For J.C.'s initial account of the Lithuanian International Poetry Festival

For J.C.'s Spring 2001 riverviews

For J.C.'s translations from the Spanish of Ivón Gordon Vailakis

For another review by J.C. Todd


J.C. Todd's work can be found online at:

"Why I Teach Poetry," an on-line supplement to the PBS special Fooling with Words with Bill Moyers, Fall, 1999 is located at


J.C. Todd is a Contributing Editor of The Drunken Boat


Email J.C. Todd
riverviews At water's edge is how I locate my life: Great South Bay marshes and beaches of Long Island; peninsula of Pittsburgh narrowed by the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers; bank of the Susquehanna in Harrisburg; and now the Delaware's levee in Philadelphia, the Schuylkill at my back. As a poet, too, I've stood to the side of the mainstream, in the marshy detritus of language from which new language emerges, myself a river and reiver, splitting and splicing, plundering and rescuing, making a language of my mother tongue, being made by it. So, a river's view of riverviews, this column of musings on language and poetry.

Lilacs and a Resinous Will: Poetry Spring in Lithuania

By J.C. Todd

***** In May, I traveled to Lithuania as a guest of the Writers' Union, to participate in an international poetry festival. In schools, community centers, university courtyards, grand reception halls, libraries, government buildings and cafes, hundreds of poets read to thousands of listeners. At the national poetry open, people from across the nation read their own poems until after four in the morning. Rather than recount an itinerary, this column grapples with what my visit to Lithuania has come to mean, especially since the events of September 11, 2001.

***** A wall of windows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Vilnius displayed the craftsmanship of Lithuanian artisans: amber jewelry, ceramic tea sets, leather boxes and books, delicate silverwork, weavings of linen and wool. To better see through late afternoon glare, I stepped back and was down before realizing I had tumbled, tucked in elbows and rolled onto my scapulae, wing-bones, my mother use to call them. Although they could not raise me up, they had interrupted a fall down a tier of polished marble. I did the body check--wiggled this and that, rolled to my knees, rose to my feet. The window showed a streak of dust across a cheek bone, tossled hair, a clerk, holding very still, watching. There was something I had wanted to see. My ankle twinged. I bent to touch it, and there in the stone, in faint Hebrew script, a word, another. I couldn't read them, but their shape reminded me that this stepped plaza had been built from gravestones of a Jewish cemetery dismantled by the Nazi military, one of many across the Baltics and Eastern Europe whose stones were used to pave the shopping streets and plazas of occupied cities. Over whose lineage I had stumbled, I did not know, but it marked a border more profound than passport checks, semi-automatic bearing airport guards, electronic luggage and body scanners. I had fallen into Wilno, Jerusalem of the North before the German occupation of World War II, when forty percent of the city's population was Jewish, a fall which opened me to the erasures of Lithuania's 900 years of invasions and occupations as well as to the traces of what had disappeared since the Lithuanian people first united as a nation in the late 1100's. Puffy ankle on ice, my re-education began with The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz's study of the Soviet occupation of the Baltics, and led to a closer consideration of a people about whom I knew little more than Tacitus had in 100 AD--that they traded in amber. Amber is a gem composed of traces trapped in other traces: fossilized insects and bubbles of ancient air contained in fossilized pine resins of the boreal forests that slid into bog or sea. Traditionally, Baltic women wear this symbol of erasures and regenerations at their throats or over their hearts. To them it is the sun's stone, source of life.

***** I had come to Lithuania not for amber but for poetry, one of many poets from Europe and the Americas invited by the Lithuanian Writers Union to participate in their annual international poetry festival, Poezijos Pavasaris, Poetry Spring. For a week in May, the people turn to poetry, as their forebears turned to dainos, the folk songs that celebrate their sources and remind them of the long way they have come. A laureate is chosen; prizes are awarded. Although the festival begins in the capital city of Vilnius with a scholarly symposium and ends there as well with a reading in the courtyard of the five hundred year old University of Vilnius, poets fan across the country to read in major cities such as Kaunas, Siauliai and Klaipeda, in towns such as Elektrenai, Rumsiskes and Joniskis and even in small villages. In keeping with the Spring, the festival encourages cross-pollination. Lithuanian poets translate the work of visiting poets which then appears in Lithuanian in the weekly cultural newspaper, Literatura Menas, and in the festival anthology which this year included more than one hundred Lithuanian poets and more than forty international poets, some of whom are emigrés to America writing in Lithuanian. Traveling around the country in buses and small vans, visiting and native poets and translators talk for hours about poetry, art, history, aesthetics, philosophy, translation, also food, wine, men, women. Often the mood is like that of the band bus coming home from a game their team has won. Returning to Vilnius one evening, writers from Iceland, Scandinavia and the Baltics sang Swedish folk tunes as the bus passed one-ox farms and stands of deep forest where thousands had been buried in mass graves and thousands of insurgent "forest brothers" had repeatedly mounted resistance to the Soviets and been quashed. Earlier that day, walking in the forest, cushiony ferns and mosses underfoot, I had felt ungrounded by that history, as though I could not plant my foot securely. Later, at the country home of an artist, we had read to each other and a gathering of artists, students, writers and their families, forest at our backs. Wind came up in the trees, shredding the words, the poems dematerializing (if they ever had been matter) on updrafts, coming apart as surely and unpredictably as they had come together in us, becoming poem. "I could hardly hear," someone complained. But isn't that it? To listen in the direction of poem. To catch what we can of its sonics. Isn't that how we write--some of us--ear in the air, to the ground, vibrating with whatever strikes into us?

***** Traveling to towns far from the sophistication and elegance of Vilnius, I kept picking up the vibration of history, what little I knew, tuned by my stumble on the plaza of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a fall into the history of a people and into a way of seeing through a lens tinted by centuries of bloodshed. In the farm village of Gatauciai, just south of the Latvian border, half the population of 300 was waiting in the reception room of the cultural center built under Soviet rule. Now, three generations later, Soviet farming collectives have reverted to single owners who cannot compete in the global market, a common problem that retards Lithuania's acceptance into the European Economic Union. In this village, subsistence farming has created a dust-bowl economy, and Soviet economic withdrawal has eliminated the demand for goods manufactured in nearby factories. No jobs. On the villagers' faces, pain, struggle, pride, also depression and the ravages of hunger and alcohol. Yet when we entered the auditorium the stage was banked with lilacs, masses of lilacs through which the sorrow and promise of Whitman's dooryard burst in me. I imagined the tender effort of cutting a hundred branches from bushes all over the village, one here, one there, to decorate for the poets. To be a poet worthy of lilacs! I chose "How Earth Spins," a poem whose central image is pre-teen girls and their ovaries, and read the English first. Looking at the audience as Marius Burokas read his translation, I noticed the aged faces of old women in the youthful faces of their daughters sitting next to them, and, in the faces of their children, the youth of the grandmothers continuing under their gaze. It takes more than biology and good luck to raise one generation, and then another. It takes a resinous will, and a belief in life, and a means to tap into sources of native strength. As Milosz suggests, poetry can be that means. Perhaps that is why in Russia, the Baltics, across Eastern Europe, ordinary people cherish poetry and memorize poems; they nourish when food is scare and life is constrained by unrelenting work and destabilized by a pervasive sense of threat. Despite the relative comfort of my life, in Lithuania I saw clearly that the world offers far fewer protections than I had assumed, but that the moment, fully lived, elusive, may be all we truly need, that and a poem to catch its trace before it, too, dissolves.