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Alfonsas Andriuškevičius is a well-known art historian and one of the most interesting teachers at the Vilnius Academy of Arts, an original poet and a subtle essayist, an excellent translator of English and American poetry, and a laureate of the National Culture and Arts Prize. In poetry, he is an apt and precise minimalist who combines an elegiac quality with gentle irony. Andriuškevičius’ essays are intellectual, intertextual, and elegant. In them, the author often writes about the history of art and culture and about unexpected intersections.
 “Alfonsas Andriuškevičius’ essays and poetry have an ambivalent impact: his works both pierce and are decoded by intellect. Such uniqueness makes it a pleasure to read the prose and poetry by this author…” (Giedra Radvilavičiūtė).

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by Elžbieta Banytė

 

(On Alfonsas Andriuškevičius’s collection Beveik visi eilėraščiai. Vilnius: Apostrofa, 2015)

Beveik visi eilerasciai 2

Alfonsas Andriuškevičius is a versatile personality, an intellectual of the highest caliber, and a cultural figure, and how he is referred to depends on who is writing, thinking, or speaking about him. To an artist or an art historian, Andriušis, as he is called, is primarily the art critic who has shaped an entire school of criticism: one can argue with an authority of this level, but it is impossible to bypass or forget the lessons he has taught. He is, of course, a connoisseur of art, but he is also an ardent admirer and expert on literature, music, cinema, and Eastern cultures. To a literary historian, Andriuškevičius, is, undoubtedly, a writer. Yet even here he is multi-sided as he writes not only poetry, but prose, too. His collection of essays Rašymas dūmais (Writing in Smoke) was highly acclaimed by critics and readers alike. This  book, which speaks primarily about art and how art is written about, was mentioned as one of Andriuškevičius’s highest achievements, along with his other historical and critical works, when he was awarded the National Art and Culture Prize of 2007, the highest state award for artistic and cultural activities in Lithuania.

Therefore, I am experiencing the unavoidable weight of authority and a certain complex as well—what should I write? More importantly, how should I write it? The critic Andriuškevičius keeps hammering into everyone’s head that one should speak from one’s own perspective, and not from that of the impersonal know-all in an ivory tower. Criticism is also a form of art, and a critical text should also be a source of pleasure. And how strange it is now to write this review about one of the most prominent critics-cum-creators, with only my poor perspective in my head and the poetry collection Beveik visi eilėraščiai (Almost All Poems) before my eyes. The Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore recognized this collection as the most creative book of 2015. It contains texts from the five small collections already published (only nine were rejected) and another thirty that did not find their way into collections which, citing the author’s preface, “possess the quality of a poem.”  Therefore, the title, too, includes almost all poems: others might not be exactly poems, and those that are poems, well, maybe not all of them found their way into the book. There are not that many of them—around two hundred rather short texts. On a number of occasions the poet Andriuškevičius said that the poems were born in the head, where they were also edited, and only when they acquired their final shape did they settle on paper. The written text is seldom corrected, and only occasionally can it be rejected as poor. Such a method of writing inevitably condenses the text and throws off unnecessary ballast, while the frugal minimalist form of the poem enables creation in the head: these two things are unfailingly connected.

It is the semantic capacity that can attract a somewhat spoilt literary critic and an attentive reader. It would seem that the poetic world is very simple—trees, flowers, snow, stones, stars, water, autumn, leaves, lilacs… In other words, the classic, rather worn out, and spent nature lyric sprinkled with the sugar of classically sentimental images. And what about the diminutive forms: “augalėlis,” “geltonutės,” and “piramidukes,”[1] and the exclamations “ant,” “ak,” and “štai,”[2] which are totally alien to modern Lithuanian poetry and breathe the air of epochs past, from Donelaitis to the neo-romanticists? Yet sugar imparts not only sweetness: sometimes it crackles between the teeth, and this is the effect of these elements that are traditionally referred to as “banalities” or “pathos.” As they draw the text away from the reader’s daily experience, make the reader aware of the text as something fictitious and invented, and supply it with a hue of mockery and irony, Andriuškevičius’s poems often raise a faint smile.   Indeed, the sighs and whimpers in Lithuanian poetry are more often than not tragic, heavy, and colored by sorrow or resignation. In Andriuškevičius’s poetry, this somewhat ironic “ak” (oh) de-dramatizes and even de-heroizes. Should “a text about a text” reflecting these creative principles be singled out, I would probably choose this one: “Well, the snow, well, white, what is the point, well, as if just cast out of heaven. / Well, not from Troy, what is the point, well, not from the sooty Troy of the Trojans. / Well, without a hero, what is the point, well, without the sweaty, without the panting hero” (p. 171). To the subject of the text, heroism and the dramatic aspect deserve mockery. Heroic consciousness is boring: as Andriuškevičius has said himself, it wants some logical idea, a slogan, a catchword. Heroism rejects art and beauty as a self-contained value: if you make a sacrifice of yourself, if you are a hero, there must necessarily be some purpose, there must be an idea higher than the action as such and supported by the logical relation of cause and effect. The hero must act, which renders him “sweaty and panting,” and while Andriuškevičius’s lyrical subject is overcome by admiration, he is among nature and among culture, he is thinking and feeling, and yet his feelings are subtly masked.

It must be admitted that such an attitude towards heroism and “high ideals” should not arouse expectations that Andriuškevičius’s texts are just a beautiful and empty game with images of nature. In reality, it is poetry about ruthlessly passing time with all its aftertastes: changing and at the same time surviving culture, the human’s physical and spiritual being (“between death / and undeath there’s this gap of the present tense”). The individual is helpless (“We’ll dally without tears,” p. 92), but he is offered the possibility of appreciating the beauty of the moment and the mundane without rendering it banal or too sweet. The poems are highly visual. One can, of course, recall the author’s passionate love-hate relationship with art, but this visual nature mostly manifests itself not as intertextual references to works of art, but as a multitude of colors, shapes, and even of surrounding objects. Unlike the lyrical subject of the romanticist tradition, which searches for the reflections of the surroundings inside and colors the landscape with its freely flowing emotions, Andriuškevičius’s lyrical subject is not an emotional mouthpiece of feelings, but a slightly distant observer: to him, nature is interesting as an aesthetic object, and he discovers himself in the environment.  Nowhere in his poetry will the reader find such phrases as “I was sitting” or “I was feeling sad” —here it is “my soul,” and on the one hand it is obvious that the inner world is important, yet, on the other, even this inner world is looked at from a distance. The feelings are under control and compressed, like the vital energy of a plant—a frequent motif of this poetry—reduced to a tiny seed. There is hardly any manifestation of that “narcissistic self-injury / into oneself” (p. 25).  Such an approach is in fact unique in Lithuanian literature and can be compared only with that expressed in the works of Henrikas Radauskas and Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas.
 
De-dramatization and withdrawal are achieved not only through the abovementioned ironic exclamations and diminutive words, but also through parentheses, intruders uncharacteristic of poetry.  In addition, there occasionally emerge such academic or philosophical terms as a “percipient,” “to contemplate” and the like. In nature lyric, these hardly lyrical anti-poeticisms break through the shell of banality: if one can say so, they plant a toadstool among the lilacs, suspend the natural reading of a seemingly simple text, and destroy and reshape the reader’s expectations. The text acquires multiple meanings and layers; according to Umberto Eco’s theoretical division, it becomes open and enables a multitude of contradictory readings.  This “double bottom” seemingly hoists a red flag: do not hurry, O Reader, and delve into the text; do not read in a slapdash manner but allow your eyes and ears to linger and spot the de-dramatized but no less genuine and eternal tension between life and death, between nature and culture. The motif of God, destiny, and soul is important in the poems: their presence and significance are highlighted by the ability to admire the world when it is “greyer than the grey mouse’s grey hide” and to discern “those ruby, those Silvia Plath’s, those poppies…” (p. 165). The intertextual field is broad: Homer, Osip Mandelstam, Henrikas Radauskas, Bashō, Lao Dzi and others. It points to the orientation of Andriuškevičius’s poems—the classics, the canon, and the Far East, of course. Although the author does not observe the canon of the haiku or of any other Eastern genres, his leaning towards minimalism, painterliness, and the frugal and expressive line is obvious. In Lithuanian poetry, Alfonsas Andriuškevičius is a poet who organically blends his favorite Eastern motif into his texts: not as a decoration, but as a structure-imparting, essentially relevant principle of poetics.

Each poem, thus, is individual and highly characteristic of the author’s poetics; each poem is undoubtedly original in the context of Lithuanian literature yet firmly connected to the tradition and emanates (or breathes) its fragrance. It is like the snow that recurs so frequently in the book: it is light, fluffy, and beautiful, yet it bears—ironically and rather sadly—the stamp of the foot of Time (God, Fate…) that has passed or will pass, and is about to melt in the spring.  Such is the fate of the individual and even of culture: “If Homer’s Achaeans were to fill the autumn forest / even they would fail to defeat the falling leaves.” (p. 135).

 

1. Diminutive forms of the Lithuanian words augalas (Eng., a plant), geltona (Eng., yellow), piramidė (Eng., a pyramid).

2. Lith., ant - there (as in “there it is”), ak - oh, štai - here (as in “here it is”).

 

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