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Benediktas Januševičius is a poet and translator, and a tireless chronicler, cameraman and photographer of Lithuanian literary life. He is one of the most curious language experimenters in Lithuania. He started with punk surrealist poems and created poem-objects and is now exploring the possibilities of language and sounds. His urban lexicon is embellished with jargon and “street” language. According to the counter-culture activist Darius Pocevičius, “Having consistently examined the oberiuts, the dadaists, the surrealists, the Vienna School, Fluxus, the minimalists, the conceptualists, and finally, the Lithuanian ‘Four Winds’ figures, and having let them filter through his archetypically Lithuanian peasant brain, Benukas [the diminutive form of Benediktas] has succeeded in fending off the school of rigid decadent Lithuanian poetry.”

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Benediktas Januševičius, Žodžiai (Words) eilėraščiai. Vilnius: Žiemos žodžiai, 2016

Benediktas Janusevicius review 02

To many, the texts of Benediktas Januševičius appear lightweight, draw laughter or raise a smile. No wonder the impression or sound catches up with you first, for his texts seemingly invite you for a chat and trigger a multi-sided understanding: since words envelop the image and the sound and are mostly performed, this poetry seeks the attention of the audience by transforming the reader into a listener or a spectator.  For those who wish to become readers again, the impression is taken up by Januševičius’s own original book design, which simultaneously points to the adaptation to and independence from publishing formats. His texts are set and composed in an old-fashioned manner: by a typewriter or written by hand, and the meaning of some of them is determined by an individual visual layout. Januševičius’s recent texts have contributed to the Lithuanian movement of slam poetry, which is based on on-stage improvisation (his texts can be found in the book Slemas Lietuvoje! [Slam in Lithuania!, 2012]), as much those by Žygimantas Kudirka, who has already been presented in Vilnius Review. Januševičius, however, has not distanced himself from the field of Lithuanian literature: he takes part in poetry festivals, was awarded the Jaunasis Jotvingis prize in 2007, and is a video and photo chronicler of contemporary Lithuanian literature at http://tekstai-tv.lt/.

Januševičius’s poetry is referred to as experimental and akin to concrete, or shape, poetry. There are shifts in his texts, from visual (“0+6. Eilėraščiai-daiktai” [0+6. Poems-things, 2006]) to acoustic poetry composed in the avant-garde tradition (“Kiškis kiškiškaikiškena” [RabbitRabbiRabbiting, 2008]), from his trust in sound to conceptual thinking. His latest book Žodžiai (Words, 2016) brings his versatile creative experience together. The originality of Januševičius’s poetry manifests itself in the already-mentioned skill of striking a contact with the ostensible addressee, or maybe an inner monologue. The ability to speak and to define the world in words is the first and the most important opportunity to stir up the text (“let’s talk,” “speaking about freedom is not simple today,” “I would like to say something about time”); it is an effective way to make an impact on others. Each text openly emphasizes that it is an outcome of language. The lingering impression is that in Januševičius’s work it is not the subject but the word that speaks and depicts, assumes a position in space, and seemingly lives its life. An innocent question turns into a declarative command, a persuasion, or an assertion, and acquires existential load. The topic of the conversation is also “about something” (“Žodžiai” [Words], “Apie laisvę” [On freedom]); a text reflects itself (“this text may not have an end or maybe a beginning,” as in the poem “Neįgalus eilėraštis” [A disabled poem]), or is associated with characteristics of expression or Lithuanian word formation (“Senas laikrodis” [An old clock], “Traukinių istorijos” [The stories of trains]). The whole is wrapped up in the attempt to exploit the human’s predilection for metaphorical speaking, to question—in an ironic manner—the symbols and directions of values (such as freedom or equality), and social issues relevant to the nation or the individual, to address substances (time), or to adequately verbalize emotions. Januševičius’s poetry points out—yet again—that words are associated with thinking, that they are the makers of power and opinion and disclose social roles. It also points out that language is an issue and a separate world to each poet or writer.

Although today poets are no longer standard-bearers or prophets, Januševičius’s speaker transforms himself into a friend, a guru, or a mentor. He communicates in an ordinary and playful manner and about daily things; he can be unnoticeable or drastically interferes, yet he is always a curious observer and an active language user. His power lies in rhetoric, repetitions, and multiple meanings. Yet unlike a personal guru confidently dispensing instructions, he makes you realise that there is no finite answer about the world as there is no one single truth (“thus let us see for ourselves if it’s worth living thus—like quiet grey / little black puddings live” [“Little black puddings”]; “they’ve all overtaken me because I am somewhat confused today” [“Words”]). What remains? The same basic questions. That is why Žodžiai can be described as fun poetry about the search for meaning.

Januševičius reflects and tries to perceive the world and sometimes experiences directly the consequences of limited language. Omniscience (often amiable-sounding from stage) looks superficial and too obvious in the flow of words and thus reveals banality, existing meaninglessness, and excess. Doubt and deconstruction of what he already knows are important to the poet. It should be noted that Januševičius does not disassemble: he resolves to create an alternative in this direction and to act according to the existing grammar rules. Having gone through different stages in his creative work—decomposition of words, creation of neologisms—Januševičius now pays more attention to the expansion of internal links and existing meanings. Therefore, when reading Žodžiai it seems that language playfully reflects and extends reality, while the text is a situation in which something always happens. Paradoxically, Januševičius succeeds in combining depths with varied and easily readable texts.

In poetry, thus, the word surpasses the purpose of the object or “construction material.” It is much more complex and creative: not only does it undertake the function of the ornament of feelings, a comparison, or “painting in words,” but it lives in the text as a fully-fledged participant (for example, “time is passing” turns into “a clock is strolling on the table”). The source has not been exhausted yet. In our daily life one observes artefacts of a “dead” language common to different cultures (different obsolete structures, media-promoted catchwords, conceptual metaphors), literary fiction that constantly verifies its “life,” and, frequently, Lithuanian poetry that updates the language, creates new symbols, and imparts meaning to some phenomenon or other (Januševičius chooses lines of other authors for epigraphs, sometimes writes texts in their manner, or recreates it). They are intertextual as they simultaneously echo inner literary associations when a text turns into a reality and a creative impulse. This encourages both the evaluation of daily life and of the field of literature, and the assertion that everything is alive.

Januševičius’s vivid language and its fracturing bring him close to the interwar avant-garde poets, although his texts do not prove their method outdated or worthless and, consequently, their result more primitive. Januševičius writes good concrete poetry and remains disciplined, meaningful, and comprehensible. No doubt, his work poses a challenge to translators because a syllable, a sound, or a recurrent notion, just as the overall tone of the text, can be untranslatable at times. Yet if we assume that the qualities of language demonstrate a close understanding of culture, the language will offer an effective game and linguistic solutions.

 

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