Kerry Shawn Keys minibio

“I don’t know who I am, but I have many names and live in Vilnius,” says Kerry Shawn Keys, an American living in Lithuania of nineteen years now. He is a human orchestra: translator, poet, prose writer, author of children’s books, dramatist. Kerry has already become part of the Vilnius landscape and culture. The poet Sigitas Geda said about him, “by his presence and participation in the everyday life of Lithuanian poetry, he has made us stronger as well.” Kerry, though, calls himself an “outsider”, and outsiders are generally better at seeing certain things than locals or those ensconced in everyday life, in the “system”. A view from the side is always interesting, and with that in mind, the Vilnius Review has decided to begin publishing Kerry’s short, witty essays about Lithuania and Lithuanians. So, here, each month you will find "A Palmer's Chronicle".

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reflections on belonging

Graphic Novels

Žygimantas Augustinas, The Highlights of the Day, 2013. Canvas, charcoal, 153x112 cm. From the MO museum collection.

By Kerry Shawn Keys


Lithuania is a quite serious, ingrown nation. But not so serious that it can’t laugh about stony-faced Estonians or Chicago returnees, or at Polish-American jokes, or at its own version of the Roman Empire, the Grandiose Duchy which once stretched from a black sea to an amber sea. And not so ingrown as to have toenails for teeth and to be spending a lot of time with shrinks blaming itself instead of Russia for the rising cross of petrol. No, never. A rare, pure-bred Lithuanian (DNA similar to extinct Sanskrit-speaking mongooses unearthed in India) once told me the following true tale that, he said, summed up the post-Soviet predicament and character. He insisted that it was true, and that he overheard it in the cemetery at the top of the hill in the breakaway Republic of Užupis. Why he was in the cemetery I was too polite to ask, but I suppose it is a more secure place to relieve oneself than on the wall of the Presidential Palace. Here’s the story. A city-born drunk resembling the nameless narrator in the novel Tula, fresh no doubt from boozing under a bridge or under a table in a club, came stumbling into the cemetery at about 3 a.m. deciding to take a long shortcut home to his angry ex-wife and charming kids. There was a newly dug grave, still open, eagerly waiting to be filled the next day by one of the dozen of weekly victims of the police or judicial system or hit-and-run accidents, or a missing heritage statue from the Green Bridge. But the guy was quite plastered and fell in, and couldn’t get out. Soon he started to moan and groan blyad blyad blyad to beat the band. About 20 minutes later, a partially drunk Lithuanian dirt-farmer in Vilnius for the folk festivities judging by his weird costume, also decided to take a shortcut to God knows where through the same cemetery. He heard the yelling and moaning and groaning, and walked up to the edge of the pit, looked down, and saw the poor chap thrashing about like a Baltic Sea eel on crack. He said to his countryman, “what’s your problem, not a bad place to sleep with lots of folks around to take care of ya.” “Hell yes, but it’s cold down here…I’m cold, I’m cold” the poor fellow exclaimed.  The farmer then curtly replied, “then why in tarnation did ’ya kick all the dirt off of ya.” I admit that this tale has a gnomic, Zen-parable air to it, but at least it has a punch line. Maybe it has a punch line because it is a true Lithuanian respun story with a kind of twisted-victim, political subtext and not just a joke. Many a foreigner from the West has listened to a Lithuanian tell a joke and never knew when it came to an end or if one should pretend to laugh – but this may be because they did not undergo Soviet domination.

All nations have their own, individual humor. Lithuanian’s seldom can endure  the scatological vulgarity of much of American humor nor catch the very dry wit of the English, nor have a clue about Litvak humor which buzzes around rebbes and Passover. After years of co-inhabiting with the Russians, however, these two communities do share a sense of humor, but just who is the butt of the joke? And everyone understands Polish humor since often it concerns the Poles themselves or crosses or light bulbs or princes.

I clearly remember the time when the Vilnius municipality bought a few hundred yellow bicycles for its honorable citizens hoping they would use them to get around, leave them unlocked, etc. so someone else could get behind the pedal. Well, the bikes disappeared in about a day – I suppose repainted and as donations to the poor and the poor of spirit. Vilnians still laugh about this, and I bet Konians laugh even harder. Well, now the bicycle rental system has improved. And there is the usual humor about missing toilet seats, degtinė (vodka) in the military, and rustics from the hinterlands. And there used to be corny jokes about corn. But for the most part, jokes and humor are not really a national, barroom pastime as in most countries. You need to be a bit bawdy or politically incorrect to tell a good joke. If Lithuanians are a bit bawdy, they reserve that trait for when they are too tipsy to remember. If they are politically incorrect, they wouldn’t know it. There is, however, a lot of wry humor about the rampant corruption in the government and private sectors and about the police – or “cucumbers” as the green traffic police are called when buzzing around on their strange vehicles. Like, what is the difference between a cucumber and a dildo...?

There is also a deep sense of absurd, black humor. Why just the other day I remember seeing a wheelchair abandoned by a very high curb with a pigeon doing a doodoo on the former occupant’s seat  –  nearly all the curbs in the country lack access to the sidewalk for the disabled or inebriated. A minute later I tripped and fell into a pothole on top of a baby-carriage with its wheels missing. And then I tried to cross the street when the “birdie” signaled me to go, but only got half way before the signal changed and suddenly a crippled pensioner and I were playing dodge-car. Some omnipotent, omniscient bureaucrat or lemonade-drinking mayor somewhere watching me on my constitutional, must have been blushing his or her socks off at all the wonderful improvements that have been introduced by joining the European Union. Of course, boarding a limo or an army tank soon thereafter, and driving to the leafy suburbs, leaving behind a trail of fumes.

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