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

process: visual poetry, centos, Lithuanian literature

I’ve been noodling around with writing poems that are constrained by being acrostics or double-acrostics. In acrostics, the 1st letters of each line spell something out; in double-acrostics, the first and last letters of each line spell something out. A year ago, I did a double-acrostic poem that spelled out OKLAHOMA CITY for my aunt and uncle who live there, but I couldn’t get it to work all the way. I’ve been improving though because I’ve done a lot more! I’ve successfully done double-acrostics that spell out the first names of my engaged friends A and B, such that one poem reads A/B, and the other, B/A. I did one that spelled out a friend (M)’s last name. And I did first and last names for both Spouse, and a second male friend. Yet another male friend, Roy, is proving a puzzle so far because I’d like to figure out how to do a 3-way/triangular visual poem from his name, but none of my sketches have panned out.

Last autumn, I did a visual poem with the names of my mother’s mother, my mother’s sister, and my mother’s sister’s oldest daughter, because they’re linked through the name JUNE. To most people, though, my poem would probably just look like a weird diagram. I’ve been studying visual poetry, because it wants me to write/draw it, but I’m not very good at it yet.

I had one of my poems (not a visual one, not an acrostic) accepted provisionally for publication last year: they wanted me to make it longer. Since it was a cento, none of the words were my own, so I couldn’t just write something; I had to find more lines from the original works that I could figure out where and how to insert into what I already had. I did that, and re-submitted it. The journal didn’t reply right away, and in the meantime, I second-guessed myself. I withdrew that second version, worked on it a whole bunch more. Made it a lot stronger, I think, by figuring out who all the voices were, and why they were talking to each other, and really deeply imagining the whole world of the poem. Sent in the third version as the first submitted poem of 2015. This time, it was rejected outright, because it didn’t fit with the rest of the issue.

But! A year ago, I’d written a different cento (from a different, modern source); 6 months ago, I’d impulsively sent a copy of it to the original poet, with a letter. And this January, I received her response! She says she liked it, that it skillfully changed the whole subject matter of what she wrote about, even though all the words are still hers. I also had sent a copy of that poem to Spouse’s father, because my version of it wanted to be about Spouse’s great-grandmother (whom I never met, but I think I would’ve really liked her). And he liked it too. It turns out that FIL’s grandmother, F, never learned to read or write, so I like to think she would’ve really gotten a kick out of having a poem dedicated to her. 27 years after she died even.

The letter back from the poet, Betty Adcock, inspired me to finally write a poem about Gramma, the first one I’d ever written about her. Poetry allows me to gather threads of history and people and unorthodox connections between them, and weave them into a tapestry all my own.

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3 years ago, I read a memoir by an Irish woman poet that I really liked. So I tracked down a copy of an anthology of Irish women poets, which I bought. But then I hated every single poem. So much for heritage. But! Late in 2013, through Inter-Library Loan, I found some Lithuanian poetry (in translation) by both men and women poets that I really liked. Late in 2014, I received Lithuanian Jewish woman poet Anna Halberstadt’s poetry collection [Vilnius Diary], in exchange for writing a book review of it for an online literary journal. Anna was born in the late 1940s, and kind of snarky and pessimistic. I didn’t really like her book, but that would be a very short review. The more I re-read it, the more it sort of grew on me. And she writes great lines that would work well in a cento! I wrote the best book review I could, and sent it off to the journal. They liked it! But said that their book reviews are normally 2-3x as long, so could I make it longer? I tried, for an entire month. The thing is, to make it longer in a good way, I’d need to read a lot more Lithuanian poetry, so I could write about how Anna fits into, or doesn’t, Lithuanian literature. From my research, though, most Lithuanian literature was written in Lithuanian or Polish (maybe even Russian), and has never been translated into English, and I don’t read Lithuanian or Polish (or Russian). I didn’t give up on the book review itself — I don’t daunt easily — but I did tell the poetry journal that I couldn’t make the book review longer, and I would understand if that meant they couldn’t publish it after all. I have every intention of writing a much longer review, but it’s gonna take me months and months of more research. Having someone else’s deadline hanging over my head the whole time would be too much pressure.

So last month, (from Inter-Library Loan) I was reading the Lithuanian poet, Tomas Venclova’s, poetry collection [Winter Dialogues] (translated into English), and… I kind of love it. It not only has rhythm and meter (which I struggle with), but it rhymes (which I love, and do myself), but his rhymes are much more skillful and less obvious than mine. The subject matter is kind of bleak, so maybe Anna’s stuff… fits right in? Need more research! Thus are literary obsessions born…

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Most of my centos so far have been from poems written by men [poems originally written in English, Stephen Kuusisto and Frank X. Gaspar; poems translated from Spanish, Pablo Neruda; from Ukrainian, Ilya Kaminsky]. I almost never read prose by men anymore, instead seeking out writers that are women, transgender, and nonbinary people, because they often write much more interestingly and intersectionally about, well, anything really. But men poets, especially men poets who originally wrote in another language, say things that really resonate for me. It makes me wonder if I could have been successful at being a man if I’d been a poet. I had always assumed any version of man I could figure out how to be would have been an utter disaster, but maybe not. Then again, as far as I know, I’m the only poet in my entire extended family, so if I were a man poet, I’d be doubly an outlier? I don’t think there’s any way for me to be me and not be an outlier. If only it were socially acceptable to be Really Different, and happy to be Really Different — I don’t want to be like everyone else.

If I could experience being a tree, or a bumblebee, or a river rock, or a cloud, I would do it, not just because it would be the coolest thing ever, but because it would expand my perceptions in directions I probably don’t even realize exist. And then if I returned to being human, I would be a much better poet! I’d also be a more interesting person. But even weirder too. I guess other people are afraid of anyone who isn’t similar to them? If that were true for me, I’d have to be afraid of everyone. I’d rather make friends. I’d rather imagine. I’d rather… write poetry. And dance. And make art.