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Jonas Zdanys was born in New Britain, Connecticut, a few months after his parents arrived in the United States from a United Nations camp for Lithuanian refugees.  He received his B.A. in English from Yale University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English from the State University of New York.

A bilingual poet and translator, he is the author of forty-nine books. Forty-five of those volumes are collections of his original poetry, written in English or in Lithuanian, and of his translations of Lithuanian poetry and fiction into English. He has received a number of prizes, book awards, writing and travel grants, and public recognitions for his poetry and for his translations.  His poem Easter, his translation of Velykos by Judita Vaičiūnaitė, was selected by the Scottish Poetry Library and the BBC to represent Lithuania during the 2012 Olympics in London. Other recent recognitions include an exhibit about his life and work by the National Library of Lithuania, writing and translation grants from the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture, appointment as Phi Beta Kappa Poet at Connecticut College, selection as Featured Poet at the Scissortail Literary Festival, and appointment as Poet in Residence at Sacred Heart University.

He is also active as an editor and a literary panelist and has served as a reviewer for Wesleyan University Press, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, the National Endowment for the Arts, and World Literature Today.

He has taught at the State University of New York and at Yale University, where he held a number of administrative positions and was a Scholar-in-Residence in the Yale Center for Russian and East European Studies. As part of his international activities, he was appointed a consultant for the reorganization of higher education by the Lithuanian Ministry of Education and the Lithuanian Parliament. He served for more than a decade as the state of Connecticut’s Chief Academic Officer and is currently Professor of English and Poet in Residence at Sacred Heart University.

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Graphic Novels

rewiever Alan Bereckaby
Alan Berecka

 

 

Jonas Zdanys review 02

Jonas Zdanys, The Angled Road: Collected Poems 1970-2020. Lamar University Literary Press, Beaumont, Texas, 2020. 286 pp.

Jonas Zdanys’s The Angled Road: Collected Poems 1970-2020 covers the astonishing career of a well-known poet. After all, fifty years of anything—marriage, employment— is quite an accomplishment, and in our world today, just living that long is getting more impressive by the hour. As with any anniversary of such magnitude, a celebration is in order, and mostly that is what The Angled Road is, but unlike most golden anniversary parties, the one honored is offering his gifts to those who are wise enough to attend by reading this important book, a book that starts with the poet’s latest work and travels backwards through time, collection by collection.

To be honest, I am humbled by the task of reviewing a book that contains such a wide breadth of an artist’s work, but I believe I have identified certain motifs that remain constant in Zdanys’s work. The most prevalent of these elements is light. I ran a quick word search on the PDF of the manuscript that I had been sent by The Vilnius Review to be sure I was correct in my assumption. I found out that the word "light" appears over 430 times in the 286-page manuscript. Not only that, but references to the celestial lights, the sun, moon, and stars, appear another 300 times. Therefore, I feel quite safe in saying that in his poems Zdanys constantly informs his reader about the quality of light in each scene that he creates. In his use of light, I am partly reminded of Caravaggio who used light to draw the attention of the viewers of his paintings to certain elements of a scene and in doing so created narrative elements in a static image. But mainly, Zdanys uses light like a stage director uses a scrim, to obscure or reveal elements of the scenery, depending on the needs of a script. As I read this book, I sensed the work of an honest poet who is aware that a scrim separates him from something essential, something that appears only fleetingly a few times in a lifetime. In this longing, I believe Zdanys’s work can be seen as essentially incarnational. The important role that light plays in this process can as seen in these lines from Notebook Sketches:

May the dark be forgotten, may the impenetrable
silence at the heart of every form dare itself
to bleed and dance at last in the whole of light. (p 22)

Another poem in the same collection contains these lines which describe both the importance and the fleeting nature of the moments when the incarnation becomes apparent:

For a moment, then, we have
a glimpse of ourselves, the mystery
of being between horizons,
eternity a thin smoldering in dust
and dark patches on cold sand.
We are a strange beauty. (p 41)

In the book Red Stones in the poem numbered “LVII” he writes:

My broken soul leans back against its hour
startling itself in the absence of sound and air.
I am at the center, released from form.
The pall of infinity tilts. Desire broods. (p 41)

In the book The Kingfisher’s Reign, there are other hints of the poet’s grasping beyond the surface or perceiving through the scrim. In the poem “Skimming the Air in November,” the persona in the poem finds a piece of opaque glass under some leaves and decides to throw glass through the air. As he watches the glass fly, he has what one might describe as an ecstatic vision, or a recognition of the sublime:

it was like the movement of indistinct form
to ultimate clarity, the infinite from the infinite,
running and standing still all at once, all at once,
from darkness to light and then back again
to the far dominion of dead leaves, the silence
of time before the beginning that hangs like
a blue shadow on a distant wall.

The poem concludes with these lines:

I understand the resurrection possible for the things
of this earth, the driven truth that covers the world
to quicksilver and change.
And I float like a piece of glass cast across
the heavens, unravel a hidden fate, transcend
the barrier of time and place to eternity’s grand mistake. (p 148)

These are just a few examples where the light hits the scrim just right and a poem’s speaker is allowed to glimpse beyond it. However, to say that Zdanys’s poetry has incarnational aspects should not be taken as a statement that the work is primarily Christian, dogmatic, or didactic. One can see this lack of dogmatic fervor in poem “34” from the collection Three White Horses:

It is all chaos, I know that now, some
random impaling of the light, not
a predicted effect or certain analogy
of action but a congress of limps
and desires unmet when the thin bones
ride the loosed horses. (p 70)

In his poetry, Zdanys pulls images in from various mythological traditions and does not seem to favor one over another. Even though there are poems that reference Christian saints, and there are many biblical allusions from the Old and New Testaments throughout his work, Zdanys also alludes to Greek and Roman mythology, the Celtic traditions, Norse and Scandinavian traditions, as well as Baltic myths, in the corpus of his work. I doubt that this is a complete list of traditions, as I suspect there are other traditions that I failed to pick up on. As one reads Zdanys’s poems, what is apparent is the keenness of the man’s intellect and the prodigious extent of his learning. In his poetry he deals with these traditions in the utmost respect. One can see this reverence in a poem from Notebook Sketches that begins: “They took down the tree at the front door/ and quite unexpectedly the house was colder / and darker than it was before (p 26).” To the Celts the yew was sacred; to the Lithuanians oak trees, especially those struck by the lightning of the god Perkunas, were thought to be sacred places. In the opening lines of this poem, Zdanys doesn’t name the tree, but he alerts the reader to its special qualities in that when the tree is removed, less light, which I believe here stands as metaphor for knowledge, reaches into the house it once stood in front of. He goes on to describe the result of the felling of the tree.                    

But it was as if nothing whatever happened,
no link in its falling between the living and
the dead, though an order of existence came to
an end and destiny now hung naked in the air
where the thick axle of the world once stood.
The nature of loss is a holy thing… (p 26)

The poem concludes with the further ramification of the loss of pre-Christian traditions of Europe.

Up in the attic I cry myself to sleep and dream
about stars on a low horizon. The tree
outlived half my family in a grand confusion
of gravity and death, the beauty of the world
waning in the pleasures of its end. This is how
things happen, how everything we call back
travels off again, its price exacted, or at
least this is how we create our lost tomorrows. (p 26, 27)

The sense of loss that is conveyed at the end of the poem is not only for a natural wonder, but also for a system that sought to understand the natural order and stayed in place until the late 14th century in Lithuania. Perhaps also in the book that was published most recently in the collection, the poet has realized that, at least in his poetry, the few glimpses he has had through the scrim have occurred through the understanding of the natural order as much as through the application of theological dogma.

These glimpses of what might be called the essence of being in Zdanys’s poetry are rare, perhaps one or two a book. I believe it is important that the capturings of the sublime moments don’t occur at the end of the collections. They are not the end of a narrative arc which are won through some directed effort but occur rather through accident or perhaps the random occurrence of grace. Zdanys describes the random nature of these momentary breakthroughs in the poem “Reflections in God’s Mirror” found in the collection Salt:

time was horizontal
an overturned glass on the table…

I have come to the still center
I rise and try to walk

this is how all beginnings come
as the saw of night keeps cutting… (p 193)

In the later collection The Kingfisher’s Reign, Zdanys further illuminates his inability to capture these moments through directed action in perhaps my favorite of his poems, “In a White Room in Late August.” In this poem we see a simple barefoot man carrying a blue door through a field looking for the right place to put it down, knowing if it is placed correctly that “…it will open/ among clouds of dust to heaven” (p 129). But all the man finds through his effort is an “eternal absence.”

In “In a White Room in Late August,” what drives the man to carry the door to the field is the loss of domestic bliss. Throughout The Angled Road, another motif that has the ability to backlight the scrim for a moment is love. I fear that when a ham-handed critic as myself writes about the importance of love in a poet’s work that there will be eye rolling and cringing on at least two continents. However, Zdanys’s approach to the subject is much more subtle and sophisticated than Lennon and McCartney’s “All You Need is Love.” Zdanys approaches all the aspects of human love including the carnal. In the poem “Interlude,” found in The Kingfisher’s Reign, the importance and physical nature of love is revealed in these poignant lines:

Your blouse was a mayfly as I kissed your mouth
that night, my hand a lost soul on your breast.
I knew then what the center of the world looked like. (p 126)

Zdanys explored the portal through the scrim that love can become in his earlier poem “Beneath the White Balcony" in the collection Water Light.  Here he writes:

5.
Hands, words: they tell us of only one affair of body and thought. What I feel for you is impossible to translate in either one of these two languages.

6.
We love each other without a point of support, in an eternity of anticipation, in the soft corners/ of a white night without shadows, in the place where death dies.

7.
I say this to you in whispers beneath your white balcony: there is nothing older or newer than/ this love, I will never finish beginning to love you. (p 259)

To only highlight these poems and their epiphanies, I confess that I fear I am misrepresenting the majority of Zdanys’s work, which often contains descriptions of cities at night and of frozen and barren landscapes that emphasize the isolation of the poet’s persona. There are also many character sketches contained in this collection. Some of these poems describe those that had led hard lives. In Notebook Sketches, he creates the darkest of these character sketches:

My uncle drove a dark red pickup truck
with a bottle of Thunderbird tawny port
under the driver's seat.
His mother was swollen and yellow
when she died, hair fine as feathers,
voice quaking across the dim border
of her room, and he laughed
without needing to apologize,
to her or anyone else for anything,
finished up whatever work he could find,
put ketchup on his bread before
burying her and throwing
an empty bottle of wine into the hole
where they put her.
Snow came like a quick errand.
He didn't bother with a coat. (p 42)

When I read this poem, my mind flashed to Viktor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl wrote the book as a result of his death camp experiences during the Holocaust. In it, he posits that it is man’s ability to search for meaning outside of himself in altruistic pursuits, such as art, love, religion, that keeps humans being human in the worst of times. When a man sinks inside of himself, he devolves into a being who is incapable of caring for anyone but himself. In the work of Zdanys, the observations of Frankl play out. This is not to say the poet did it intentionally, it is only to note that I find it interesting that Zdanys’s work illuminates the theory so well.

There are other aspects of Zdanys work that should be celebrated, not the least of which is his willingness to experiment in forms and his deft use of them. I find it interesting that The Kingfisher’s Reign first appeared as a collection of prose poems, but in The Angled Road, the collection utilizes lines breaks. Perhaps his greatest accomplishments in form can be found in the collection White. In this book Zdanys experiments with what a poem should look like on the page. The tour de force is the last stanza of the poem Evolution:

All your life you heard water calling your name:
all your life you heard water calling your:
all your life you heard water calling:
all your life you heard water:
all your life you heard:
all your life you:
all your life:
all your:
all:
(p 211)

 

In White, Zdanys often uses three or four columns to create poems that lead the reader to wonder how one should actually read the poem, only to find out that at times one can read each column as a separate poem or one can read continuously left to right to read one poem. This is a trick only the best of masters can pull off.

There is plenty in The Angled Road for anyone to explore. I hope that someone will write an entire book exploring the career of Zdanys. Afterall, so much of his work as translator does not even appear in this collection, and I have not even visited every collection in this book. For example, Lithuanian Crossing, which is the most narrative of his collections, and, therefore, one of my favorites, has managed to escape the final draft of this review. But again, to cover this collection in a single review is a fool’s errand. However, I do not believe it is foolish to say that this is an important collection of a major poet’s work which is worth the time of anyone to sit with and read it carefully. When each of you come to this work, no doubt you will find other poems and themes that you will find enriching, and that is what I find so great about great art, there is so much to find, so much to reverberate in each reader’s experience. In any case I hope this review has given you a taste that will bring you to celebration of Jonas Zdanys’s golden anniversary as a publishing poet. You have your invitation, no need to RSVP.

 

 

 

Alan Berecka resides in Sinton, Texas.  He earns his keep as a librarian at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. His poetry has appeared in such places as American Literary ReviewTexas Review and The Christian Century. He has authored three chapbooks, and four full collections, the latest of which is the The Hamlet of Stittville. In 2017 he was named as the first poet laureate of Corpus Christi.

 

 

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