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Judita Vaičiūnaitė

Judita Vaičiūnaitė (1937–2001) – one of the most famous 20th century Lithuanian poets. Her first poetry book Spring Watercolours (Pavasario akvarelės) was published in 1960. She is the author of 20 poetry books. Vaičiūnaitė also wrote poetry and fairy tales for children.
“In her many books of poetry she explored a wide field of experience-from Lithuanian mythology to modern jazz and from historical figures to contemporary city dwellers. Regarded as a poet of the city and the night, she is also a re-creator of myths. One of her favourite forms is the dramatic monologue, she is fascinated by human events which occur within the backdrop of Vilnius' Old City, where she spent most of her life”.  (from allpoetry.com)
“Vaičiūnaitė made Vilnius the locus of both Lithuanian poetic obsessions: nature and history. The city is not just any city. It is northern, yet Baroque. It is an occupied city, under Soviet rule, yet steeped in its own history and mythology of independence. And with this new emphasis on the urban came an unsentimental look at the life of a modern woman in the city: single, educated, working, struggling to be free”. (translator Rimas Užgiris)
Judita Vaičiūnaitė's poetry collection in English "Crystal: Selected poems" is forthcoming from Pica Pica Press this autumn.

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Birutė Zokaitytė, Užupis classics, 2005. Drypoint, soft varnish, 21,5 x 21,5. From the MO Museum collection.

by Rimas Uzgiris

 

 

This year marks Judita Vaičiūnaitė’s 80th birthday, and sixteen years since she passed away. She is not forgotten by any means. Her reputation, if anything, has grown. An essay dedicated to her in this year’s Poetry Spring anthology, a day of lectures, discussions and readings in her honor organized by the Lithuanian Institute of Literature and Folklore, a new selected poems published by the same institution, a selected poems in English due out in autumn in the States. I am the translator of that book, and, as so often has been the case in the last few years, have been asked to introduce her to an English-speaking and “Western” audience. The quote marks around this adjective attempt to negotiate the sometime substantial cultural gap between what is called the “West” and Eastern Europe, while also reminding us that the latter is part of the West, though a separate branch, emanating from the same root system, with some intertwining limbs, but real differences as well. (Of course, the quotes also signal the irreality of the concept itself, especially given that the West is also the East in that the Near East is the fount of the Judeo-Christian tradition, among other things.)

One of those cultural differences relevant to understanding Vaičiūnaitė’s poetry is the relative persistence of neo-romantic strains in Lithuanian literature far into the 20th century, and even into the 21st. Although a much longed-for independence from Russia saw the introduction in the twenties of the modernist avant-garde to the new democratic nation-state of Lithuania in the work of Kazys Binkis and his Four Winds group, and other modernist influences could be felt in the work of, for example, Henrikas Radauskas, Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas and Vytautas Mačernis, the full-fledged development of these movements was suppressed by the Soviet annexation of Lithuania in 1940 and its dogmatic imposition of Soviet realist art-values. Annexation went hand in hand with industrialization and collectivization of the agricultural economy. Thus, one means of subtle resistance to Soviet rule became, in literature, a focus on the individual, on subjective experience, on nature and traditional country life, along with references to Lithuania’s past.[1] Hence the neo-romanticism. Hence its persistence.

We can see these elements in Vaičiūnaitė’s oeuvre as well. Her “To Gather Geraniums Yet” uses rhyming quatrains in a pean to flowers.[2] The narrator, sunk in wintry gloom, in a lonely city flat, darning her ripped tights – a sign of the general Soviet poverty – draws strength and hope from the natural world’s manifestation of beauty and renewal:

each day deeper yet – January,
into the jaws of solitude’s flat,
to carry the profile secretly,
like the germ of life, by the heart.

Like many of her poems, “To Gather Geraniums Yet” intertwines the modernist alienation of a city dweller with the neo-romantic valorization of nature. The natural world provides the source of inspiration, meaningful connection, life itself. The drudgery of daily life, urban dirt and grit, is placed in negative contrast to the blooming flowers. Vaičiūnaitė positions herself as part of the Lithuanian neo-romantic tradition stylistically as well, composing the poem in rhyming quatrains. Urban existence was largely a new phenomenon for the previously agrarian Lithuanian culture, and this poem exemplifies Vaičiūnaitė’s effort to give this new form of life expression, even if, at this stage it is seen in a negative light.

The traditional, formal style evident in “To Gather Geraniums Yet” was only one of her modes. Vaičiūnaitė came to adapt her poetics to urban existence, breaking apart her lines in stanzas, building run-on sentences on top of each other, connecting (or disconnecting) phrases with dashes, using ellipses to create pauses and gaps...

Cupolas, columns, bridges floating by,
time will swim beyond the window,
        and we’ll forget that it’s even there...
Sunday will come.
        And seven lamps will smash into flour.
Dawn will break as colored confetti.
            (from “Sunday will come...”)

The changes in style go hand in hand with a more nuanced thematic treatment of urban life. The city, dirty as it is, prone to leaving the individual alienated, also comes to be seen as a source of possibility, pleasure, a meeting ground and a locus of history.

I live by day –
        wild, lonely, choking
        with joy.
On dusty, burnt-out cobblestones,
        we jump –
        into a deceiving light
            (from “Feverish heat in the city...”

Stylistically, these innovations were revolutionary for the Lithuanian lyric, helping drag it out of a traditional, romantic past into the modern world. In this act, she was not alone, but one of a generation of late 20th c. poets who were part of what can be called a second modernist revolution in Lithuanian literature. Together with Tomas Venclova, Sigitas Geda, Marcelijus Martinaitis, and Vytautas Bložė, she pushed lyrical language and its forms of expression in new directions. What marks her work, besides her stylistic innovations, as especially different from so many others was its incorporation of the city’s layout and architecture, urban life, and the city’s historical roots (Tomas Venclova was closest to her in this endeavor). We cannot fail to mention how, in this context, in a poetic culture dominated by men, she gave voice to women’s experiences, especially to love, sexuality and being a single mother. Notice how a poem like “Lullaby”, dedicated to her daughter, connects Lithuanian folklore, the grit of the city, and her own relationship to her child: “and a slender voice sounds from the gutter’s slop: / – Rock-a-bye baby, my forgotten one – – // That voice from fairytales lulls like a rustling...” Here, as in “To Gather Geraniums Yet”, the sheer grit of the urban experience undercuts neo-romanticism’s temptation to sentamentalize nature and the past by treating it as an inescapable part of our existence. We cannot simply escape to the sunny fields and live in some arcadian fantasy. When a lullaby comes out of “the gutter’s slop”, or flowers  break through pavement cracks, and weeds bloom among Old Town ruins, neither nature’s beauty, nor the past, are unproblematically given. One has to look hard through the dust to see what is really there, and what is there turns out to be a complex interwoven tapestry of concrete, steel, nature, folklore, history and people of all kinds.

Another unique feature of Vaičiūnaitė’s work is the use of the dramatic monologue applied to historical and mythological characters, who were often also women. In this, we can see some overlap with Constantine Cavafy, at least in terms of the treatment of modern love in the city and the dramatic historical monologue in language that is both modernist and traditional in style and voice. Both her monologues and her city poems are often concerned with history. Vilnius has a complex past, having been part of many countries and home to many ethnicities. Vaičiūnaitė strays from the standard neo-romantic nationalist mode by incorporating this diverse history into her work. Thus, we can see how the cycle “Castle” deepens and broadens Lithuanian identity by connecting it to Vilnius’ unique, multi-cultural history. Its Whitmanesque long lines break under the weight of the experiences packed into them. Vilnius, her “Babylon”, is broken, packed with “so many tongues”. It needs to be rebuilt, not on narrow nationalist models (i.e., “blood and soil”), but in a way that reflects its variegated and welcoming past.

Silversmiths, salt-sellers and cobblers,
        may you live here in concord.
All homeless wanderers of goodwill –
        may you build this Vilnius.

    As we saw with “To Gather Geraniums Yet”, Vaičiūnaitė by no means ignores the neo-romantic emphasis on nature, but does something different by bringing it into the city, integrating those traditional values with her actual lived urban experience. “Sunflower” expands on the earlier poem by granting more sustained attention to the specific interaction of nature and city, with less focus on the subject’s experiences, and now with the broken lines characteristic of her urban poetics.

a flower of green, alien blood,
        as if sprouting from the Vilnius baroque,
it rocked its noble head up high
        above the sleepy heat of scattered
bricks, above debris,
        above foundations previously unseen,
        above the medieval town

As in the case of Vaičiūnaitė and Cavafy, here too we can point to co-evolutionary phases in her Eastern European poetics with (the rest of) the West. “Sunflower” calls to mind Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra” in its evocation of the lone city flower growing through debris, gazing through dust, the dust of the city, and the dust of history. It’s “alien” blood exemplifies otherness. In the original, Vaičiūnaitė wrote “Indian” (i.e., Native American). I generalized the translation to bring to the fore the sense in which almost all the inhabitants of post-Vilnius were “aliens”, that is, they came from elsewhere to inhabit a city largely emptied (through murder or relocation) of its Polish and Jewish inhabitants. Vaičiūnaitė herself was born in Kaunas (the interwar capital, Vilnius having been illegally and forcibly annexed by Poland in 1920). Her family moved to Vilnius after the war. Most other leading poets of Lithuania were from town and country (with the exception of Venclova). Vaičiūnaitė’s urban, multicultural perspective is rooted in her personal history, which is also one of dislocation, of being “other” in one’s home (Vilnius) and in one’s tradition. Notice how in “Sunflower”, she positions the flower on Tartar Street, named after the Central Asian peoples who both fought against and for Lithuania in the years of the Grand Duchy, some of whom remain as a minority culture. Layers of history intertwine: “the medieval town”, “the Vilnius baroque”, “the royal summer park”, “the iron stubble”. We are all alien, and yet we can all belong, drawing on our shared nature. We just need to see through the dust.


Rimas Uzgiris, PhD, MFA
Vilnius University

 

1. One could argue that similar features were present in the field of Lithuanian painting where expressionism was a dominant mode through the end of the 20th c. The Danish artist Henrik Anderson, who has been coming to teach at the Vilnius Art Academy for years, has said, in conversation, that he was amazed that art was consistently and exclusively understood until very recently from the perspective of the subject, in terms of personal expression.

2. The poems mentioned in this essay are all published in my translation together with this essay in the Vilnius Review.

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