“Caligula at the Gates”: Guess who is the star of Venclova’s new poem?


Yes…I see the resemblance…

Those who don’t live in Eastern Europe, where memories of life under Communism during much of the last century linger, don’t fully comprehend the chilling effect across that region of what’s been happening under Vladimir Putin’s rule:

Our respite was short-lived in the end.
But after long hardships it had seemed
It would never draw to a close. Friends
Invoked poetry and feasted in gardens …

When I saw Tomas Venclovas new poem “Caligula at the Gates,”  in The Irish Times (the translator, Ellen Hinsey, had kindly dropped a note to let me know), I associated it with the Lithuanian poet’s autumn sojourn in Rome. Not so, he told me – it was, in fact, written in August, in Montenegro, one of his favorite haunts. And the subject is “Mr. Putin, of course.” Well, of course. The Roman touch is a common metonymy, he reminded me, though I shouldn’t have needed reminding. My head has been far away from current events – a luxury not afforded everyone in the world. I’ve always maintained that Tomas Venclova, who is one of the leading figures in literary Europe, and whose poetry has been published in more than twenty languages, and he should be better known in the United States, where he has been resident at Yale for years and years now (resident, that is, when he’s not on the road, as he is much of the time)…


They have the same scowl.

We ridiculed the words of the prophets
But, agelessly, they proved to be true …

This poem, in particular, has been already published in Poland, Germany, also in Russia. But you don’t have to be located in any particular part of the world to sense the following:

Blow out the candles and close the gates.

Beyond them – Caligula and the plague.

Read the whole thing here.


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5 Responses to ““Caligula at the Gates”: Guess who is the star of Venclova’s new poem?”

  1. Diana Senechal Says:

    This poem is tremendous. Thank you for writing about it.

    (And I agree about the scowl.)

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Have you read in the Lithuanian, Diana? Love to hear a few words from you about it.

  3. Diana Senechal Says:

    Not yet–but once I have, I will gladly send you my thoughts.

  4. Diana Senechal Says:

    Hi Cynthia,

    Here’s a YouTube recording of Tomas Venclova giving a reading in Vilnius on October 24. This poem (untitled in Lithuanian) begins at 1:06:25. He read many others, including some of my favorites.


    When reading the Lithuanian slowly, I see many things that would be difficult to translate: for instance, the third and fourth lines of the third stanza:

    Bet išjuokti bepročiai pranašai
    Kelintą kartą pasirodė teisūs.

    This means, approximately,

    “But the derided/ridiculed mad prophets
    Have yet again appeared/proven true.”

    But the words “derided” and “ridiculed” don’t quite render “išjuokti,” which has the same Indo-European root as our “joke.”

    “Beprotis” translates as “mad” or “crazy,” but it’s literally “lacking sense or reason.” I believe it can be either a noun or an adjective.

    Another subtle word is pasirodyti, which can mean “to be proven,” “to be shown,” “to seem,” or “to appear.”

    (I am far from fluent in Lithuanian; I puzzled over these words and looked them up in various dictionaries.)

    Difficulties of translation aside, I admire the grace and clarity of Ellen Hinsey’s rendition and am thrilled to be able to listen to the original.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for this, Diana!