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Tomas Venclova was born in 1937 in Klaipėda, Lithuania. He graduated from Vilnius University, travelled in the Eastern Bloc and became friends with poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, as well as Natalya Gorbanevskaya and Joseph Brodsky. Venclova took part in the Lithuanian and Soviet dissident movements and was one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. His activities led to a ban on publishing, exile and the stripping of his Soviet citizenship in 1977. Since 1985 Venclova has taught Slavic languages and literature at Yale University. He has been the recipient of numerous prizes including the Vilenica 1990 International Literary Prize, the Lithuanian National Prize in 2000, the 2002 Prize of Two Nations, which he received jointly with Czeslaw Milosz, the 2005 Jotvingiai Prize, and the New Culture of New Europe Prize, 2005. He has published over twenty books including volumes of poetry, literary criticism, political commentary, literary biography, translation and books on Vilnius. His work has been translated into many languages including by Czesław Miłosz into Polish, and by Joseph Brodsky into Russian. He has two poetry books in English: Winter Dialogue (Northwestern University Press, 1997) and The Junction: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2008). Venclova is active in the contemporary cultural life of Lithuania, and is one of its most well-respected figures.

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Ramunė Antanina Vėliuvienė, Parks of Time V, 2003, aquatint,  réservage, 33 x 67,8 cm. From the Modern Art Center collection.
 

From the book “The Grove of the Eumenides”

The Process of Beatification

About the last portion of her life, we know very little.
Many witnesses were killed, others, perhaps the most important,
died soon after the war. Besides, it was all kept quiet.
Back then – a skating rink. Four children smuggled out
in garbage dumpsters (there were two hundred in all).
In the shelter she established, those who escaped
found food and a bed. A small press was used to make
counterfeit papers that validated their bearers
as being of some righter race. The guards sometimes
allowed succor to be given to those condemned
to death (a traditional gesture, not revoked
in that place because the gauleiter was from
a Catholic family). According to the sources,
she once spoke to a young girl in her cell
who answered her: “What are you on about?
There is no god. Because if there were
he would get me out of jail.” And she
knew as well herself that God
is resting in a bomb crater, lying in a ditch
with a bullet in his temple,
or rotting under some moss in the tundra.
That’s why she took her habit off,
made sure the prisoner
covered her head, her skirt and clogs.
She sat on the mattress then
and turned her head from the door.
A few minutes later, the guard
led a black silhouette, with trepid steps,
to the gate. No one checked her papers.

We found the liberated women a little too late.
She lived many years, sheltering in a flat
near the train station. The tracks clattered
below her window, and smoke stained her lungs.
The rainy morning ran late. She hurried to work
along the sidewalk, over dirty leaves. An hour
to the city, to the office that secured her salary
but went bankrupt in the crisis. Many offices.
Every time the month came to an end, the bills
came as an ever greater shock. The family came apart –
not much of a family – her adopted child left home
and never wrote back. Yolk sizzled in the frying pan.
Every evening, in the mirror, her wrinkles, flabby breasts
and purple varicose veins just grew and grew.
Loneliness, with the body coming apart.
Alcohol did its part too. She still painted her lips
mechanically, as before. Some nights she would dream
her jail. She tried not to remember it during the day,
and then couldn’t remember it due to Alzheimer’s
(which was, actually, salvation). Someone will probably
ask whether it was worth her fate, one among many thousands,
just a penny or a postage stamp with blurred image,
for such a price to be paid?

We don’t know how the nun died. Maybe
in a gas chamber, maybe from phenol injection.
It’s easy to summarize her sins. Her youth
was Mary Magdalene's. She had children who never
found their way. She wrote undogmatic verses. Mass
made her bored and tired. She chain-smoked Gitanes,
which didn’t fit the habit. Only this much is clear:
she never asked herself if it was worth the price,
just as He, whose place she took, never asks.

 

South of Prospect

It’s off to the side, a quiet spot, having changed its name
that was written in so many tongues. The locus amoenus
of my youth sat between a brewery, wet gateways, scarred plaster
and a monument that they threaten, every decade, to remove.
The same roads to school as before the war – another country.
The February sun wastes itself on walls just as it did back then.

An indifferent capital, a poor city of the provinces.
There weren’t many of us – almost all from other places.
We learned early on that empire knows how to break
us all. Some visitors knock on the door at midnight,
and then – the unknown (but truthfully – we know).
Still, our time was different here, more like a bog.

The rooms in which we lived stand amazed at our return.
The hills by crumbling walls have forgotten the words
we shared that time while glancing over our shoulders.
We were almost the same as several older generations
who conspired in shacks trying to change the world.
Thank God we didn’t crave power, only to be remembered.

Everything turned into faded paper, silent air.
The cripple in the carriage doesn’t recognize his pal.
The stocky old lady (once a beauty) falls to her knees
by the bed, forever late for work. The best of men is felled
by lung cancer and alcohol. History did not push them  
into darkness as much as daily pain. Though history tried as well.

Delayed between slope and pediment of a vanished century,
I catch only white noise from this no man’s land
in which their wit, prayers and quarrels melted away.
If I try to speak to them, they rarely answer, stopping
instead, in twilight. And when they do deign to reply,
it’s hard to know if the voice is theirs or of One who remains.

 

The Grove of the Eumenides

Now touch the wrinkled mallow’s bud,
then climb the hill, look back, up north.
Cafés have closed, and wheels don’t roll
along the city streets. Some homeless dogs
snore where acacias shade syringes. Years
have passed since your last visit. Grapes,
bay leaves, and mostly mugworts. Pour
some honey for mute sisters on the hill.

The weight of June makes crust of clay.
You use the pupil’s of another’s eyes to see
the humid air that quivers above the sea,
a few sparse rays like Doric columns crack
the sky and hold a crumbling day.
A fortress hides among the roofs in mist.
Now meet your fate not in Athena’s place,
nor Thebes, but what there is of Colonus.

The crowded suburb rests, silent under sun.
The gods have changed, Ananke aged.
A ditch of thistles holds a clunky peristyle,
which may be more Idea now than porch.
A runner panted here then met his fate.
The lord Almighty plays with us while we
grow blind to learn you can’t deny your sin
as skies heat up and bodies turn to ice.

The patient Eumenidean spring has dried.
Who once were Erinyes, now scorn all discord.
A gesture from them can silence cypresses
while planets cease their spin in distant heavens,
a sail goes limp on its black mast –
the osprey is the only thing that moves.
It falls in vain, hunting in the sea,
and is like Icarus ignored.

Already you are behind the time. It’s late.
The wise men said it’s better to not be born,
and if you were then not for long. Cement
now covers sacred slopes while Theseus
has left an ant to lead, and inch by inch
it navigates the wreckage, wrecking all rhythm.
Does lightning strike, or storm wipe us away,
or will the earth split open? The Judge should know –

But what if He does not? This place
is like a sheet that sinks into a steamy smog,
into the bitter buzz of mint’s aroma, into drought,
or nothing. Olive leaves blush and burn.
An ancient alphabet grows black where drawn
on window panes and roofs along the slope.
The quickly broken echo of a sigh
rings deep in summer’s heavy silence.

 

Translation by Rimas Uzgiris

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