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Photo by Dainius Dirgėla

by Neringa Butnoriūtė

 

Just recently, contemplating the newest Lithuanian poetry, I thought of how it accustoms us, persistently, to remember imagination. This means that for a while, poems were dominated by the challenges of life and recurrent descriptions of marginal experiences, which were interpreted by the means of aesthetization and creation of an alternative worldview for them. In order to convey them, unexpected figures of speech would often be sought, as well as a distinct immortal reality, suitable for revealing an intense and symbolic spirituality. The speaker would therefore seem like something astral—a lionhearted experiencer looking for empathy, whereas the poems would be placed parallel with the modernist assertions of the last century. Apt to define them were flashes of wisdom and terms heavy with philosophy (e.g. “being,” “everything,” and “nothing”). At times, poetry seemed like it could become a repository of cultural and topographical memory, as one is inclined to nurture personal experience through contact with culture, often obediently and responsibly. Poems that did nothing more than question the ars poetica principle were also hardly surprising. They aimed at saying a great deal of things through laconic verse, which would be constructed from unexpected perspectives of daily life, specific linguistic “enlightenments” and “coincidences.” All of this speaks of the diversity of Lithuanian poetry and its concern for measuring eternal problems, for experimenting, and weightily exploring the width of the linguistic imagination. However, it also witnesses poetry’s inclination towards refusing to acknowledge the relevance of today.

This year’s debuts challenge these tendencies in their delivery. Although several directions can be distinguished, the biographical quality of the texts as well as authentic and/or anonymous experiences are becoming undeniably stronger.

Lina Buividavičiūtė’s first book, Helsinkio sindromas (Helsinki Syndrome) is associated with the phrase “life as it is.” This indicates a way of telling the truth, which helps to define both the topics of writing and the form of honest expression. Helsinki Syndrome references Stockholm syndrome, a mental phenomenon when a victim, in the face of danger, still develops an attachment to his or her tormenter. This book calls up unpleasant psychoanalysis sessions, where confrontations with the self take place. The endeavor to fulfil one’s best self, a conscious self-image (for instance, the one shown in photographs or on the cover of the book) battles the authentically feeling personality, who is only learning to “live life as it is.” The speaker’s “self” inspects human nature, at once personal and collective: broken apart by the social and cultural expectations it experiences. A consistent, thoroughgoing identity is unattainable, and this results in numerous side effects (mania, infidelity, low self-esteem and playing the victim, depression and destructive tendencies), transferred from one generation to the next. Buidavičiūtė’s poetic texts become a dense network of repressed experiences.

The poet has stated that the “battle in language” and accumulating the “condensate of essence” function as a therapeutic confession. The intentionally extensive nature of the texts should initiate a universal recognition. A tribute to universality, this kind of subjective experience would not normally seem like a new idea in literature, but Buividavičiūtė’s poetry demonstrates a different direction for such delivery. Where marginal experiences and motifs of death and pain have effortlessly become the norm for romanticized suffering and self-sacrifice, Buividavičiūtė’s open, depressive texts declare that human darkness in poetry can be real instead of symbolic due to a traumatized mind; meanwhile, common literary images act merely as a provocation, as well as possible and sometimes reshaped examples of deviation. This also determines the choice of artistic devices: prosaic, humanized language and inclination to witness, “normalization” without taboos turn into criticism of the public discourse, which promotes personalities who are “themselves” from their perfect side, as well as of the encouragement of perfectionism and positive thinking. Perhaps this is the reason why Helsinki Syndrome, with its topics revealing what a common member of society wishes to conceal and regards as weakness, seems drastic and invigorating.

Another important aspect is that the problem is made relevant by the voice of a self-destructive woman (a mother, a wife) who speaks about it. And from this perspective, the speaker’s worldview is at odds with the cookie cutter descriptions of femininity in literature, which is another impulse that triggers the subject’s crisis. Femininity would be commonly represented through the function of reincarnation, intermediacy, childbearing, and inspiration, enfolded in the motifs of kindness and admiration in poetry (this can be noticed in Lithuanian folklore, too, as well as in poetry written by men). The latest Lithuanian women’s poetry is, increasingly often, demystified, denying the standards and images of the depiction of women: spirituality is physicalized, infidelity is publicized, and smothered rituals of motherhood or childbirth are expressed.

In her debut book Antrininkė (The Double), Virginija Kulvinskaitė (Cibarauskė) doesn’t go into questioning stereotypical aspects of gender altogether. Well known in the field of literature, this literary critic made her debut under her maiden name, which no longer legally exists, and only published an electronic version of her book, thus challenging the linkage to confessional poetry and autobiography. Nevertheless, this problem reflects the idea of The Double. The book is written in the manner of a documentary of a young woman’s life from the memories of her childhood to her thirty-first birthday. But it isn’t truly a typical self-representation, only a selected poetic form: the story is delivered in disguise—using the first-person perspective and remaining distant, the poet can comment, speak in two voices at once, be a construct.

Despite the fact that The Double is written as the life account of a young woman, there is also no typical narrative of “womanhood” to it that would fit the representation of life of a thirty-year-old. The axis of the texts is a reflection of experiences much more universal—the relationship with language, the eternal bond between love and death, and the parallel between them, while the approach to them is an aesthetization of violations. Displayed as a part of the speaker’s identity is soft, throbbing destruction (“I turn it: <...>” / worms / yellow like pearls // are glued on me”). The prosaic way of speaking about death and decay along with playful, negligent rhyme does not allow the poetry seem like it’s meant to shock, even when it touches upon cruelty. There’s no more “hope and imagining // that it is possible / to leave the body,” while the manifestations of death are empirical by nature: shape and skin are sought for them, it draws near to the point of empathy—it’s tried on like a glove.

Literary focuses established in Kulvinskaitė’s texts are either turned upside down or omitted: “self” is replaced by the aforementioned idea of duality (the author published her book under a pen name, dissociating herself from it and establishing her image at the same time), and the mother is presented in place of authoritative father but doesn’t support the stereotype of the functions that they perform. Death is spoken about from life instead of from the supposed beyond (for a while this used to be the mainstream of Lithuanian poetry); the expression of memory and experience, while displaying very strong subjectivity, is also decreased in its meaning, directed at the reader. Besides, while claiming a poet-centric position to be foreign to her, the poet generally writes literature-centric texts, where situations and depictive stereotypes that have appeared in literature are commented on and imitated by supposed biographical narrative. Without knowing this, however, the poetic text remains powerful, as the very consistent Double does not declare anything or propose anything ostentatiously.

In his first book Apie reiškinius (On Phenomena), Dovydas Grajauskas also criticizes the prevailing discourse and mindset. In most of his texts, daily life is observed through language, to great effect, but slips out of the confines of solely literary problems: invoking communication with regulations, clichés that dominate the public discourse, serving at once as targets and topics for discussion. Surely, nothing is eternal, and the supposedly everlasting numbers and values—often used in order to create the proportion of power and to lecture on morals (this is what scriptures do, as well)—express themselves subjectively in truth. On Phenomena attempts to view everything in a manner that’s realistic instead of condescending: as theories (words) differ from practice (actions), metaphorical language is not utilitarian, and poetry becomes a space to highlight this aspect. It’s no surprise that spiritual practice and ephemerality is replaced by rational reasoning, while religious situations are “belittled” and rated wittily by the laws of modern earthly living. On Phenomena is dedicated to various villains and scoundrels, rebelling against hypocrisy and conformism, which resonate in language and cleverly create irony in various responses.

Grajauskas’s poetry is, in general, performative, impressive, patterned—it can take the shape of a re-constructed folk song or a humorous pop tune all the rage among the inert, small-minded social class, everything but “highbrow” poetry. Instead of writing in allusions or contemplating, he prefers to state, vigorously, to point a finger or simply to react in a straightforward way: he keeps away from metaphorical language, which is the object of his criticism, at the same time exploiting the means that it provides, like a chameleon. For instance, pathos and the like are viewed productively, according to the function, as it is invoked to accentuate the pathos itself. Grajauskas’s On Phenomena is a light and playful read, although the poetry is not made more primitive by this. It’s just that daily life is ironic and presented as such, and the debut author has a clear position.

Buividavičiūtė, Kulvinskaitė, and Grajauskas, combining confession with dialogue and dialogue with irony in their debut books don’t appear bookish or sentimental in the slightest. In their texts, a sense of possible subjectivity and social content are dissociated from the problems of language. This is a charming paradox: increasingly often, word signifies action in poetry and encourages playfulness, as it proclaims precisely what it is meant to say.

 

 Translated by Kotryna Garanashvili

 

 

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