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Alvydas Šlepikas (born 1966) is one of the most multi-talented contemporary Lithuanian writers, moving between the worlds of literature, theatre, film and television. He is a poet, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, actor and director. He participates actively in the literary life of the country and is a member of both the Lithuanian PEN Centre and the Lithuanian Writers’ Union. His novel Mano vardas – Marytė (In the Shadow of Wolves) – a moving story about the so-called ‘wolf children’ – became the most read novel of 2012 in Lithuania and has gone through six reprints. It is one of the most translated Lithuanian books of recent times and has now been published in Belarusian, Dutch, Estonian, German, Latvian, Polish and Ukrainian. Both the poetry and prose of Alvydas Šlepikas are characterized by a lively visual style and a subtle intertwining of the past and present.

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reflections on belonging

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Graphic Novels

Lina Buividaviciuteby
Lina Buividavičiūtė

 

 

Alvydas Šlepikas, My Father Is Fishing. The Lithuanian Writers Union Publishing House, Vilnius: 2019

 

Alvydas Slepikas 13 11 19 review 02I am not sure whether it would be proper to begin my review with a banality, considering that Šlepikas’s works can in no way be described as banal, but then again, if we agree that a one-person band can exist, I would consider Alvydas to be the No. 1 definition of such an individual. Author, playwright, poet, director, actor—an enviable array for a single individual. I have been observing his success for quite some time now. For example, he was met with praise as an author after publishing his short story collection God of Rain (2005), while the same book, supplemented with more original content, saw the light of day again in 2016. But Šlepikas’s greatest literary success came after he published his accurate, forceful novel that speaks about the historically painful matter of the “wolf children,” called In the Shadow of Wolves (2011). The book won the 2012 Book of the Year competition in the adult literature category and earned numerous awards. I often thought that Šlepikas’s successes as a writer overshadowed his talented and noteworthy poetry, even though he had previously published two poetry collections (Peace to Your Blood, 1997; Approaching Silence, 2003). The poet also published his work in the interesting conceptual anthology Strangers (1994) and the collected poetry works After 20 (2014). I was very glad to discover that this year the author published a whole set of his collected works. I was even more happy to know that many of the poems included in this book were taken from previous books and were edited and refined and, as a result, acquired different endings and an even brighter glow. True, it is not always easy to separate previously unpublished works from those that have been edited, but in truth, when looking at Šlepikas’s oeuvre collected in one book, I was more concerned with observing the general trends in his poetry as well as its colors and unique traits. In other words, I chose the panoramic perspective, which, I believe, will help me in cracking open the multifaceted and dynamic poetry of Alvydas Šlepikas.

The first characteristic that caught my eye after reading the whole book was the author’s dynamic style and flow. From poetry written in traditional, rhymed form (I consider these to be examples of a more classical type of poetry) to an expressionist, Four Winds-esque[1] speech; from a poetic experiment and an expressive, ironic tone to solemnity, death, and loss, which are realized through a harmony of the real and the surreal. Let us compare the following: “The Sun stopped in the sky / surprised, laughter stopped too— / a hot, sultry girl” (“Copernicus,” p. 39) and “Green, yellow!—The leaves scream. / Blue, blue!—The bridge, houses, and runners respond / So loudly / That the expressionists / Turn in their graves” (“Long Live the Fall!,” p. 91) with the poem printed on the cover of the book: “Here is my mother and father, and brother / Writers who passed away long ago / My friends whom I miss / They have all gathered here and look through the windows / And rises a slowly lucid day of deceit / It’s back and wagging its tail / The cur that was put to sleep” (“Flamingos in Snow”). There are a few graphic poems as well—experiments of form. However, I consider the main leitmotif to be the quoted poem, namely the subjects’ attempts to reconcile themselves with loss and decay and revive images that are too quick to disappear by means of memory and recollections. Thus, the main style and semantics of these poems revolve around personal and collective history, the fragility of the subject and the world, the splitting of time that portrays reality and the surreal ways it is made strange; it revolves around an eternal solitude and those who have been lost—lost people, loved ones, friends, those met in real life, and those met only in literature. There is a fluctuation between the all-encompassing nothingness and the possibility of eternity, which is possible through accessing a living memory and binding it with words. The subject of the poems captures the fact that “you’re panting death – breathing it in, out” (p. 33), “everything ends some time anyhow” (p. 51), while the boy looks from a “rusty picture” (p. 27); on the other hand, it is believed that “There should be, there should be much more—[…] which is always now” (p. 69)—thus, the possibility of eternity is posited as well.

One of the most beautiful and, I’d say, most programmatic poems in this collection is “My Father Is Fishing,” wherein the author plays with the twofold meanings of a Lithuanian word—to go fishing and to die.[2] Being and non-being are splendidly melded together, when the one period—the time of life and movement and of being a father and son—is replaced with the period of loss and nothingness. When a loved one is lost, a foundational question is raised whether a person ought to believe in the rivers of the “beyond,” whether the chubs will swim in the “dark pits of the sky,” where it will be possible to fish (žūti) them with memory catchers. A reply to this is given in the form of another untitled poem. Here, loss and nothingness posited gain frightening proximity to the non-existent, to repetitions, and the umbilical cord of being that we are all bound by to even loved ones who have already left us: “in all the mirrors of the world / my father’s eyes / in the reflection of my eyes / I am afraid to look and see father / with a tired look on his face / looking / at himself” (p. 151).

What’s left is to hex time itself: “let everything return to its place—let it stop and rest” (“Hex,” p. 53). This poem is a variation of a protective spell—a formula that shields a person from decay. God, who created the Universe, rested on the seventh day; the poem’s subject wishes to rest from that which is created throughout the long existence of the world and people: “let everything return to its place—snake, take disease / let everything return to its place—spider, cure fatigue / let everything return to its place—cat, take infirmity / let everything return to its place—griffin, regurgitate health” (p. 54).

Just as Marius Burokas stated in his review, the figures of the father, the son, and the mother are archetypes in Šlepikas’s poetry, and they are characterized by a broad reach and a special power over the subject. For example, the mother as a mythical bird in the poem “Ornithology of Dreams”: “mother’s great / black wings / cover the sky” (p. 19). On the other hand, in other poems we see these archetypical states of existence as especially human and touched by suffering. In the trajectories of time, we see the subject already singing a “lullaby for mother.” Another poem, “A Silent Woman,” reveals a combination of the fatigue, weakness, and divinity of the mother. A beautiful and important piece is “A Poem for the Birth of a Son,” in which human existence is compared to natural phenomena—a celestial body in this case. The poem’s moon, as well as the inanimate objects of nature found in other texts, are personified and drawn especially close to humans and their fate: “the moon is wrinkling, / its flames are turning gray” (p. 13). Šlepikas’s poetry is elevated to a universal level by the abovementioned archetypical value of the central figures, his attention to the details of global history (found, for example, in the poem “Spring. More and More Light”), and the intertextual poems devoted to either foreign or Lithuanian artists and philosophers. A particular relationship and a particular interpretative perspective is established in relation to Ingeborg Bachmann, Constantine P. Cavafy, Gerardo Beltrán, Friedrich Schiller, Saint Augustine, the Lithuanian poet Salomėja Neris, writer Balys Sruoga, friend Herkus Kunčius, and others. I enjoyed how authentic, how especially deeply sought through and felt for Šlepikas’s poetic interpretations are and how they are read like an implied conversation—a conversation, it seems, between two equal interlocutors.

Also important are the poems in this book that articulate lingual experiences. The style here ranges from seriousness to irony and from the belief in the power of language to its utter powerlessness, “Having swilled poetry down to the dregs” (p. 69), where “the flowers of December” are written “in blood” (p. 155); the universes of these poems draw nearer and then further away. Perhaps the most playful poem that relates to this topic is the “Curse (the Monologue of a Poet’s Wife),” which ironically questions the price of poetry, paid not only by the poet himself but also by his relatives: “To hell with your lyricism, jackass / To hell with all of the iambs and chorei / All of the grammar / Your children are naked and barefoot / Their eyes are red and starved / what have you earned from your poetry / a drinking problem and the clap?” (p. 163).

There’s not much to conclude with, save for the fact that Šlepikas produces good poetry. And this: that one-person bands—people great at playing multiple instruments— really do exist.

1. Keturi vėjai (The Four Winds) was an avant-garde Lithuanian literary movement and literary magazine active from 1924 to 1928. The poetic style of authors following this movement was characterized by futurism, expressionism, and the rejection of traditional literary canons.

2. In Lithuanian, and the Aukštaitian dialect in particular, the verb žūti (“to die”) is similar to a variant of the infinitive žuvauti (“to go fishing”); this is probably made possible through a phonetic similarity to its root noun žūklė (“fishing”).

 

 

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

 

 

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