Monday, March 19, 2007

to Latvia

After a wild week of poetry in Lithuania, with lots of vodka and little sleep, I take the bus from Vilnius to Latvia, to Riga. How many hours - six, seven - I don't know. No one on the bus speaks English, I speak none of their languages, and I am alone.
At the border men with guns board the bus, take my passport, and motion me off the bus. Outside, they motion me to the side of the road. We cannot speak to each other. No one knows where I am. I don't know what they want. Eventually I understand that I am to walk through a trough full of a couple inches of liquid, soaking my shoes. No soil diseases crossing this border. I reboard the bus, my feet wet and smelling of chemicals. Latvia.
My hosts in Latvia have emailed me and told me to expect a different kind of week. They do not drink. They do not smoke. They do not eat meat. They have no car, no tv. They are poets.
I love the world, and everything in it.
My hosts are Janis Elsbergs and Ingmara Balode. I met Janis at the Vilenica poetry festival in Slovenia (where I also met Liudvikus from Lithuania). We spent a week with a group of poets traveling around Slovenia giving poetry readings, eating and drinking. A story for another time.
Janis comes from a literary "first family" in Latvia. His mother, Vizma Belsevica, was Latvia's leading woman writer of the 20th century, publishing poetry, novels, works for children, and translations (including Shakespeare, Poe, Twain, T S Eliot, Hemingway, Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams). Through her work she expressed her condemnation of the Soviet occupation of Latvia, leading to the banning of her work for seven years. Another of her sons, Klavs Elsbergs, was a poet and singer songwriter, singing about freedom, who met an early death, and whose murder was never investigated by the Soviet authorities.
Here is a poem by Vizma Belsevica:
Words come to me in a dream. They gath-
ered around like little scamps, whose mother
had been summoned by the militia to an-
swer for their mischief. And the soft lips of
the smallest and sweetest of them grew stiff
and began to quiver and it seemed, at any
moment now, he would cry,"I'll never do it
again." But he wasn't a crying word. And
so I said:
Words, my words, don't hang your heads, when once again
we're put on trial. The dock of the accused
is just a worn threshold to be trodden
for a world with no walls to begin. A land not a room.
There comes a time to hatch from the egg.
All birds know this. Even the hen.
This is known by the bird. The poet. And the word.
Even the ultimate sentence bringss a freedom
that cannot be revoked. If brushed by open air,
don't look back on the walls, your life.
Birds die. And poets. The blow of an axe
can't fell a word that's been said before death.
A word that's been spoken can't be annulled.
Like a swallow in the sky, it can't be run to ground.
Words, my words, spare your pity!
The ground that supports the harvest
is not to be pitied by the seed.
With no new shoots, no ploughshare, the soil grows thin.
Hack deeper, painfully, for new thought to thrive.
Come praise or punishment: it's not your worry.
When the poem is done, the gates between us close.
Go on alone. I brought you forth to life,
and take full responsibility,
Words, my words ...
translated by Mara Rozitis
and another poem by Vizma Belsevica:
At Peace
I say, at last, all is well.
But the rose sheds petals of blood,
what does that red stream sweep away?
I do not know. All is well.
I say, at last, I am at peace.
All that is left of the rose is a stalk
and a grey scatter of pollen. Were there tears?
I do not know. I am at peace.
I say, I expect nothing.
This greyness is so soft and slow.
Time hangs mute. The clock sleeps.
I don't expect anything.
My life grows thin and drifts away
a quiet smile, no more.
One day you'll walk right through me
and not notice.
Then all will be well.
(translated by Mara Rozitis)

to the coast, to Nida

We travel to Nida, where the amber river meets the Baltic.

For Liudvikus

Amber in alcohol a resiny
sting on the tongue,
vodka on the run,
coke in the strip bar,
downtown, rivers run
out of Russia,
to the sea sand of Nida.
Drinking with your father,
fifteen years in Siberia he
hands me a glass,
Dusk, and it looks like rain.

Lithuanian Prophecy

Maybe he said we were going
to Kaunas, or Klepeda.
Maybe we had had
too much to drink.
Maybe we ended up
on sand beaches in Nida.
Maybe the river will stop flowing.
Maybe there will be amber.
Maybe the storks will come.
Maybe we were never
really here at all.

Stork sky amber river

Inside the bear
there is snow and cold water.
Outside, storks fly north,
from the desert,
bringing good luck.
Everything comes to the river,
following a map of amber,
ancient pine forest resin flow
rivermouth lagoon.
I will return, encased in amber,
when the black storks
fly home.

We have driven for miles, away from the city (Vilnius), forty odd poets in a bus, to the farm of the man who makes the best beer in Lithuania. We are on his lawn, drinking beer, and eating strips of smoked pig's ears, which I find delicious. I remember the feed store at home, where I buy grain and shavings. They sell pigs' ears as chew toys for dogs, not knowing how well they go with beer. I am in a new place, and always learning.
When it comes time to go, the bus is stuck in the sand driveway. We cannot push it out. Drunken poets throw themselves in front of the bus, not wanting to leave. Local tractors are sent for, and pickup trucks come to take us to another farm, where there is grilled sausage and beer. We eat. We drink. The night grows darker.

the forest

I am asking poets where are the nature poems. Who are the contemporary poets writing about the natural world? Late into the evening one poet tells me "We cannot write about the forest. The forest is where they took us to kill us."
Vilnius, Vilna. Stalin was here, then Hitler, then Stalin again. The center of Jewish learning became the Vilna ghetto. Some escaped into the forest, to fight against the Nazis. A young organizer in the ghetto, Abba Kovner, escaped to the forest and later to Israel, to spend his life on a kibbutz, and to write beautiful poems. I have seen the documentary The Partisans of Vilna, have seen Kovner's face, heard his voice, heard some of the old songs.

in lithuania

publishing party
Liudvikus/meandering stream

After the reading, a party. A large Russian grabs me by the beard, shaking me and screaming "Fucking American. Fucking American." I don't resist, and his friends get him off me, telling me that he likes to fight when he gets drunk. They call him a cab, and he is taken away. The next morning he is found naked, and badly beaten. He said something to the cab driver, who radioed other drivers and took the Russian to the outskirts of town, where he was beaten and abandoned.
Everyone in the city uses cabs. You call on your cell phone, and they call you back when they arrive outside your door. The streets are dangerous after dark.

A little amber in the blood,
a little vodka, and
how do you say hello?

The stripper is from the Ukraine,
or belorusse - a large
Russian grabs me
by the beard,
yelling "Fucking american,
fucking american" but
How do you say hello?

My translator is drunk.
Someone has locked him
into the outhouse.
Now we will talk about the river but
How do you say hello?

Patron saints and sewers,
boxcars and murder -
we cannot talk
about the forest -
they took us there to kill us but
How do you say hello?


It is my first night in Lithuania, in Vilnius, Old Vilna -. My friend and translator Liudvikus Jakimavicius
has invited me to the Writers' Union, to take part in a publishing party for his new book. He wants to have " a happening".
The room is full, and no one knows who I am. Liudvikus reads the introductory poem, in Lithuanian, and I rise from my seat in the audience and read the poem, in English:
meandering river
sifting through nets
searching for fish
Liudvikus, Mindaugas the sculptor, and a musician are doing something shamanic with drums and wood and sound - I think of the statue in the central square, just blocks away, a giant warrior with his horse, the national hero, leading the pagan Lithuanians, the last western European country to resist Christianity, leading the people against the Northern Crusade, called by the Pope .
(and not far away, in another square, a statue of Frank Zappa.)
I rise again, read another Liudvikus poem:

A Conversation
in the memory of old hippies

now above our heads
green chestnut sky
slow summer thoughts
pinkish fluff
fallen burned out
on the blue ground
I don't ask anymore
if you believe in me
there was no God among us

one by one
you haven't said a thing to me

taking my time
I'll drink to you
cheap red wine
do you know that you know what you know
about what's really far out

birds gather there to take a breather
black boats float
flapping their high-set sails
do you know that you know what you know

babe for now
on this shore we both
speak without hearing
and listen how Vilnele carries through the rapids
pinkish chestnut fluff..

the evening ends with the poem's return:
meandering river
at a quiet bend
finds white bellies of fish.

caribou poet

I get my news from poetry.
I learn about the world through poetry.
I learn how to live in the world, how to behave in the world, through poetry.
Let me tell you a story, read you a poem ...