Western Lithuania, 1993
The farmstead was tucked away like a child
in sheets of gently rolling Samogitian land:
tufts of deciduous trees, the occasional stand
of pine, long stretches of rape and rye rounded
by the odd dairy cow fertilizing the ground.
The man of the house watched TV, paralyzed.
Three women worked the fields. They took me
to harvest hay. We rode a cart pulled by a hag.
I was given a two-pronged wooden fork—
my “trident” to rule the waves—and struggled
to correctly lift and tuck the golden threads
onto the wooden loom.
I had milked my first cow, trying not
to show fear at the feet of the abrupt heft
of the mammal, my senses overwhelmed
by the scents of her muscle-rippled hide,
by the dew-drenched grasses scumbled
with the wildflowers of exclamation
whose names I didn’t know, by the hot
white manna squirting into a dented
metal pail that pealed like a broken bell.
The girls—as stout as the storks patrolling
the fields, as focused, and as at home
(though they too would migrate: to college
over the horizon’s edge)—smiled at me
as at an omen of the good life to come
while they worked the harvest into shape,
sculpting their load, invisibly adept.
I was the plump anthropological specimen,
not they, visiting from far away, from a life
they only saw refracted through a screen.
My God, were they strong! I was to be
a drenched rag-doll pulled out of the sea
in the still cool morning by the time
we had loaded up, riding back on top
of the pile of hay, feeling like a Breughel
subject, completely out of place,
as if I had been sucked into the frame
straight from some cozy gallery couch.
The tufts of trees, they explained, were graves
of farmsteads from before the last war:
neighbors dispossessed of their land
and transported in cattle cars to make
what they could of love and death
in a New World of Siberian wastes.
The mother had taken the fresh milk
each day to the communist collective
in the valley below. The land was theirs
now, but she had to sell what they made:
milk, salt-pork, eggs, and fowl. Her husband
making the best of it in his wheelchair.
Baling the hay from our creaky ship
into its hollow, sun-slatted harbor,
learning how to take that devil’s fork
up and up and up until the loft
was covered in rough strands of gold,
I had had enough of anthropology by then,
and retired to a sunny mound to read
Mačernis’s poems about these parts:
the young poet himself blown up in a cart
like the one I rode, fleeing the oncoming
Red tide, trying to find the mysterious ferry
to the New World where my parents fled,
finding Charon smiling instead,
though no one knows which side
lobbed the shell onto his family’s
The three came in
after several more rounds of hay
had been safely stowed away: thunder-clouds
gathered behind them like the omens of history.
They thanked me for the “unexpected
help.” I wanted to slink away to the city
and never come back. They meant it.
(I would swear they were genuinely
full of gratitude, that not a single smile
was snide, or false, or slow. I had a wife
already, so this was not for show.)
I walked down to their little pond
at night, undressed and took a swim.
Duckweed parted, mosquitos patrolled
the sky above. Stars poked like pinholes
through shadows of intermittent clouds.
It was calm, small and beautiful, and meant
nothing on its own. The city called,
but I took the phone off its hook
and drifted. I drifted away. I drifted here.
from Rattle #82, Winter 2023
Rimas Uzgiris: “In the early summer of 1993, three years after Lithuania declared itself independent, thereby starting the disintegration of the USSR, I visited my then-girlfriend’s family in rural Samogitia (Žemaitija). I had never been to that region, had never heard their dialect spoken, had not ever worked on a farm, or even sat and talked with farmers. So it was quite the anthropological event for me, already feeling a bit lost and homesick after nine months in the country from which my parents once fled as refugees. I still remember that visit fondly, and finally, now living in the country again, I figured out a way to write about it. That way of life, the small, technologically simple farmstead, is dying out. So the elegy mixes here with a bit of comedy (directed at the author who felt himself quite out of place).”