Translated from the Lithuanian by Ellen Hinsey
Well, winter approaches and olive trees
begin to rustle under the cover of clouds.
(Here, an address is befitting: “My friend
Septimius.”) Seawater endures, unchanged
from the days when the Ligurian boats
conceded to Roman triremes. Only stiff
cliffs, supplanting our cities’ barren
silhouette, erode: now slightly concave.
This stifling alphabet of rock and time.
Sandstone neumes, fermatas of marl.
Paths flooded by avalanche: darkened
tunnels vanish into a mountain’s womb.
A gorge’s waterfall feverishly argues
with itself, and a statue, which no one
will hew from its marble chrysalis,
eternally ages in a godforsaken mine.
We can barely distinguish direction—
the sky’s vault opaque as the stone slope.
The hill’s scar broken by a vertical.
A village emerges through wet fog,
resembling Rubik’s variegated cubes,
scattered on the shore by the sea—
an island that has surrendered to trade,
the restive crowd, uproar, and filth.
The imperiousness of watery streets
brings a whisper from the Mezzogiorno.
We contend to have nothing in common
with armored mussels, morays, slithery
sea predators, but most likely we err.
Plankton struggles in the seaport’s grip.
After us, Septimius, this plankton will
prevail, much older than Liguria’s boats.
We don’t know to where things vanish,
but one thing is clear: mare will endure.
Here, where our women dry their hair
and wet umbrellas restively glisten,
and farinata graces the festive table,
centuries hence starfishes will encroach,
fish will glide by, mirrorlike or pyriform,
errant spray will dissolve. And the salty
current will fill this arrowed crevice —
for now still tunnelled, with tourists
in the churchyard, shops with shawls,
a plump baby in a pram, who glimpses
his or her earliest shapeless dream,
and the widow who each week waits
for waning guests, letters, phone calls,
and death (which frequently procrastinates).
Still, Septimius, we are free to choose:
fate is blind, but sound is clairvoyant—
music obeying not Ananke, but rather
two quarrelling sisters—two contrarian
queens: the first one Gaia who, from
her ancestor Chaos, inherited his grim
physique, his faceless force. The second:
the goddess of winds and solitude.
Let us be thankful to both sovereigns—
I prefer the one who dwells in air.
As the salty depths expand, and heat
menacingly presses on the surface of bays,
she performs her duty—she is friend
to cicada and thyme, she confers peace
upon the world’s void. Let us listen
to her incessant, but reticent, voice.
Tomas Venclova was born in Klaipėda, Lithuania, in 1937. From 1956 on he took part in the Lithuanian and Soviet dissident movements and was one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. His circle included writers such as Akhmatova, Pasternak, Brodsky, and Miłosz, among others. He has written more than twenty-five books in Lithuanian, Russian, and English. His volumes include poetry, criticism, literary biography, interviews, and works on Vilnius. His two-volume history of Lithuania was published in 2018 and 2019. Venclova has been the recipient of numerous awards and prizes including the Lithuanian National Prize, the Prize of Two Nations, which he received jointly with Czesław Miłosz, the New Culture of New Europe Prize, the Qinhai International Poetry Prize, the Vilenica International Literary Prize, and the Petrarca Prize. His works in English include Magnetic North Conversations with Tomas Venclova, The Junction: Selected Poems of Tomas Venclova, Vilnius: A Personal History, Forms of Hope, Winter Dialogue, and Aleksander Wat: Life and Art of an Iconoclast.
Ellen Hinsey is the International Correspondent for New England Review. She is the author of nine books of poetry, essay, dialogue and translation. Her most recent book, The Illegal Age, explores the rise of authoritarianism. Hinsey’s essays are collected in Mastering the Past: Reports from Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe. Hinsey’s other poetry collections include Update on the Descent, The White Fire of Time and Cities of Memory (Yale University Series Award). Hinsey has also edited and co-translated The Junction: Selected Poems of Tomas Venclova. Her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Irish Times, Poetry and New England Review. A former fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, she has most recently been a visiting professor at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.
To learn more about Tomas Venclova, read his interview with Ellen Hinsey.