reflections on belonging

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by Elžbieta Banytė


Giedre Kazlauskaite review 02Giedrė Kazlauskaitė. Singerstraum, Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2016

Giedrė Kazlauskaitė is not among those whose faces flicker in the public space, whose insights are published in the country’s periodical press, or whose voice speaks to you from the radio. She is the chief editor of the cultural publication Šiaurės Atėnai. Before that, she used to work as a book reviewer for national television and from time to time would pen a review or a journalistic piece – but not too many. Her stance is independent: some would call her snobbish, while others would say she is aristocratically distant and critically ironic, and not striving after popularity or love. And yet, her poetry, which is published in rather low print runs, is recognized and admired by the few “chosen” who read poetry (for, indeed, how many people read poetry sincerely? Two percent? Five percent? In any case, I imagine a small number). Singerstraum is Kazlauskaitė’s third book of poetry. Her first, Heterų dainos (Songs of Hetaerae) and second, Meninos, can no longer be found in the bookshops, which is a rare thing in Lithuania: sometimes you can find books published ten or more years ago stuck on the shelf labelled “Lithuanian literature” somewhere in a dark corner of a bookshop. I am wary of popularity: it is often inversely proportional to the artistic value and captivation of a work. Kazlauskaitė, however, is as popular as poetry, or fifteen-year-old cognac, or equestrian sport can be popular: those who need it will find it and appreciate it. It is fine if others do not need it, because neither horses nor cognac nor Kazlauskaitė will cry over it.

It is not surprising then that the posture of the lyrical subject of Singerstraum is similar to that of the poet: remote, ironic, free of lyricism and woes, aware that her exceptionality is both a blessing and a curse, yet under any circumstances aiming to maintain her pride, not looking for excuses for herself and not toadying up: “I refuse to have anything in common with any of you - / with men, and with women, and with children, / who have learnt the mimesis of humility” (p. 85). To many, such an attitude may appear unappealing, cold, empty, vain, snobbish, and artificial. In the end, we must admit that an independent artist who does not make an effort to fit in is nothing new, but in Kazlauskaitė’s book it acquires a certain intrigue due to the obvious juxtaposition of the declared refusal to slave for the mundane banality with the rather frugal, unornamented, and prosaic – thus resembling that mundane act, speaking. Like many authors of her generation, Kazlauskaitė has been writing in vers libre which, like the flow of everyday speaking, ironically features such punctuation marks as parentheses that are so uncharacteristic of poetry. Anyone who has tried to transcribe a spoken text knows that the sentence structure has to be changed because otherwise there are parentheses everywhere, as thinking goes off on a tangent while a person is speaking. Some of the poems in the book, like, for example, the above-cited “Turgaus aikštė” (A Market Square) resemble short narratives with voices of other speakers conveyed in direct speech. It is not exactly usual, but not a novelty in Lithuanian poetry of the period of independence, just like another aspect of Singerstraum and Kazlauskaitė’s poetry in general: a multitude of organically interwoven intertextual references to music, literature, philosophy, cinema, and painting, which impart an appropriate dose of intellectualism to contemporary poetry, convey withdrawal from banality and from the “middle class.”

The covers of Kazlauskaitė’s books usually bear some kind of an explanation for the book title, which half-secretly radiates the irony that often hides in her poetry style. Her latest book is not an exception: it turns out that Singerstraum is a compound of Liszt’s Liebestraum that the lyrical subject of the book used to listen to as a student in the dormitory (it is clearly indicated that this is the author’s alter ego) and the Singer sewing machine. The motif of text as a piece of sewing dominates in this book just like the mirror dominated her second book that bears the title of a famous painting by Velasquez. We often disregard the obvious fact that the words “text” and “textile” have the same root: in Latin, textus means “something woven.” A book is also a sewn object: at times, the seams of words become obvious or disappear between the pages in the fabulous design of Singerstraum.

The poetess and artist becomes a seamstress in the text: she makes clothes “to drive away sickness, to cover myself / in old garments, like a knight / in the armor of stories” (“Mokymasis siūti” [Learning to Sew], p. 14). The stories are very likely told to the self and in a peculiar manner: sewing is a special activity as it actually prevents the sewer from talking to others. This is because of the noise – “it will be rhythmical and teach syllabotonics,” explains the book cover; sewing keeps both hands busy and the eyes directed at the seams which “are so much like the line of a road” (ibid., p. 13). Sewing as a journey into the self, into thinking and into memories, as a transformation of the metaphor of the path of life is indeed a fresh and charming play of the text. Another thing is that the German word Singer means “a singer,” just like in English. And here we have an ambiguity: this book is a journey, a song, a piece of sewing, a space of meditation and loneliness without even an attempt to be understood by others.

The motif of the journey is central here. There are journeys to the past (the poems “Baseine,” [In the Pool] and “Pamokų ruošimas” [Doing Homework]), around Lithuania and in Vilnius in particular  (“Pokalbis su Vilniaus Gaonu,” [A Conversation with the Vilna Gaon], “Santara-Šviesa,” [Santara-Šviesa], “Halės turgus” [The Halė Market]), and around the world (“Čikaga pro lėktuvo langą” [Chicago Through a Plane Window], “Pietūs Rygoje” [A Lunch in Riga]). Here well-known and newly visited places are scrutinized attentively and critically. The author records details and does not shun value-based generalizations. For example, the poem “Frankfurto oro uostas”’ (Frankfurt Airport) claims that “there are no nationalities here // only those prepared to go above the clouds, overwhelmed / by fear, shivering, butterflies in their stomachs / and else that is beyond / races, shades of skin” (p. 54). Admittedly, a lot of travelling has been done in Lithuanian literature of the last twenty years. At times it strikes you that after Soviet insularity it is the opening up and movement, the tensions between being a Lithuanian, an Eastern European, and the openness and proximity of the Western world that have been mostly written about. In poetry, a person returns to the self in search of the signs that experiences of being elsewhere have inscribed in poetic conscious- ness, imagination, and in being. In this respect, Kazlauskaitė is not an exception. That is probably why what Mikhail Epstein refers to as “essayist thinking” or “essayism” – speaking that is free and associative yet prone to generalizations – manifests itself more and more intensively in Lithuanian poetry (at least in that part of it which does not draw itself into purely textual postmodernist games). This kind of speaking pervades other spheres of culture and, naturally, other branches of literature. In Kazlauskaitė’s texts, just like in other essayist texts, reflection and criticism are born from the discrepancy between the image, perception, and reality, between the subject and the object. The seam of the Singer sewing machine travels through the fabric of the daily rounds, and truly neat silhouettes result.

On the other hand, no matter how interesting the thinking, the book unavoidably becomes somewhat monotonous and tedious. The criticism addressed to almost identical objects – the middle class, banal mass existence and consumption, indifference, ignorance, and lack of interest – is rather similar. If we add the unbelievably even and homogeneous intonation of this collection – every- where equally ironic, with flashes of open criticism – we will have a good, strong, well-structured textual piece of sewing. Each of the five parts of the collection contains ten poems. Within each part, the poems are lined up in an enviable order, so no excuses of naivety here. And still, the sameness begins to appear dull towards the end. Just like the game played in the previous book – the glaring autobiographical quality of the lyrical subject (it is actually somewhat terrifying: maybe some of my acquaintances have been attributed to the “graphomaniacs” from the poem “Audinių parduotuvė” [The Fabric Shop]), and at the same time supercilious refusal to talk to anybody except herself and with the reflections of the envi- ronment in herself. It is, of course, always pleasant to talk to a clever individual and to that textual piece of sewing. It leads to the impression of speaking in state- ments: the book abounds in apt observations, but not a single question is asked. Everything seems to be obvious, experienced, and perceived, and there is no lack of understanding whatsoever. There is not a single question mark in this collec- tion. However, the missing question mark is unavoidably inserted by the reader: why should one read such a know-all collection? Giedrė Kazlauskaitė’s poetry is strong; the book is as beautiful as an artefact and as interesting as a player in the field of Lithuanian literature in 2016. It has, however, the imprint of monotony and self-admiration left on it.

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