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Ilzė Butkutė (b. 1984) is a poet. She studied photojournalism, and worked seven years in advertising. Her first book of poetry, Karavanų lopšinės (Caravan Lullabies) won the Zigmas Gaidamavičius-Gėlė Prize in 2011 for most significant debut and it was listed among the twelve most creative books of the year. She wrote (and published in 2013) a practical guide for workers oppressed by their employers, Atleisk savo šefa (Fire Your Boss). In 2014, her second book of poetry was published, Karnavalų mėnuo (Carnival Moon). Her poems have been translated into English, French, German, Russian, Latvian, Ukrainian, Catalonian and Basque. Currently, Ilzė works in the field of creative and personal development.

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Ilze Butkute review 2Ilzė Butkutė broke onto the Lithuanian literary scene in 2011 with Caravan Lullabies, winning the Zigmas Gėlė prize for best debut and making it into the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore’s list of 12 most creative books of the year. Her poems exemplified a sonorous lyricism, lush with metaphor, that fit easily into the Lithuanian poetic tradition. In this sense, then, she stands apart from some of her peers who have dispensed with lyricism altogether. Aušra Kaziliūnaitė fragments her lines and inserts sharp associative breaks, giving the work a surreal effect. Giedrė Kazlauskaitė writes poetry with a sentence style more akin to prose, albeit imbued with rigorous thought and allusion. Butkutė, like her peer Indrė Valantinaitė, continues a lyrical tradition of writing about love from a woman’s perspective (their most exemplary predecessor in this being Judita Vaičiūnaitė, and Lithuanian poetry, it must be said, has long been dominated by the male perspective). Butkutė, however stands out from this tradition in the way in which the lyrical “I” is often positioned in opposition to traditional roles and subjects. She often sees herself as an “outsider” while writing in the style of the “insider”. Her penchant for describing herself as loving both cats and motorcycles is quite apt here. She is a tough, modern non-conformist and a tender, traditional woman at the same time.

Her second book, Carnival Moon, was not as well received, possibly because it represented a return to traditional lyricism with less of the frisson of alternative perspectives for the lyrical “I”. Interestingly though, the best poems from the second collection are among her strongest overall and do engage with what we might call “outsiders”. “Lullaby for Rachel”, a poem selected for the UK Poetry Periscope Project, speaks in the voice of a Litvak father who has left a note for his daughter during the holocaust; “Companion” sensitively encompasses a lonely boy in a wheelchair, while “I Was the Night” is a lyrical riff on Patti Smith’s famous line: “Because the night belongs to lovers”.

We can also see this dual effect of insider lyricism with outsider content in the titles of her collections, Caravan Lullabies and Carnival Moon. On the one hand, both evoke prototypical lyrical motifs with reference to lullabies and the moon, thereby positioning Butkutė within the long (undying) tradition of the Lithuanian neo-romantic lyric. On the other hand, both position themselves decidedly outside of the Lithuanian context with their reference to caravans and carnival. We have, then, a confluence of the exotic Other and standard lyrical tropes that easily find their home in Lithuanian poetry. The titles are fitting, for, in this way, they reveal the inherent tensions in her work between Other and Same, between tradition and change, between insider and outsider.

If we turn from titles to poetry, we can find numerous works that express these tensions. One subject of her work in which this duality is most apparent is her femininity.  “Embroidery in the Garden of Knives” expresses a brasher, more nonconformist image of femininity than many of her peers and predecessors have done. Here, tenderness is often shadowed by threat:

I am a woman – an open window,
who buries a naked bastard
crosswind every night in the garden.

The narrator’s grim garden lies next to stables with “great steeds” that are “driven by a man without a face”. She asks for help, though, from a friend:

so that I won’t lean out the window
to watch how my crosswind knives

sprout inch by inch in the garden –
how blades rise from the soil
and slice the full moon into wane.

The threat of violence is also evident in the apocalyptic mood of “Freezing Rain” in which lovers are trapped in catacombs while the world seems irretrievably lost above, leading to a desperate sexuality:

Now, I’m just a sleeping, underground slut.
From under gas masks, hair disheveled, pitiful,
we make love, listening to the freezing rain.

In other poems, Butkutė imagines herself as having been raised by circus performers. As Picasso does in his harlequin paintings, the artist identifies herself with these outcast performers:

Forgive me, I didn't tell you – I grew up in a circus.
They left me to study with the magician –
to draw a handful of rabbits from the night.
        (“To Yearn is to Walk on One’s Hands”)

The poet is cast as a wandering magician, weaving her lyrical spell, entrancing people but never fully at home among them. Knives appear in this poem as well:

And I wasn't allowed to touch – not the walls,
not strange voices, not fear – until I could
stand still through the flight of knives:

whatever is domesticated by the blade – remains.

Domestication, taming, circus performers and knives all make multiple appearances in her first collection. The act of constructing her tightly-knit poems comes to seem as itself an act of magical taming. Aggression and violence lurk all around us, and inside of us, and the poet resorts to the spells of her lyricism to keep them at bay, to keep us turned towards the other pole, the one of love. Yet that love is never stable. People, of course, break up, grow apart. Even together, they are not out of danger. Sometimes they are a danger to each other, as in “In the time of Sleeping Swords”:

But my words had grown toothed by time
like knives, having already travelled their roads –
and the insouciant wind wrote under our soles
the ancient hieroglyph for “Sorry”.

In other poems, the threat to interpersonal communion comes from without, but with no discernible source:

Eyes – gazed into so long, and hair –
who else could feel their weight?
There is no wind up here, no storms. –
Gravity still holds our words together. –
– And your space suit has a hole in it.
        (“Space Suit with Hole”)

Butkutė has hit upon a unique kind of love poem here, blending sweet affection with a sense of impending disaster – yet without social, historical or personal basis, lending it a metaphysical aspect. We are doomed, but love each other anyway:

So rest. I want to tuck you in, safe and sound.
Sleep, because nothing can save you – there is only
this sea-sickness on the rocking boat of your dreams.
        (“Rocking”)

Post-modernity has its place in her collection as well. In “Unplugged”, she uses a stream of consciousness technique with jarring syntax and abrupt shifts in imagery to give a sense of dislocation, making us feel the technological landscape changing under our feet. Here as elsewhere, the sense of mutability, instability and impending catastrophe is perpetually counter-balanced by a tightly constructed, beautiful flow of metaphoric language which imparts an indelible sweetness to her verse. It is an uneasy lyricism, and the tension between these forces gives her first collection its edge and mystery. This may be why at least this reader felt her second collection to be less strong, for many poems there are written from a more comfortable perspective depriving them of the tension, contradiction and defiance to be found in the earlier work. There are exceptions, and I have translated these for this English collection. In “Leaving Pompeii”, for instance, we encounter a love lament couched in the apocalyptic landscape of Pompeii. (I have mention many of the best examples from the second book above). Of course, the more straightforward lyricism in Caravan Moon is expertly handled, the language graceful, the imagery lush. It has its admirers for good reason. I, for one, am very interested to see where Butkutė will go next.

The reader of this introductory essay to Butkutė’s poetry may have noticed that its author is also the translator of her work into English, so a discussion of her work would not be complete without mention of the process by which these versions came about. As is so often the case with poetry, Butkutė’s verse presents a unique challenge to the translator. On the one hand, her language is clear and precise. Her lyrics are at times narrative, and at other times evoke complex emotional states involving melancholy, love, loss, tenderness, unease, and nostalgia. One wants to convey this as directly and precisely as possible. On the other hand, her poems are musical. They do not usually follow a rigid formal pattern, but end rhymes and assonance are common features, and the soundscape they create helps build the mood of the poem. As is so often the case, one has to choose between remaining true to her imagery and meaning, or to the sound. Since the sound is not constructed according to strict formal patterns (e.g., the Shakespearean sonnet, the sestina), and since the sound is used to serve of the lyrical mood of the piece, I have often, though not always, dispensed with end rhyme in order to find my own way of being true to what I imagined was the beating heart of the poem. Traduttore/Traditore. There are many ways of betraying, and there are many ways of being faithful. None of them are perfect.

 

 

 

 

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