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One of the most well-known poets of the newest generation, Mantas Balakauskas debuted in 2016 with his poetry collection Roma [Rome]. The title was chosen for a reason – the book is an attempt to build on ruins, an attempt to write while understanding that these efforts are secondary, for everything happens now after all the battles have been fought. But this does not mean that we don’t need to fight or write. Mantas’ poetry is shot through with creative fury. It is, despite the title, very much contemporary. Social problems, our society, the individual’s place in a fragmented world – all fall into its range of vision. According to the critic Neringa Butnoriūtė, “cities are already built, ideologies already formed, so we can now play with the not always polite means of provoking them.” Balakauskas plays – seriously, passionately, ironically.

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by Neringa Butnoriūtė

Mantas Balakauskas review 02Mantas Balakauskas Roma: eilėraščiai. Vilnius: Versus Aureus, 2016

Mantas Balakauskas (b. 1989) is one of the most visible Lithuanian poets of the young generation. His creative bio would consist not only of interviews dished out left and right; it would also mention the Literatūrinės slinktys (Literary Shifts) festival of young artists, frequent poetry readings, and publications in the cultural press. Hardly had his first poetry book Roma appeared when it was among five books shortlisted for the 2016 Best Book of the Year competition.

His debut Roma stereotypically explores the idea of eternity. In the words of the author, it means more than just that: “It is that which attracts attention and from which a new world is born.  It is also an object of sickly fixation, like sticking a fork into a power outlet. Don’t we sometimes develop an unhealthy attachment to people, objects, words, or processes, we repeat them and drown in them, thus everything is Rome.” Such a description is ambiguous. From a debut we would expect what Balakauskas refers to as a new world, but this book indicates that, like after a battle, we can build this new world on an ancient foundation. In this book, Rome isn’t depicted as a city or in typical symbols attributed to it either visually or verbally, although the theme calls for broad interpretations.

And how else could it be if we live in times when in literature, too, much has been discovered and conquered? The axis and advantage of this poetry is a sober realization of the fact that life progresses through a permanent yet ambiguous process. Therefore even if a young poet writes about alchemy and dusty volumes, he must not delude himself—he is a citizen of the twenty-first century: “this century/age does not yet have a smell, / the one which I am writing, / just starting to write, // while outside / the engine oil / is fabulously unfolding.” Balakauskas’s subject matter emphasizes his youth. Since he no longer lives in antiquity, the codes intended to read reality and to know the world are not necessarily identical to those from long time ago. He does not shun confrontation with society and its phenomena, one of which is changing patterns of thinking. In this respect Balakauskas is comparable to the poet Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, who was featured in Vilnius Review and whose poetry is increasingly drawn towards sociability and a similar response.  On the other hand, she is active and assertive, while Balakauskas’s texts abound in irony and conscious distance. Such an attitude is not surprising and was triggered by one of the recent waves in Lithuanian poetry: the greatest poetry adventures are spiritual and internal, and not brought about by external influences affecting the individual in society. Existence per se is problematic and dramatic. Quite frequently the subjects intensely understand—both physically and mentally—that they are temporary mortals, they test the boundaries of existence (they have a fever, wander between life and death, cultivate the idea of the other side, and in this way fight for existence and attempt to understand its meaning).  Balakauskas’s speaker can also be described in a rather indifferent manner: he is confused, distant from his family, lost in doubt, and succumbs to madness. However, his voice in Roma is motivated by external influences: it reflects the state of the modern individual and in an epoch that is increasingly fast paced and consumer oriented. In the poet’s words, self-flagellation rubs shoulders with a mash-up of values and concepts.  In a situation like this, a person attempts to understand themselves and the world.

The author, who is a history graduate, was inspired by the legend of the founding of Rome. In this Roma, though, emphasis is placed not as much on the symbolic fact of the founding of the city as an independent artistic reality (it is self-explanatory) as on the pre-history associated with the fate of the founders.  In short, hardly were the mythical twins Romulus and Remus born when they were ordered to be killed, but servants saved them by letting them float down the river. The twins were given a second chance and survived even if such a decision was not theirs. Balakauskas does not make direct references to the twins (the legend has at least a couple of variants), yet the overall principle is tangible. That is why the book is divided not only into two chapters but into two parts as well: the mystical part that is abstract and closer to nature, and the more realistic one that is urban and full of concrete references. The former echoes the canon of Lithuanian poetry and the latter is more progressive and easier to covey as a performance. They are connected by the core theme of this poetry—the subject’s act of becoming. Reading Roma while examining this theme is analogous to “civilizing” the unknown from the primeval state through the building tower blocks and the intricate mazes of shopping centers of today. The author employs the paradox of classical names (Akropolis, Maxima) given to quite a number of shopping centers in Lithuania. The act of civilizing is a long process. It does not mean that the world, though it becomes lighter and more perceptible, improves throughout the course changing epochs.

In poetry, the myth about the fates of the founders helps to maintain the tension between life and non-being.  In Balakauskas’s poetry the premonition of non-being is perceived as through the gaze of a curious investigator, by looking into nature and recognizing its laws, by the experiences of everyday life, by attempting to understand what is hiding behind mundane shapes:  “how terrible it is to know, / that there’s still something to grab on to, / to grab on to a bone hiding deep underground, / to a root that looks like something dead, / that I cannot describe.” The young poet is curious about the idea of eternity which in Roma is arrived at through two patterns of thinking.  The first is primeval, relying on pagan spirits, the stability of nature, and the individual’s perception of being a part of it: “I am moving in circles / round a tree growing 300 years longer than me / and I know: even if all of my bones are crushed in a circle, / [...] / it will still break into silver blossom, / serving as bandages for the angry bird.” It is followed by a cynical and contemporary pattern, the loss of faith and the alternative of life after death. It is affected by a consumerist culture and an intensified egocentrism (“one must be now and better not an animal, / because in the end you’ll end up in a factory, in products”).

In a sense, Balakauskas is not building a new city but inspects, today, the stability of the foundation of the heritage entrusted to him. It turns out that a person does not have to take on a mission by assuming the role of conqueror or destroyer.  This complex task is solved by resorting to a playful and ironic attitude. It is obvious that the understanding of the history of the world helps to interpret the present. However, any efforts might be fruitless without grasping the present, speaking the language of antiquity, and leaning against classical foundations. Such is another interesting thing about Balakauskas’s poetry: in Roma, communication simultaneously happens in two equal ways.  Thanks to this his poetry appears fresh, topical, and at the same time, courteous. The present highlights a glaring devaluation of classical meanings, the shifts in their identities and intents, for which the capitalist Ikea could easily serve as an example. The poet succeeds in showing that cultural objects enter the realm of pop culture, religion is replaced by atheism and consumerism, and an object just by a symbol or reference:  “to square one’s shoulders, / so that the ears invariably filter something from Mozart’s / ringing tones, the polyphonic vanity of 3310.”

Roma surprises the reader by achieving its effect not by ornamented language but focusing on the multiplicity of meanings of a word and by rethinking its ambiguities. This is understandable. As I said before, cities have been built and ideologies shaped, and now we can play with the ways and means generated by them, and they are not always polite. Therefore it is not surprising that Balakauskas’s poetry juggles with trademarks and graffiti, and the title of the book, which appears in quotation marks, might be looked at as a brand label. It is not part and parcel of a light-hearted poetic game. It best reveals the healthy irony intended both for weary cadets (the name given to the earlier generation of poets with whose work the poet has been building upon) and the possibilities of poetic discourse. Maybe that is why the dubious spell “viskas yra poezija” (all is poetry) in the annotation of the book stops being trite after you finish reading this debut collection. Authors who think and have a grasp of language nuances can set a lot into play.

 

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