurable things in life
have to be utterly meaningless
pressing your lips
to another human being’s
lips softly
recalling a dream
in which you encountered
the man you miss
watching passersby mindlessly
in a café
in the old monastery courtyard
in a Baltic summer
when air temperature lingers
between cool and balmy.
Biggest luxury
one can afford
is spending precious minutes
of one’s life
not doing anything
or something
like bent over the railings
 of the Green Bridge
throw petals
of a jasmine flower
into dark waters
of Neris.

 

VILNIUS IS VERY PLEASANT
 
In the summer
nights are cool here in August.
Plenty of cafés and beer bars
In courtyards of monasteries
And under poplars and linden trees
n cobblestone streets
named after Catholic orders.
Decent local beer Shvyturis
Is served there with peas  fried in enough bacon
To clog Shwartzenegger's arteries.
The city is a romantic ruin
It has not been aggressively gilded
like domes of Orthodox churches in Moscow
Or painted in Disneyland colors.
Walls of old buildings
With peeled outer layers
Reveal old inscriptions
Say of a kerosene store
In Yiddish or Polish
From the nineteen thirties.
On Zhemaitijos, back then Strashuno  street
In the old ghetto
Time moves backwards
like Aramaic or Yiddish letters
from right to left.
When I pass the courtyard
where the American poet Kerry
made his home
I recall the staircase on which I was attacked
by an angry dog, when I was around four.
It must have remembered the time
During the war
as told to me by
Rakhil Kastanian
The director of the Green House museum
Whe she was a teen
Maybe thirteen
and Jews used to be rounded up
And locked in these tunnel- like courtyards
guarded by soldiers with shepherds.
I look at pots with geraniums and sweet peas in
The  windows
A lazy cat with black stains on white fur
Sitting in the sun on the windowsill
The only thing new
Are the foreign made cars
Parked in front of the old wooden storages
Drying Sheets swaying in the wind.
A woman with vodka on her breath
Is smoking on a staircase.
She says to me
What are you looking for
No one  is home
and anyway, here nothing has changed
In the last one hundred years.

 
RIVERHEAD

A windy day
waves the color of seaweed
dunes overgrown with bushes
with fresh slightly bitter smell
familiar from sun tanning
on a cool day in Palanga.
There you kept warm
hiding from the wind by
pressing yourself to the bottom
of the chalice formed
by the dunes overgrown with the same,
just smaller, bitter smelling bushes.
Running out and diving into the waves
water the same temperature as air
or slightly warmer.
Shivering after the swim
and then gradually warming up
in a crudely woven sweater
happy, born anew
at your old age of fifteen.
This minimalist landscape
grey windy skies
pieces of dry wood
beach paraphernalia-
smooth pebbles, clean white shells
horseshoe crabs crawling under
a huge stone
 anxious gulls shrieking
is closer to your Northern heart
than the illustrated journal
of the Caribbean
with its perfectly blue balmy water
lacquered palm trees and rhododendrons,
its beauty excessive
like Sophia Loren’s voluptuous tits and ass.
My last meal should be a poor man’s breakfast-
 a slice of Lithuanian black bread
a hard boiled egg and a piece of
fat and just slightly salty Baltic herring,
sitting on the shore
looking at cold seaweed colored waves
changing to opalescent grey
of fish scales
and a small whale’s back moving Eastward
on a late September day.

 

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