The Swimmer: Two Poems by Tomas Venclova

By Tomas Venclova, Rimas UzgirisAugust 3, 2022

The Swimmer: Two Poems by Tomas Venclova

In some respects, the major Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova can be grouped with those postwar Polish poets who grappled with the forces of history, especially 20th-century history: its horrors and injustices, its dislocations of people, the erasing and re-drawings of national boundaries, the ethical challenges faced by individuals caught in totalitarian systems, and the challenge to poetry itself. None of that generation paid any heed to Adorno’s dictum that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Or, rather, they found a way to incorporate that barbarism into their work, to interrogate its basis, to find a language of common things and pleasures that was nevertheless full of the consciousness of the century’s tragedies. Like many of that generation, Venclova lived for decades behind the Iron Curtain and could not write openly of his opposition to the totalitarian regime that swallowed a large number of his friends. He developed a symbolically dense, allusive style: meditative, musical, and classical in nature, drawing on native Lithuanian sources as well as on Russian poets, like early Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelstam. Indeed, like Brodsky and Auden, and less like his Polish neighbors, he held on to the aesthetic values of the early 20th-century, continuing to write most of his poems in rhymed, metrical verse. A human rights activist and an outspoken opponent of the Soviet regime — having spent, thanks to that, almost half his life in exile — Venclova has remained a cosmopolitan humanist, a skeptical lyricist whose poetry is guardedly hopeful. He holds tight to his ethical convictions — especially the sanctity of the individual life — and to the beautiful image, the music of the line, the logic of a complexly developed thought.

The two poems presented here in my translation are in these respects representative of his œuvre. They are both rhymed and loosely iambic, melancholically meditative on time, history, exile, and the place of poetry in one’s encounter with the world. Both poems are written from the perspective of the lone poet, dwarfed by nature and history, yet by his art finding a connection with both, limited and fleeting though it may be. Beauty, stoicism, perseverance, love. “On Both Sides of Alnas Lake” looks back to the youth of his friend Czesław Miłosz, who used to swim in the lake (called Hołny, in Polish). Miłosz and Venclova shared Lithuania roots, though they wrote in different languages, and also an exile in America, a skepticism of ideological systems, and a desire to praise the world despite the horrors of history. “Before the Fort” continues these themes. It is set in Montenegro, on the Bay of Kotor, and the Venetian fortifications (dating from the 15th century) of the town of Kotor. Intimations of various intra-European colonialisms may be more felt than directly stated. The persona of the poem is both insider and outsider. He is not a local, but as a fellow Eastern European, he can relate to the marks of historical conquest. The world changes around him, as his body changes, but he clings to the lyrical voice as a kind of final refuge. His words may not last either, but as long as they can enunciate, express, and praise, they can help to keep us afloat.

— Rimas Uzgiris


On Both Sides of Alnas Lake

                        Where the young Czesław Miłosz used to swim

Open the shutter. The still dark stretch
is cut by a dock. The whispers of rushes carry
up from the lakeshore sparsely meshed
with wisps of juniper. A limpid dictionary!
The water secretes smoke, rocking a boat,

a rough drop of air touches the throat,
burns the mouth’s arch in a sudden blaze.
You can spot the footprints of a boar
by the gate. A swimmer in the waves
tests, as every morning, in private war,

his strength against the contents of the lake.
The eyes can’t take in the sleek plateau.
The head dives down. The spume of a wake
glints under a hand. Swallow speech echoes
and a cloud hollows into a sail-like shape.

The current stiffens, and the body revives.
The shore is near, the water is like ice.
Praise the high creation of God — alive
with warbling and light whose rays race
to dandelion, water-lily: their heads rise.

Touching a pine like a rosy column,
you know — the world is wide and one.
Far away — thresholds, others’ stairs, a foreign
forest, that bitter bread, an unexpected garden
by the Potomac or next to Montgeron.

The wind and the lungs are in league.
The common bleak breaks out from the depths,
and stings of premonition do not arrest breath —
the shadow which you will be recedes,
having beaten death with a paper’s leaf.

The dew has dried, the young cheek burns.
Forms undergo alteration and saturate being.
Sharpening sight, ripening hearing:
stop for a minute with this blessing.
Above the cliff, autumn sounds its horns.


Before the Fort

Whatever else, speak. Verse hardly holds what is pressed
Over time into the hardening clay of consciousness.
There, we find contrasts of colors and fine detail,
The ocean’s gleam, shame, wonder, and our travail.
Maybe after death. But the plane rolls down the runway.
Maybe when you won’t exist. But a sentence has no fate.
Over the horizon’s line, by the switchback — a medley
Of roofs. The citadel casts its shadow by Gurdich Gate.

Greet the scorched grasses, whose dry clumps lock up
The stretch of bay where nameless towns of stone
Age and decay. Thunderstorms slip along the strand
On the other side of the well-burnished slope.
Clouds. An untamed motorboat stirs the current alone
And from bay bottom raises Mediterranean sand.
Now, in the darkening mirror, you don’t meet you.
A lamp, a keyboard, a dictionary. That much came true.

On the windward side of storms, at Europe’s deaf edge,
Where you’ve been taken by fate or divine caprice,
You will lodge in darkness, as others have found a place
Beyond horizon’s brushstroke or the switchback’s ledge.
The keyboard flickers, a presence hovers that you but feel.
The mirror fades. Age enfetters the fatigued body alive.
You can’t begin from the start, no matter how you strive.
Whatever else, now speak. There is nothing more real.


Illustration: Photograph of the the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro.



LARB Contributors

Tomas Venclova was born in Klaipeda, Lithuania, in 1937, and graduated from Vilnius University. He is a scholar, poet, and translator of literature. Because of his outspoken membership in the Lithuanian Helsinki Group, which monitored Soviet violations of human rights, Venclova was threatened with a number of sanctions, and was allowed to emigrate in 1977. Since 1980 he has been a member of the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University, from which he also received a PhD. Collections of his poems have been published in English as Dialogue in Winter (1999), and The Junction: Selected Poems (2009). A new selected poems is forthcoming from Bloodaxe Books. Venclova has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Yotvingian Prize in 2005, the Poetry Spring Mairionis Prize in 2017, the Lithuanian National Prize in 2000, and the 2002 Prize of Two Nations, which he received jointly with Czeslaw Milosz. He is professor emeritus at Yale University, and now lives full time in Vilnius.
Rimas Uzgiris is a poet, translator, and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, Hudson Review, The Poetry Review (UK) and other journals. He is the author of North of Paradise, published by Kelsay Books (2019). Tarp, a collection of his poetry in Lithuanian translation was published in 2019. He is translator of five poetry collections from Lithuanian, including Then What (Bloodaxe) and Vagabond Sun (Shearsman). He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant, a NEA Translation Fellowship, he teaches translation at Vilnius University.


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