Five poems

Transitions №5

Author: Anna Halberstadt



What did you have to say?
Here are a few of your poems.
They are okey.
You said what you had to say
with the words
as precise as you had
in your repertoire.
Simplicity is not necessarily an asset
but if it contributes to the clarity
of what you had to say
it’s okey.
What have you contributed to the world?
You convinced a few desperate refugees
not to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge
when they ran out of strength?
You may not even remember
their names.
But you do –  their faces and their voices
their stories.
So, what you do every day
must be okey
as well.



or rather, a small chapel
on the shore of Kineret
where men and women pray to the Almighty
for their ailing relatives
a wave of despair and hope
hits you like heat.
Condensed air of prayers
for the loved ones
makes your pulse fast.
In the women’s corner
a few silk scarves for the praying
are laid out on a small table.
God’s presence is as believable there
as the low afternoon sky at dusk,
like still purple water
of the enormous lake on the right
at sunset.

I was visiting Israel
after my favorite aunt Esther passed.
She was a poet,
and she was really good
according to the professor of Yiddish literature
whom I met in Vilnius.
Better, according to Dovid,
than her husband Emmanuel
a recognized poet,
as if writing in Yiddish would gather
a large following anyway.
She was the one, who discovered
I was reading books for adults at five.
You see, being a wunderkind
does not get you anywhere
if you have your gifts

Her son and I are cousins
we share a devout great-grandmother Sara-Lea
who was one of the numerous descendants
of the renowned religious scholar, the Wilno Gaon.
On the photo– an elderly woman in a kerchief
in a wheelchair
a large round wristwatch on her withered wrist.
Grisha and I, as it happened,
exchanged disorders
we borrowed from our mothers.

He took Parkinson’s, my mother’s
affliction for twenty-one years,
I got Crohn’s disease, that was called
intestinal tuberculosis in my childhood,
taking after aunt Esther
who spent years in bed writing poetry
and making little clay figurines of fairies and dwarfs
among humangous, red, with white polka dots

We still share the love for writing and drawing
and talking till dawn about things
of no interest to most of our relatives or peers
back then, when we discovered
Antonioni’s L’Eclisse at fourteen and seventeen.



Walking past the gray wall separating
 the Ward number Two
 from the main alley 
 and meeting a group of patients
 coming from the workshop
 where they had been
 making   furniture and other items 
 needed by the director 
 and others in charge of the hospital
 was  intimidating.
 She was  a twenty-year-old psych student
 already married
 and almost five months into her barely 
 planned pregnancy
 still invisible to others.
She walked fast,
keeping close to the wall 
and  smiled to the rowdy group
trying not to show them
she was afraid.

A few  years  later 
 already a mother of a precocious toddler
 with widely opened  blue eyes 
 named Sasha,
 and  unhappily married 
 she had her first day of training 
 with the Kashchenko hospital’s
 only psychologist
 the gentle and abused soul 
 Tatiana Emilievna.
 Daughter of the Moscow University 
 a spinster with a pale face
 dark hair in an old fashioned bun,
she had been sharing a communal apartment 
with a family of alcoholics
who fought and yelled Russian obscenities 
at each other daily
so that TE 
had to learn the meaning of some of them 
to survive.

The patient, sent to Tatiana Emilievna 
or the Squirrel ( this was her secret name ,
that she signed on cards she would later 
attach to little gifts for Sasha)
was a young epileptic artist
with gray eyes and long hair
not bad looking either.
He asked the young psychologist,
(she looked younger than twenty seven.
with long dark hair 
and circles under her eyes )
whether she was married 
and if she was
why would her husband allow her 
to work with patients just like him
who could possibly rape her
and throw her out the  hospital window.
That was the beginning of her clinical career.

Later she learned that Anton
the artist
during one of his epileptic  blackouts
most likely enhanced by a good dose of vodka,
took one of the cars 
parked on the grounds
and escaped the hospital 
just to find himself in a city
he could not recognize.

The Squirrel-Belochka in Russian-
 had been 
mistreated by the head nurse,
a fierce huge Russian woman,
who despised intelligentsia.
She was afraid of the young psychologist first
but then she got to know her
and became very attached.
When  the young woman left her husband 
for  his friend whom she did not love
and actually could not stand for many years
Russian style 
just to escape the trap of her miserable 
Belochka felt sorry for her and little Sasha 
and kept visiting 
and bringing chocolate candy  called «Little Squirrel»
for both of them.



I am in the auditorium at  the Teachers House,
in a poetry class
Across the street of my old school in Vilnius-
Salomeika, named after the symbolist poet
Salomėja Nėris.
Her sculpted image looks sad.
She welcomed the Soviets and later regretted it

Aš turiu parašyti eilėraštį 
                                    I need to write a poem

There’s sudden talk about death in the class-
someone’s professor dropped dead
after teaching a course.
Now I recall I have been in this building
at my music teacher’s wake.
White flowers.
I may have been ten.

Eileraštis nesirašo.
                             The poem is not happening.

Krista says our  favorite  music teacher’s name
was Vilkončius,
he was a funny guy, killed in a motorcycle accident
with his seven year old son.
First death of a person I knew well.
Chopin’s funerary march.

Kaip aš galiu čia būti ?
                                   How can I be here?

I can see the façade of St.Kotryna’s  baroque church
through the window.
On the right is the elongated school building
in what was considered
modernist Aalto style in the sixties.
A few blocks away, in the small square
Adam Mickiewicz is  still  there.
Poor Adam,  still contemplating
whether he is a great Lithuanian poet
or a Polish writer who had written:
«Oh, Lithuania, my fatherland!»
in Polish!

Aš galvojau, kad užmiršau tą kalbą!
                                                   I thought I ‘ve forgotten this language!

Behind the church there used to be a staircase
leading to the monastery garden,
old prewar apple trees,
fragrant red and black currant bushes
and sandy paths  where we
walked around in groups during recess
and took skiing lessons in the winter.

Tu prisimeni tas vienuoles ?
                                    Do you remember these nuns?

Secret nuns in civilian clothing tended the garden.
Krista, remember Friendship nights
in our school?
Us reciting Pushkin and Lermontov
and kids from Russian school reading
Lithuanian poems?
Colossal fights in the snow afterwards.
Vilnius is the city of friendship.

Kaip aš galiu čia būti?
                               How can I be here?

After the class I walk through the courtyard
 back to the house on Pylimo.
The church in  the yard  I’d been crossing daily
 to make my way  to school
 is now a  working church.
 It used to be a storage in  the Soviet times.
 Jonas tells me —  by the wall  of this baroque church
 the first victim of the Holocaust, a Jewish woman,
 was shot together with a few communists in nineteen forty one.

Kodėl aš buvau gimusi šiame mieste?
                                                    Why was I born in this city?

My aunts are gone, cousins are scattered,
in Beersheba, Melburn and Rehovot.
Childhood friends  are lost
after so  many migrations.
The house where I grew up is there,
but I no longer know anyone, and no one knows me.
My Lithuanian classmates are taking me to dinner
tonight and give a bouquet of  white flowers.
Krista asks me  about  sadness in my poems.

 Aš čia nežinau nieko!
                                I don’t know anyone here!

I think of winter in Vilnius,
white landscape in the dusk still brings me to tears.
Red thatched roofs, black crosses of churches,
iced cobblestone streets named after catholic orders,
Chiurlionis’s white candleholder
with lights in the window flickering
to the sounds of his De Profundis.
White covers the dirt and blood stains
on pavements and walls till the spring.

Litwo, ojczyzna moja!
                      Lithuania, my motherland!

I am walking back to the hotel on Jogailos from Gedimino,
what was this street called befrore the Independence?
There was a pastry shop on the right hand side
where my mother and I used to buy coffee beans
and rum soaked biscuit tarts.
Instead of Chronika, the movie theatre on the right,
a bank and  a real estate  office.
There is a Jewish community center here now, I see…
When I lived here, there were none, but
there were Jews.

Čia nieko nėra!
                          No one is here!

The emptiness and sadness of the street  at night
takes me by the throat,
I am turning left not to pass the square
where my father photographed me after  the eighth grade graduation.
Is the old synagogue with the blue sky and white clouds
painted on the ceiling still working?
My mother used to order kaddish for the fallen relatives there.
Can I order a kaddish for my childhood?



Where I grew up
Russian was the  language 
of the regime
of white letters on red background
slogans and banners 
Drug cigarettes 
astronauts Gagarin and Tereshkova
also, of semi-underground poets. 
“Peterburg! ya eshche ne xochu umirat:
Y tebia telefonov moix nomera.
Peterburg! U menia eshche est adresa.
Po kotorym naidu mertvecov golosa.”*
Rain rained in Lithuanian
nenešiu neturiu
negerai nenoriu
nieko nėra.
Šiukšlės šiukšlės visur. **
Rain pounded on Neris
Like peas against glass.
When sun came out
father took me to the Halle
the market near the railroad station.
We bought green hazelnuts
crayfish and black currants.
Men in soldiers’ boots smoked near the wall 
with oil cloths hanging on it
depicting mermaids, lovers
and doves carrying letters 
in their beaks. 
The wind turned
pages of old newspapers
and whispered 
in Polish:
przepraszam panią
piękna sukienka
ile kosztują te porzeczki
tak, pani, pięć rubli pięćdziesiąt kopiejek.***
We walked home 
past the gates  and the kiosk with pink cotton candy 
down Komjaunimo gatvė 
past the synagogue with cypresses at the entrance.
When we came to Strašūno gatvė
where my aunt Alta lived
the cobble stones cried out in Yiddish
they cried out names
Motek Chanale Altechke Sarale Liebe
Leizerke, mein kind
koom aher, mame, tate 
where are you, God?
Goteniu, Goteniu, Goteniu…****



* lines from Osip Mandelstam’s poem When I Return…:

“Petersburg, no, not yet, I’m not ready to die
While you are keeping my telephone numbers alive
Petersburg, I still have addresses at hand
That I’ll use to recover the voices of the dead”


** “I do not carry, do not have,
no good, don’t want to
no one is here,
garbage, garbage everywhere” 


*** “Sorry, madam.
 A nice dress.
How much are you asking for the red currants?
One ruble fifty kopecks, lady. “


**** “Leiserke, my child.
Come here, mommy, daddy.
Where are you,  God?
Oh my God, my God, my God!”