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

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Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

By Kerry Shawn Keys


The Republic of Užupis? Can I insert this sovereign nation here in this serious literary review? Why of course. It’s a separate country, a mysterious enclave surrounded by Vilnius and then encircled by the once Imperial Duchess of Lithuania. It has its own President, its sly Foreign Minister, Tommy Chapati, a government at recess, a Constitution, a beery office in a picaresque café along the scenic Vilnia River. Užupis has diplomatic relations with Lithuania and many other countries, with Mercury and Venus but not Mars, and no one in the world needs a passport to enter, though it has its own. Getting out, is another matter – Užupissians are so captivating, so bohemian, that their spirit and spirits reside in every visitor forever. What’s more, they have their own mermaid! So beware of her alluring, Lorelei loveliness – she’s half-fish, half-hooker, and will catch your very breath. Not so long ago, my buddy Fisher and I ventured into Užupis from the dogpatch of Šnieriškės, and later I wrote this poem about our adventure:


Fisher and I left the Dogpatch
last evening, and went to visit
the Republic of Užupis to get
a few souvenirs for old times sake.
While we were at it, I took a dip
in the little river that runs along it.
Like a loon, I dove down a bit,
just fishing around, checking it out
to see if the Užupis siren was about.
After an hour, Fisher got real upset
thinking I might have got hooked.
But then I shot up so glittering wet,
and all glitzed up in the scales of a fish.
Over in Uruk, Thai massages are in fashion,
but nothing beats a mermaiden rubdown.

What else about the Republic merits her inclusion here – well, it’s  also a democracy of the many and the few, cats and dogs and aliens. There’s a lot of freedom since all the officials operate independently of each other, seldom knowing what their colleagues are doing. I, for example, am the Ambassador to the World of Poetry and Chevalier of the Order of the Silver-Garlic Bullet of the Republic of Užupis (Sir Kerry in short), and now am writing this poetic purple prose without consulting anyone, and I will take no responsibility for stating that many Lithuanians and Miss Universes have Užupissian DNA. Let me cite an example of her splendiferous attraction. Once upon a time a few years ago, a splendid, immense egg nested on top of a column in the main square of Užupis. How it got fertilized no one knows – some suggest cross-pollination from Gabriel in Paradise ( he got under Mary’s skirt, you know) , but after some time it hatched an angel that now balances up on high like some highwire acrobatic, Nijinsky  stork.  And the egg, unlike Humpty Dumpty, put itself together again and now perches elsewhere in Vilnius, and I suspect it will hatch another angel named Breton or Mormonic if the stars are right. And these angels will be blood-siblings, demonstrating that the grand dynasties of Užupis and Lithuania are in reality inseparable and stretch from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea whenever the angels get into their migratory mood.

In years past, what is now The Republic of Užupis was nearly in a state of ruin due to the pragmatics of neglect practiced by the rest of Europe, and by the Soviet Union’s refusal to accept it as an autonomous nation. A perfect condition, in other words, for artists, cockroaches, poets, and squatters to take to heart. And many of them still linger on there despite the recent gentrification. Over the years, the Užupissians developed their own language now derogatorily called Oozepishkey by the linguists, and rumors are it is a very close sister to Sanskrit, and perhaps also engendered by some aerodynamic mix with Vilnius gypsies and Litvaks. In other words, a living fossil if you will forgive the oxymoron and the constipation of the language police. You can still hear it spoken in the bars and in front of the funky, communal Gallery along the tiny, Vilnia River. It’s worth a visit to hear the special lisp of it – unmistakably similar to the sound of vodka and beer flowing over pebbles. Few have mastered the sinuosity of Užupis or its lingo – Cicero did I’ve been told, and its Foreign Minister Tommy, and the President-for-Life, Caesar Romas. But if you by chance stay there, don’t worry – all Užupissians are polyglots, thrive on being misunderstood, and like all sensible lunatics will talk to you as if you were a cuckoo or the moon.

What’s to be seen in Užupis? Well, it’s the feeling that counts, not the grandiose architecture nor the ducks and stray dogs. It’s the quaintness of the meandering streets, the cemetery that has as many comfortable resting places as any Ritz, the panorama of overlooking one of Vilnius’ lovely parks, and the fact that the former mayor of the city of Vilnius lived there rather than along the Neris or exiled in Russia or in jail. And there are lots of citizens who will tell you tall tales for a beer, there’s at times a bridge that goes nowhere but is a bridge for a bridge’s sake, and there is often something special in the air that reminds one of some mix of Christiana, Amsterdam, Oz, and Marrakech. Ah yes, the Republic of Užupis, far from the boys of Telšai and the eager bureaucrats of Brussels.

I will close with the marvelous Constitution in English:

  1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
  2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
  3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
  4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
  5. Everyone has the right to be unique.
  6. Everyone has the right to love.
  7. Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
  8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
  9. Everyone has the right to idle.
  10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.
  11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
  12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
  13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee[d].
  14. Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
  15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
  16. Everyone has the right to be happy.
  17. Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
  18. Everyone has the right to be silent.
  19. Everyone has the right to have faith.
  20. No one has the right to violence.
  21. Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance. [In Lithuanian this reads Everyone has the right to realize his negligibility and magnificence.]
  22. No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
  23. Everyone has the right to understand.
  24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
  25. Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
  26. Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
  27. Everyone shall remember their name.
  28. Everyone may share what they possess.
  29. No one can share what they do not possess.
  30. Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
  31. Everyone may be independent.
  32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
  33. Everyone has the right to cry.
  34. Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
  35. No one has the right to make another person guilty.
  36. Everyone has the right to be individual.
  37. Everyone has the right to have no rights.
  38. Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
  39. Do not defeat.
  40. Do not fight back.
  41. Do not surrender. your social media marketing partner


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