Posts Tagged ‘Ramūnas Katilius’

An Oxford scholar ponders Joseph Brodsky, memory in Stanford’s archives.

Friday, August 24th, 2018

Last June, I got an email from an Oxford scholar, working on a dissertation about Joseph Brodsky and memory. He wrote that he would be visiting the Stanford archives. Could we meet for coffee or lunch?

Sure, I said. But why don’t we start at the Brodsky archives at Stanford’s Special Collections and the Hoover Library & Archives, where he was doing his research? Book Haven readers will remember I shepherded one archive to Green Library, via the poet’s close friend, Ramūnas Katilius in Vilnius (I tell that story here), the other important collection came to Hoover through the efforts of archivist Lora Soroka via another close friend of the Russian Nobel laureate, Diana MyersI wrote about the collection for The Hoover Digest here. But I had an ulterior motive in my suggestion: it’s always fun and revelatory to see these collections through the eyes of others.

He stayed in touch. (Nationaal Archief)

He pored over both. What did he appreciate most of all? Oddly enough, the postcards – a perspective I don’t remember anyone considering before. With postcards, he said, the exiled poet was able to stay in touch with the friends he left on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and let them know what he was doing, where he was traveling, and what he was seeing. It was a sort of early “Instagram.” The number of postcards he sent reached their zenith in the 1970s, and then began to taper off.

Did time and distance dampen friendship? Not at all, he said. International phone calls became cheaper, and eventually email displaced written correspondence. Moreover, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians could travel all over the world, and meet Joseph in London, Paris, Rome, New York, or Venice.

As for myself, I liked the cryptic aperçus he would occasionally drop in letters, notes, and yes, postcards: “Shadow and light turn us into human beings,” or “Movement is the victory over emptiness.” Perhaps too offhand to be overthought, but still … a few sparks thrown off from the Catherine Wheel of his genius.

We ended each day with coffee and conversation at the Stanford Bookstore, hours and hours of talk about Russian writers, Oxford, Stanford, the humanities, the future, the past, and of course, always, Joseph Brodsky.

Tomas Venclova: the future of the Balts and a “cowardly Leningrad hooligan”

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

An optimist … but a particular kind of optimist…

My friend Ramūnas Katilius, who died on Sunday, is still much on my mind. Last March, the physicist and Soviet-era dissident had written to me of his concern about Russian incursions into Ukraine, but added, “Here in Lithuania, however, we feel rather secure, as we are in NATO and our borders are patrolled by international NATO forces, and NATO jet fighters controlling the air space – actually at this time its USA F15s that are doing the job, with six more fighters arriving to Shiauliai air base just today.”

That was some months ago, and I’m a pessimist. I’m on my way today to the Hoover Institution, where I will be live-tweeting a talk by the former president of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who will be giving a keynote address, “Against All Odds: The Path of the Baltic States to the EU and NATO,” in conjunction with the 3-day conference “War, Revolution, and Freedom: The Baltic Countries in the Twentieth Century.”

I’m a pessimist, but the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, who is also a prominent Soviet-era dissident and human rights activist, is not. He was in the Russian press a few days ago here, and earlier in the Gazeta Wyborcza here. (Please make allowances for your humble and inadequate translator.)

“Putin has demonstrated that he is willing to do anything to intimidate others, but in fact he is more rational dictator than many others, and carefully calculates what he actually does, depending on the costs and benefits,” he said.

Can we expect bombs on Vilnius? Tomas thinks not. “I believe that Putin, in the depths of spirit, is a  cowardly Leningrad hooligan who won’t do that, because he knows that then he would die, and lose his children, his money, along with the rest of that nice life that he leads.”

“He goes crazy, and the world fears him, thinking he is a gentleman in the spirit of Hitler. But Putin is a more rational dictator. I do not like spreading defeatist sentiment – that the West is powerless and venal, and that Putin is doing what he pleases, and that here we have a third or fourth world war, which Putin, who is wiser and stronger, will win. This is stupid and facilitates Putin in his game.”


An F15 … if, like me, you hadn’t a clue…

The journalist asked if the Russian regime finally gave up its “vegetarian diet,” using the poet Anna Akhmatova term to describe the Soviet Union’s less warlike moments. Said Tomas: “I wrote a poem about it. A little style in the style of Cavafy or Milosz … Yes, the monster is putting out his tentacles again, although I’m called a historical optimist – I think that everything will end well. Mr. Putin appears to be unpredictable, but he only uses this to enhance his alleged unpredictability.”

Tomas elucidated his philosophy to me in an email a few months ago, as I was fretting about the state of the world, as I am wont: “I’m a so-called historical optimist and do not think jihadists, Mr. Putin or whoever of that kind would prevail in the final account.” Then he defined his terms:  “Historical optimist can be defined as a person who says: ‘All will end well, but I will not see it.’ One Ukrainian writer defined himself as an apocalyptic optimist – a person who says: ‘All will end well, but nobody in the world will see it.'”

Requiescat in pace, Ramūnas Katilius, 1935-2014

Monday, October 6th, 2014

(Photo R.R. Katilius)

Normally, I don’t hang with many award-winning physicists, but the distinguished Lithuanian scientist Ramūnas Katilius was an exception, in that as well as many other things. Our association began with our mutual friend, the poet Tomas Venclova, who suggested – rather, insisted – that I meet the Katilius family during my 2011 swing through Vilnius, one of my favorite cities. It ended yesterday, when he died in his sleep in Vilnius. He would have been 80 next year.

Romas and his wife Elė were generous and hospitable during that 2011 visit – they laid out a splendid brunch for me and their son, the photographer, Ramūnas Jr., and the father gracefully insisted I allow his son to squire me about Lithuania. With  Justina Juozėnaitė of the Venclova Museum, the three of us toured the hidden corners of Lithuania associated with the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, finally ending at the poet’s birthplace in Šeteniai (we also had a long stopover in Kaunas – I wrote about that here). A day or too later, the three of us took an enchanting moonlight stroll through the Old Town. I wondered why the physicist and his wife didn’t join us on any of our adventures. I don’t know how I was able to overlook that my host was seriously disabled, thanks to a childhood bout with polio. In retrospect, I think he didn’t want me to notice, thinking it might dampen the pleasure of our meeting. He was magnanimous that way.


Liejyklos street. (Photo: Moi)

Certainly the unforgettable moments of those magic days included the afternoon when Romas (père) brought out his collection of Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky‘s manuscripts, doodles, translations, notebooks, photos, sketches, letters, postcards, and more from their decades-long friendship, and placed it on my lap. I never thought I’d see the treasure again – but when Romas later made it clear he was looking for a permanent home for it, I recommended it to the Stanford Libraries. Now it is within a mile of my home. Well, I tell that story here, but also here and here and here.

Romas tells his own story about his long friendship with the Russian poet here.  Brodsky was having personal troubles in Petersburg after his rocky return from internal exile in Archangelsk. He called his friend Andrey Sergeyev daily to complain, using expressions like  “end of the world” or “it’s a total mess” – „конец света“,  „полный завал“).

“Let him come over here. We are all in a good mood here,” said the big-hearted Romas. So began a visit and a friendship, which featured a walk much like the one I had taken:

“Joseph stayed with us for about a week. What did we do in our, so to say, spare time, apart from listening to his poetry? We took long walks in the Old Town, in daytime and at night, often accompanied by some of our friends – Juozas Tumelis, Pranas Morkus, Virgilijus Čepaitis, Ina Vapšinskaitė, as well as my brother Audronis. Joseph made friends with them very quickly.


Ramūnas and Elė Katilius (Photo: Arūno Baltėno)

“The Liejyklos Street, where we lived, follows the ancient line of the city wall, so it only takes a leisurely stroll of 15 or 20 minutes to reach almost any place in the Old Town. And we did take advantage of our location. The nearest route started right around the corner and continued along St. Ignatius (Šv. Ignoto) Street, leading to the Dominican monastery, closed a long time ago. The monastery has an inner courtyard that can be reached only through the second floor of the building. The building was inhabited by ordinary people, and Joseph suddenly decided to try and rent a room there for a longer period, and even called at one of the flats. Someone opened the door, but, fortunately, there were no rooms for rent, and Joseph calmed down. Obviously, there was no way he could afford it.

“I also remember our walk along the same St. Ignatius Street one late evening. At the end of that street, turning to the courtyards opposite to the Dominican monastery, one could get on the roof of a corps de garde, a ward-house – a small building with columns, pertaining to a large palace ensemble, the architectural style of which is somewhat alien to the Old Town; it was built in the times of Russian Empire as a residence for the Governor-General (today the palace is used as the President’s office).”

I love Vilnius, and Romas tells a charming and insightful story with the city as its backdrop – I really shouldn’t attempt to excerpt it, especially since it replicates his somewhat uneven English; it’s easier to catch the rhythms of it when you read more than a couple paragraphs.

I remembered the warmth of our meetings, but not the limitations of Romas’s English (which is still far, far better than my Lithuanian) – so it was always a surprise when I telephoned him as his health was failing, and I would suddenly remember that our conversation would be a bit hampered without a translator to mediate. But a few phrases were clear as a bell. In particular, I remember the last phone call, which ended after I told him how I wished to return to Vilnius, and soon. “We will wait for you!” he promised.



Ramūnas & Elė Katilius with son Ramūnas Jr. and Tomas Venclova in 1977. (Photo: M. Milchik)

Postscript: I didn’t realize that Romas and I had other mutual friends until I posted this on Facebook. Ilya Levin wrote: “I first met Romas and Elia in early 2008 when posted to the U.S. embassy and then was fortunate to enjoy their hospitality on many occasions during my subsequent visits to Vilnius. RIP.” Anna Halberstadt recalled “he and Tomas were romantic figures for us in grade school – good-looking young dissidents.” Anna Verschik added, “I visited them every time I was in Vilnius. It was always a pleasure.”  This from Mikhail Iossel, Founding Director of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius (and, incidentally, a former Stanford Stegner Fellow):

“This is sad news. He was a remarkably interesting and generous man. Uncommonly young at heart, as the saying would have it.

“I met him for the first time in the summer of 2009 (if memory serves me), via Ilya Levin. Along with Ilya and Anna Verschik, I went one evening to his and his joyfully hospitable wife’s small apartment on the outskirts of Vilnius, where the two of them, Ramunas and his wife, Elia, over the extended dinner and for several hours thereafter, proceeded to reminisce about the many years of his close friendship with Brodsky, begun with Tomas Venclova’s participation in late-1950s Leningrad and resulting (among other fortuitous developments) in the KGB-besieged, officialdom-hounded young Leningrad poet’s subsequent frequent trips and lengthy stays in Vilnius, at Ramunas’s old place on Liejyklos Street (where, in 1971, none too incidentally, the famous “Lithuanian Divertissement” was written). Numerous old, Soviet-style, heavy-duty folders were produced by the hosts, full of painstakingly collected and carefully preserved Brodsky’s handwritten notes and drafts of poems, quick pencil sketches and rather elaborate ink drawings. The love the man felt for his famous friend was brightly intense. [This collection is now at Stanford – ED]

“After our next meeting, in the Old Town apartment of a friend of mine, I asked Ramunas to visit our inaugural SLS-Lithuania program and tell our participants about the meaning of Lithuania in Brodsky’s life. He accepted the invitation on the spot, with much eagerness, the considerable difficulty with which he already walked by then notwithstanding.

“His talk was thorough and detailed and informed of the same genuine feeling of deep devotion to Brodsky’s memory. His polite, soft-spoken, English-speaking son served as the interpreter.

“A very good man indeed, noble of spirit and honest of heart and keen of mind. A true mensch.”


Katilius, Brodsky, and Venclova: Together in Ushkova, near Leningrad, in 1972.

Humble Moi in Russia’s Zvezda!

Friday, June 13th, 2014


I made my TV debut in Russia here; I made my print debut in Russia here; now, finally, my first article and in Russia’s leading literary journal Zvezda.  See the page above? That’s me, on the lefthand side. Синтия Хэвен. My article on how my friendship with Lithuanian physicist Ramūnas  Katilias in Vilnius led to the Stanford Libraries’ acquisition of an important cache of Joseph Brodsky‘s manuscripts, sketches, letters, postcards, and more. The piece is a shortened version of my earlier article, and appeared in Zvezda‘s “Letters” column.

brodsky2I had the privilege of visiting the Zvezda offices in St. Petersburg in the winter of 1998-99. It was always my fate to head into Russia in the wintertime; I even visited Siberia in February – another story for another time. The offices were literally around the corner from the Nobel poet’s former home on Liteiny Prospect. I described them at the time as “several rooms on the third floor of a dilapidated St. Petersburg mansion with a large defunct fireplace of burgundy marble, carved wooden doors, and ornate moulding on the ceiling.” Perhaps what was left of a grand apartment in an earlier era. In these rooms, I chatted with the Russian poet’s good friend, and Zvezda editor, Yakov Gordin, along with a few of the others on the editorial staff.

The article I wrote eventually wound up in the Michigan Alumnus. Here’s the only quote from the good editor: “Russian poetry has its own specialty line of existentialism. It is difficult to find even one Russian poet who departs from this kind of poetry. The difference is only in style. The specialty of this poetry is the question of life and death.” Well, if you want to, you can read the whole 1999 article here.

We’re grateful that Yakov Gordin is still at his desk, fifteen years later – and hope it won’t be our final appearance in his pages.

“The air of an enfant terrible”: remembering Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky on his 74th birthday

Saturday, May 24th, 2014

birthday cakeToday would have been the Joseph Brodsky‘s 74th birthday. We laid the ground for the celebrations a few days ago with a post about the Nobel poet’s metaphysical experiences. Here are a few memories from two important friends.

Author Sven Birkerts of The Gutenberg Elegies, was managing a secondhand and rare bookstore in Ann Arbor when the poet befriended him. His mini-memoir matches my own recollections. Here’s what he wrote over Post Road Magazine:


A friend in cold climates

At this time, back in the mid-1970s, Brodsky still had the air of an enfant terrible. Impatient, aggressive, chain-smoking cigarettes, he liked creating dispute for its own sake. Suggest white and he would insist black. Admit an admiration—unless it was for one of his idols—like Auden or Lowell or Milosz—and he would overturn the opinion. “Minor,” he would say of some eminence I mentioned. Or: “The man is an idiot.” At first I did not understand the workings of this compulsion, and as we talked, drinking cup after cup of black coffee, I grew despondent. Here was my chance to meet the poet I had admired for so long, and I could say nothing right. Yet for all that, he seemed in no hurry to leave.

I would like to say that by the end of that long afternoon we had become friends, intimates, but that would not be true. I was, I think, too young and callow; I did not offer enough ground for real exchange. Instead, Brodsky assumed a fond, almost paternal role with me, teasing, chiding, offering suggestions about books. A limit was set. I did not feel that I was getting close to the turbulent soul that wrote the poems.

birkerts5From that time on, though, we did stay in contact. Brodsky would suddenly show up in the bookstore, searching for some book of poems. On several occasions, too, he handed me the typescript of some essay he was working on for the New York Review of Books, asking if I would check over his English. The task would invariably keep me at my desk for hours, for the fact is that brilliant and inflammatory as his insights were, the prose at this stage was a bramble patch—English deployed as if it were an inflected language.

Once, I remember, I stayed up much of the night, recasting sentence by sentence his discussion of the Greek poet Cavafy, finally typing the whole thing over afresh. When I handed the piece to him the next day, he quickly glanced down the page, smiled his wicked sultan smile, and put the whole bundle in an envelope to mail. I never found out what he thought of my deeply deliberated interventions.

Read the rest here.


She liked his smile.

Over on a Russian site, Yuri Lepsky interviewed the Slavic scholar Faith Wigzell, who offered her first comments ever on the poet she met in the 1960s in Leningrad in “Loving, Leaving and Living.” She is the dedicatee of several poems, including “A Song to No Music” and “On Washerwoman Bridge.” According to Lepsky, “In the fifteen years since the poet’s death, she has published nothing about her friendship with him nor has she given any interviews on the subject nor published their correspondence. She has also refrained from commenting on the poems he dedicated to her.”

An excerpt:

– How did you meet Brodsky? What kind of first impression did he make on you?

– I believe it was March 1968. I had come to Leningrad for a six-week research visit, connected with my PhD at London University. … I arrived in Leningrad and straight away phoned my old friends Romas and Elia Katilius. Back in 1963-64 I was studying in Leningrad and it was then that I met the Katiliuses and Diana Abaeva, later to become Diana Myers and to work with me at London University. But that would come later.

It was back then, in the early 1960s, that we met and became friends. They were wonderful people – kind, engaging, loving poetry and art, and saw the Soviet government for what it was worth. They were scientists: Romas was a theoretical physicist at the semiconductor institute. Diana, on the other hand, was in the humanities’ field.

So, in short, I called the Katiliuses; they were very pleased and invited me over that evening. I went of course to their enormous room in a communal apartment on Tchaikovsky Street… But apart from my friends I there found a young man whom I had not previously met. He immediately attracted my attention.

reading-russian-fortunes-faith-wigzell-paperback-cover-art– Why?

– Firstly, he had this very unusual smile.

– What do you mean by unusual?

– How can I put it? It was a shy or, more precisely, a timid smile. Yes, yes, timid. And his voice…

– His voice?

– Well, it was something special… Never since then have I encountered such a voice. When he read his poetry his voice made an astonishing impression …

– And that was Brodsky?

– And that was Brodsky. It turned out that he had been friendly with the Katiliuses for a long time, and with Diana as well. The Katiliuses had a young child, so guests could not overstay their welcome. Late in the evening Joseph and I went out on Tchaikovsky Street, and he walked me back to the hotel. And so that’s how it all began.

– And you spoke about literature, of course?

– Not only, not only… (Faith laughs) As it turns out Joseph and I had another friend in common – Tolya Naiman. When I found out, I decided to give them both a present. I had brought with me from London a large bottle, a litre I think, of whisky. At that time in Russia whisky wasn’t to be found in ordinary shops. They were more than delighted to accept, but what happened next seemed to me downright horrible: the two of them proceeded to drink the entire bottle in the course of the evening. I was absolutely stunned. I asked: why did you drink the whole bottle? They just shrugged.

* * *

wigzell5When her six weeks in Leningrad had come to an end and she had to go home, to London, it turned out that in addition to new impressions, research material and attractive souvenirs, she had packed something much more serious: an offer of heart and hand from the poet Joseph Brodsky.

She returned to London and four years later married an American who lived in England. In 1972, when Brodsky was expelled from the USSR, he flew to London together with the great W.H. Auden for an international poetry festival. Faith was expecting her first child. Seeing her pregnant was a shock for Brodsky. She subsequently tried to keep their meetings to a minimum, so as not to cause him any distress.

* * *

– How do you relate to the poems which he dedicated to you: are they just Brodsky’s poems or are they poetic letters to Faith Wigzell?

– I cannot see them as simply Brodsky’s poems. I read them for myself.


Slavic scholar

– Above all else, I like the poems he wrote in Russia, in Leningrad and in Norenskaya. The period when he began to translate John Donne.

– Which of his essays do you like?

– What he wrote in Venice. Watermark.

– Have you seen his grave on the isle San Michele of Venice?

– No, I haven’t. Actually, I have only been to his beloved Venice once, when I was young.

– I once happened to visit San Michele when Venice was besieged by a snowstorm and Brodsky’s gravestone was covered by a big pile of snow, just like back in his beloved Leningrad…

– Yes, yes, he loved snow very much, big snowdrifts in particular…

Read the whole thing here.


Ann Arbor days… happy birthday, Joseph.


From Vilnius with love: Stanford’s Brodsky archive in the Russian press

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

A separate peace: Katilius, Brodsky, Venclova in Lithuania

“Посетители библиотеки Стэнфордского университета в Калифорнии получат доступ к литовским архивам поэта Иосифа Бродского. Об этом в журнале Stanford Magazine написала исследователь и редактор книги «Joseph Brodsky: Conversations» («Иосиф Бродский: Диалоги») Синтия Хэвен. Собрание писем, рукописей, рисунков, фотографий и открыток Бродского из Вильнюса библиотека университета получила в мае 2013 года.”

See that?  Синтия Хэвен.  That’s me.  The article also says:

Архив Иосифа Бродского, оставленный им в Вильнюсе у его друзей Рамунаса и Эли Катилюсов, был продан Стэнфордскому университету после того, как Синтия Хэвен в 2011 году посетила Литву и познакомилась с его владельцами. По ее словам, физик Рамунас Катилюс как раз подыскивал новое хранилище для документов, доставшихся ему от поэта.


There it is again.  Синтия Хэвен.  I shall never think of myself the same way again. is a popular Moscow-based news website that gets over 600,000 visitors today.  An English version, “Stanford Buys Joseph Brodsky‘s Lithuanian Archives,” is online at Russia Beyond the Headlines here.

Above right, an iconic image from the collection – happy days in Lithuania for Lithuanian physicist Ramunas Katilius, Joseph Brodsky, and the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova.  But I also like the image on the cover of my book, at left, by the immortal (and I can testify generous) Richard Avedon.

You can read my own version of the story, Brodsky@Stanford (plus the California story of a very special edition of Brodsky’s Watermarkhere.


Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Happy days: Katilius, Brodsky, Venclova in Lithuania (Archives of Ramūnas and Elė Katilius)

It won’t be news to the readers of the Book Haven that the late Nobel poet Joseph Brodsky was a friend to Lithuania – I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. Now visitors to Stanford Libraries will have primary evidence of the affinity, thanks to the Ramūnas and Elė Katilius archive. I’m mightily chuffed to have had a role in bringing this treasure to Stanford – so yes, I’m bragging a bit.  It’s been one of the best adventures I’ve ever had at the university that has been my off-and-on home for years – and I owe it all to Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova.  And we all owe thanks to Romas Katilius.

Here’s how my story begins:

At the end of August 1966, the young Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was in low spirits. He was having trouble readjusting to Leningrad life on his return from 18 months of exile doing hard labor near the Arctic Circle. Brodsky’s crime was “having a worldview damaging to the state” and “social parasitism . . . except for the writing of awful poems.” There were romantic troubles besides.

A colleague was worried, and kept in touch with him while traveling. One night he telephoned Brodsky from Lithuania, where he was staying with friends in Vilnius.

Peter Koch’s magnificent “Watermark” (Courtesy Peter Koch Printers)

“Let him come over here. We are all in a good mood here,” urged the Lithuanian host, Ramūnas Katilius. Brodsky arrived before noon the next day, and even held two readings at the apartment during his stay.

Thus began a lifelong friendship with the Katilius family and a long romance with Lithuania, a comparative refuge during the dying years of the Soviet empire. Eventually, Brodsky gained recognition as Russia’s greatest postwar poet and, in exile, a controversial titan on the New York literary scene who taught at several U.S. universities. He belonged to the world, becoming, in his words, “a Russian poet, an English essayist, and of course, an American citizen.” He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987 and died at his desk at age 55 in 1996.

Read the rest here.  Please.

Oh! Oh! Oh!  Don’t forget to read about the Berkeley printer Peter Rutledge Koch‘s special edition of Watermark, also at the Libraries:

Venice has entranced poets through the centuries, perhaps none more so than Russian Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky. “I always adhered to the idea that God is time, or at least that His spirit is,” Brodsky wrote. “I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it.” So it was that every New Year’s Eve, the poet tried to be near water, “to watch the emergence of a new helping, a new cupful of time from it.” He particularly tried to journey to Venice, a favored destination captured inWatermark, his book-length meditation on the city.

The rest is here.

For World Poetry Day: Tomas Venclova on Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, and Czesław Miłosz

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

I met Tomas Venclova in Kraków last May, at the festival celebrating the Czesław Miłosz centenary.  After the grand fête closing the week-long events – an awards ceremony and concert at the Kraków Opera House – a few exhausted party-goers had had enough and were ready for bed.  Those of us who were weary of wine and hors d’oeuvres looked for a way to head back to the hotel in the rain. I was shoveled into a taxi with two men.  One of them was Tomas Venclova, Lithuania’s leading poet, and a writer who is sometimes mentioned as a Nobel candidate.

We had corresponded before, as he was one of the contributors to my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and I had also heard him reading and reminiscing in the days before – the voice not quite what I had expected, the pitch slightly higher, the timber a little quirky, almost birdlike.

And here he was … or had I introduced myself in the crowded, jostling days before that night?  I must have. I honestly can’t remember.  But this is the first time I do remember, clearly:  he was in the front seat – silent … as tired as I was, perhaps? I could see his silhouette, with his trademark cap, against the rainy windows. I spent most of the time chatting with the fellow with whom I shared the back seat, someone who knew us both – and such are the tricks of memory that I cannot remember who, exactly, that third companion was. He has become a mysterious stranger, though the Lithuanian poet and I have struck up a correspondence since. A penpal by email or letter, from Yale, or Vilnius, or Paris – but  I haven’t seen him face-to-face since May.

Except on these newly released videos of interviews conducted last year in Paris.  I was greatly chuffed that Web of Stories has put them online to celebrate World Poetry Day on Wednesday, March 20.  It’s a good excuse to talk about this quietly marvelous poet – we aren’t likely to do anything later, on his birthday; it falls on September 11.

Here’s your chance to meet the poet and his poems.  Too few know the Vilnius-born poet and his work. Consider it a gift on the first day of spring.

From the email Web of Stories sent me:

In these absorbing clips, Venclova recounts his upbringing in Lithuania, including how he and his father had staunchly opposing political views. He also depicts how his first poems were dedicated to the Hungarian Revolution and despite not being published, they were circulated among groups of people: “I can say with pride that many, many years later when Hungary and Lithuania were free, I received a Hungarian medal for supporting the Hungarian Revolution then through my poems.

He also reminisces about his decision to emigrate to America, losing his Soviet citizenship, being offered a job at Yale and looks back over his career as a writer since leaving Lithuania: “When I left, I thought that it was possible that I’d end up as a lorry driver, for example, or a cleaner or a road layer. But that didn’t happen, I’d been a philologist and a writer and I remained a philologist and a writer.”

Alas, I was not able to embed the story of his meeting with Anna Akhmatova, and her interactions with Alexander Solzhenitsyn – you’ll find that here.

This clip describe Tomas’s meeting with Joseph Brodsky at Akhmatova’s funeral. My friend, the Lithuanian physicist Ramūnas Katilius, translated Tomas’s poems into Russian for the Nobel poet. “This was our triumvirate, our group.”

I didn’t realize that, in fact, that Tomas Venclova first brought Czesław Miłosz (or Česlovas Milašius, in the native Lithuanian) to Joseph Brodsky‘s attention. Here’s the story in the clip below.


Part Deux, with video clips discussing his help from Arthur Miller, his friendship with Timothy Snyder, and his unsuccessful attempt to save an imprisoned dissident, Viktoras Petkus, is here.

Joseph Brodsky: “If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

The city where Adam Mickiewicz taught secondary school. (Photo: C. Haven)

“If we have all this here, why do we need Europe?”  That’s what Joseph Brodsky reportedly said in 1966 when he surveyed not Rome, not Athens, but humble Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city.

The words come from Ramūnas Katilius, fils, quoting his father, Ramūnas Katilius, père, from this vantage point overlooking the city.  The elder Romas, a physicist, was one of the poet’s greatest chums, sometimes seeing the poet several times a day when they were in Leningrad.  Romas was in the photos of Joseph Brodsky departure from the Soviet Union forever in 1972.

Both Romas and Algirdas Avižienis, professor emeritus at director of the Czesław Miłosz Birthplace Foundation, hosted my visit to Miłosz’s Issa Valley.  I’ve just returned to Poland.

While much of my discussion with Romas was about his friend, Tomas Venclova, the physicist was interested when I told him that I had been a student of Joseph’s (he called me part of “the family”) – and hence our discussion returned to his memories of Leningrad, and J.B.’s time in Lithuania. There’s even a plaque in downtown Vilnius where the Russian Nobel poet stayed.

Admittedly, the quote I have cited above is secondhand, but it’s suggestive of how much the poet liked Lithuania. You could guess that, perhaps, from his poem “Lithuanian Divertissement.”

Ramūnas Katilius, Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova in 1972 (Photo by Marija Etkind from the archive of Ramūnas Katilius and Elė Katilienė)

This remote and stunning little city was the temporary capital of Lithuania, when the Polish army occupied Vilnius in 1920.  The Nazis occupied it during the war, of course, and it was a Soviet Socialist Republic at the time Joseph Brodsky visited.

It’s also very early evidence, before he had seen Venice, Paris, or New York, of his early partiality of the cozy places on the outskirts of empire.  He was later to defend Russia’s historic hegemony in an acrimonious exchange with Miłosz, Derek Walcott and Susan Sontag, as described in Irena Grudzińska Gross‘s Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky: Fellowship of Poets.

I’m in Poland right now, and obviously don’t have access to Irena’s book or anything else in my library, but a Keith Gessen’s piece in today’s New Yorker (with a dynamite photo by Irving Penn) makes the same point:

Poetry was immortal, he argued: “That which is being created today in Russian or English, for example, secures the existence of these languages over the course of the next millennium.” But this wasn’t true, as Brodsky eventually acknowledged in a great and furious late poem, “On Ukrainian Independence,” in which he berated the independence-minded Ukrainians for casting aside the Russian tongue. “So go with God, you swift cossacks, you hetmans, you prison guards,” it says, and concludes:

Just remember, when it’s time for you, too, to die, you bravehearts,
as you scratch at your mattress and visibly suffer, you’ll forget
the flatus of Taras, and whisper the verses of Alexander.

Alexander Pushkin, that is. Despite itself, the poem is an anguished admission that a Russian state and Russian-speaking subjects are still vital to the project of Russian poetry.

Now.  Here’s an interesting bit about the photo above.  See the white double spires?  That’s the Jesuit church.  Now take a look at the rather nondescript yellowish building in front of it.  That’s where Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish language’s ur-poet (and, like Czesław Miłosz, he was born in Lithuania) taught at secondary school to pay off his university tuition  at the Jesuit’s Vilnius University.

Note to self:  Must read Mickiewicz when I get back to California.  Anyone know the best translations?

En route to Szetejnie, and a Celtic meditation on cheap flights

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

The road to Szetejnie...

Right now, I am planning the long, winding, and endlessly complicated trip to Warsaw, Vilnius, Kaunas and Szetejnie, the birthplace of Czesław Miłosz, on the invitation of Romas Katilius, a friend of Tomas Venclova‘s, and Algirdas Avižienis, professor emeritus at Vytautas Magnus University (we met last week at the conference).

I am apprehensive about the trek, especially after this morning’s unnerving business with Vol de Nuit Airlines, which repeatedly cut off phone calls, when they weren’t trying to extort six euros a shot for the privilege of talking to them.  That was while they laughingly rejected (a small, metallic chuckle emanated from my computer) my online transactions from such small-time organizations as Bank of America and Paypal. The allocated funds for the ill-fated transaction are nevertheless kept from my wallet in permanent deep freeze by my bank. I’m told they’ll be released in a year or two. In between my weepy phone calls, Vol de Nuit employees would entertain themselves by jacking up the airfares, which began around $250 and, last time I checked, were hovering between $600 and $700.

I have decided to travel instead by a combination of train, bus, and, for part of the journey, muleback.

Internet access is likely to be bumpy during this saga.  Be patient.  Meanwhile, the thoughts in the youtube video below express my sentiments exactly.