Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Grey Sweater / About Time
Poems by Sonata Paliulyte

The Grey Sweater

As the rain ruptures
         the grey sky
a man leans on his hands
         against the windowpane
and consoles the wind
         with ice-cold eyes -
On the quiet, I am looking
         at his back.

The sweater is grey, one sleeve
A rain of icy needles drizzles
         down behind the collar.
Step by step I'm slinking
         up to the heart -
stealthily along the sweater
         like a frozen cat.

About Time

High amid the birches
the branch-beribboned moon
pours a rill of silver light
into my room.

Lying back on the bedspread
splashed with the night's mosaic,
I touch the slough of time
slithering between the minutes.

So calm, just the hammer
hammering in the clock's forge,
nailing one more nail
into the passing of time.

         both poems translated by Kerry Shawn Keys

As with Keijiro Suga I am fully aware that this is a translation of Sonata Paliulyte's poems so it is worth asking - yet again - what is lost, what is gained, and what remains in a translated poem. Or, since space here is limited, just sticking to what remains and venturing a little further.

Ideas and images remain. The man leaning against the windowpane, the speaker looking at his back, the unravelling sweater, the cold rain, the idea of slinking like a frozen cat along the sweater up to the heart are all there irrespective of modifiers. This series of events would remain whatever the other adjustments of language. The skeleton of the poem is in place.

The modifiers - their precision, their pitch, register, their subtle associations - must naturally undergo metamorphosis in translation but we might be able to gauge them by how they work to flesh out the skeleton. No skeleton: no poem.

The flesh may be distributed slightly differently but it moves with the skeleton and we may be persuaded to take it on trust. Reading any poem, responding to any work of art, is partly a matter of trust. It is no different with a translation.

But it's the poem, the poem as I read it above, that I am truly concerned with, and here are some marvellous things. In The Grey Sweater there is the way the man with the ice-cold eyes consoles the wind, the way the icy needles of rain drizzle down behind his collar, the way the speaker slinks along the sweater like a frozen cat. I trust the translation because I trust precisely these images and am convinced they correspond to the cumulative effect of the original.

The skeleton in About Time involves the moon, the figure lying on a bed mottled by moonlight, the way the figure becomes aware of time as something between minutes, then the idea of the clock beating nails into time.  The two original fresh thoughts here concern time between minutes and the clock as a kind of blacksmith with his nails. Everything hinges on these two elements.

Here, I am persuaded, the language of the translation is charged to the extent the original is charged. That branch-beribboned moon and that rill of silver light correspond to an excitement in the original. Splashed, mosaic, slough, slithering, hammer hammering are all part of the excitement.

Most poetry is concerned with the fresh registering of customary things: a particular angle of the moon, a particular sense of time, the movement of a body, the way its clothes hang. At best it is as if we were living for the first time. That is essentially the lyric project. These are two fine lyric poems.


I have put two poems of Paliulyte here because they are so short. Here is another link to her biog. The poems are taken from her chapbook, Still Life, published by Colin Will's Calder Wood Press I am aware these posts are becoming longer and fuller. I don't want to shortchange my first poets it's just that one loosens up and gets into the swing of things. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

from Walking Poems, No 5
A poem by Keijiro Suga

Walking 5

Autumn comes walking with the infallible feet of the wind,

Through the shallow marshland, through the narrow openings of the tall, silver grass.

We too are walking, speechless

With the intention of welcoming this autumn that has come too early.

Walking on this narrow wooden boardwalk we see the shapes of the faraway mountains,

In the shade of the tall silver grass dragonflies with cheerful knowledge dance wildly.

Hiding in the shades are the living of what past periods?

Did you break ice here?

Did you burn stones here?

Under the orange sun of which season and under what kind of rain clouds?

Did you sing songs?

Did you play the pipes and strings?

Did you capture flocking birds?

My ears cannot reach the old melodies buried under the silver grass

But there's no need to give up your hope that is humming like clouds.

I am addressing all of you.

Poem translated by the poet.


This poem is one of eight in a booklet Keijiro Suga gave me. I am always wary of making any judgment on translated text since one is judging the translation as much as the original, indeed sometimes more the translation, and I am especially wary of judging translation from a language that is so different from those I know, whose history, traditions and expectations are unfamiliar to me.

Not entirely unfamiliar in this case perhaps. I have of course read poems translated from languages and cultures far removed from mine and, as concerns Japanese verse, I have the kind of glancing acquaintance with it expected from someone who reads other Japanese poems in translation in individual collections or anthologies such as the Penguin Book of Japanese Verse.

Keijiro Suga is a well known and prize winning Japanese poet. There is something about him here along with other translated poems. This poem, like the others at the link, consists of single lines rather than joined up text - that, at least is how I read them - with a little space of silence around them. The lines are often statements and the poem itself walks, moving forward step by step in a space that is partly thought, partly meditative condition, a way of proceeding through nature and understanding it or rather, perhaps more accurately, perceiving the conditions under which man and nature meet.

In many respects it is not unlike the tradition we sense in old Japanese forms such as the haiku, the tanka or the renga, but here the sensibility takes on a more direct, more modernist, more improvised slant. Less is assumed, there is less formal addressing of a historical body of common experience. We have instead a way of walking, a slow proceeding, in which nature has to be re-experienced and handled somewhat gingerly. The poem begins with statements then moves to a series of questions addressed directly to the past but also, by extension, to us - as is made clear in that last line.

And all the time we are brought to see things: the silver grass, the orange sun, the boardwalk, the dragonflies. The poem is more than the record of a hike. It is a philosophical journey towards hope of communication: the human in the natural. It has a calm gravity that does not take itself for granted.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Inventing Life / Perpetuum Mobile:
From Another Hotel Room

Legend of speed. Etching. George Szirtes (back in the 70s/80s)

A brief interruption to the poems from Druskininskai with two, maybe three more to go. I am in Manchester overnight to do some recording for BBC's The Verb. I am to talk about Frigyes Karinthy's highly popular, though now often criticised and questioned, translation of Winnie the Pooh in terms of both cultural and linguistic change.

I seem to be a kind of odd job poet of the media - a curious status - so I produce, to commision, an article or two about this or that aspect of poetry or translation, record a discussion of World War 1 poetry from countries other than the UK on radio; am commissioned (or rather was) to write a very brief film noir script in verse also for radio, to introduce Tarr's Sarantango to a cinema audience, to produce a piece on Jewish Budapest for a journal, to write an oratorio for one composer here, the text for an opera for another. None of this makes me rich or gravely famous.

Today in Manchester. On Wednesday to Nottingham to talk to two Hungarian writers about the state of Hungarian literature. On Saturday to Ilkley to read from the New Don Juan and to address a cultural meeting. Then to Ealing for a very unusual event where all the family gets to perform, the following Saturday to London to read at Rich Mix, then back to London to speak for Rimbaud at another London event, and, beyond that to do a reading in Norfolk, to come to London again for a book prize meeting then to jet off to Singapore for a festival then a residency. In between that I must spend an hour or so at Imperial College researching for some more commissioned poems, and also record a poem commissioned for Anself Kiefer at the Royal Academy, both in London of course. This is all in the next two and a half weeks.

I nearly always say Yes when invited to do something, generally for fear of never being asked again. The result is I am asked to do many things because people think I can do them. I am not sure I can but then I have to so it seems I can which then leads to more requests to do more things. So goes the perpetuum mobile.

I must have energy enough for all this because I seem to be doing it - and more. Maybe I just tick over very fast and always have. The poems I write are bred out of the same tempo, at quiet moments between the pressure. I can't tell, or at least be certain, about their long term weight and other people's evaluation of them often confuses me. I do know I have never been the slow meditative type: my meditations are intense and compressed.

Life too seems intense and compressed, of a glowing, almost white-hot brightness. I have grown to love it ever more without wanting to hold on to it for any time beyond its useful length. I know - and am fortunate beyond words to know - that I am loved by those I most care for. I know that the love is vital but that it is best based not on a puppyish craving but on consideration, kindness and a wild sense of the uncertainty of life, or indeed of anything.

This is a moment along the way, as are all moments. One invents life as one goes along, or it invents one. Hard to know which. One hopes to invent poems that can be part of life's own invention.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Poem by Donna Stonecipher

Model City [1]

It was like taking the train across a border between two countries with disparate languages, one built like a fortress and one slinky as a river, and thinking about how orderly languages are, keeping within borders.


It was like anticipating how the station-names will change abruptly from words stout as fortresses to words slinky as rivers right after the border, as if each language lived in a world untroubled by the existence of the other.


It was like crossing the border and trying to feel it underneath the train, to feel this instance of division, of order, of force, of fate. But the border was an abstraction ordering other abstractions, like stout and slinky languages.


It was like noticing the train has stopped at the border and seeing a man outside with the wrong passport apprehended by police — and remembering the luxury of forgetting the brute ordering force of abstractions.

Model City [2]

It was like going to see “The Unbuilt City,” an exhibition of architectural plans and models for transforming your city — grids, towers, monumental ministries, vast plazas — that ultimately came to nothing.


It was like wandering through the exhibit looking at futuristic drawings that figure the erasure of the nineteenth-century four-story architecture you love, and feeling pleased the plans came to nothing.


It was like taking note of a resistance in yourself to the futuristic, the futuresque, the future — while not denying a certain nostalgia for antiquated visions of the world of tomorrow.


It was like looking at the futuristic models and thinking about the unbearableness of the present, and realizing there are two kinds of people: those who can’t wait for the future, and those who can’t wait for the past.


The poems above made their first appearance in the Paris Review last year as a group of four. This is just two of them. I hadn't come across Stonecipher's poems before, that being a reflection on me not on her work, but seeing and hearing her poems in Druskininskai (why do I always want to write Drunkininskai?) I was immediately excited by them.

Why did the poems strike me so?

In the first place because they accorded with my own sense of the balance between reportage and the state of mind we call imagination. They were undoubtedly about ideas and states but were so light on their feet that the very lightness constituted a poetic condition. There are devices here, such as the repeated phrase of 'It was like' that seem to be almost anti-poetic, a clear invitation to do something that poetry will generally do - to compare - without invitation. Few poems can use direct simile with confidence. Here they have an insistent but dreamlike effect. The sentences start much like prose sentences - indeed they are in prose - but are vehicles for registering something that is both thought and reverie. The words are selected with great delicacy and precision, so the idea of a series of thoughts driving towards an argument is relieved of its burden. One floats in them while sensing that something true and demanding is being said about the world.

My own experiments with reiterated phrases and the use of prose as a counterpoint to the essentially poetic sense ofperception draws me to her work. And that isn't just because of Drunkininskai. She has a book coming in England with Shearsman. One to get.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

CULINARY ROME A poem by Ludwig Steinherr


I know of a Trattoria
tucked away in a side alley in Trastevere
He who orders early enough
can get a delicacy there:
from the deepest freezers
preserved for centuries
the brain of a Renaissance prince
sautéed in butter and sage…
Connoisseurs do not pair it with a wine
The flavor, simply enjoyed,
is different than anything they have ever
tasted in their appetent dreams …
The unsophisticated palate
is initially overwhelmed by the hints of decay
but then
the roof rips away at the copula,
fountains of light shoot upwards
as if out of carotid arteries
and spatter the walls,
nymphs at the springs enlace holiness,
fauns trample porcelain plates with filthy hooves,
fireworks flicker down and Danae spreads her thighs.
Indulge yourself! Savor each metamorphosis!
Your tongue will successively turn into
a boar, a rhinoceros, a panther, a peacock;
extend every second into an eternity!
Rub pepper in your eyes
to stay awake!
Jab forks into your arm
to experience each additional nuance of desire!

The following night—believe me—
is going to be one hell of a ride.

translated by Paul-Henri Campbell


Ludwig Steinherr, a fellow guest at Druskinikai, is a well-known, prize-winning German poet. A selection of his poems translated into English,  Before the Invention of Paradise, was published by Arc. This poem is from a later collection and is wilder, more Dionysian than much of his earlier work. Fantastical and ecstatic, it is concerned as much with cruelty as with pleasure. Beginning with a visit to a simple trattoria the poem expands first into history, then into the flavour of a historical moment that proves shockingly transformative. By touching as much on the explosive as the ecstatic, the view of the past affords a prophetic glance into a possible future where indulgence is the first step to destruction.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Death Should Be Intimate
A Poem by Kerry Shawn Keys

Death Should Be Intimate

Death should be intimate.
It should be something like this –
sitting in a rocking chair,
mistaking the wings of an angel
for the swish of the rocker.

It should be sitting down for dinner,
the white napkins, the soup of bread and garlic,
a soup spoon approaching the mouth,
and then suddenly falling forward,
the wine glass spilling on your lap
at the moment of death, and the glass
breaking on the floor the moment after.

It should be in bed, again the color white,
this time the white sheets and the pillow case,
dawn bringing its alba song of love through the window,
with the sun barely visible behind pink clouds,
and then you see your body beneath,
curled up in sleep like a fetus on the bed,
and you are floating above, slowly, slowly
in the thermal, in shafts of sunlight.

And finally, after dying so many times,
death might be a knife, hidden, intangible
in such a shaft of sunlight, silver, invisible,
a secret knife, not yours, not the kitchen’s,
not the beloved’s, but belonging to someone like Abraham,
a servant of a god, a myth, or belonging to no one,
self-contained in its intimacy, eternal, waiting for nothing,
and, yes, your soul, which is all that is left of you,
will pass through it on its way.

I am featuring a few poems by poets at Druskininkai. Kerry Shawn Keys is a marvellous poet who should be much better known than he is. He has spent the latter part of his life in Lithuania and has often performed his poems at the Poetry Fall and indeed all over the world. He has published a good many books too, too many to list here. His life story would make a most wonderful memoir, should he ever write it down. I am delighted to be able to print this relatively new poem by him.

This poem, a contemplation of the moment of dying, moves clearly and powerfully, almost like a film, from image to image through to that final knife which is a point of re-entry to the world presented at the start of the poem - the world of soul and symbol. There is nothing cluttered or melodramatic about the poem. It accepts the moment of death the way it would accept anything else in the universe as something simply itself, yet more. Its language is natural, its sense of rhythm and cadence authoritative without special effects. It is masterly.

More to come from others.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

From Vilnius 4: Frank Zappa's
Republic of Letters

Poet Kerry Shawn Keys at the door of the Republic of Uzipis

Apparently it started with Frank Zappa. Or maybe it didn't.
‘Okay, so Zappa never visited Lithuania and had absolutely no connection with the country, but as far as I was concerned, this was a test of our new-found freedom. Lithuania had just proclaimed itself to be a democratic country. I wanted to test it and see if I would be able to realize my ideas.’
King Zappa, President Zappa, Prime Minister Zappa, Foreign Secretary Zappa, His Excellency Frank Zappa, His Holy Highness Frank Zappa, Zappa the Bridge, Zappa the River, Zappa the Horse (why not?). It is April the 1st and we have a new state titled, Uzupis, meaning 'the other side of the river', the river in this case being the River Vilnia, after which the city of Vilnius is named. After the melancholy of Vilnius, the gaiety of the bohemian republic within the Vilnian heart of the republic.

I won't describe it here: the links will do that. It exists in a perfectly serious albeit internationally unrecognised Zappanian way.

These eruptions of the spirit have happened before and will happen again whenever the bounds of some particularly stern and oppressive authority are - however briefly - broken. It is the immediate and direct product of the breaking. If I can't quite imagine it in England it is partly because England has a very different history and because here it would be regarded as something 'silly' like the Ministry of Silly Walks in Monty Python. Something of a lark, something rather Pythonesque in fact.

Such are the paradoxes of history that now and then they have to be turned upside down so we can see them at all. Uzupis is carnival in the Bakhtinian sense in that it is a complete parody of the apparatus of state with its own constitution. It has statues and flags and speeches and state occasions. It is and yet not quite a joke. This is the land of the Zappatistas.

If eras had a distinct smell I would say Uzupis smelled of the Sixties; to be more specific of the years from 1964-1969. It is heady with Haight Ashbury and Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra and Ken Kesey. I wouldn't say it smelled exactly  of Woodstock, nor, on the other hand, did it have the 'characteristic sweet, thick and dark character of the balsamic' occasionally inflammable notes  of Berkeley 1969Grosvenor Square, Les Evenements de Mai or Altamont. The basenote is, and must course, be Prague Spring. Vaclav Havel would have worn it as aftershave on the day Uzupis was founded.

But this is reinvention, revival, rediscovery, revenge. It has had time to build its own characteristic architecture of flavours and scents in the twenty or more years since Prague. I can't hope to characterise it in a visit, but there is probably more alcohol in the mixture than there might have been back then. It seems more like a masked ball for poetes maudits than a political ideal.

Not a Utopia then, nor (thank heaven!) a boho Disneyworld. Artists continue to live, work and meet there. It is not Zappa on a chocolate box or even on an artily reconstructed box of 1960s cigarettes.

I can't tell what it was or is, but I do think about what it means to me. What does it mean?

I can imagine such a place without wanting to live in it. I am not really a communal creature but I can imagine becoming fond of people there, of the bars and streets and studios and the river, as well as the 'occasions of state'. I can imagine admiring it. If I were there it would be churlish not to join in and celebrate its entirely improbable existence. I am pretty sure I could approve and abide by much of the constitution.

I don't suppose I have ever been a political idealist and can't imagine myself on Kesey's magic bus. I was shyer, more remote, more lost, more wary than that. And yet there is something about circus and street theatre that seems vital not only to my own well-being but the world's. I think Marcel Carné's film, Les Enfants du Paradis offers a perfectly real understanding of the world, my own world. I think the film presents us with most conditions of the world.

And Uzipis is, in its own rusty way, just that kind of paradis. I feel an immediate affection for it without wanting to be swallowed up by it. I never wanted to join the scouts either of course but, given a choice between clowns and scouts, I would pick the clowns.

And these are the clowns of a bitter history. They have made their own licence and their own carnival.  So now I have the visa in my passport. Here it is. As official as the nose on my face.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Lithuania Letter 3: Back in Vilnius

Autumn in Druskininskai

I am writing this from the Hotel Congress in Vilnius where we first arrived and to which we have returned in order to depart again.

It is always hard to know what to make of festivals in terms of the art but this much is certain: you meet new poems that make an impression, you meet their makers, and you make friends, that being the chief good. The rest is ambience, new scenery, a little craziness, snatches of conversation, music, drinking. After the first few hours of apprehension (what is this place? who are these people? are they utterly different from me? how to talk to them? how much is expected of me? is my work going to make contact at all?) it all merges into a kind of conviviality where moments of idiosyncracy or monstrous egotism become charming for the duration.

Much is down to the hosts of course and in this case the president and founder of the festival, Kornelijus Pletatis, carried it all with an amiable tolerance and seen-it-all kindness. He is above all a major Lithuanian poet in the grand European tradition of both personal lyric and elements of epic - I mean a voice recognizably in the humane family of Milosz and Herbert but utterly itself -  a selection of whose work I managed to find on Kindle and more than warmly recommend. I will find a suitable poem of his and put it up on the blog once I am home.

We knew Ludwig Steinherr from before. We had met at StAnza a couple of years ago and immediately took to each other. We exchanged books and he exists in excellent English translation. He is a marvellous philosophical poet, the poems clear, warm, beautifully balanced. I will put up something by him too.

I have mentioned Donna Stonecipher already, I think. An American poet living in Berlin, it was her poems that most suprised me, partly because I hadn't read her before but chiefly because of her originality. The poems are in prose and in series, so ideally one needs a run of them for full effect, but they are so delicately positioned in terms of development of voice, imagery and emotion that they fell on me like unexpected light.

I can't be quite fair to the other poets bcause some of them were available only in Lithuanian translation or because the English  translation was not quite enough to judge them by but in terms of performance the young Swedish poet, Laura Wihlborg was very impressive and clearly much appreciated by the younger poets at the festival. She was also making a radio programme for Swedish radio so moved around with a microphone.

I noticed how Veno Taufer's poems in the anthology were formal and firmly rhymed sonnets in the original. They sounded beautiful to my ear but the translations were in Lithuanian, as was the case with Suzana Lovric, Artis Ostups, and the Japanese poets Keijiro Suga and Koichi Yakushigawa.

Lidija Simkute's poems were written in English but also translated by her as she is a Lithuanian long resident in Australia. Short, deeply spiritual poems, drawing on, it seemed to me, Japanese traditions of haiku and tanka but without the strict form, it was not surprising to me that her poems had in fact been translated into Japanese, indeed by Koichi Yakushigawa.

Alfredo Costa Moneiro works with sound and performed a single long poem, Soliloquio Vazio, a play on the idea of nothing and emptiness, with the backing of his own voice speaking in the background. I don't see or hear much of this work in the UK (though I am sure it exists) so it was a fascinating experience.

I myself had the great good fortune of being translated by Sonata Paliulyte, a fine poet herself and married to the American poet Kerry Shawn Keys .

Oh, but so much more and I haven't mentioned the Lithuanian poets such as Erika Drungtyé,  Bendiktas Janusevivius or Vytautas Rubavicius who were in English translation and sounded very good in their different ways, particularly Rubavicius, or the Estonian poet, Jürgen Rooste who gave a powerful performance, occasionally in English.

But that's the poetry and I can't do justice to them all, nor is there time now to link to the work, but I will.

One should avoid pieties, of course one should, but there is no way of accounting for all without the pieties.


We are Babel and our tongues are confused but at least we are in the same wing of Babel, or maybe not a wing at all, but at the very foundations of Babel where tongues spring into words. And later we try to talk over music and over each other, passing each other wine or vodka or potent local herbal brews, or sneak out for cigarettes. Babel is in the noise, but the foundations are articulate and shaped to hold the structure together. Even when you knock Babel down and destroy it, the foundations remain.

Yesterday on returning to Vilnius we met with Kerry and walked around Vilnius a little longer ending up in that part of the ghetto where Kerry and Sonata live. The street still shows the signs of ghetto life and is partly crumbling. It is like a photograph of itself reanimated. The building opposite their flat was where there was some attempt at Jewish resistance. The attempt failed of course but at least photographs of some of those of who resisted are roughly displayed on the wall (see above). In order to get to K and S's flat you walk through a courtyard with woodsheds and some fairly ramshackle improvised building and mending. Nothing has been renovated here. The stairs up to the apartment are steep and dark. When we walk up, a complex space opens up on the top floor with a narrow balcony overlooking the yard and a little beyond. Chimneys. Bricks. The rooms are full of books and art and souvenirs of travel. It would be good to feature a poem of Kerry's too, since he is a very fine poet indeed, resident here now for many years. I recognise both the feelings and the sense of the space too, that cave of making for both Kerry and Sonata (whose work I don't know in English translation but must try to find).

Europe has been both garden and charnelhouse but we recognise it and shrug and are glad to be here if only because it is our essential cave of making. And remaking of course, a constant remaking you see in the houses, streets, squares and parks.

Hello Europe. We are not divorced. Not from this.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Lithuania Letter 2: From Druskininkai

Druskininkai: The stately pleasure dome decreed

Druskininkai - Drusk for short - is a spa resort in the far South of Lithuania. It looks like a cross between Socialist Paradise (TM protected) and Modernist Baroque in terms of architecture and disposition, with one river and two lakes and a great domed building that serves as health centre  with mud bath, massage, leisure activities and night club; the spoils of the West taking root in the Baltic. The trees are magnificent, all in 'their autumn beauty', ravishing, far from bare, but gently showering dry yellow leaves over the grass.

We walk down to the river and round the smaller lake on our free morning with our German friend Ludwig, then stop for a coffee in a very volkisch bar where the waitresses wear ethnic gear. Such things aways make me feel a curious mixture of unease and childish pleasure. We order acorn coffee as that is prominent on the menu but, disappointingly, there are no acorns, so we order ordinary coffee instead and sit and talk literature and politics, which is what civilised people do in such circumstances.

The festival proper begins in the afternoon with the raising of the festival flag on the lawn outside and the playing of the festival anthem. Then we proceed back into the hall and discuss the function or non-function of 'canonical forms' for some three and a half hours to a thinning audience. The discussion brightens up as it goes on, and once we have made an effort to distinguish between the idea of form and the idea of a canon we find ourselves making a few worthwhile points.

Poetry festivals are like this. We don't arrive at earth-shaking conclusions, but we talk for the amusement of the invisible poetry deities who are sitting at our elbows, occasionally nodding, occasionally yawning.

From the discussion we pass on to the readings - twelve poets reading for some two hours in all, complete with translations on the screen behind them above their heads, some into English, some into Lithuanian. This the genuine business end of the festival where the poets are what they claim to be: the authors of poems. And the poets are all different, of different ages, from different countries with differing poetics. Everyone has ten minutes and it works. Particularly delighted to make the acquaintance of poems by Donna Stonecipher, a Seattle poet long settled in Berlin. Calm, precise, architectural yet passionately driven poems, all in prose and soon to be published in the UK by Shearsman.

I read tomorrow.

Then, after the reading, a table at the restaurant-bar with a fine array of drinks reserved for the guest poets who can watch the readings in the other room on a large screen. The drinks go round, the laughter picks up, we open bottles of bubbly then, some of us, decide to retire to bed.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Lithuania Letter 1: Vilnius

Vilnius is cold at night but it's a small city and a short drive from the airport. Ruta had picked us up off the 22:55 in from Stansted but since Lithuania is two hours ahead it was only nine in the evening for us. She is a young highly capable woman who loves Vilnius, a very green city, she says though it's too late to see that now. It is certainly a quiet city as we approach the river and our hotel.

What do I know about Vilnius? That it is beautiful, that it is green, and that back in the nineteenth century the greatest part of its population was Jewish, some 45% in fact, but that now it is only 0.5%. That is some vanishing, and the reason is not hard to seek.

Beautiful places with stern morals are not necessarily kind.

We sleep well though after watching almost two whole football matches through, both featuring English teams. The Lithuanian commentary is remarkably tranquil. There is no particular excitement at goalmouth incidents, serious fouls or even at goals when they are scored. They are remarked on. No one shouts or gasps. It is very calm.

The next morning after breakfast the sky is cloudless, a wonderful mid-blue, the light clear, slightly icy without hard shadows. We walk towards the old city. There are cars but very little traffic. Cars wait courteously for us to cross, the drivers gesturing us on with faint smiles. The faces - I always notice the faces especially of the women - are northern, possibly Scandinavian, with high cheekbones, large eyes, pale skin and, mostly, blonde hair. They are tall. The men and boys are even taller. They have an angelic look, their language bell-like, tinkling. The buildings too are clear and pale.

As we approach the old city we see why the city is green. Though the old streets are narrow they are not long and very soon, at the end of each, we come across large squares or open spaces each with trees at their autumnal best, green moving through to orange, great dense heads just losing the odd leaf now and then. A hooded crow, sparrows, scrappy tousled pigeons. The older buildings are either spruced up or pieces of pure tachisme, scraped, rubbed, smeared, crumbling, vanishing into themselves. It's good for graffiti too.

We enter  the Vilnaus Sventosios Dvaiosa a Baroque church full of the familiar hypnotic billowing as befits the God of the Psychotic, all voluptuous gesture and  frantic grace, as a counterpoint to the apparent calm outside. It looks somewhat like this.

But soon, not too far away, there is the contrast of the Greek Catholic Church. Plain, tall, half scrubbed clear by time and neglect.

Then it is more pale buildings, more narrow streets, more large - extraordinarily large - squares. The city must have been able to afford these open spaces since there is very little over three storeys; in the old town. Is it beautiful? Yes, I should say so.

Eventually we return to the hotel, check out, meet other writers and walk over to the Writers Union, which is nineteenth century grandeur inside, reminding me a little of the Writers Union in Bucharest.

We dump bags there and go off again down other parts of the old city, down alleyways  and passages. We stop at a bar that does lunches and sit outside in the sweetest most blinding light yet, half in shadow, lingering over beer and coffee before heading off into the ghetto.

Here the buildings are plainer, more utilitarian. One imagines the scuttling of feet into the doorways, the fear stifling the squares and narrow streets. It is marked and acknowledged but it is pretty bare save for the constant green of trees and rough grass.

Could we live here? Yes, without memory, filling our eyes, learning the bell like language, learning the manners, the direct look in the eyes that pass on and through. A good city to be young in. A good city for ghosts at windows and in walls.

At 4:30 we set out for Druskininkai, the spa town, where the festival is to take place.