LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 49, No.2 - Summer 2003
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 2003 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
AT MY FATHER'S ANCESTRAL FARM
near Đunskai, Lithuania
On my father's ancestral farm near the village
where only the church like a bright jewel dropped and lost in a field
we find a woman, Birutë, and her ancient father,
he is the one who bought the place
from my father's father over fifty years ago.
Half the original house still stands,
the other half added over the years
of my father's exile. The outbuildings
are not the same ones,
the grove is the same grove, but not the same
oaks, birches, and lindens.
The field of half-grown rye barely moves
in the midsummer late morning.
The original well is dry.
We look into it as into a place
in ourselves long abandoned
and see the round hollow shape,
the curved stone and earth wall.
Chickens, ducks, and geese
wander around the yard (perhaps the 45th generation
of descendants of the ones who
provided eggs and meat for my father's boyhood body),
the black rooster calls his hens and chicks
to something he's unearthed under a bush,
and they all carry on with their lives, unconcerned
about the humans strolling the property, pilgrims
looking for roots, for the past, for something.
Birute tells us she and her 90-year old father
work the farm alone, her husband having hanged himself
three years earlier. She tells us,
as she hand-cranks a bucket of water up
from the new well, that her life is hard.
She tells us in a direct, uncomplaining way,
simply stating a given.
She is ruddy-cheeked and healthy looking
except for a set of very bad teeth.
My father tries to give her some dollars, but she refuses.
Well, sell us some eggs, he says,
and against her wishes he insists on paying
three times their market value.
Just before we leave, after wishing each other
good fortune and God's blessings (there's a priest
in our group), my mother takes a drink
from the bucket with an old tin cup,
and suddenly seems to grow taller
as she praises the water, its taste, its coolness,
and it flashes for me that perhaps this water
she now drinks, drawn up from fifty feet below the earth's surface,
perhaps this same water came down as rain
in my mother's youth—why not even on the same day,
that first day my father brought her home
to meet his parents and his father charmed
and amazed my mother with his fiddle playing
and his fabled story-telling, and that silly trick
he was famous for among the children of the region
where he would laugh uproariously and then,
passing his hand down over his face, stop abruptly,
and freeze his face into stone
for a few seconds until the children started
to get edgy, and then he'd smile and tickle their ribs
and play them another song or tell them
another story, perhaps the one about
the time he encountered the Devil
when he was mushrooming in the forest
and had lost his way.
Come with me to a certain medieval castle,
a short day '$ horseback ride from
the city with three names: Vilnius, Wilno, Vilna—
depending on your preferred conqueror.
With our hundred horses, we'll drive it in an hour.
Follow me to one of the castle's vaulted-ceiling rooms,
and please note those two odd-looking chairs and small table.
See how they're huddled in their threesomely intimacy,
as cozy a little menage a trois of domestic furniture
as any you 'd see in a modern kitchenette.
It's hard for me to say what you 'II notice first, whether
the furniture's intimacy, its style, or form, the sheer facts
of its material composition, its Platonic
ur-chair-ness manifesting from the realm of universal forms.
But surely, by now, whatever your metaphysical orientation,
you've noticed—yes, I can see the look of shock on your face—
that our little intimate dinette is made of animal parts:
the legs of the chairs are not metaphorical but
the taxonomically redone real legs
of some centuries-dead ox or elk, the cloven hooves splayed out
at the unnatural angle of a ballet dancer's plie.
See, too, how the armrests are made of smooth ox horns,
the back rests from interlocking deer and elk antlers.
Yes, you 're right, the table is supported by more antlers,
the tabletop itself a sliced section of oak tree
and on it, two horn goblets for drinking mead.
Let's also note the animal hides covering the seats
and the—is it a bearskin rug?—spread out before it all.
Have you been to the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum
in St. Augustine, Florida?
Have you seen the vest knitted from human hair,
the little jewelry box made from fingernail clippings?
Ancient medieval castle,
20th century pop-culture museum,
as always, the horrific, the fascinating, the domestic
inseparably on display together.
ONE MORE ATTEMPT AT SELF-DEFINITION
I come from a tribe of nature worshippers,
pantheists, believers in fairies, forest sprites, and wood nymphs,
who heard devils in their windmills,
met them in the woods, cloven-hooved
and dapper gentlemen of the night,
who named the god of thunder,
who praised and glorified bread, dark rye waving
waist-high out of the earth,
and held it sacred, wasting not a crumb, who
spent afternoons mushrooming in forests of pine,
fir, and birch, who transferred Jesus
from his wooden cross, transformed him
into a wood-carved, worrying peasant,
raised him on a wooden pole above the crossroads
where he sat with infinite patience
in rain and snow, wooden legs apart,
wooden elbows on wooden knees,
wooden chin in wooden hand,
worrying and sorrowing for the world...
these people who named their sons and daughters
after amber, rue, fir tree, dawn, storm,
and the only people I know who have a diminutive
form for God Himself—Dievulis, "God-my-little-buddy."
Any wonder I catch myself speaking
to trees, flowers, bushes—these eucalyptus so far
from Eastern Europe—or that I bend down to the earth,
gather pebbles, acorns, leaves, boles, bring
them home, enshrine them on mantelpieces or above
porcelain fixtures in corners, any wonder
I grow nervous in rooms
and must step outside and touch a tree,
or sink my toes in the dirt, or watch the birds fly by.
for Birute Pukeleviciute
This is what she said: "I can't describe what happened,
only that afterward, for a brief while, everything was different.
One moment I was an ordinary woman taking a shower, the next,
something like a huge solar wind
washed through me. For a second I was not there—
though something that knew I wasn't was—then I was again,
but what that was was all of it, the shower, the water, something
And then again she said, ,,In that space between
sleep and waking, I became aware of a deep
and joyous satisfaction, as if
I were suckling at the very breast of Mother Universe.
I can't describe the taste except to say
it was the very essence of sweetness..."
Though we can't, still we must speak of it,
must look down at the trembling finger, fleshy and human, pointing
dumbly at the moon, glorious in all its practiced shining.
Back and forth, finger to moon, moon to finger,
like children, both our legs dangling uneasily
over the rickety fence of metaphor.