See J.C.'s Feature on Lithuanian poetry, including eleven well-known poets in Lithuania in Winter 2002.

Also see the Commentary upon Lithuanian poetry by the poets themselves.

For J.C.'s other columns on Lithuania:

Lilacs and a Resinous Will: Poetry Spring in Lithuania

International Poetry Festival

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For an essay A Nation Sings Out

To visit the Anelauskas website with important essays on Lithuanian poetry, including:

About Modern Lithuanian Poetry

Maironis

Experience of Exile in Lithuanian Poetry

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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

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

www.frigate.com

www.cortlandreview.com

www.grdodge.org

www.artistsandcommunities.org

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

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

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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 reiver's view of riverviews, this column of musings on language and poetry.



Messengers


By J.C. Todd

***** ***** This morning in the bright-edged tchak of a mockingbird high in a linden on Fifth Street and a block later in the brown blotch of a redtail hawk perched in the crotch of a graveyard sycamore, spring is flaring up, its nests and matings, its hungry peck and swoop. It takes a lot of death to make eggs and feed nestlings, a lot of rot to nourish beds where primroses and pansies bloom. Onto the mulch of its own decayed leaves the curbside zelkova, a tree known to few, is strewing vessicles of pollen: spring, again, in the dead-center of the city—Philadelphia—where I've been stuck in a backward glance to fall. Was there a winter? I haven't noticed. More than snowless skies and seventy degree February afternoons, it's the autumnal sense of being on the edge of a great dark that has fixed me in a season whose dying has not given over to dormancy and whose drear has not let go. Instead of heralding trees in leaf, that mockingbird's sharp note calls to mind how scarce the birdsong in France, in Auvergne and Languedoc, although almost sixty years have passed since songbirds and wildflower seeds became a necessary harvest for villagers starving during wartime shortages. Song or soup?, a question that pits the survival of one kind against another.

***** All this gloom from the quick glint of a mockingbird's note, but that's because my mind's on loss where it's been since last October on the tenth anniversary of my father's death when I stood two blocks from the dust column at the foot of John Street in New York, on the corner where I remembered standing in the late 40's, glove in Father's hand, while he named the river—Hudson—before he took me to the insurance agency at 116 John Street where he worked. Fifty-five years in the offices, restaurants, banks and barbershops of a few square blocks around a street which bore his first name. I thought then it was named for him, the hero who would lead us to the river. In the dense cloud of 9/11, I could no longer imagine the old wharf sheds as I'd often imagined them materializing through the towers. For the first time, I was glad my father was dead and I crossed my heart, as that little girl used to when something mattered, that if he were aware of all this, death had given him perspective to bear it. Now I wish life would give that perspective to me.

***** How often I've sought to desocialize memory, break free, if only for a moment, of what I've been shown, been taught, all the received knowledge of culture, and instead look at what was, what is without the impress of interpretation. As Gaston Bachelard writes in Poetics of Reverie “. . .beyond memories told, retold and recounted by ourselves and by others, by all those who have taught us how we were in the first childhood, we must find our unknown being, the sum total of all the unknowable elements that make up the soul of a child.” In this child pure language took root, a language before speech, a felt language which informs the poems I write now. How often I've resented the two towers as emblems of a material culture that blocked access to the life of the child I was. When, in flash and crumble, the towers came down, the way to the river of childhood opened, sequence was disestablished, and speech fell apart, exposing the inchoate roots of language—all that I had wished for, I was inconsolable, one of thousands of sudden Ereshkigals.

***** In the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, is fixed in a charred landscape of loss. Maddened, she murders her sister Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. Two messengers persuade Ereshkigal to surrender the corpse by mirroring her loss. “I am so lonely,” she mourns. “You are so lonely,” the messengers repeat. “I am so angry.” “You are so angry.” “She did not love me.” “She did not love you.” Hearing her words in their mouths, she feels her loss and rage acknowledged and is able to release the dead. During the last six months, poems have been my messengers, conveying in small doses the live cells of loss and its aftermath like a series of innoculations. Especially resonant are fragments of twentieth century poems that articulate emotions surging so wildly within me I cannot hold them still to name. Without explication or comment, I record them here; each one gave perspective that mirrored my own in language that did not waver in this season of ungrounding. Their words in my mouth consoled me. During fall, these:

Anyone who planned to enjoy the world
is now faced
with a hopeless task
.
********** —Wislawa Szymborska

Anger made the world
God was just there

********** —Jack Wiler

and not one
breath was restored
to one

shattered throat
********** —Hayden Carruth

which, near the end of the winter that wasn't, led to these:

Where have you left yourselves
that you are never missing?

********** — César Vallejo

At Nagasaki in the Peace Park near
the epicenter of the blast
there is a glade
so dense with foliage, bushes, asakao
and pine, you'd almost miss the sign, hand-drawn
the only one in English that I saw:

THEY SAID NOTHING WOULD GROW HERE FOR 75 YEARS

And though the language was my own
I found it difficult to read
through such a thick exquisite screen
of evergreen
and tears.
********** —Eleanor Wilner

Oh, stone speech
isn't mangled at all
sound asleep under water
it will rise

stand for hours
listening by the riverside
********** —Imants Ziedonis

***** Leaving behind the mockingbird at Fifth Street and the hawk between Fourth and Third, I went down to the river—the Delaware—to listen, a short walk, thinking these long thoughts, half-remembering the shards of poems I'd later come home to copy here. Death had set me walking into this early spring morning, the death of yet another I've never met in a long season of many such deaths, this time a poet, Nijole Miliauskaite, who kept her mind gentle and awake through wrenching hardship. Born into poverty in 1950 in Russian-occupied Lithuania, married to the poet Vytautas P. Bloze, she stood by him during his forced “treatment” in a psychiatric hospital where he was institutionalized for his dissident politics and poetics. In poems that draw strength from everyday life, ritual, Catholicism, Buddhism, her country's landscape and history both recent and ancient, she wrote in an intimate, musically subtle voice, linking the everyday with the spiritual. For many years, she lived in Druskininkai, Lithuania, writing, assisting her husband and making a living through her handicrafts. She died in late March as the forest around her home quickened. You could say cancer stopped her or you could say her death stopped it or you could decline the language of opposition and say she and the cancer rode out together. Perspective. Happy trails to you, Nijole Miliauskaite, child of the bitter 50's, whose understanding of American culture may not have included cowboy movie tunes, but whose poems are the trail you walked lightly in heavy times, are walking now as we speak your words.

and you, who swallowed the one and only
pomegranate seed—red and bittersweet
you had to go to the underground, to the dark, cold
to the dead
you, whose name from all the possible names,
my parents gave to me like a seed of fate

you would come to play
with me, as though you were the neighbor's child,
a girl my age,
lead me into the light, to the orchards in bloom, where
I would dance with the others and sing with all my heart


********** —Nijole Miliauskaite
************** 1950-2002






Poem excerpts are from:

***** Wislawa Szymborska, “The Century's Decline,” view with a grain of sand, trans. Stanislaw Baran'czak and Clare Cavanagh (Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993).

***** Jack Wiler, “Anger,” I Have No Clue (Long Shot, 1996).

***** Hayden Carruth, “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam,” Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991 (Copper Canyon, 1992).

***** César Vallejo, “XLII,” Trilce, trans. Rebecca Seiferle (Sheep Meadow Press, 1992).

***** Eleanor Wilner, “Conversation with a Japanese Student,” Sarah's Choice (Chicago University Press, 1989).

***** Imants Ziedonis, “To Meet a Stone,” trans. Barry Callaghan, All Birds Know This: Selected Latvian Poetry (Tapals Press, 2001).

***** Nijole Miliauskaite, “and you who swallowed the one and only,” trans. Laima Sruoginis, from an unpublished bilingual manuscript, editor, Laima Sruoginis.