To Tomas Ventslova
A modest little country by the sea.
It has its snow, an airport, telephones,
its Jews. A dictator’s brownstone villa.
A statue of a bard is there as well,
who once compared his country to his girl.
The simile displayed, if not good taste,
sound geography: for here the southerners
make Saturday the day to go up north
from whence, a little drunk, on foot,
they have been known to stray into the West—
a good theme for a sketch. Here distances
are well designed to suit hermaphrodites.
Noonday in springtime. Puddles, banked-up clouds,
angels beyond number on the gables
of churches beyond number; here a man
becomes a token sacrifice to crowds,
a minor baroque fitment of the place.
To be born a century ago
and over the down bedding, airing,
through a window see a garden grow
and Katherine’s crosses, twin domes soaring;
be embarrassed for mother, hiccup
when the brandished lorgnettes scrutinize
and push a cart with rubbish heaped up
along the ghetto’s yellow alleys,
sigh, tucked up in bed from head to toe,
for Polish ladies, for example;
to live long enough to face the foe
and fall in Poland somewhere, trampled—
for Faith, Tsar and Homeland, or if not,
then shape Jew’s ringlets into sideburns
and off to the New World like a shot,
puking as the ship’s steel spine churns.
3. Café Neringa
Time departs in Vilnius through a café door
accompanied by sounds of clinking forks and spoons,
while space screws up its eyes from booze the night before
and stares at Time’s retreating spine.
A crimson circle, its interior vanished,
now hangs moored in utter stillness over roof-tiles
and the Adam’s apple sharpens, quite as if
the whole face had been transformed into a profile.
Obeying commands like Aladdin’s lamp,
a waitress decked out in a cambric halter
saunters about with legs so lately clamped
around the neck of a local footballer.
Saint George, that old dragon slayer,
spear long lost in allegory’s glare,
has kept in safety up till now
his sword and steed, and every place
in Lithuania pursues, steadfast,
his aim unheeded by the crowd.
Who now has he, sword clenched in hand,
resolved on taking? What he hounds
a well-placed coat of arms blots out.
Who can it be? Gentile? Saracen?
The whole world, perhaps? If that’s so, then
Vytautas knew well what he was about.
5. Amicum-philosophum de melancholia mania et plica polonica
Sleeplessness. Part of a woman. A glass
replete with reptiles all straining to get out.
The day’s long madness has drained across
the cerebellum into the occiput
forming a pool; one movement and the slush
will feel as if someone, in that icy blot
has dipped a sharpened quill, then comes a pause,
then deliberately, brings out the one word “hate”
a word italicized, where every curve
is twisted. Part of a woman in lipstick
imparts into the ear some lengthy words,
like extending five fingers through ringlets stiff
with lice. Alone and naked in the dark
you imprint the sheet, sign of the zodiac.
Only the sea has power to peer in the mask
of the sky; a traveler sits in the dunes
his eyes cast down and sucks at his wine-flask
like a king in exile with no scald’s high tunes.
His house is ransacked, flocks driven from the land.
Son hidden by a shepherd in a cave.
Now before him the world’s thin hem of sand
and not faith enough within to walk on waves.
7. The Dominicans
Turn off the thoroughfare and into
a half-blind alley, go toward
the church, it’s empty but for you,
sit down, no need for any word,
compose yourself, then in God’s whorled ear,
closed to the clash of day’s discord,
whisper four syllables, soft and clear:
—Forgive me, Lord.
October 12, 1978