Book Review (poetry): Vilnius Diary by Anna Halberstadt

I eagerly anticipated reading Anna Halberstadt’s Vilnius Diary, about her childhood in Lithuania and immigrant life elsewhere, because I was close to my mother’s parents, who were the children of immigrants from Lithuania, and whose own first languages were Lithuanian. My grandparents also spoke multiple languages, but not nearly as many as Halberstadt: her poems include lines in Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish (all translated), and untranslated bits of German and French that can perhaps be inferred from context.

Vivid images abound within memorable lines:

  • Green lakes, full of crayfish and drowned schoolchildren;
  • intricate jewelry of St. Ann’s gothic needles;
  • tongue got stuck / around syllables / like on poorly made crowns;
  • blood mixed with the black earth / producing fragrant dark Lithuanian bread.

I was reminded by turns of Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa, Frank X. Gaspar’s A Field Guide to the Heavens, and Stephen Kuusisto’s Eavesdropping. And yet, if not for writing this review, I would not have finished reading the book.

I think Halberstadt’s collection would have benefited from being much shorter: there are 69 poems on 116 pages. Ilya Kaminsky’s book, which deals with similarly grim events, is exactly half the length of this one, but also employs ample white space.

I found little humor, and it, generally bleak: “Who invented family holidays? / Hitler?” (p. 21); “Fish tell him things he understands since he stopped / getting the meaning of human attempts to communicate.” (p. 108). The only time I felt good about laughing was reading her ex-mother-in-law’s words: “I don’t understand / how one can be sad / at twenty three. / I’d be hopping / on one foot and singing / if I were twenty three.” (pp. 32-33)

People in Halberstadt’s poems are frequently miserable, despairing, and waiting for disaster to strike, again. The Holocaust, which killed her grandparents and assorted distant relatives, makes a frequent appearance, despite having occurred before she was born.

Given how often she mentions her profession (psychology), I would have expected her poems to offer more insight. But beyond that, Halberstadt has a great deal of sympathy for her family, her friends, and occasionally her coworkers; she seems almost contemptuous of everyone else.

The book’s theme can be found on page 85:

“Do we really get better with time or just bitter? / More like aged wine or like vinegar?”

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Originally written, January 2015