Who knows when a life is done or not?
On a narrow embankment, the silver glow
of shredded water flashes at me as a boat
tears the canal with its dull ploughshare,
and from the bridge to the freckled roofs
of the city, Venice lies like a cracked fruit
on a dirty table. Calming, quiet ripples
incessantly bump the gunwales.
Shadows overwhelm the unnamed shreds
of sea. Blue canvas cuts diagonally
across moss-covered bricks. Paint darkens,
and the retina’s screen is a wind-stabbed Guardi.
Calli, campi, campielli. Blackened stone
is the lagoon’s damp writing in the arches.
The sky is of another century. Crazed Clio
overlooked these walls that are threatened
by mud, flood, and the earth’s heavy pull.
Foundations sink slowly into their elements.
The city wades through distance. Up to its knees—
warm marble facades in the sea’s foam,
they smell of rot and oil, but higher—
where sight barely reaches,
a white lion stands with the book of wisdom
full of pity for the living and the dead
but not for us to witness—the judgment
is for him and for the span of time.
All forms—from the angel to the trilobite,
from the sharp shell of the crumbled pediment,
from the island where grass covers bone—
await the morning of the Almighty that doesn’t come.
The Sirocco rips at the threads of walls. Humid heat
covers the face with a mask (even if there is no face)
and it darkens both the cupola’s scales and the copper
of weathervanes. The city swims in original depths
ruled by the gelatinous creatures of the sea—
flounders, rays, ascidians, frutti di mare.
A glass of wine at a cafe in the evening.
Above the square: a steep, monochromatic
abyss, but the eye is brought into harmony
with water by a many-sided sacred space (like a hope chest).
Hammering shakes the vault, but a hand in a hand
held tightly overwhelms pain and time.
Tomas Venclova was born in Klaipeda, Lithuania, in 1937. Because of his outspoken membership in the Lithuanian Helsinki Group, which monitored Soviet violations of human rights, Venclova was threatened with sanctions and, in 1977, forced to emigrate. Since 1980 he has taught at Yale University. Collections of his poems have been published in English as Dialogue in Winter (1999) and The Junction: Selected Poems (2009), and he has won numerous awards, including the Lithuanian National Prize and the Prize of Two Nations, which he received jointly with Czesław Milosz. Venclova’s poetry has been translated into more than twenty languages. (updated 4/2013)