Selection of Poems
by Tautvyda Marcinkevičiūtė
Translated by Julie Kane, with the author and Rima Krasauskytė
By Julie Kane
I first became acquainted with Tautvyda Marcinkevičiūtė in the late 1980s, when Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Union. A mutual friend of ours—the journalist Šiaurys Narbutas—carried a copy of my first poetry book home with him to Kaunas, Lithuania, and placed it in TautvydaĠs hands. Thus began a correspondence and friendship that has endured for over twenty years. Writing letters in longhand that took four to six weeks to arrive, since they had to pass through the Soviet mail censors, Tautvyda and I discovered that we both had red hair, we were both born in July (three years apart), and we were both admirers of Sylvia Plath. In fact, Tautvyda was the first person to translate Plaths poems into Lithuanian.
Tautvyda translated a group of my poems into Lithuanian and had them published in the Lithuanian journals Nemunas in 1989 and Gabija in 1991. Together with Manly Johnson, I translated two of Tautvydas poems into English and placed them in the special issue of Nimrod titled From the Soviets, in 1990. Tautvyda and her husband, the poet Gintaras Patačkas, were able to take a side trip to New Orleans to visit me in 1990 while they were giving poetry readings in several U.S. cities with large Lithuanian populations. I was able to visit her during my trips to Lithuania in 2002 as a Fulbright Scholar and in 2005 as a guest of the Lithuanian Writers Union for their annual Poetry Spring international poetry festival. Tautvyda translated the poems of mine that were published in the festivals anthology, Poezijos Pavasaris 05 (Vaga), and in turn, with assistance from Tautvyda, I translated several of her poems into English for the bilingual anthology Poetinis Druskininku Ruduo 2005 (Vaga).
My translations for The Drunken Boat were accomplished with the aid of two different literal English-language translations of the poems, one by the poet herself and one by Rima Krasauskytė, who was my undergraduate student in Lithuania and then my graduate student in the U.S. I was also able to email the poet with my specific questions and to receive responses within twenty-four hours—far different from my first experience translating two of her poems for Nimrod in 1990, when our letters would take more than a month to pass through the Soviet censors!
Over the course of time, I have seen Tautvydas work change from a formal, confessional, and lyric style to the more edgy, experimental, and prose-like signature reflected in this group of poems. One thing that has remained constant is her focus on womens experience and her use of fairy tales, myths, and allusions to critique the lingering oppression of women within Lithuanian society.
I could not begin to explain how many personal confidences Tautvyda and I have shared over the course of 22 years, or what our long friendship has meant to me. Perhaps Robert Frost said it best: That day she put our heads together / Fate had her imagination about her. Tautvyda is my Lithuanian sister poet, and I am grateful for this opportunity to present a large sampling of her work to international English-language readers.
STUFFED CABBAGE ROLLS, MY DOVES
Im not saying
that this is our national dish,
but just that were used to it, like all of Eastern Europe.
I dont know
on which nations genealogical tree they alighted,
sweetly pursing their beaks, before landing
in this bubbling cauldron:
I. guillotined head of cabbage
II. meat ground fine by the machinery of State
III. rice that gives an oriental tang to the filling, though its okay without it
IV. salt, pepper
Note: To avoid overcooking them, Mom would bind them with slender threads, forming an artistic sign of the cross with her filigree, so as not to frighten the eater.
But Im talking nonsense, my cousin, my real
cousin, already born in the State
for which I wish only such
They want to know if I have swallowed a precious stone. I suffer patiently through the procedure until it becomes clear that I am as empty as a museum hall after visiting hours, but in order to pay the X-ray bill they present me with, some of my body parts are going to have to be golden, at least. And why not? Because I have pearls in my mouth, silk on my head, and emeralds in my eye sockets, all very difficult to conserve, regulating the temperature and light as crowds of visitors pass slowly by, and yet it doesnt occur to anyone that the most beautiful things are concealed in my head—a sparkling treasure of thoughts, enough to last me through the end of my life. How sad that no one else will get to admire the diadems of sentences, the pearl-strings of the nights meditations, which even I, in my solitude, must stash back in the heads safe and lock for the night.
So thats why Im making this folded paper boat and putting all of my treasures into it, letting it go on the river to sail toward a person who will own everything from now on.
THE DIAMOND MINE
How difficult it is to part with friends (the endless conversation still running like a fire truck at full speed, their cigarette butts burning in the ashtray): you linger a moment before beginning to wash the cups of just-evaporated coffee, hoping to evoke an illusion of their presence from the cup brims warmed by their lips: words like squirrels, jumping from lips to the branches of ears—
You must see them, enjoy their nimbleness and grace, try in vain to cuddle with them—even the son, already dressed in his school uniform, chases them until the last minute, risking being late again—yes, it is still possible to trick them into sitting down at the table again, to command their full attention, so that they forget the grandiose projects of the day into which they will soon be plunging; and, laughing until tears form, suddenly you feel yourself to be the richest person in the world, strewn with the amethysts of their hearts and the emeralds of their minds, understanding that friendship is the greatest of all diamond mines.
THE IKEBANA OF HAPPINESS
On the same day when, seventeen million years ago, a small girl with red cheeks, seventeen years old and studying floriculture, I came to my Teacher Snow to learn the art of composing the Ikebana of Happiness, charming people with the beauty of massed orchids and its subtle fragrance; on the same day, only seventeen million years later, I was visited by a tall and elegant seventeen-year-old boy who declared me to be his teacher, so that even though both of my arms were occupied (the boy Caius and the girl Gerda sweetly whimpering on them), I realized that I had no right to stop halfway through harsh February, which had frozen the begonias and myrtles, because I could compose ikebanas anywhere, even by breathing on a window glass, scarcely touching its cold surface with my lips, since what had been sown in me by my teacher had already come into leaf in my pupil—flowers, without which the elusive Ikebana of Happiness would be unimaginable.
THE GRAVE OF AN UNKNOWN PRINCESS
How lonely she felt in her ancestors gray Gothic castle with the soul of her dead father, her invalid mother, and her two children whose hair smelled like feathers. On successful hunting days her husband would invite his whole clan to the castle: his still-strong father and mother, three brothers like oaks, four children from his previous marriage to an Italian countess whod run off with the captain of the Hussars, who knows where, and the daughter-in-law whod made him a present of his first-born grandson. It was like that forest of the future moaning and rustling on her grave.
The princess was thin and pale, living on the crumbs of her husbands love. He was hardly ever at home, now teaching the youngest son by his first marriage how to shoot with a bow, now feasting at the eldest sons wedding (at which the fugitive Italian countess had put in a rare appearance), now baptizing his grandson, now choosing a bride for his middle son. Certainly, it was good that he took care of his family, always organizing noisy feasts for them, at which she felt like a foreign body. But since the church had blessed his union with the Italian woman, the princess felt that not even religion could dispel the hatred and bitterness she felt toward her ambivalent life, that nobody inside or outside of the castle walls gave a damn about her, though she knelt for hours at a time in her ancestors oak-carved chapel, begging heaven for an intercession.
It seemed that nothing was going to change until she died. That was why, above all, the princess did not want her husbands clan invited to her funeral: all those strange oak, birch, and ash trees rustling and swaying for all time in the one place that had always been hers alone—the grave of the princess.
The building was made of ferroconcrete, like a typical project, but standing apart from its absolutely identical relatives, its corridors daubed with grimy oil paint, the doors to its rooms sealed shut, its ceiling whitened with chalk, women of different ages knocking timidly on its doors but never dreaming that, at the other end of the corridor, a girl of three or four with blue eyes wide open would shoot them a friendly look, surprised that they tried to hide their flushed faces under kerchiefs or hat veils, as if a glance of theirs could kill the girl with the cold blade of a knife.
They were as smart as dolls, blondes and brunettes, but their industrial eyes needed work—they neither opened nor closed, nothing but decorated plastic.
Now when the girl grew up to play every day with blood pressure monitors and stethoscopes, it seemed to her that if those dolls, moving but not blinking or speaking, had only let her play with them back then, they wouldnt have stayed in that building forever, their hideously naked cloth bodies filled with sawdust, their wrenched-off heads and twisted-off arms and legs and poked-out eyes rolling who knows where, under the furniture—toys that one is sick of, toys that have served their time, banished to some utility room of the building. If only they had played with her! But the dolls had been keen to play with boys, not knowing that boys dont like to play with dolls.
Im in a hurry, Im already late for the jazz concert, and I have no idea what could happen in that jam-packed hall, face to face with the executioner who tediously consults his assistant and reads the sentence from the notes that only he can see, maybe taking pity, or maybe opening an artery, chopping off a head, compelling everyone to howl with horror and fascination—that executioner whose name is Music!
But the jazz goes on breaking like this crown of dandelions my son has asked me to make, crying through his clarinet, not caring that I dont have time for it. After a few minutes the dandelions will wither, individual as sounds that some musician has played or sighed, though hes not likely to remember them, or be remembered for having played them one time only.
But the futility of this job, weaving a crown of dandelions, gives me a certain pleasure that I dont quite understand, feeling feverish and glancing at the clock whose hands dont show the time thats still left, like life after death.
Because what kind of concert could evoke the jazz of life?
THE GOSSAMERS OF INDIAN SUMMER
When leaves and parchment scrolls begin to rustle and turn yellow, it becomes necessary to fall in love, gracefully tugging the blameless gossamers of Indian summer which men and women assume must be binding their personalities to each other—to fall in love the way a storm wastes its energy rending the roofs of houses as if they were meaningless tin cans—suddenly a star and not a desk lamp lights up, and fields of Mars stretch where there had been wallpaper, now reddening when the cosmic ship of passion approaches, now getting pale for fear that nobody will touch the incandescent body, and—what does it matter, where it might lead?—Heaven and Hell mixing right here on our sinful Earth.
Whipped by hail, flooded by the Sun—oh, Lord—how small and uninteresting we would look to ourselves standing on trial in front of your eyes that are a sky of changing tints and colors, covered with the clouds of compassion.
THE WAGTAIL ON THE CHIMNEY
Quick little bird on the rim of the chimney:
the city is burning in the flames of sin
as glittering nightclubs devour the patrons
thrusting at each other. Tonight a stripper
will run through her act in a foreign bordello
and a student coming from a visit to a friend
will snarl like a mermaid in Nemunas River
weeds after getting raped at knifepoint.
Pennies will fall into the margarine tub
of the beggar kneeling on the public sidewalk,
and a Good Samaritan organization
will run out of clothes for the homeless woman
spending the night above a heating vent.
And they, and all the patients
waiting for spring to arrive, will pulsate
in the citys lungs, and when the sleeping giant
awakens, hell spit lava through the chimney,
though he pities the wagtail perching on its rim.