No. 6


Tomas Venclova 

Translated from the Lithuanian by Ellen Hinsey


Above all, though it’s hard, love language—
humbled in newspapers, obituaries saturated with lies,
in the bedroom’s close darkness, the informer’s confession,
in the cry at the bazaar, trenches, the stench of hospital wards,

in third-rate theatres, investigative offices, on lavatory walls.
In grey buildings where the stairwell’s base is guarded
by steel nets, so that it is not a man, but the century,
which selects the instant of his death;

this language, almost collapsed, littered with sound
and fury. That’s it, love language—
banished to earth beside us,
though carrying with it the primordial Word, 

as if conceived in that other universe.
It was given so that we might be different from clay,
the palm, the thrush, perhaps even from angels,
so that by naming, we should grasp objects clearly.

Those who attempt to return to that untouchable realm,
to purify their language, must understand
that failure will be their lot. Because perception
up there recedes as quickly as one approaches— 

and insight is equal to loss: what is formed
is as quickly effaced. And don’t trespass
into another’s heaven (there are many). To reach
any heaven is to erase your footprints and discard the key.

They say you are only a tool. Dictated to by 
a force you can’t face head-on or you’ll go blind. 
That’s not entirely true. Gropingly, you’ll climb Jacob’s ladder 
in a dream, exceeding your strength, unprotected by a net,

until, above, someone greets you (or perhaps doesn’t). Still,
sometimes, casting you aside, he might transpose a word
or two, change a vowel, tighten syntax, shift a degree.
This happens rarely, but it does happen—

then you’ll be the one who ‘saw that it was good’—
because letters float across the page like sludge on a river,
and suddenly bushes, an embankment, a city come into view.
And it doesn’t matter who reads this (if anyone ever).


A homeless star overhead: a sign of winter and miracle.
The city, like an airplane, descends into New Year’s
bright unknown. Global warming’s virus makes the towers 
shiver. The flat archipelago wheezes and coughs.
The white statue—the chess queen—has lost her

place: hopelessly entangled in a knotted web of drizzle.
The Rubicon was crossed by the Cimbri—or ourselves.
The horizon’s arc: Venetian-blind sharp, a half-closed eye. 
A drop dilates the pupil, precipitation fogs the larynx.
By the corner, scaffolding rises, an empty cinema glows,

and you descend stairs into the weekend’s thick prose.
You won’t see the Latin Salve on the worn-out threshold—
this is not your home. Parquet sags, fractures like ice
under exile’s feet. A new Jugendstil panel is sacrificed 
to clients, unwillingly, in its glory: pink and lilac-toned

above the bar. Tablecloths’ sails, mirrors, bronze, crystal, 
fake marble. Yes—on this very same Fifty-Second Street
(how did the poet put it?) you are sitting uncertain, afraid
over a glass of wine, while an occasional dirty snowflake
marks the era like a cross, which at a rapid rate retreats 

into the Mesozoic Age. Death’s odor, unmentionable,
offends the September, October, November, December
night—one loses count. It hovers a hundred blocks away 
hanging over pride and ash (though neither remains)—
along with iron heaps: twisted into ribbons and cinder.

Fire sets us back to the beginning. War alas, is primal, 
peace, secondary. Water’s older than earth. There’s ice
enough in the Arctic to cover, if not the world’s surface
then at least this granite island. And less oil suffices—
for a tower, a man—muscles, skin and the eye’s iris. 

Somewhere on a makeshift bed, in a tent, head cradled
by a fist, a young man dreams of glory games, airplanes—
fire. We alone have created him. For him there is only 
this destiny. Now it is time for us to pay. Through the
smoke, a subway token rolls across the floor, jingles
like a sestertius coin into the lava of Herculaneum.




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