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Enrika Striogaitė (b. 1967) is a poet. She studied in the current Klaipėda University but dropped out of her studies after three and a half years, together putting and end to her professional athlete career. She acquired her BA and MA degrees in Lithuanian language and literature in the Kaunas Faculty of Vilnius University. Striogaitė worked as a TV host and producer and cultural journalist. She has published articles on cinema, visual arts, contemporary dance, photography, literature, and music, which appeared in the newspaper Kauno diena, the online magazine Bernardinai, and the cultural periodicals Kultūros barai and Šiaurės Atėnai. Enrika Striogaitė is the author of three books on artists and has also published three books of poetry. Her first book Lyja was published in 2004, and her second – Vienišėja – in 2005. Her most recent book Žmonės was published in 2019.

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Enrika Striogaitė, Žmonės, publishing house Naujasis lankas. Kaunas: 2019.

 

Enrika Striogaite review 02We may regard Enrika Striogaitė as one such cultural participant that you may run into at many art places but never really get to know her. For many years now this poet, author of documentaries, and journalist has managed to appear in public with great stealth. In one of her rare interviews, she once stated that “I have nothing to celebrate, nothing to attach myself to, and I try to go through life without leaving a trace.”[1]

These words could be the unwritten credo of her book Žmonės (“People”). The book, published after a 14-year hiatus, is quite different as compared to her previous titles: the conditional, lyrical, and testifying to the intense lust of experience Lyja (2004) and Vienišėja (2005). In Žmonės, the author’s states are suppressed, while focus is paid to the ones around the subject.

The title of the work provokes an ironic analogy with the popular Lithuanian tabloid Žmonės, which mostly deals with celebrity affairs. It is chosen symbolically, for we often refer to “socializing” as a form of publicity, purchasing power, and fitting in. In her poetry, Striogaitė chooses to depict the regular folks who do not abide by these definitions – the passersby of ours in shopping malls, on the streets, and maybe some that we could meet at Caritas. Surely, the ironic divide between the so-called highbrow society and the vulnerable groups provokes common discrepancies and raises questions of the social nature. Yet we must agree that this is nothing new for poetry: the slide from the upper classes to the marginalized has long transpired, while the problems of the “unfortunates” and the “little people” have become a typical topic in literature. So what is the secret of the appeal of this book?

In her poetry, Striogaitė gives voice to the representatives of the middle (same as the author herself) and older generations, who are often left voiceless in public spaces, as well as their attitudes and reasoning. It is a world of people who have already endured the periods of political and economic upheavals as well as strong personal upturns and misfortunes. This social segment is overshadowed by the cult of uniqueness and youth, stories of success, careerism, and the desire to be accepted. However, there’s doubt as to whether the characters of Žmonės care about how they should feel themselves or seek validation in such a world. Because they are touched by many other significant factors (families emigrating, poverty, old age), they surely are left outside of the abovementioned habits of modern living and illusions about the future. Thus, since the various topical things are just background noise for these characters, their domestic surrounding, which denotes the present, begins to concern us.

The portrait genre is utilized by Striogaitė as a good tool for analyzing life, society, and herself. The author creates her characters based on various prototypes and interviews them as if she were shooting a social documentary, writing down the subjective Curriculum Vitae, occasionally entering their natural habitat, dubbing their thoughts, which are provoked by the implicit questions of the author-journalist (“yes, my son and daughter are in Norway,” “yeah, I mean, these cats through the window / are all that I’m left with”). In this way, the strand of a natural conversation is imitated, and a possibility is created for a radical nudity to emerge, while objects may also take part in human conversation. Upon accessing the personal space, the world of the vulnerable is hence normalized and domesticated; it is through them that it is spoken what life is and which things are the most important in it. Reading this book oftentimes felt like as if I was sitting on a used sofa belonging to an elderly citizen or a divorced mother and that by sitting I would become immersed in their slow world, often full of mild grievances, pity, unfulfilled love and care. Yes, a world specifically theirs, and not that of their vices, gossip, or addictions. For that reason, the author, first by emphasizing social vulnerability, actually seeks to capture that which is existential.

The cultural names given to some characters push us to reconsider our perspectives on old age. For example, Barbora R. is associated with the name of Barbora Radvilaitė, Queen of Poland and Grand Duchess of Lithuania. This noblewoman, famous for her beauty, appears surprised in the modern text: “but why are you writing about me? / […] / in that poem / am I beautiful?” As if it were a scene from a movie, a poem deals with a tired version of the Biblical Peter, guarding the entrance not of heaven, but prison, and a converted drunk-apostle Saul. We may also see a now-retired Moses, and the lovers Adam and Eve. Various narratives and religious details are carefully woven in the new story and thus determine a peculiar effect – the illusions of reality is sought this way. In this new context, canonical figures change their status, become mortal, flawed, and the eternal narratives associated with them allow us to disclose not an allegorical but real collective experience within the context of the book.

Another part of this sensitive world are disclosed with episodical poems that are written by elderly poets. Two models collide here. Alfukas still cherishes poetic ambitions (“I sometimes thought / that I am almost Verlaine / a Rimbaud Byron […] and I think so now, too”), writes poems on the four seasons and the passing of life. Napoleon attempts to shed the complex of a fierce conqueror that befits his name. A contemplation on elderly life in poetry in general often serves as a pretense toward a more “philosophical” or allegorical content, a natural position of authority, most often associated with experience, insight, and wisdom. This idea is dethroned in Striogaitė’s poetry. The characters (not only the poets) reveal human imperfection and natural drama fearlessly and without any metaphors. More so – many of these things are uttered as if after a sigh, with a label of constant fatigue; this is a rare emotion in Lithuanian poetry.

The strength of Žmonės lies in its balance between a documentary and poetry. The poetic view is often based on a subtle contrast of meaning; tranquility and negativity, improper domestic speech is interrupted by a comic effect and lyricism (e.g., the exaggerated courtesies of the characters in the charity canteen), while any sense of romance is swiftly struck with sharp stab of reality (“I first kissed him / a car going at great speed / hit ----- / his grocery bag”) and vice versa. Thus, here “dehumanization” is not the only influential factor; there is also the attentiveness of the poet and her capacity to control, using various literary means, the dramatism of the text, which takes a turn toward sentiment and morality.

Although the book clamors with many different voices, more than one character appears to be linked to another through family or romantic ties. This becomes apparent only through the course of the book; this only supplements the contents and shows us that Striogaitė is able to depict authentic reasoning and avoids putting either her characters or their truly individual situations into stereotypes.  Also, the interrelationships of the characters are precisely the elements that disclose to us the strand of general alienation and isolation that stretches throughout the book. And how can it not? It evolves in accordance with two directions – that of abandonment and that of the general need for love, which unites all people. In Striogaitė’s book, the need for love is much stronger; it may be viewed as an optimistic status that defines all of the characters and reveals to us that one’s social standing does not determine moral decline.

Thus, upon reading this book of broad scope, one is overwhelmed by a sense of trust in people and naturalness, not lack of empathy. And this is a sort of an antidote to stereotypes, hypocrisy, and artificial metaphors. It is very likely that when critics realize all this they will include Striogaitė’s Žmonės in the Most Creative Lithuanian Book List of 2019. This book is not a marginal one.

 

1. http://kamane.lt/eng/Kamane-s-texts/Literature/Poetess-Enrika-Striogaite-I-live-trying-to-leave-no-trace

 

 

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

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