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Translator's Note: In the Lake Region

by Ellen Hinsey


"In the Lake Region" takes place on the shores of the Wannsee, a small lake situated on the outskirts of Berlin. In late spring and summer it is ringed by foliage, crossed by small ferries, and populated by beachgoers. But for Tomas Venclova, the location has an altogether different significance. As the poem unfolds, its long single stanza becomes an archaeological site. Unearthed from the layers of dirt at the poet's feet, evidence of one of the century's blackest events begins to surface. Specifically, the memory of a meeting that took place on January 20, 1942 at a lakeside villa that would come to be known as the Wannsee Conference House. There, in what is now viewed as a turning point in WWII, high-ranking Nazi officials gathered to consolidate policy for the extermination of Europe's Jews.

As Venclova's poem approaches the past's radioactive material, it picks up speed, piling up an avalanche of objects: "black photos . . . black headphones . . . black signatures"—artifacts that, as the stanza widens to accommodate them, create a funereal mound before the reader. At the poem's end, the poet identifies with the stubborn labor of the ragged crow that, like an augural sign from classical times, signifies "stoicism and patience." These two quintessentially Baltic values have long served Venclova as guides.

Venclova was born in 1937 in Klaipeda, Lithuania. His family was separated during the war, and his mother was briefly arrested. The war years and the subsequent Soviet occupation of Lithuania have great bearing on his work. Already in strong disagreement with the 1956 invasion of Hungary, in the seventies Venclova became involved in the Lithuanian and Soviet dissident movements. He was instrumental in opening up a dialogue about Lithuanian wartime anti-Semitism. These activities eventually resulted in a ban on publishing, exile in the West, and the stripping of his Soviet citizenship in 1977. "In the Lake " returns to the subject of an essay he wrote over thirty years ago: "Whoever sets apart a particular group of people . . . and considers himself spiritually in no way related to this group, in essence, is preparing a pogrom, concentration camp or totalitarian system." Venclova's crow will remind us of this, though we have reason to fear "it won't make us any wiser."

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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