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Vytautas Stankus is one of the most interesting young Lithuanian poets, author of three poetry books. His newest, Skruzdžių skandinimas [Drowning of the Ants] was published at the end of 2016. Stankus’s poetry is intimate, personal, even painful. He experiments interestingly with language and poetic form. The poems in this collection are fragmentary and fracturing – with snatches of dialogue and poem-questionnaires. They are paradoxical, surreal, yet dynamic and refined. Surrealism mixes with details of everyday life and quotidian speech. The poems are musical, making use of repetitions and recitative. They are made to last.

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by Dovilė Kuzminskaitė

Vytautas Stankus review 02Vytautas Stankus, Skruzdžių skandinimas: eilėraščiai, Vilnius, Versus aureus, 2016, 112 p.

Vytautas Stankus is a contemporary Lithuanian poet who gives some of the most frequent readings and attracts some of the largest audiences at those readings. This poet and translator, who was also a school teacher for a while, works at Versus Aureus Publishers at present. His first poetry book Vaikščiojimas kita ledo puse (Walking on the Other Side of Ice) was published in 2010, Iš veidrodžio, už (From the Mirror, Behind) appeared in 2014, and Skruzdžių skandinimas (Drowning the Ants) in 2016. Stankus’s poetry is distinguished by its very clear direction that allows not only the unique transformations of his texts but also the most characteristic trends in contemporary poetry to be observed. Associations with other authors relevant to Lithuanian poetry such as Aidas Marčėnas, Rimvydas Stankevičius, peculiarly tamed work of Donaldas Kajokas, Antanas A. Jonynas, and Vytautas Bložė are quite prominent in his poems.

Skruzdžių skandinimas articulates the principles underlying Stankus’s poetry. First of all, it is poetry of explicit intimacy. It predominantly speaks from the first person singular and sets out very individual experiences, some of which are of the kind that the reader finds it almost uncomfortable to encroach upon. The trajectory of the motion is inverse—not from the world into the self, but from the self into the world, and that raises a question about a peculiar self-importance: isn’t there anything remotely interesting beyond the boundaries of personality? Such “denuded” speaking produces the sensitivity of the poems: “o my trembling dragon-fly / my pupils are dilating like / two ink spots your pupils in which I’m raining” (“Sapnuoti dulkes”/To dream of dust, p. 14). Lyricism, which is present in almost all poems of the collection to some extent, is counterbalanced by surrealism: the poet transforms images, plays with them, assembles them into unexpected combinations, and uses the principle of making things stranger than they are. “a white-clad woman comes close / and tells me that the wolf / in whose stomach we are has changed color / and that the trees are somewhat sick” (“likantropija”/lycantrophy, p.29). This is an attempt to break free from dogmas and speech norms and accentuates the subject’s Sisyphean efforts to communicate with the surrounding world.

The poet’s individual speech in Skruzdžių skandinimas is quite firmly built: Stankus plays with the form frequently and often fragments his texts, breaks them, and expands parts of one poem across several pages like separate texts (for example, “sapnuoti dulkes”/to dream of dust, “Keira Knightley, ar girdi krintant miške parašiutą”/Keira Knightley, can you hear a parachute falling in the woods, or “20 frazių su paaiškinimais”/20 phrases explained, “tunelis”/a tunnel). There is an attempt to search for different ways of expression. In “inkliuzas”/inclusion (p. 57), for example, free verse is merged with rhymed systems and the transfer from one into the other is smooth and unnoticeable:

to take off shoes ‘cause there’s that wild wish
that you take them off, that some pebble falls
into your shoe or something, then
you would have to hold on to me, to lean

against me, but

we were walking across a field and it seemed
we were walking through a park and it was enough
to walk as a duo like this in a park in December,
and you want nothing else ‘cause it’s winter

The poet’s style fluctuates from the said transformations to utterly everyday speech that is probably best seen in the not-too-successful text “kelias į pragarą gerais norais grįstas”/the road to hell is paved with good intentions (p. 44). In his poetry Stankus quotes the mundane and erases the boundaries between what is or could be a poem, and what it isn’t or can’t be; in other words, he tries to shake off a certain snobbery; for instance, the poem “20 frazių su paaiškinimais”/“20 phrases explained” involves twenty elementary everyday sayings that seem to be absolutely insignificant, and it is these sayings that lie at the base of the poem. The tendency to rely on a conversation and on purely spoken tradition shows up in Stankus’s earlier collections, where even the thuggish “repeat what you’ve just said,” which was very likely heard not while dozing with muses on Olympus or sitting somewhere in a modernist marble tower and waiting for divine inspiration, are integrally involved in the poetic process. In Skruzdžių skandinimas Stankus tries to move a bit further in this direction: In his attempts to pull the poem from the page and to bring it into the reader’s reality, he also employs “live sound”: “uuuuuuuuuu, this the sound of me cutting the air, / huuummmmmmmmm, this is the sound of me falling” (p. 12). Such turning back towards “real” language recalls the writing Dainius Gintalas, and in a certain way to that of Benediktas Januševičius.

Along with experiments in form, which admittedly are quite mild, certain postmodern tendencies try to find their way to the collection. “This is not for you” (Mark Z. Danielewski), declares the flyleaf with all the arrogance worthy of conceptualism, thus giving a wink to Rene Magritte’s pipe, to Marcel Broodthaers’s objects, and to Ulises Carrión’s dear reader. The author also enters into dialogue, at least indirectly, with Gertrude Stein. In Stankus’s poetry her “rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” becomes a sequence of transformations: “the city I knew and the city that / isn’t that isn’t needed is a city / where we met which I miss / [...] the city with its dead the city where / I've come which I won’t leave [...]” (p. 33); “the echo in my head is your echo” (p. 65); “blood in my throat is blood / in your throat is my fingers / are your fingers are my arms / hugging you” (p. 14). Stankus tries to rewrite the world’s literary canon: “nine lives” is a reiteration of Cesar Vallejo’s poem “La violencia de las horas” in which an identical pattern is filled with new motifs. This step becomes even more curious and even more questionable when we bear in mind the fact Vallejo’s work was already rewritten by Sigitas Parulskis, another Lithuanian poet, in [tai tekste ar eilėraštyje?] “Subjektyvi kronika” (Subjective Chronicle), and according to the same principle: new fabric pulled across the same frame.

Skruzdžių skandinimas is a collection with stylistic and thematic smoothness. Sometimes it seems that all the poems were written at one time, or at least in one emotional moment, moreover so that even the same field of symbols extends as though the author made an intentional effort to accentuate the same points. Wolf, blood, butterflies, and spiders wander from poem to poem. And snow, of course, which has occupied the leading position among the poet’s top three symbols for several years: he definitely deserves to be titled the most “wintery” Lithuanian poet. Such unison of texts might appear monotonous, especially when states of loneliness, presentiment of death, or experiences of being (un)loved echo the poet’s two earlier collections. Incidentally, no matter how personal Vytautas Stankus’s poetry is, it can hardly be labelled as pompous. Rather, it is an attempt to throw a paper butterfly to a reader on the other bank of the river.

 

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