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Rimas Uzgiris is a poet, translator, editor and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, AGNI, Iowa Review, Hudson Review and other journals. He is translation editor and primary translator of How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets, compiler and translator of the Lithuanian section of New Baltic Poets (Parthian), translator of Caravan Lullabies by Ilzė Butkutė (A Midsummer Night’s Press), Then What by Gintaras Grajauskas (Bloodaxe), Now I Understand by Marius Burokas (Parthian), The Moon is a Pill by Aušra Kaziliūnaitę (Parthian), and of Vagabond Sun by Judita Vaičiūnaitė forthcoming from Shearsman. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, and the Poetry Spring 2016 Award for translations of Lithuanian poetry into other languages, he teaches translation at Vilnius University.

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Dainius Dirgėla, Decision made

by Rimas Uzgiris

 

Rimas Uzgiris A 03Photo by Benediktas JanuševičiusSome years ago, in a craft of writing class focused on the work of Toni Morrison, taught by Tayari Jones, we were discussing that prominent academic theme: post-colonialism. I raised the issue of whether Lithuania and other Eastern Bloc countries were post-colonial. It seemed to me that they were. The Soviet Union had forcibly integrated them into it’s imperial control, and had continued to maintain that integration through force. With the collapse of the USSR, these countries were free to determine their own fates. Many books were then published relating to life in the Soviet Union, and the meaning of new-found freedom. In Lithuania, for instance, the novels Tula and Vilnius Poker were issued and quickly became modern classics for their unflinching look at life in the late Soviet period (both expertly translated by Elizabeth Novickas and published by Pica Pica Press). Was this not post-colonial writing? Yet the class was stumped. It never occurred to them that former Eastern Bloc countries could be post-colonial. In American universities, the bogeymen of empire are Britain, the US, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Germany… i.e., those who colonized and oppressed people in Africa, South America, Asia… However, that Europe itself could contain colonized countries hadn’t seemed to have really registered in any place beyond specialized history departments. After all, what students heard about was European Hegemony, but by European, they understood the aforementioned countries, and the eastern half of the continent was rarely part of the discussion. This mattered to me because I was wondering if I, myself, was post-colonial in some way. True, I am white, male, heterosexual, Catholic-Raised, upper middle class… Not one of the oppressed. No, yet I never quite felt like I belong. My high school English teacher referred to me (speaking to my friend) as “that poor foreign boy”. My friend thought it was hilarious. I wasn’t sure what to think. In fact, I suspected it might be partly true. I was Rimas Uzgiris, not Rimas Užgiris, and not Ron Usegears or some such anglicization. My parents were immigrants, or rather, refugees. Their parents, children in tow, had fled the Soviet occupation under threat of deportation or death (one or the other for sure); they lived in displaced person camps in Germany for years. So I was the son of war refugees. Of course, there were others like me. But my brother Paulius was “Paul”. My friends Dainius and Tomas were “Dan” and “Tom”. I had a strange name. Could that be all there was to it? I doubt it, but whatever it was, I had something Other about me that did not reduce to race, creed or sexuality. My close friends in school were all children of immigrants, or Jewish kids who still carried their cultural difference. I then visited the Soviet Union, lived in the newly independent Lithuania, married a Lithuanian, got divorced, and after a long detour in philosophy departments, became serious about writing poetry. The issue of identity became one of my most prominent themes. So, I thought (with the youthful grandeur of one dreaming big), if Salmon Rushdie, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz are post-colonial writers, what about me? Are my poems post-colonial? This was the personal motive behind my question in the craft of writing seminar.

I have since discovered that Violeta Kelertas has edited a scholarly collection of essays entitled Baltic Postcolonialism. So it seems like a real thing, even if most scholars from Western Europe and North America don’t think about it. I also discovered that this question was not the fundamental one to me. A more pressing issue, buried beneath the post-colonial one, was of cultural belonging. Despite being born and raised in the States, I never felt especially American (whatever that might exactly be). The way my friendships and romantic relationships formed is testimony enough of that feeling’s real consequences. On the other hand, there is nothing that can make me feel more American at times than living in Lithuania. It’s strange, my parents were born here. My wife and children were born here. Lithuanian is my first language, but English is the language of my education. It is also the language of my work: I teach in English, I translate into English, and I write poems in English (American English from the north-east United States, to be more specific). So where do I belong? Where do my poems belong? Given the difficulty I sometimes have publishing Lithuanian-themed poems in America, and the ease with which they are published in translation here, I would say my poetry belongs here. On the other hand, they are written in English, American English, and their themes are also American, so they belong there.

Generally speaking, how can I be a Lithuanian writer writing in English? It is very hard indeed to belong to a national literature without writing in that nation’s primary language. Are there any examples of such? In the States, Junot Diaz writes in English, with Spanish phrases added. The Chicano and Nuyorican poets also use Spanish, but their primary language was still English. Czeslaw Milosz lived for decades in California, but he is from Lithuania and wrote in Polish (except for one poem he wrote in English). Joseph Brodsky lived in the United States for the last twenty-four years of his life, published English-language poetry there and was named poet-laureate. But can there be little doubt he won the Nobel Prize for his Russian-language poetry? His work in English, including his translations of his own poetry, is often (if I dare say it) tone deaf. Reading his translations of himself, I often want to snicker, but am not sure if I’m supposed to. His knowledge of English was impressive, but something was off. He knew the language from books. It lacked something from life. He was a Russian poet. Then again, to switch back to my previous example, Milosz has a poem included in Stephen Burt’s recent The Poem Is You: 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them. His is the only poem in translation included in the book. Was he then an American poet as well? And he is from Lithuania. He wrote about Lithuania. He called himself the last citizen of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. So maybe he is a Lithuanian poet as well? Perhaps Milosz belongs to three countries, and Brodsky to two (despite my reservations about his English). And then perhaps I belong to two as well (I mean, what can I do but follow in the footsteps of giants?).

We should also consider influence. (Of course, this does not apply to me.) Milosz had discernible influence on American poetry, not only in terms of his own poetry in translation (so fluently translated by the American poet Robert Hass), but also through his work in introducing Polish poetry to the US. Edward Hirsch devotes a whole chapter to modern Polish poetry in his How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. Brodsky had an impact on the American poetry scene, and was named poet-laureate twice, giving him the highest platform in the land from which to disseminate poetry. Undoubtedly, without their residency in the US, influence would not be enough to make them American poets. Rimbaud and Neruda were influential in the development of American poetry, but no one considers them American (in the narrow sense). Milosz and Brodsky were American (and Polish and Lithuanian and Russian), though their best work was not written in English.

There are two other poets I would like to consider: Derek Walcott and Paul Celan. The latter began his publishing career in Romania, writing in Romanian. German was, literally, his mother tongue. After his parents were murdered by the Nazis, he switched to German, despite the pain it caused him. The German language felt like home, yet he never lived in a German speaking country, spending the last decades of his life in France. To what national literature does he belong? Derek Walcott is from St. Lucia, yet he spent much of his life in the United States. He problematized his relationship with St. Lucia in his poems. How can we not recall his famous lines from “The Schooner Flight”, spoken by his persona Shabine (and quoted by Junot Diaz in an epigram to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao):

I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,
I had a sound colonial education,
I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,
and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.

I am Lithuanian. I am American. My poems in translation have been selected for the Lithuanian language section of the Poetry Spring anthology. Somebody thinks I belong here. That may have to do as far as identity goes. In the end, I am not sure how much this identity issue should matter. Was that infamous colonialist Christopher Columbus Italian, Spanish or Portuguese? He never said. He never seemed to care. Was the revolutionary scientist Copernicus German or Polish? He never said. He never seemed to care. Perhaps all this identity talk is too rooted in blood and soil. I am a part of Western Civilization. I received my PhD in Ancient Greek philosophy. I have studied French and Spanish (besides Ancient Greek). I am fluent in English and Lithuanian. I have roots in America’s Northeast (a New Englander and a New Yorker both, if that’s possible). I have roots in Lithuania through my family and through my contemporary life. I see myself as part of a cultural tradition rooted in Ancient Greece and (despite my agnosticism I must admit) Israel/Palestine as well. Yet, I do sometimes feel a need for more than this. I need to see the distant blue peaks of the Adirondacks outside my window, to walk down Vilnius’ winding medieval streets looking up at their Baroque facades, to feel the rush of New York, the Met and the Met, to dance tango at Salon Canning in Buenos Aires, to gaze at the Aegean from Parthenon heights, to smell the salt marshes of Cape Cod at night… all these fragments at once, in the same place, at the same time. Then I would be home. But can we call such fragments home?

Rimas Uzgiris, PhD, MFA
Vilnius University

 

 

 

 

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