Author Archives: jzdanys

The Habits of Fall


The day was a bowl of cold water tipped on its side at the edge of an old field. A black bird perched in the highest branch of a tree that reached toward clouds stirring across the permanent spread of the sky. The last leaves were still. The door to the bedroom in the house below Walnut Hill was open, the room’s white walls absentminded with daylight, deep and watchful as eyes that fill unexpectedly with tears. A voice spoke, carrying past the high ceiling, then a long dry pause trembled across a sky half full of stars. He leaned toward her and kissed her, his arm around her waist, the sweet smell of her skin unsettling and slow. He thought his heart would stop, breathing hard, and felt his face flush as her legs moved. She was quiet for a moment then, touching the wall, longing for the place that picks our bones apart and rebels to desire and love. And the light flickers, the door closes and locks. The world is divided in two. Time’s dissemblance the sudden echo in the hall that stumbles back into itself, her name the quiet agitation of the eye when the last song ends and the circle breaks.

The Abrasions of Rain

The mind is a still distraction.
The white blankets burn in pitch dark
and night salts the blood of heaven.
The men at war at the turned gates
of the torn city plant their heels
among the spider webs and dirt,
not terrified of loss or death
or the hinge of mud washed across
the hesitation in their eyes.
Think of nothing. Let the body
become a pale reflection of
ancient wings in the wind’s cold glass.


The short breath of night runs shallow
and slow across the city’s streets
and rain slides, thin as hunger, on
gray diagonals of iron.
Angels made of straw, luminous
as wind in bags of vague paper,
turn their backs to the dark red house.
I touch the star above the black
canal, bewildered and endless,
and the world quickens at my feet.
Beyond the square, the lost dogs bark
the secret names of fire and ice.


I measure the passage of time
outside the smallest window with
a stick that scratches the outline
of the sickle moon on the dust
of the floor, watch a thousand years
lying gray and naked under
the wounds of the cold horizon,
count out the abrasions of rain
on the old woman’s umbrella ―
and understand how to endure
my longing for eternity
and the impermanence of birds.


Priam’s Daughter


I.   Touching the Moon

A slice of light, half-curled above
the tree line, settled to smoky threads
along the horizon as night dimpled
snow in the dark fields and the creek's
cold edges thickened to a polished spill
the color of old birches.  After dark,
the wind right and pines hovering
close to the ground, clouds rubbed
against a cut of stars that slipped
in a darkening slide to a clearing
half-lost in the mountains.  It was a place
where dark flowers grow and cicadas grate
in solitude and vacancy, the sound
of their strumming suspended
like dust in the faint light that draped
the faded edges of the sky.  She found
that place alone, listening to the wind,
as we quivered among the noises
of that starlit night and watched her
climbing over shadows that lay
like dark bruises on the season-plowed soil.
She climbed to touch the moon,
to break the trance of the nightfall
that surrounded her, push through
the cold clouds that curled north on the wind
where the hill ascends and reclaim
the emptiness she said was ours.
We were all divining life in those
dark corners then, skirting
its dangerous edges, each stirred
by a different pulse of the wind.
Caught there like a sift of leaves
against the tree line, we did not want
to understand when she said that nothing
lay beyond the things she feared
and lived by, that morning
always came to her in a heaving
under clear sheets of water,
that hollow trunks of trees
are warm as blood and their dark wood
opens to seed beds where the year's dead
are transfigured by the moon
and skim the earth like feeder roots
pulled loose from the lost ground below.
We watched her, in a dream
without sleep, waiting for a signal,
a wisp of smoke or quiet tapping of stone
to pierce the shadows.  Her face was
as disconsolate as the moon she reached for
and all around gaped open burrows
where small animals slept, their soft skins
hardening white in the unaccustomed thudding
and jostling of the night air.  Its odd light
seeped to our marrow and we moved
toward that place with arms extended,
drifting past each other like dark footfalls
in empty passageways before stumbling
into silence.  The patterns in the sky
unexpectedly changed and she was
suddenly gone, a rustling of birds
in the veerings of the wind.
Although we had come to sink with her
into a nuzzling of thorns
in the gray scrub bushes, there
was nothing else we could see
in that place, only clouds and trees
awash in a dark green light
that dissolved to an abstract of angles
and lines on the water.  The chill
in the wind smoldered in the darkness
and the hours before dawn opened slowly,
like the shell of a dying newborn bird.
In that light, traced like panic against
the paling sky, we knew she was gone,
a scuttle of mist thickening to the cool dark
of the earth, a quick return to dust,
and we were left alone with the moon
hanging black against the stars,
silent and forbidding, and the sound of the wind
whistling endlessly across the hills.

II.   The Nightingale's Song

The air tasted of metal and the sky
was passionless as glass.  In that slow
realization of light, as clouds 
unraveled the fine dust and swept lines
of the moon above my head, I stretched out
my hands and the frozen flowers
in the meadows blossomed, rainbows
in the trees' hanging branches
glowed with the bodies of fragile butterflies, 
time drifted like moonrise across wet ice
in a spark and warp of heady smoke. 
Wait!  I can hear them.  But I don't think
they pity us.  We blend to sorrow and strife 
in the wounds and leavings of new birth, 
and hunger advances in the wild hour, 
and I wait here for my breath to settle, 
for the fear to go away as the nagging surge
of needled hearts startled in every direction
probes like braided wire for the parch and peel 
of blood.  I lay for a long time near the stumps
of the yellowing pines, a patch of fallen white
against the fading green, bristling in flutters 
and shivers, and heard their voices
pulling my bones this way and that,
whistling in the caverns behind my eyes
like the climax of some unspeakable hour.
They could not hear me when I cried 
that this dream was not enough, 
the work of the spirit falling to elegy and ruin, 
the way back a lost moment hammered
in secrecy hard as steel in the forge of night.
I am blocked whatever way I turn, in cough
and blind panic.  And I know there is nothing 
beyond the things I've feared and lived by, 
nothing they could find or name, only the darting hiss
and click of the moon's pale blood, slow hunger
stinging eyes fixed on the grass, stamens
veined and coiling.  They don't believe me,
bloodless and apologetic, though all my life
I've named that weariness of the heart
that scatters quickly into the night like dry leaves,
building patterns that long for extinction,
a hundred gray shapes that pass among the trees 
like a tide of blind mouths flying off to oblivion.
Root clenching root, blending to hard earth,
the hypothesis of dark desires,
and the life that moved within me
silent now and thick-fingered as roots
sprouting from clods and dead holes
stretched and laboring forward, sinews oiled, 
tasting stone.  I know they didn't pity me
even as the years passed across 
the dry-veined sky and clotted hard 
among the oaks and pines and lines
of cedar angled thin in the snow.
They don't remember that now
or understand why I need the moon's 
pure light above me, high in the hills, 
a vacuum into which everything collapses,
stripped to the numbness of bone.
I cannot reach it.  I cannot reach it.
Listen!  Do you understand I am not
this empty space that splinters to light, 
the womb of earth, infinity's blind shore?
I climb only to touch the moon, to reclaim 
the thing that once was mine, afraid 
that my story has already had its end.  Deeper
than the eye can follow, its pale light stiffens 
in the mist, plain, placid and clear, and trails off
forever in a welter of silver that glowers
and pierces every shadow.  I've heard them say it,
and in my deepest heart I know it's true.
My life is sprung bone, dull with reluctance,
longing to be filled in a world in which nothing fills.
And so it begins.  I can hear them behind me,
voices borne on the wind at night 
in a rustling of birds.  The moon is up, 
a halo of clarity that thins and thickens 
and is sucked out again into the dark
like the ghosts that vanish as I touch them.

Poems by Nijolė Miliauskaitė

Nijolė Miliauskaitė
translations by Jonas Zdanys

after school a hard hand 
gathered us to the sewing shop

a flock of young girls 
with children's faces 
bindweed at our waists

all winter we sewed white 
shirts for orphans 
white calla lilies blossomed 
in hothouses beneath the glass

for the bride's bouquet 
for the wreath of spruce 
for emptiness

melt the distant snowdrifts 
with your hot sighs

melt the ice 
in the sewing shop's mirror 
it alone is our secret 
understood our dreams

I watched 
through the windows, through cracks, through fences 
there, beyond the river, 
was a world locked to us

the night nurse 
black wings embracing the sleeping children 
listens drowsily to the storm 
and the heavy keys ring at her waist


heavy eyelids 
envelopes filled with sand and heat 
gnaw the eyes, a clump of frozen earth 
locks up the feet the hands

you know 
the look of cold steel 
you know why we are called 
by the dark precipice of the window

let no one 
turn and look back 
let no one point for another 
let no whispering 
drag itself after you 
like a dirty bouquet-ribbon full of holes

the sleep of lethargy, Franz K. 


bend closer
I'll whisper a secret

a large ear 
it hears 
what I mumble in sleep, sleepwalker

a hand 
with long thin fingers 
burrows through my brain, searches 
for the hidden the forgotten
it is not possible 
for you to hide beneath 
the sky

so much the better, so much the better

I want to be an embryo again
twinkling each night
above the sunken lake

* * *

you would like to live 
in the old house 
with thick walls and wide windowsills 
on which you would sit embracing your knees 
as darkness came

you would easily grow accustomed 
to the cosy ghosts 
of this house 
and would listen to something 
forgotten playing in the moonlight

sometimes an unfamiliar barefoot 
child with a long nightgown would run in 
and would ask you to take her on your knees 
the stairs would creak, as if someone was climbing 
above the ceiling steps, a cough

those hands that sewed 
the covers of these chairs 
have long since gone to dust 
and the colors have faded

how much warmth 
and love in these patterns

and you too will someday be 
only a ghost 
in an old house

* * *   

every spring 
as the hawthorns blossom 
along the river

my grandfather 
smiling hands me 
a flute he has just carved 
from willow wood 
he's been dead a long time my grandfather

and tiny yellow butterflies 
cover his face


your golden freckles 
your face 
speckled with brown spots

your belly

your belly, which you carry 
so carefully so heavily

a great magical sphere

you turn your head smile 
at him who walks with you 
and say something 
to him

gentle sunflower ripening
in our irrevocably lost homeland's empty fields


look, then: how big this 
bag is on my back 
here are gathered all 
the sicknesses of the poor 
the flu, mange, lice

tuberculosis, misfortune, despair 
anger and revolution

this is what I've brought for you

as you dance singing before the glowing 
Christmas tree 
in the great echoing high-ceilinged 

as the first star 
rings in the dark sky 
like a silver bell


my grandmother's flowers 
myrtles and geraniums 
starched lace on red down pillows
that were my dead grandmother's

(could you find some likeness 
in my face)

my mother's flowers 
ficus and philodendron, asparagus fern 
an embroidered white tablecloth, recollections 
written in a childlike hand 
in high school

I don't know what my greatgrandmother 
grew on her windowsill 
when my greatgrandfather 
left for America and my grandfather 
at fourteen 
became head of the family

   dis iz kazys paliokas 
    fotogref and he iz all redy 
    long ded in sum month 
    afder te furst

       iz yur
       faters so Im 
       senden it 
       to yu dere vincent

(written by typewriter 
on the back side 
of the photograph)

she wore light 
long wide dresses 
the wind carried her

down streets and through parks 
easily, as if through a dream 
with blossoming lindens

the thin soft cloth 
did not hide 
her breasts and in the sun 
you could see her supple 
young body

it was so hot

we rested 
in wicker chairs 
in the shade of giant 
old trees, the river's reflections 
glittered on our faces, boats 
parasols and clouds floated gently by

your dropped bicycle 
in the distant summerhouses opened books leafed 
through by unseen hands

that summer 
there was no war and there was not to be 
the first the world

* * *
these are lilacs 
from Jaskonis's mill, which is near crumbling 
each year 
I pick a huge bouquet

empty neglected ordnance yards 
each year 
grass overgrows 
the trenches, the bunkers, and the bones 
in the common grave

these are lilacs 
from Jaskonis's mill, the saddest 
flowers, for you Jadvyga (the overcoat 
hacked by moths rots in the attic)

and for you Karolina, you are old already and for you 
Barbora, the miners's 

and for me

The Angels of Wine

He died before my children were born and I tell them 
about him sometimes, when I tell our family's stories -- 
uncle and godfather, raw-boned and visionary, alcoholic 
son and failed father, in the end a weak reed no one leaned 
upon, who struggled with his gloom and self-loathing and 
was caught in a trap he laid for himself in the teeth of the 
     He would listen to me in moments of clarity, 
drawing a breath as if waiting to speak then letting it out 
in a sigh and waiting for me to talk myself out.  He would 
nod when I said that life is not something that was waiting 
for us around the corner but was here and now, and then 
would ask me for money for a bottle of sweet wine, too 
tired and shaky to invent another lie.  It was not for his 
thirst, he would say, but because with it everything grew 
remote and the stars in the sky began to swim and the 
horizon expanded again.
     Once he said he thought we gave birth to our death, 
like something lifting inside us, like the tunnel where he 
thrashed and choked and could not breathe because there 
was no light.  That's how they found him early one 
morning as the sun touched the edges of his room: the 
artery in his liver spilling his life out into something 
scarlet and black, his nose burrowed between the thighs 
of the woman he lived with like a small lost dog looking 
for the place he'd come from and where he wanted to 
     I think of him like that but do not tell my children 
the details of his final story: lying in the dark in a pool of 
his own blood, not knowing what was rolling over him 
as a veil of grayness covered his eyes, perhaps dreaming 
one last time of the daughter he had abandoned or the 
grandchildren he would never see or the angels that 
would come to him with the wine in the dead of night.