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Sara Poisson

Sara Poisson (b. 1964)
I was born uncomfortably in a little house at a lake. My mother, a midwife by profession, found herself in two roles at the same time: that of giving birth and that of assisting a birth. Very likely it was what caused my inclination to impurity, to the ability to take on several roles simultaneously, to the inner obligation I felt to view everything both from inside and from outside. All this and me being a journalist were totally incompatible: the duality of my personality or the mingling of things that are sacred to others when taken separately; the ability to impart meaning to what is insignificant and stripping meaning from what is significant;  deconstructing what is usual and comfortable;  building a hut of words from material fit for nothing useful and doomed to rot. I write uncomfortably. Someone is always asking if I am scared, if I feel safe, if what I do is hazardous to my health. From 1999 to 2016, different publishers in Lithuania published nine of my uncomfortable books: four collections of poetry, two novels, one collection of novellas, and two books of essays. Writing uncomfortable books was the most comfortable, cheapest, and safest of all activities known to me. Some of those books have been noticed.

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by Rima Bertašavičiūtė

Sara Poisson review 02Sara Poisson, Grožio mašina, Vilnius: Alma littera, 2016

Sara Poisson is the pseudonym of the author of ten books of poetry, prose, and essays. She is, however, lingering in the margins of the prose field: her books do not make it to Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore vote for the most creative “twelve” and it was only once, in 2005, that her prose collection was nominated for the annual Book of the Year competition. So far, her poetry has achieved better acclaimed (at the Druskininkai Poetic Fall and Panevėžys Literary Winter festivals). It might seem that Sara Poisson writes for a rather small yet loyal circle of fans who appreciate her experiments with language (such as coining new words) and her reflections on life.[1]

I was thinking about Poisson’s being in the margins of culture while reading her latest book, the collection of essays Grožio mašina (The Beauty Machine). This being in the margins is like life “outside Vilnius” (or “outside a center of culture”): you seemingly exist and perform all daily tasks (work, relax, go to concerts, attend film festivals and see book presentations), yet in the capital, the center of culture, there is more of everything—it is where decisions are made with regard to which you, who live outside the capital, mostly remain invisible.

Of the texts included in Grožio mašina, the most successful are those that speak from this kind of a cultural margin in the voice of a rebel from the periphery. It is most obvious in the very first essay (“Vilniaus poniabudė” / Common Stinkhorn of Vilnius) which is about Vilnius and the narrator’s memories of her youth, studies, and the people she used to know that are integral to the city. At first sight the topic appears trite, old, and over-exploited: for a number of decades Vilnius as the political, historical, and cultural center of the country has been the theme of countless studies, research, and art.  Poisson’s Vilnius is entirely different and de-romanticized: it is filthy, but not so much because of the ruin of the past but due to disorder; it is multilingual, but not because of cultural intersections (architecture, literature), but due to the people who speak different languages and fail to reach mutual understanding, for example:

Health and normality were not the aspects that would relate me to Vilnius. The testimony of poverty and misery was what would outline the contour of my identity and would, in a paradoxical manner, give me life, health, or impetus. Not long ago I realized it yet again in the street, close to the place where the rivulet of my neighbor’s slop exhausts itself (I am not naming my neighbor because I haven't been given the opportunity to find out what her name is; another neighbor informed me that this unnamed person finds talking to ghosts easier than to people). At the point where the stream exhausts itself I was standing with my neighbor Tadek, a Pole who spoke Russian with his Polish wife. Here we were discussing his swollen legs covered in tangles of thin blue capillaries. Tadek was explaining to me—and finally convinced me—that legs were the weakest spot in his family and that they started swelling almost at the same time he was locked in stomachache and when he decided to unlock himself out of vodka and beer (p. 13).

Unlike in the recently published collection of essays by Mindaugas Kvietkauskas, here Vilnius is an anti-city and an anti-location, one where sweat flows and there is no space for the smells to disperse, where a person is overwhelmed not by architectural miracles but by the claustrophobia of cramped streets and an oppressive atmosphere. Paradoxically, it works as recognition: this dirty city looks painfully familiar, possibly because it is so livable, and therefore a hundred times dearer than intellectual yet obsolete portraits of Vilnius.

In general, de-romanticization and an expressionistically distorted vision are the features of Poisson’s most successful texts, which for some reason emerge in the plot when the narrator approaches Vilnius, physically or in her thoughts. In the closing essay of the collection (“Mažas vyras”/A Short Man), a train journey from Mažeikiai, a town in the northern part of Lithuania, becomes horrific when buying a train ticket from a bird-like ticket inspector amounts to an act of violence (without any shade of neo-Marxist criticism):

His hand, which resembles a laying hen and now is like a half-fist or a cork, is slowly messing with the money in your hand.

It is nothing less than a coercive top-up to the unexpected change. The number on the coin is two digits, while the saliva in your mouth is accumulating at double speed. It doesn’t taste good and if you could, you would spit it out.

You feel the warmth and dampness of the short man’s hand, and the pointy and poisonous arrow of his voice still sticks from your body as though in this way his miniature figure satisfies some incomprehensible lust. You could promptly remove it, but in one hand you are hatching the obscenity of the dwarfish inspector, and in the other you hold the worn black leather wallet, the obscenity of which is growing by the second.

You feel violated by the squeaky voice and identically squeaky little hand; there was even an attempt to pay you for that by forging an illegal discount on the train ticket. The mastery of forgery does not raise doubt. Very likely this mastery has its own story, lessons, blunders, and victories from the past (p. 259–260).

An anti-aesthetical rather than anti-anarchistic revolt against the capital, which is becoming a symbol of disturbing experiences and artificial and even coercive human relations, is a new phenomenon in Lithuanian post-Soviet essay writing in general and extends, to some degree, Ričardas Gavelis’s anti-utopian visions of the city.

Still, as befits the voices from the margins, the texts of Poisson have their own dialect that we must get used to and which hardly translates. It is one of the reasons why translation of this book can be problematic (this can be said about the entire corpus of Lithuanian essays) and therefore it exists on the margins even more. Poisson employs verbosity where the homogeneous parts of the sentence, similes, and other structures proliferate:

Truth to be told, everything is about life. In addition, it is about her own life. In texts it is thicker, more varied, livelier, deeper, and broader than one that would be available to an individual during an identical stretch of time. Because literature has a severalfold life, moreover so that there is much more death in it than in the daily life of an ordinary person.  (p. 75)

Maybe texts have been creating the illusion that I live more, because while reading and later writing I always live more than one life and open more than one level of existence to myself. Setting out my attitude to some object, individual, or phenomenon on paper I would enrich them with my attention and fantasy, would create new lives for them, new perspectives, and new homes and cities. (p. 78)

The intent of this verbiage results in a hard-to-swallow text, which, it seems, circles itself and ruminates over the same thought. The thought is usually related to the narrator’s reflections on herself, to the desire to specify a phrase or an impression to the maximum extent. However, when you read the book, you start to get the feeling that apart from the horror that Vilnius triggers and which is close to the grotesque, not much else can be said: those essays that recount memories from school become as long as poor novellas—the event has already taken place, while the thread of words is still trailing behind for reasons unknown.

Yet even with those trailing words, the texts in Grožio mašina do not linger over generalizations or philosophizing, and it is a pleasant surprise. Unlike in numerous other Lithuanian essays (for instance, by Dalia Staponkutė, Gintaras Bleizgys, and others), Poisson stays in the material world (memories) and does not obscure it by philosophical or pseudo-philosophical contexts, which, paradoxically, render the essay text banal and impoverished. Meanwhile, in turn, the material world reveals the theme of beauty, which should be the main one in the book (at least its title promises it).

It is objects, and mostly such stereotypically female objects as tights, hair, dyeing hair that are often admired in Poisson’s book.  It is like the continuation of her 2013 poetry collection Gražūs daiktai (Beautiful Things): just like in the poetry book things were described with endless homogeneous epithets and details, so in Grožio mašina, too, things become the center of similar, even homogeneous memories and narratives. All this is personified in the title essay “Grožio mašina”: beauty is what is connected, what you can recognize in other things (like, for example, masculinity in femininity), and thus beauty hides in the tendency of perception or the gaze to associate, to synthesize.  Beauty is when you discover links between objects, when you recognize and experience Barthe’s plaisir: “Multiplication of kindred connections or their recognition implied the growing security and beauty of the world. The world consolidated by the connections of similarity appeared easier perceived and reliable” (p. 165).

However, just as Barthe’s plaisir remains only a noncommittal amusement if compared to jouissance, which shatters the boundaries of the perception of the whole world and the self, so, too, Poisson's aesthetics with regard to beauty is somewhat flat. When heavy and overloaded language is engaged to describe the material world and the mundane, the beauty machine starts breaking down. The similarity of things becomes their identity, just like the similarity of words, and eventually all words become identical to one another and do not convey anything new:

Nonetheless, one day I demolished—intentionally and with excessive and demonstrative cascades of similes—the system I had respected for a number of years, in which the metaphor was a higher stage of comparison. I created a country of similes where the decrepit Queen Metaphor was dethroned. Still disfigured from this blow, adorned in petal-like lace, she was best suited to be laid in a luxurious coffin that resembled a bud (p. 166).

Thus in this book the rebellion against the cultural center is as meaningful as the center itself—in this case, an idealized depiction of Vilnius—and is successfully questioned.

Sara Poisson as a narrator creates an identity that includes the key components of space, just like in most Lithuanian essays. Space, however, indicates an area crammed with things rather than culture or a change of place. In Poisson’s essays space is not what creates shape; rather it poses a danger of tripping or becoming trapped, like in texts where a reader begins to stumbled over the words. But don’t we know storytellers who simply cannot finish a sentence and are unable to advance the point without repeating themselves? Usually that does not stop them from telling a couple of really good stories.

 

1. See, for example, Giedrė Matulaitytė-Stundžienė, “Saros ir Mari Poisson romanas ‘Šabaš’: apie dvigubą autorystę, metažanrus ir kvazinaratyvus,” Literatūra ir menas, 21 June 2013, http://literaturairmenas.lt/2013-06-21-nr-3432/904-knygos/1420-giedre-matulaityte-stundziene-saros-ir-mari-poisson-romanas-sabas-apie-dviguba-autoryst-metazanrus-ir-kvazinaratyvus; Ramutė Dragenytė, “Saros poezija,” Metai, Nr. 12, 2006, http://www.tekstai.lt/zurnalas-metai/312-ramut-dragenyt-saros-poezija.

 

 

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