Tourist Numb, History-Seeped: Vilnius, Lithuania

A thing I wrote this summer while in Vilnius, all freaked out. Lost track of it (or maybe I thought I was being too obnoxious) so I’m posting it now.


There’s the usual tourist numb that begins in the eyeballs and travels down the face to the lips, down the alimentary canal, out along the nerves to the skin. Vilnius gives me no feeling at all—a neutral space where emotion could arrive. The streets are crooked brick that fills with water when it rains (Vilnians wear sockless sandals to imply the futility of resistance), the buildings are short, antique-attractive with ornate metalwork and tall windows. Vilnius is the girl who arrives toward the back of a group of shiny-haired doppelgangers, no less pretty than the rest, but there’s something forced about her and also something vacant and no matter how many times she tells me, I can’t for the life of me remember her name.


On the edge of the city is a police-enforced Rom village. The settled and their watchmen, parents stolen by nightfall. While in the most vacantly pretty of the old city, tourist chow dumplings, meat pies, sour cream borscht and brick-oven pizza beneath the windows of a building in from which a Lithuanian once fired a gun at a German soldier. The pressure of silent history is unlike a gas. No flicking of match tips could light it. The history’s gone dull, the kind of low, deep pain you learn to live with and eventually forget.

How many cities have lived on the ground of this city? Polish, Jewish, Lithuanian, Soviet, Nazi, Romany finally, panting under the bellies of deafening planes. Yet where are the remains? Digital tracings, shipped to YIVO, memory unspooling from softening cells as those who defied death curve into the long night that breathes above Paneriei and everywhere else without exception.

Any way to tell the story is an exercise in narrative. A shim. Behind it, static Vilnius, its drunks, its terse waitresses, the clink of change tells me who’s not here.

That’s not despair; that’s hindsight motherfucker.

Poetry Readers! : Issue 27 of Otoliths

Like this?:

I was in a park.
I was in Central Square.
I was the center of a vast circle.
I was circumscribing the knowable,
with dynamite.


But the windy boats with their anchors sunk in super deposition,
and wounded, the tuna, like the nail-biting clergy,
whipping, migrating, whiffling, a fraternalia, a prize-walk.

Wise reader, these poetic chunklets are from the pen of my dear friend Jac Nelson and can (should!) be located in the full, proud form here.

Please go, read, have your language hunger sated.

A White Dog (further city poems)

[Found in a box–from last fall, i think.)

I lived in the city a long time
I had a small white dog I carried under one arm

which, on closer inspection,
was never a dog
& not quite white

nonetheless I carried it.

I had a key ring with only three keys.
Even in a city you don’t need more than this
if you are careful, limited
willing to wait.

You forget things,
living long enough.

I suppose I might have had a dog
or might have often walked behind
a man who did—
a little dog with stained fur
he carried
while I wished without reason for it to be a sweater.

Love is cheap in the city
but will cause you to
acquire, uncritically.

The woman in 1A
had a ring of keys heavy as bowling ball.
She used to have one of those, too.
She’d set it on the floor
while she flicked through the circle, looking.

Morning or night,
she stood her doorside vigil with furrowed brow
fingering the teeth, skipping those in colored bands.
It took so long.

I didn’t struggle to get home.

Only wondered what doors belonged to those keys,
how many of them she really needed to open.

I had just one.
Two, if you counted the gate that hung on its hinge
hadn’t closed right in years.

In fact, that gate was another version of the city.

The third key
was not a key
at all.

The third key could not be changed.
And still: could not be thrown away.

Through the window, while the sun sets, bus ride from Oaxaca

A highway cannot be poetry
because it is ultimately practical;
land, on the other hand, yes:
accidental, gesture and falter,
changing itself with the broken and necessary hunger
of an animal heart.

The gravel in the median is uniformly grey.
This median is accidental
and necessary, not built, but occurred—
side effect of road—-
there because something must happen to fill forgotten places
and because this highway was made to part,

combed out with gravel that
scatters from its aloof black
skin: snake and heat of snake.
From above, mountain ranges form
ridges and craters
and junk of passage marks it strangely
like crushed satellites in the shape of pop cans,
a violent dam of ripped tire rubber.

To dream will be like this,
aside and perpetually

If you can bear the pressure of gravity
and the tearing wind
you may traitor road
late at night
when other cars are ghosts,

then lower the hand, not to grab
but to dip,
like a gourd
drinking its waterfall of warm white dust.

Feel how like drinking
and how impossible,
spelling with the lips.

Even the dog, whose name was Samson

Imagine the man
who learns over a hotel phone line
that his whose family has burned in a house fire in Ohio,
nine hours earlier, the day before his short flight home.

From then on, it will play like the late night movie special every incoming dusk
flicker on the unwrinkled big screen, illuminating the darkness.

In order to remember
he will do small things. Chew his lip to its bright edge, til he can taste metal.
He will hiccup for hours at a stretch, neither able nor wanting to stop.
He will pull the tight skin from the back of his neck and pinch it hard between thumb and index nail.

Once, when he is doing the latter,
another man, wearing a grey suit poorly tailored and brandishing a half-centimeter shaving cut in the skin just beneath his left ear
will be about to raise his wine glass in yet another toast
of the interminable birthday party of their employer,

but will pause, noticing the tensed, raised arm of this fellow sitting across
whose face communicates nothing festivity,
rather a grim hardness that seems to reflect the laughter of the room and return it hollowed.
This will irritate the man about to make the toast. For an indulgent moment he will envision his own hand reaching to jerk the other’s down, to awaken him with bright slap.

This however will pass in a split second. And the toast will be made,
albeit with perhaps less confidence, the words clipped at the ends,
which the other guests, or those at least listening will interpret as a sign of the speaker’s encroaching drunkenness,

that some will find embarrassing and others amusing and a few
will watch the sweat accumulate in the grooves of his five o’clock shadow
and feel pride to not be so sloppy,
so blatant in their decomposition at this late hour of the evening.

The man, who for the hundred thousandth time is privately viewing a film reel of flames
collapsing the Sears brand vinyl siding of a low slung two bedroom house
will exhale as the toast is pronounced, and the brief attention of the speaker drifts away.
He will exhale again, pushing out the air in a puff,
and let his fingers move downwards, drawing a rich red line from nape to shoulder,
He will lower his hand
with great control
to the now wine drop spattered white-spread table.
He will exhale again.
Return to chewing his lip.