Translated from the Lithuanian by Ellen Hinsey
On the coastal stretch between Aspalathos and Polai
(or Split and Pula), where Greek effortlessly
entwines the local dialect, and the walnut falls
on the smooth roadway, we sense each other’s presence—briefly.
Clouds augur heat, shadows at intervals darken window
lattices and arches. On the square’s left side is the portal,
ponderous as a litany. Kyrie eleison. The marble transcription
is meant for everyone—but best deciphered by God.
Two lions guarding the door are akin to those that once ministered
to Mark and Jerome. Behind them you can’t yet imagine
pilasters, vaults, or the tripart nave.
Seven hemispheres give form to a delusory universe—
whose final endpoints are Adam and Eve. The massive
bodies curve spacetime. Both already know shame—
but not yet death (this, the Lord will bestow).
Everything that happened next is a consequence of their fortuitous guilt.
Vine tenders, wild boar, deer, pursuits among the undergrowth
(in this stone thicket, you can hardly distinguish the hunter from hunted).
In December: suckling pigs are slaughtered; sausages are smoked in January.
An old man by a hearth—his gaze fixed on a pot,
a young man shearing sheep, his face ruddy from wind,
another—or perhaps the same—tilts an amphora
a third—or perhaps the same—is fitted with Roman armor—
because there will be soldiers always, like the eternal month of March and Mars.
All are self-portraits. You didn’t want to finish elaborating
the cycle of the year—but the months rolled over the city’s rooftops
and the Trecento stealthily approached, along
with the inexorable—such as wars, fevers, childbirth’s pain,
and terminal disease. And Virgo, as now and forever—
revealed the Child to us or, rather—to the ineffable father.
I am no longer familiar with your prayers. Time erodes a stone’s facing;
destroys the faces of the living. Only a name risks enduring—
but can also be bestowed upon those unworthy of it—
the sons of hatred. Evening. A speedboat flips through
the sparkling book of the bay. A sail and its reflection
imprint onto the water’s surface like an Aleph.
A dove hovers over the tower. Radovan, perhaps someone
would say, it is your soul. But we were excluded from such a realm
the day we were cast out of paradise. Perhaps we are becoming water
reflections, gusts of wind, portal reliefs. This we must accept—
for this is our eon.
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.