In the Old Arsenal we walked through rooms of old swords
and bullets and coins, studied the panorama of the battle
of Grunwald where in 1410 the Lithuanians and Poles
united to defeat the Teutonic Knights. On the third floor
we found the imaginary portraits, a whole line of them
sketched small, intense, dark as a January dusk,
Gediminas the founder, Algirdas and Kestutis his sons.
It’s always good to stumble over the threshold,
and be reminded that you’ve crossed over.
It’s always good to get the seats that face backwards,
to board the slow train at dusk when the countryside
is ghostly and gloomy and splendid as you leave
the station, past the idle boxcars and dingy warehouses,
the suburbs and then the farmhouses with their solitude
broken and then renewed. A woman with golden hair
walks a black dog along the ties, another suddenly
addresses us in the aisle, M. already dozing,
what, what, do you want coffee or tea? No, no,
we drank coffee and tea and more coffee and tea
in Vilnius, walked for miles on cobbles, or kilometers
on cobbles, saw the portraits of great men and
the mannequins displaying women’s dress through time.
We saw the glass case in the ornate sanctuary
of the Holy Spirit where the martyrs Anthony, John,
and Eustathius slumber, their bodies incorruptible,
or so it is said. The Grand Duke Algirdas had married
a Christian but allowed the Muscovites to minister
only to his wife. When the priests refused to eat meat
during the fasting time, Algirdas had them tortured
and killed. As I shifted for a better photo, a young man
bent to kiss the glass that covers them. This was indeed
the Algirdas of the imaginary portrait, himself a pagan,
who expanded the Grand Duchy, twice besieged Moscow,
defeated the Tatars at the Battle of Blue Waters.
And we climbed the twisting stair of Gediminas Tower
and saw the ruins of the Upper Castle and the Crooked Castle,
burned by the Teutonic Knights in 1390. Two euros
to enter and climb the twisting stair, to puzzle over
the swords without hand grips, the chain mail and suits
of armor, one floor after another, the highest full of photos
and video: instead of weapons, simple bodies lining the highway
from this hill all the way north to Riga, on to Talinn,
four hundred miles, two million bodies clasping hands,
saying enough, saying no more, stepping into a future
still in the making. No portraits of great men or the wives
of great men in this room, but lines of mothers and children
and citizens of every sort, the deported who lived to come home,
Girl Scouts and veterans, maybe one or two of those who stood
in line here with us on the train, unknown, not heroic
in the old way but in another, tender, uncertain way.
The Green Bridge is very old. Black statues of soldiers
and workers mark its corners, stark and blunt as huge crows,
put up in ’52, the year I was born, when the Russians
still thought they could make some kind of brutal paradise.
Many want them down, some think they could stay,
some kind of record. For now, below the soldiers
signs in brass announce that the last Russian troops
went away in ’93, that 300,000 Lithuanians were deported
and some came home. The signs are not in Russian.
Everywhere we look now we see more imaginary portraits,
on streets where churches used to be, in the sparse woods
north of town where the partisans built bunkers in the sand,
typed their fragile manifestos. Every day now there is
more low sunlight as the season turns, as the soggy fields
begin to dry. The old women on their way home with
their dinner in red plastic bags don’t meet our eyes, they walk
straight home, we do not know what they are seeing,
what they are thinking as they walk the quiet streets.
The Traveler Fails to Produce Fiction in Klaipeda
It’s one thing to assign things, another to do them,
and the traveler can’t shake free of his worries,
his narratizing of things as they are, even here
in the Baltic calm, in the bubble of his little school,
of this port city with its festivals and beaches,
its long history in German and Russian,
even here he fears this time will go down as a year
like 1913, like 1938, the last sunny moments,
the lull before the cataclysm. It’s all over the news,
troops parading both sides of the borders, grim reports
from former officials, ominous prophecies with oddly
enthusiastic undertones. Some people always do
well during wars. What do the rest of us do?
Go about our business, talk amongst ourselves.
His student from Crimea, whose father is Russian
and mother Ukrainian, who is studying in English
in Lithuania and writing about English as killer
of other languages, laughed in pleased astonishment
when he told her his wife’s grandparents all came
from Ukraine. They never thought of themselves
as Ukrainian, he didn’t say. But where did they belong?
They spoke German. They made borscht and vareniki
and zweibach. They were more Mennonite than
anything, but their grandchildren are Canadian,
American, whatever. His student says it’s hard now
when she goes home, her Russian is rusty. Her brother
lives in the States, and his Russian is worse. Who are
we anyway? That old man on the bench in the woods,
basking in the sunlight, alone and quiet as any birch
or pine, his face weathered as any stone, what language
is he thinking in, what stories make the world
he sees on a warm Sunday, the first of March?
JEFF GUNDY’s new books of poems are Abandoned Homeland (Bottom Dog, 2015) and Somewhere Near Defiance (Anhinga, 2014); he was named Ohio Poet of the Year for the latter. Recent work is in The Sun, Georgia Review, Christian Century, North American Review, and Cincinnati Review. After a sabbatical teaching at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania, he is back at Bluffton University in Ohio.