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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). His latest poetry book is Už Onos ir Bernardinų (Beyond St. Anne's and the Bernardines, Apostrofa, 2023). Now Venclova lives in Vilnius and is active in the contemporary cultural life of Lithuania – one of its most well-respected figures.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Rimtautas Vincentas Gibavičius, St. Anne and Bernardine Churches, from the series “Vilnius”. 1967, print, woodcut, 50 x 50 cm, 1967. From the MO Museum collection.

 

 Poems from the poetry book Beyond St. Anne’s and the Bernardines

 

Translated by Rimas Uzgiris

 

 

 

***

                         I dream of hunchbacked Tiflis…
                                     – Osip Mandelstam

Beyond St. Anne’s and the Bernardines,
where the liturgical calendar
is marked by a family of bells,
the monastery is held
within sand, and hills, and all that is green.

Under high windows: ripples of rills
wander through steep gaps of hills,
roof-tiles sketch harmonious lines,
and a street-light shines
double in pavement and sky.

On this side of three crosses,
the city fits into one’s palm,
and a Doric column answers
cold frost with lucid calm:
I am full of weightless time.

The sidewalks are unhoned –
white planes laid out like books
scattered slant and oblique
where strings of streets break
and paint strips down to stone.

Not yet destroyed by wars,
unchanged by passing years,
the stone wall stretches under tin
into an unlocked labyrinth,
a realm of rough inscription.

In the market’s dense disorder,
you drink a draught of wine –
and thanks to it, the endless whine
of your unfamiliar neighbor
becomes a speech more dear.

The linden leaf is fated to fall,
the grass to grow, the jay to fly,
death to wander down the street,
and you to recall the stanza’s why,
relishing the richness of vowels in speech.

Twilight falls – a kind of innocence,
donning the mask of loneliness.

 

 

 

Hamden, Connecticut

The water washed over the weir’s concrete wall
and branches of fir were caught on the rim.
In my mind I recall that asphalt strip
that wound upwards through scented woodruff,
white-tipped nettles, hawkweed, and buttercups.
Then the cylindrical cement tower, then the garden

where we used to see the old English prof., once
the heroine of a work valued by those who know
(a painful, though charming fate). This place
promised us, and you as well, a blessed breach
within reality. It even translated a foreign continent
into a landscape of porches and doors – almost our own.

Here, beside a multi-sided city of little hope,
where you can’t even feel your friends dissolve,
we experienced the usual durations of time –
the blue March clearings above steep cliffs,
an August oppressed by sodden shadows,
and the formidable flames of early November.

Here, two or three guests stood for a multitude.
Here, we gathered at the table, sipping Hendrick’s gin,
gazing at the pictures from another century, and the black
piano loomed in the room. Here, on a bench, we joked
about how there must be an empyrean of language
where purified forms live on through the years –

like the vocative and aorist. That’s where,
when this world is done, you’ll continue to hull
the verbal mysteries. But language is not all.
We knew you did not like so much to recall
the wagon, the winter of war, or the Kotlas frost
where you fell into formations of prisoner’s threads.

But from that time, habits remained – you knew
how to properly clutch a saw, trim a tree.
That learning lived on in your nerves and sinews
even when, as you put it one day, you began the slide
into darkness – each time a steeper surface,
from ward to ward, from coma to coma.

A goldfinch flutters within a greening bush,
or perhaps an oriole. A new season ripens
and clover caps redden on the lawn.
The world has changed, but you will not,
leaning on the armchair’s back like when
you listened to Bach that time before last.

Substance does not die, say the theologians.
Or maybe it’s just memory and forgiveness
that remain. We don’t know another universe.
This one should be enough. Let the fog
of photographs console, the four elements,
the hardly visible sign on the table of a glass.

 

 

 

The Conveyor of Souls

                                     for M. K.

You wake and part the curtains: morning floods the rail car.
And here is the pre-war border, and now loudspeakers mimic
Clock tower bells. Cottages materialize in dells. A maple
And hornbeam outreach the fogs of June. You can’t yet see
How the waters of Lethe steam above the dock.
The gates slip by, with Hermes figured above –
That trickster guardian of youth. The lines of his winged helm
Sail down the street. But the platform is now upon you.
I wait under concrete slabs in the station, my prayers
Answered by the gods for an impossible rendez-vous.

If there is another world – it’s this linked chain of lindens,
This willow still unfelled above stairs, eyes dampened by wind.
A church flashes through formless clusters of lilacs.
If I forget this city… But the city is right here.
The pediment still awaits its statues – which I’ve never liked.
Clouds are shredded not by three crosses, but a bare hilltop.
Yet the season is the same. Ruins litter the landscape –
Shards of a provincial Rome. We walk without words.
I don’t see you. In a familiar hall under frescoes
Teaspoons touch coffee grounds, a client waves, but not for us.

I can’t lead you out of unbeing, out of the past tense.
Memory is water that runs through our fingers.
It is said: all will be taken – even the century
That chased us like a pack of hounds. We lived once
To experience pain, then we crushed it into a ball
And call that maturity. If eternal light is reflected
In the cataract’s spray – will we be a part of it?
Maybe music echoes just for itself, and needs us not.
There’s not so much as a silhouette. Your “goodbye”
Is answered only by Hermes, the conveyer of souls.

The world returns to its appointed tracks.
Maybe it never left. All that poverty of posters,
Uniforms, and picture windows is as far away
As Troy, or the era of the Golden Horde. The speech
Of that time fades like your contours on the other side of lashes.
Forests now replace the city. I turn from skies of misfortune
To the earth underneath my feet, which remembers nothing.
A plot dug up by moles, some ramifying boughs.
A jay spreads cobalt wings as it hulls an acorn.
The river carries the scent of junipers in its flow.

 

 

 

Café by the Vltava, 1923

                   Marina Tsvetaeva and Franz Kafka both lived in Prague in 1923,
                   but seem not to have know about each other.

 

          1

sitting in this café
I often think about
what could have happened
but didn’t

here where chestnuts and lindens
stood untouched by the recent war
and news of November’s troubles
at the Hofgarten had not yet come
nor of the dictator’s mortal illness
in the manor outside the capital

a café and nothing more

there must have been horse’s hooves
outside the window
squeaking tracks
and the first drops marking sculptures
on the baroque bridge

          2

a woman sits at a marble table
in the corner

she throws back her large brow
with bobbed hair on her forehead
already turning silver
and grips a cigarette holder
in her manly fingers

a canvas awning shadows the glass
as boats flicker through agave leaves
a peaceful green slope rises
not yet her mountain

it is essentially a foreign city
no matter how beautiful

she comes here every week
and orders coffee
on a salary paid by the newspaper
run by fellow émigrés

life is like a station
no need to unpack

          3

a man crosses the bridge
struggles up a steep road

in her words
the floor is like a chessboard
with its black and white squares
but the players are unknown

he’s exhausted by his cough
and the tramway has finally come

a high waist and uncatchable eyes
his clothes are fit for a proper functionary
he’s already done everything that matters
he’s experienced the short caresses of Milena
he’s died more than once

he’s decided
to burn all his writings
because they hold no hope

this desire will be ignored

she will read his books
only when they have come true

          4

he passes the woman’s table with a “pardon”
and orders a glass of wine
the waiter offers a menu and the man waves it away
he observes only the cloud’s silhouette
and ignores the bob of curly hair
while she argues with her daughter

maybe they once passed each other in the street

his language is in all caps
hers is a scream and a whisper

they two alone within this city
see the world for what it is
and will pay for that one day

bitterness will contract his throat
a rope will contract hers

Milena will die lying
on a concentration camp cot
forgetting how his head
once brushed her shoulder
and the father of the woman’s daughter
who sips coffee there
will have his head
broken by a bullet

but the chess player will be merciful
and they won’t live to know it

          5

he rises and heads for the door
giving a reflexive smile

he passes the table looking at the parabola
made by an arch in the mirror
of a white plaster pilaster

she sees but a shadow at the door
and finishing her coffee
she remarks to her daughter
“it’s time”

I would like them to see
each other
to talk
to feel the touch of palm to palm

as if that would change anything

 

 

 

The Way to Planty Park, Krakow

The jasmine bloom between tramway stops.

You could have lived and died here, but decided to return to your own baroque, your knotted alleyways, dilapidated courtyards, the duchy along two rivers, and this you probably won’t regret.

So then, old age. The bones grow heavy, the senses slowly close their doors, and dimming eyes no longer see the pinnacles in the sky. A long-legged, raven-haired beauty climbs into the tram – one of those you always liked to see. You hear her every utterance, but can’t catch the sense of a single phrase.

Colors and scents are out of joint. You see enough to recognize the doors of Austrian Art Nouveau as they slide by. Then the theater, a crossing of tracks, a straight road until the rectangular square whose concrete is cut by newly planted wraith-like linden trees.

It’s time to say goodbye to cathedrals and paintings, as well as to maps and atlases – things you liked more than most books. Goodbye to coffee steam and the suppleness of a beloved cheek.

To tell the truth, you were lucky. You never knew a prison bed or overpowering poverty. You were not destroyed by alcohol, though you lived with it, as everyone in your generation did. You avoided spending eight hours a day filling out forms. You found delight in fruit trees and the female body, though those fruit trees grow no more, and the shawls and hats of your girlfriends have long since frayed. You saw what you wanted to see, but didn’t believe you would see. You did a thing or two, but most importantly tried to avoid actions which would bring you shame until death, or even after. You almost succeeded.

You hurt those who loved you, and they forgave you, though you didn’t always forgive yourself.

You understood that it’s wrong to march in step with the crowd – even when, or especially when, the hymn they sing is well understood and your own.

Your poems will be read by one or two at night, but thank God, never recited at a government event.

You walked on the edge of the abyss – experts gave it the Latin name, id – but you were able to keep it at bay. An alarm clock helped, stirring you to work every morning, but really it was the declensions and stresses of words.

As Solon warned, it can all fall apart. Call no man happy until he’s lived through all his appointed days. And there are thousands of those days, not a single one like another.

But the angel that watched over you from childhood, on the slopes of the Nemunas and in suburban alleys under silver spruce, will probably still be with you, as long as you know how to ask.

Everything gets bigger at the end – distances, jasmine bouquets, and cobblestones. Only wonder has no dimensions, wonder that there is a world at all, and that it remains after you are gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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