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Vytautas Ališauskas (b. 1957) is a professor, diplomat, author of numerous scholarly studies and, most recently, a poet. He graduated from the Faculty of Philology of Vilnius University in 1982 and began his academic career in the same year; he became docent in 2012, and professor in 2018. Vytautas Ališauskas was a member of the Sąjūdis movement and later was Lithuania’s Ambassador to the Holy See and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta during 2008–2012. Ališauskas has been awarded several notable awards, including the Independence Medal of Lithuania (2000) and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas (2003). In 2019, Ališauskas published his first poetry book Jono Naujoko eilės (“John Freshman’s Verses”) – a collection of poems that span nearly a decade of writing, some of which have been sporadically published in periodicals or on Facebook, and all of which are signed under different pseudonyms.

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Virgilijus Šonta, Flight, 1978. From the MO Museum collection

Poems from the poetry book “John Freshman’s Verses”

 

Now for the sake of caution, I must warn the dear reader not to fall for this particular ruse, and that the persuasively written footnotes are part of the act as well. Vytautas Ališauskas’s recent collection of poems – Jono Naujoko eilės (“John Freshman’s Verses”) presents us with layers of artificial authorship: the author operates under the collective pseudonym of John Freshman (yes, an intentional English travesty of the already fictive Lithuanian name “Jonas Naujokas”). He offers a series of verses either written by Mr. John Freshman or translated by him from several other obscure poets. This is, of course, all original content by the one true author.

 

A CONVERSATION FROM ONE’S YOUTH
Freely translated from Cavafy by w. cz.

Can a Jew be a philosopher? –
he asked, crumbling bread between his fingers –
To believe in the one maker of heaven and earth,
to regard the stars as mere lanterns,
to reject the sun’s godly nature,
and simultaneously
ponder the Good that surpasses Being, or to see
how the whole of reality flows from one origin
like a river from an underground lake
of which the waters are dark…

I hadn’t heard the last words because of the racket,
we were sitting in a tavern, around us clamored
the usual guests:
astrologists killing time before nightfall,
merchants having imbibed royal purple,
Persians cramming down rabbit, rascals
(Dioscorides, the local cook, called them that)
and a sea captain with another two wenches
(as if he didn’t sense he would get robbed again)
but the uproar was growing –
from a Gnostic friend I had known that Noise,
copulating with Heat
gives birth to Elation, and Elation with Solitude
gives birth to Desire, and she herself gives birth to Ruin,
the children of whom we all are –

can a Jew be a philosopher?
why should I know?
even though I’m already fourteen, I don’t know
any Jew, I haven’t met a single philosopher,
and I haven’t read much –
in school, the sixth book of the Illiad, a funny one,
where Hector’s little boy starts to weep
startled by the crest of his father’s helmet, I’ve also perused a dream dictionary,
now I’m reading a book –
oddly titled,
I think, ευαγγελιον κατα μαθθαιον.
He asked me after the third glass: one more, the last one?
but maybe we’ve had enough? If Alcibiades
hadn’t got them all so drunk that night
maybe we would’ve known now
how Beauty by itself
being in itself always the same form
could be viewed not with the eyes of the body
and embraced…

And here I realized what he was saying,
that the Gnostic once told me that Plato
has written a book in which he teaches
philosophers, such as this man here,
to love boys, I think, such as myself,
but to sleep holding them
as a father
would hold his son
(Dioscorides would laugh upon hearing this).

Well, the last one’s the last one… we looked at each other –

...........
I met him near the Library yesterday…
how many years has it been?
"Plotinus," I called,
but he didn’t hear, perhaps didn’t recognize me,
or maybe he was once again trying to observe Beauty.
Well, had he heard me, what would I have told him then?
That the Gnostics were wrong, for Solitude
bears only Solitude and not Desire?
That a believer in the maker of heaven and earth
cannot really become a philosopher?
Or that I haven’t read the scroll that he handed me
the next morning as I walked out into the scalding light of the godly sun?

I read some other things later, though:
The Psalms, Paul’s letters to Thecla,
The Acts of the Martyrs,
and, written by some Origèn,
the Homilies on Genesis. Not much, maybe,
but for a bishop of a provincial town
that is really enough.

 

THE POLISH NOBLE
JAN ŁASICKI RECOUNTS
how in the year of our Lord 1582 he met
the royal surveyor Jakub Łaskowski

Nikodem Mikoszka

The sky’s clear – it’s early October,
there’s cobwebs all around Vilnius.
And I tell him: our servant, a Lithuanian girl,
Ona, a Catholic,
worships the spiders, forbids us to strike them, for
‘a curse you shall bring on the house, sir.’
And the worst part? The wife listens to her.
Funny women, they’re always Catholic.

And my wife’s already with God, but I’ve no idea which one.
Such a number of Gods in our time
and each of them different:
the God of the Arians, and Zwingli’s, and Calvin’s,
and of the Jesuits, too, but the Franciscans hate them
and apparently have a God of their own.
To be a Tatar is better perhaps
and to worship the One Most Supreme,
the one Samogitians call
Aukštėjas.

But it’s hard to tell much how the Samogitians praise him:
“Just the one,” I’ve been told,
“what good is one to us;
look at the bees – it’s good when they’re plentiful.
Can he oversee it all – the world’s so vast, anyhow,
and the days are getting shorter and shorter…”

When I was still employed by the king
(I’ve received for my toil a couple of hamlets near Plãteliai),
I used to talk to the peasants:
are the storks back,
has the sowing begun, is the daughter happily married,
does the full moon really
arouse the wish
to be close to a woman –
and they tell me
that Pizius and Goda,
both old and shaking from age,
incite the craving in men
and coax wives
to boldly seduce the men to bed,

But Priparšis guides the boar to the gilt,
Medeinė – the buck to the doe,
well, and the earth becomes fertile
when laukpačiai start to chase after žemynos.
A few weeks later you see the fall of the leaves,
darkness descends – there’s just roads covered in snow,
murk, and gloom. A nightly sprite or Bezdukas
could pay one a visit at least.

The Gods we’ve counted to be seventy-two.
Precisely the number of pupils sent by our Lord
to preach the Good News.
Battle so ruthless we’d see if a man would stand
against man, in the words of Homer.
I happened to see something similar
in Paris, when the Catholics
not unlike demons charged at our men.
We put up a good fight,
but there was just too much blood.
Luckily, they didn’t know
that I am a Huguenot…

Yes, seventy-two of them
and another two of those strange inventors of dye,
colorful like the trunk of an old plane tree –
they’re many in Geneva
along the lake: nobody
there believes that the lake has its own deity
waiting under a rock
for the rascals to come for a dip
and then…

“… then screaming they run,
and the poor mothers think
these to be pranks done by Kirnis…”

The sky’s clear alright,
but here dawn comes early.
“Is the Kind Sir
not tired,” I asked,
“of conversing with peasants
for so many years
and hearing how in a forest somewhere
somebody saw
the Ragainė?”

“Strong stuff, this Vilnius mead.
It’s time for me
to head home…

… with whom could’ve I spoken instead?
with the hedgehogs and the shrews?
or maybe like that
old woman in Seda
who spoke with
her doorpost?”

Yes,
I then realized
that as soon as
tomorrow comes, I must
write it all down.

 

These several poems, translated by John Freshman from Polish (orfeusz; Szlachcic polski Jan Łasicki prawi o tym, jak w Roku Pańskim 1582 spotkał się z królewskim mierniczym Jakubem Łaskowskim; „Rozmowa z młodości“, wolny przekład z Kawafisa, tłum. w. cz.; Przechadzki), were included in an anthology published in Rome (U progu: utwory wileńskich poetów, Rzym: Teka poetycka, 1976). Nothing more could be learned of the poets; it is most likely that these were written by the same author using several pseudonyms.

 

POETRY
John Freshman

All who consider themselves to be poets
Must write some verses about writing poetry:
How important and what a curse it is to sing
Of the sea, the wind, a girl’s hair, and the moonlight,
Of the rose petals falling on the beloved’s grave,
Of mother earth, who wails when the peasant
Slashes her wide chest with a plough,
And of one’s native language – its sweetness and treachery,
How it snares you mid-sentence and prevents you from
Moving at all. Frozen, you think of carrying on
With the phrase but can’t find the right synonym, alliteration,
Anaphora, the proper stress, or the word that expresses
The fear of old age or the thrumming of rain,
And upon finding it you’re suddenly shy, as if it happened
For the very first time.

What’s there to add for those who consider themselves to be poets?
That they write verses about writing poetry
When they cannot write of the sea, the wind, a girl’s hair,
And the moonlight any longer? Not even of the peasant and the native land - - -
For all things have turned into words, tasteless, scentless,
Formless, sensationless, meaningless, even wingless.
Staying silent is all that is left then,
Or writing verses about writing poetry. As
A real poet ought to.

 

TIME

Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quærat, scio.
Augustinus, Confess. XI, 14.17

John Freshman

Perhaps the evening is final –
and there won’t be any more
evenings
nor dawns, and the night will
be just a gap between a day and a day:

not even time shall remain anymore
(I once thought this to be
mere philosophers’ ravings):
for there is no future yet
and the past is no longer
(was it ever at all?),

and if we’re alive,
in the present, here only
we seek those who would mind us,
touch our hands passing by,
or let us love them,
or at least agree to detest us,

eternity then would get closer
encircling us
with the smell of coffee and dust,
with the rotting leaves’ rustle,
along Paupio Street and its curve,
and it would seem that we really are –

but the present’s not real after all,
amid two nights it is but a gap
when we have nothing to do,
and thus sometimes we call for
God, or we look through the window
and wait

for winter to end.

 

 

*AVEC ‘LE JUDGEMENT DE PÂRIS’ DE FRANÇOIS-XAVIER FABRE
Yiorgos Roustavidis

a boy shamelessly lovely
and shamelessly nude in the meadows,
an apple in hand, beside him stand
three aging ladies.

too young to wed, but who could
refuse such a deal,
for a mere apple to get,
the most beautiful woman in Greece.

and the most beautiful
war: just to be able to see
the rank of demigods clad
in radiant bronze – you’d certainly give

not only an apple, which was not
even yours to begin with,
you’d give your very own helmet,
and even your tassets: what are they for,

when the most beautiful woman in Greece
calls you to lie in her bed, which has already
sopped up enough sweat from both bodies
that it stuns more than myrtles and laurels.

and when you slumber, having
enjoyed Aphrodite’s gift yet again,
Hera will bend above you herself
and whisper straight in your ear:

I, too, won’t stay in your debt –

soon enough your
shamelessly lovely body will
be enjoyed by the most beautiful
war.

Yiorgos Roustavidis, a Greek writer with Georgian roots from the first half of the 20th century, had spent his youth in Paris, later in Athens, then again in Paris, and finally, stricken with melancholy and a bad drinking habit, died in some Greek town that does not exceed the livings standards of Kėdainiai (not even Elžbieta Banytė was able to identify it). Up to that point, he was known for a very mediocre patriotic novel about the Greek struggle for independence wherein a role was also played by Lord Byron. Yiorgos was brought to fame when his poems were discovered posthumously. True, this had happened only around 1955, when his verses were translated from Greek to English. From that translation there were certain parts that I’ve attempted to Lithuanize, as they used to say in the times of Auszra. – J. F.

 

 

Ruminations and Dreams: Vytautas Ališauskas and His Authors

The multiple authors are the first feature of Ališauskas’s poetic style that does not go unnoticed. It cannot be said that the true author “hides” behind any of his multiple pseudonyms, but one could make a point that these different authors are utilized to group the different poems based on their style or subjects. The Polish corpus seems to be marked by more scholarly poems; Mr. Freshman is characterized by more introspective and abstract themes; Yiorgos Roustavidis, defined as a Greek author, really happens to follow Grecian literary models. Then again, there are some poems that defy any such rigid categorization. It must be noted that this collection contains verses that span nearly a decade; one can only guess whether the different authors define particular periods within this time, marking some shift in style or subject. Or, for example, that they separate the (implied?) author into separate personas. Moreover, it is unclear whether Ališauskas endorses Barthes and his concept of the dead author. Whatever the case, the way how Ališauskas subverts the author-text relationship is by itself amusing and offers a novelty within the context of modern Lithuanian poetry.

It must be said that a large part of the subject matter is, well, for want of a better word, bookish. But it is treated in a very lively and intimate, even romantic manner, and it makes the subject matter, or the context of those poems, more approachable. For example, the ironic dialogue in Polish Noble Jan Łasicki… makes the religious realities of pagan Lithuania interesting. In A Conversation from One’s Youth, no matter how ample and detailed and emphasized, the Hellenistic cultural landscape still only serves as a backdrop for the relationship of two friends. Another poem, Avec ‘Le Judgement De Pâris’…, which is essentially a hazy and light-hearted reconstruction of the tale of the judgment of Paris, the Greek myth that describes the origins of the Trojan War, is stripped of all mythological sublimity. The rest of the poems are more or less also littered with various allusions and references to ancient authors, and while this may limit the immersion of a reader not particularly sophisticated, it does give one aware of these contexts a sense of familiarity and of course marks the whole poetic style of Ališauskas with signature refinement. So, it is understandable if one calls Ališauskas a snobbish poet, a poet who abuses his caliber as a scholar, or, worse, one who hides behind thick curtains of historical and philosophical context. But such a statement would be too hasty and would serve no justice to the simplicity hidden in these verses.

The more introspective poems are marked by a descent into the deepest chambers of the poet’s conscious mind. The author does not state or teach, but talks and reasons – mainly with himself – and the reader is allowed to participate. Ruminations and dreams come to the fore. The sensation of solitude, and perhaps sadness, becomes most apparent here; however, there is no pervading sense of gloom or despair, since the author is content with his position and that of the world around him. The (self-)irony in Poetry is like a Whac-A-Mole but with poets who consider either themselves or the very definition of poetry too seriously. Time, indeed like time itself, combines a sense of dread – dread for things to come, or dread felt when one imagines the things that will begin when time ends – with the sensation of a fleeting moment, which is realized using fast, laconic verses. These verses open a landscape of emotion and thought, which, considering the other previously discussed bookish poems, makes it hard for us to place the author in the realm of the strictly “intellectual” poets who chase only after classical models.

Despite the deception of authorship, the general feeling of the poems is very intimate. Although the tone and subject matter are very sophisticated, they are anything but distant or lofty. When reading the poetry of Ališauskas, one is overwhelmed with a feeling of melancholy, tasteful sarcasm, and an appreciation of the finer things in life. The reader is embraced on a level both intellectual and sensuous, and this shows us the creative amplitude of the poet. This is V. Ališauskas’s first poetry book, so it is technically a debut, yet it’s difficult to call it that. Considering the fact that some of the poems were previously published in literary journals and even on Facebook, and knowing that Vytautas Ališauskas is an esteemed scholar, a Professor at the Faculty of Philology of Vilnius University, author and editor of many books, and then also keeping in mind that these poems cover a creative period of almost a decade, it seems a little odd to call Ališauskas a debutant. Nevertheless, if the formalities still force us to regard this as a debut, then we may only congratulate the poet on a very great one.

 

 

Translation and essay by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

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