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Rimvydas Stankevičius

Poet, prose writer and  essayist Rimvydas Stankevičius (b. 1973) is the author of 7 poetry books, several books for children and two books of essays. He is The Poetry Spring laureate, has been awarded the Jotvingian prize and Jurga Ivanauskaitė prize.
He studied Lithuanian language at Vilnius University and has been working as a reporter at daily newspaper “Respublika”. In 2001 he worked at Lithuanian Television where he had a cultural broadcast “Kultūros spąstai”. In 2000 by his dramatization, director Saulius Mykolaitis staged a play “Stop mašina” in the Lithuanian National Drama Theater. In 2002 together with composer Rokas Radzevičius he created a rock opera “Jūratė ir Kastytis”. He also writes lyrics. His poetry has been translated into Polish, Swedish, Finnish, English and other languages. He lives in Vilnius.

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Rimvydas Stankevicius review 02

In the pre-medieval Christian tradition, it was typical to believe that awaiting humans after death were not only Hell, Paradise or Purgatory but also the fourth after-life dimension, Limbo, where souls travelled immediately after their earthly existence came to an end. Only later, God permitting, did they traverse to the place they deserved to be in. What is curious is that, according to this concept, souls of artists and of those who suffered from mental disorders remained in Limbo — God apparently refused to judge and make decisions about those peoples’ lives. Such unassigned souls were condemned to await Judgement Day there. Equivalent to that tradition of thought is an attitude increasingly becoming entrenched in modern psychiatry that psychological disorders of artists— writers, painters, composers, and other creators—cannot and should not be classified according to medical indicators. Such people are simply so different that their derangements are justified by the artwork they produce for the good of the humankind. In one of his interviews, the Lithuanian diaspora poet and filmmaker Jonas Mekas expressed his belief that the experiences of saints and their hagiographies only become meaningful once we understand that they suffered in order for humanity to become more refined, more beautiful. It is the same with artists—they are destined to suffer and create because the world ought to become more beautiful than it is.

The book Valhala by the middle-generation Lithuanian poet Rimvydas Stankevičius is an example of such voluntary or otherwise accepted as inescapable speech from what is perceived as a state of limbo. From the very first verses, it transpires that the lyrical subject calls himself dead yet maintains a connection with the reality of the living—he is still here but is already somehow on the other side. Being condemned to suffer, to seek and create beauty is this persona’s will and obligation.

The book of our focus consists of three parts—Valhala is not a new poetry collection, yet neither is it a book of collected poems. This newest volume by Stankevičius is a composition of three of his earlier books: Laužiu antspaudą (I Am Breaking the Seal, 2008), Patys paprasčiausi burtažodžiai (The Simplest Magic Words, 2010) and Ryšys su vadaviete (Connection with the Headquarters, 2012). It is apparent that the author strives to narrate his creative autobiography while avoiding what usually hinders such endeavors—in relaying our own or another person’s past, we distort the facts and add our own, current, interpretation, in this way diminishing and undermining autobiographical reliability. This dilemma between the documented and the actual past has been much written about by the French literary scientist Philippe Lejeune. However, Lejeune, who spent almost his entire life analyzing the principles of constructing and reading autobiographies, almost never mentioned the possibility that there exists a way of talking about one’s past without distorting it, something he probably only understood intuitively. Again, artists are ascribed a certain advantage in this area. Stankevičius is not endeavoring to contemplate how he or his lyrical subject felt a decade or six years ago because he has verse written at that exact time, and probably nothing is more reliable. Thus, Valhala is a book that does not lie about the poet Stankevičius’ past.

The first part of the book, “Laužiu antspaudą” is quite a typical example of the stance and way of thinking that was adopted by the relatively young Lithuanian poets ten years ago. If such poetry had to be categorized as belonging to some cultural or philosophical paradigm, perhaps the most precise description would be related to the ideology, sentiment, and worldview of post-existentialism. During the years of Soviet occupation, the Western European philosophy of existentialism was the only way for the artists, scientists, and philosophers of that time to live relatively freely: it was perceived that the country found itself in a prison constituted both by the physical Iron Curtain and by mental barriers, their role enacted by censorship. Nonetheless, even in that prison environment, existential philosophy expressed the notion of the absurd and the search for meaning related to it—no matter that the meaning escapes those searching for it, because the quest in itself is the aim and the meaning as an alternative to the all-knowing scientific communism and the related practices of the ideological apparatus. Stankevičius’s Valhala is a book of such searching; here, it is already intuitively felt that the wall is gone, which allows a seeking out of God, to compensate for what was forbidden during the years of occupation. Poems from the section “Laužau antspaudą” balance between existential absurdity and the persona’s sense of a direct encounter and God’s existence, a perception that something was kept hidden for long years, and that somewhere in the past (the seals of which should be broken) there lays a possibility of a meaning.  

The second part of the book, “Patys paprasčiausi burtažodžiai”, presents a different tone—in it, we hear the voice of an Old and New Testament prophet or a soothsayer from the old Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Still, even when the questions are asked and answers are given from the position of the initiated, someone who found answers hidden in the past, Stankevičius escapes  accusations of such shortcomings as true belief, fanaticism and so on, often presented to idealists, because even here the reader understands that something is still missing in the narrator’s quest to decode the mystery of faith, human existence, and the world, and to achieve complete harmony with God. Only the final poem of this part of the book is dedicated to Christ, while the rest of this poetry collection, first published eight years ago, relays conversations with prophets and about what they, but not God himself, reveal to the poet. In this way, a respectful distance is maintained in communication with the divine—distance that is indeed propagated by the dogmas of Catholic and Christian faith.

The third and closing part of the book, titled “Ryšys su vadaviete”, is a natural continuation—having listened to prophets, soothsayers, and sages, and having written down what he heard, the lyrical subject is unavoidably compelled to direct his gaze, feelings, and thoughts to himself. In this section, poems convey the persona’s quest for confirmation of his faith through facts from childhood and other moments in the past. He comes to a realization that faith cannot be learned, cannot be reached by deductive reasoning, because it is first and foremost an experiential state. When the lyrical subject self-references in the context of his faith, the verse lines grow shorter, the narrative becomes increasingly fragmented, it disintegrates and loses almost everything it had in common with the affirmations of the first two parts, delivered in long lines and plentiful words.

In the European context, Stankevičius’ Valhala is unique and necessary—a rare Western European poet, living in an essentially secular society, dedicates six years of his life to questions of faith and to sacred, but not sacral, poetry. On the other hand, in the context where we recognize that, historically, European identity, currently experiencing a crisis, is strongly tied to art and religion, Stankevičius comes across as someone who preserves, sustains, evokes and refreshes what is known as the soul of Europe: art and faith. Valhala may even suggest that Europe has found itself in that fourth Christian dimension, Limbo—it is neither dead nor alive. In such tension between profound forces, personal religious attestation always transgresses the borders of egocentric and narcissistic motives. It is an attempt to reclaim a portion of life and creative power for all of us.

 

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