The Air We Breathe: Ukraine and Lithuania
Poems by Rimas Uzgiris

HEADNOTE: Ever since the 2014 invasion of Ukraine we’ve been hosting numerous Ukrainian poets at our poetry festivals and other readings. Since the 2022 invasion we’ve been even more committed to bringing their poets here, translating their work, giving them a respite from their war-torn country. As a result, they have become acquaintances and friends, people we know and care about.
      Perhaps I should pause for American readers and explain the “we” and the “I” a little more here. I am a poet living in Lithuania, writing in English because I was born, raised and educated in the United States. My parents were born in Lithuania and left with their families as refugees during WWII. I “came back” on a Fulbright Scholarship and an NEA Translation Grant. Vilnius University asked me to keep teaching, poets asked me to keep translating, I met my future wife, became a dual citizen, our children were born… and so ten years have gone by. I used to think of myself as an American poet living in Lithuania. Now, I tend to think of myself as a Lithuanian poet who writes in English.
      The war in Ukraine has certainly shaken us up. Based on history—i.e., the Russian and Soviet empires of the past, Georgia and Ukraine of the present—and based on what Russian politicians have publicly declared, we know we are next. The rights of democratic self-determination in Eastern Europe have often been ignored. Moscow simply assumes we “belong” to them—even Joseph Brodsky defended a version of this claim—and Western Europe often acted as if we were just some confusing, backwards mass of “Eastern Europeans.” Ukraine is changing all that. They are fighting for us. So we have been doing what we can to help. Hosting their poets is one small thing among many. It is not just a respite from war for them, but, as they say, a relief from having to explain themselves and their country’s situation to “Westerners.” We need no explanations. And their poetry is as natural to us as the air we breathe.
      With no direct experience of the war, I do not dare to write about what Ukrainians can write about for themselves. And they are writing very very well. Lithuanian poets have been translating their latest work almost as soon as it comes out. My poem, “Over and Out,” describes the reading of some of this work on the anniversary of the most recent invasion. It was a powerful and moving event.
      My other poems here also reach out to Ukraine and the poets I know there. The one with a long (Socratic) title takes place at a mini-book fair in early December. Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, translated for the first time into Lithuanian, was being launched, and I was asked to discuss it as an “expert.” Miller speaks of the need to stand up to Hitler—there was a lot of appeasement going on at the time—and I couldn’t help seeing parallels to Ukraine. Olena (Herasymyuk), Lyuba (Yakimchuk), and Kateryna (Mikhalitsyna) are all Ukrainian poets I know, and in the first days of the war I was trying to get in touch with Olena to ask if I could publish a radical adaptation/re-write of her long poem “Prison Chant,” which I heard her read impressively at the Druskininkai Poetry Festival. She serves in a medical brigade in Donbas, so it wasn’t easy, but she got the message finally and gave her blessing to my version, published in Rattle’s “Poet’s Respond.” “First Snow” references a play, “Driven Out,” by Marius Ivaškevičius that deals with cultural differences between Eastern and Western Europe from the perspective of Lithuanian emigres in London. I interweave this with reflections on Christianity, empire, and the uniqueness of each individual. These issues again turned my thoughts to Ukraine.
      I can’t bring myself to write directly about the experience of Ukrainians, but I find that I can write about my caring for what is happening there, my wondering about them, my feeling that our fates in this part of the world are connected. In fact, I find I need to write about this, though it all comes out differently from my other poems. There is something more fragmented and surreal about this work. I suppose that speaks to my experience of this war that is close by but not (yet) here.

Rimas Uzgiris
Vilnius, Lithuania

Over and Out

February 24, 2023, Vilnius

daddy pick me up
after the ukrainian reading
in which halyna read 
whose husband is in a bunker
at the front in which kateryna read
poems by 20-something anton 
written from a trench
at the front
at that moment
the room was dense with all the air we breathed
an oxygenless vacuum
a soundless space
one of the translators barely made it through 
his spacesuit must have been malfunctioning
and we had to go outside
where the tv tower loomed in a zero kelvin night
where 13 souls had been sucked under soviet tanks
automatic doors closing behind
the lviv women standing there 
like an envoy of erinyes
just young women
daddy pick me up
my daughter said
and i told them how glad i was
they were here
how pleased we could host them
what an example ukrainians set
for poetry 
and courage...
my spacesuit must have been malfunctioning
my daughter looped around my neck
my american smile
so unlike their own
which looked as if 
they were pressing their lips hard 
to keep the air inside
only to realize
there is no spaceship
but rockets rockets burning bright
in the cities of their night
goodbye goodbye
said my daughter and i
as we opened our parachute
and gently drifted home

When you’re supposed to be an expert but you’re not,
and then you realize when it comes to that which matters
no one is

someone puts a microphone on the table.
the bees have started to buzz. it’s alarming.
there are butterflies fluttering in my belly:
maybe they’re looking for the pollen inside,
for you see, i’ve been cultivating sunflowers 
ever since i couldn’t reach olena in donbas. 
perhaps she was lost among the apricots, 
or mines. miller’s colossus of maroussi 
lies on the table. in lithuanian, it stands. 
it tells us not to be indifferent, though 
the light outside is thin, like the blood of an anemic,
or the coffee kateryna drinks in lviv, or
the tea lyuba drinks in kyiv, electricity
out. a sleeping whale. my friends lie in its belly.
the camera rolls. the flickering faces of candles 
wait for me to speak. before night falls
we will blow each other out. gently. as bullets fly 
through pliant flesh. then george katsimbalis
will rise from this table to walk among the graves, 
speaking stories of light, affirming that in kyiv, 
kharkiv, and lviv, the dream of greece still lives.

First Snow

Michelangelo’s Jesus is barrel chested and ripped.
He looks like he could rip me in two
as he judges the gym rats around him.
Da Vinci’s Jesus is effeminate and soft,
holding a crystal ball aloft. His mystery
is incomprehensible and I shrink
from his knowing gaze. Knowledge
is power, though tell that to Russia,
brutally invading Ukraine. A character
in the play I’m translating from Lithuanian thinks 
we all belong to the East (east of Germany),
descended from Genghis Khan. Jesus,
he claims, is our opponent, representing
the “civilized” West, though I don’t know
if it’s M’s or da V’s. Or which Jesus 
was responsible for “The sun never sets on….”
But today we felt the first snow of the season
as we walked home from school in the dark.
My son asked why the snowflakes glitter with light.
Little stars surrounding our lives. Ice crystals, I said.
Each new flake makes itself unique. Like you, 
I could have said. So beautiful, I didn’t say. 
So beautiful, I should have said. Just look.

Rimas Uzgiris is a Lithuanian poet and translator writing in English. Born and raised in the USA, educated at UCSD, UW-Madison, and Rutgers-Newark, he is the author of the poetry collections North of Paradise and Tarp (poems translated into Lithuanian, shortlisted for best poetry book of the year). He is translator of seven poetry collections from Lithuanian and the Venice Biennale Golden Lion winning opera Sun and Sea. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, Hudson Review, The Poetry Review and other journals. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant and a NEA Translation Fellowship, he teaches at Vilnius University.

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