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Nojus Saulytis

I was born in the Autumn of 1989 in Vilnius. I began writing poetry quite late, maybe when I was 16, after I found my father’s old notebook filled with poems. Besides writing, I enjoy recording videos with my camera, playing chess, and giving balloons as presents to my friends. I currently work at a museum (at the Former Detention House, a department of the National Museum of Lithuania). My first poetry book sms little flower (sms gėlytė) was published in 2020.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Virginija Cibarauske

by
Virginija Cibarauskė

 Translated by Gabija Barnard

 

Ieva Toleikyte review 02Nojus Saulytis, sms gėlytė. - K.: Kitos knygos, 2020

In Lithuanian, the saying “It’s just some little flowers” means that the event in question has not reached its full extent, that it is only the beginning, nothing to be taken too seriously. However, sometimes the things that, at first glance, seem simple and superficial are anying but.  Sometimes, hidden depths and additional meanings lie beneath feigned simplicity and naiveté.

On the surface, sms gėlytė (sms little flower), the debut poetry collection by Nojus Saulytis, also appeals to simplicity and diary-like naiveté. When asked why he chose this title in an interview, Saulytis said that he settled on the diminutive “little flower” hoping to help the reader understand that his poems are not defined by pathos, excessive earnestness, or a penchant for “great poetry,” as is often typical for Lithuanian poetry. On the contrary: in his poems, Saulytis wanted to communicate and share his experiences and emotions. The design of the book by the author’s brother, Mykolas Saulytis, also hints towards a close relationship with the reader: the little photographs next to the poetry (we all have hundreds of such in our smartphones) depict everyday images such as the balconies of a high-rise, a Superman t-shirt, a dead pigeon, and of the author himself. In other words, both the poetry and the images belong to the realm of ordinary experiences that are still special enough to document.

The titular SMS message, a text that belongs to the realm of everyday communication and not to high culture, also hints at an attempt to “humble” the world of poetry. We usually send each other text messages to discuss simple, uncomplicated matters, whereas more serious subjects are reserved for phone calls or face-to-face conversations. Furthermore, as soon as the use of mobile phones became widespread, guardians of the Lithuanian language started ringing alarm bells: due to the limited number of characters in a text message, users started forsaking punctuation marks, capital letters, and diacritical markings; words were shortened and Anglicisms became commonplace. Also, communication via SMS messages (which has been, in recent years, replaced by free-of-charge messaging applications like Facebook Messenger) is a socio-cultural throwback to the 2000s, the time of Saulytis’s adolescence, which became the main inspiration and subject of his poetry debut.

On the one hand, Saulytis’s laconic poems (written in a lexicon close to a colloquial vernacular that does not shy away from Anglicisms, even though it does not overuse them), which record the seemingly mundane images and scenarios of domestic life, do in fact imitate the form of the SMS message and strengthen the impression that the poems were written to unburden the “sender,” to chat, and to share. The rejection of punctuation also adds to this impression. On the other hand, the title, sms gėlytė, is ironically self-aware of its mimicry: a poem both conveys a subject matter (an emotion, a thought, or a mood) and reshapes it, much like the symbol of the little flower in an SMS message, sent because there is either no opportunity or no desire to present a real one. The icon that represents a flower in the text message can either be freely chosen from a pre-made list or arbitrarily made up by the sender. Therefore, the assumed adolescent naiveté is not just a feature of the text (or the author), but a theme that requires representative symbols to be conveyed.

In general, the theme of adolescence is more characteristic of Lithuanian prose than poetry. The experience of the child and the teenager has been explored in depth both by the classics like Jonas Biliūnas in the short story “Kliudžiau” (I Hit It), Šatrijos Ragana in her short story “Irkos Tragedija” (Irka’s Tragedy), and Vincas Mykolaitis Putinas in the first part of his novel Altorių šešėly (In the Shadow of Altars) as well as by more contemporary authors. Today, it is predominantly fiction writers in their thirties and forties that focus their attention on adolescence, and, much like the work of Saulytis, their writing is highly autobiographical. Some of the works that stand out are Pietinia Kronikas (Southside Chronicle), a novel by Rimantas Kmita; Pušis, kuri juokėsi (The Pine That Laughed), a book of short stories by Kęstutis Šapoka; kai aš buvau malalietka (when I was a malalietka), the so-called “novel of today” by Virginija Kulvinskaitė; and the novel Remontas (Renovation) by Jurga Tumasonytė. It is also important to note that, to all these authors, a return to their teenage years is inseparable from a reconstruction of the socio-cultural climate of the 1990s, which, in Lithuania, had the traits of post-independence “cowboy capitalism” and a reassessment of values that, heretofore, had been taken for granted as stable.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian poetry paid relatively little attention to adolescence, favoring the concept of symbolic youth instead. Both Maironis, who is known as the father of Lithuanian poetry, and the avant-garde or neo-Romantic poets of the interwar period (like Salomėja Neris) regard youth as a symbol of extraordinary spiritual tension, strength, and impulse, as well as anxiety and a “roaming heart” accompanied by the imagery of springtime, winds, and the revels of the elements. This interpretation of youth is still popular and can be detected in Saulytis’s poetry, for example, in the final poem of his collection which starts with the line “ugh, spring.” (Though, with heightened irony in translation.)

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the concept of youth in Lithuanian poetry took on more, and more specific, psychological aspects: it was examined not just as a symbolic situation but as a subjective experience affected by the socio-cultural context of the time. For example, Mindaugas Nastaravičius explores the experiences of a teenager living in a small town in his collection Bendratis (Infinitive). However, even the youngest debuting writers depict the state of late adolescence in a hyperbolized, heightened way, and the experiences are mystified and mythologized through the use of various cultural markers. Examples of this are Trapūs daiktai (Fragile Things), a debut poetry collection by Greta Ambrazaitė, and Roma (Rome), Mantas Balakauskas’s poetry debut. It is notable that in his second poetry book, Apmaudas (Resentment), Balakauskas returns to the themes of childhood and adolescence, but instead of using surreal poetic devices and cultural markers, he opts for less flowery language and a focus on emotion and negative feelings such as anger, malice, and resentment.

Saulytis’s debut poetry collection follows the contemporary trend in Lithuanian poetry of connecting the experiences of a teenager with the socio-cultural context and playing with autobiographical contexts. Just like the author, who briefly introduces his biography in an “introductory word,” the subject of the poems is a resident of a “bedroom” neighborhood. Although the poems hint at the hyperbolized state of youth and adolescence typical of Lithuanian poetry, this aspect is more subtle and understated in Saulytis’s work. The underlying bipolarity concealed in the apparently naïve, playful poems is specific to his interpretation of adolescence: it affects the subject’s relationship with the world and other people, with himself, and with his body and mind. The lyrical subject constantly fluctuates between euphoric confidence in himself and in others, and a close connection to his environment and the hopelessness felt upon his realization that both he and the world are flawed, fractured, vague, and indefinable.

Adolescence as a (lost) paradise, a domain of harmony with the self and others, is prevalent in the poems of the first chapters of the collection, for example, “(kadangi šiandien aš su baltais conversais)” [because today i’m wearing white converses] and in “role-play” poems. The yard and neighbors in the block of flats of the lyrical subject, the summer camp, and even the dreams and the car park in which the subject takes drugs with his friend, are somewhat cozy. The narrator is brimming with confidence that everything will (always) be alright: “in the parking lot /of the church/ in which we grew up / we snort cocaine… // i touch his thigh / but he doesn’t want that // we lean back the seat / and lie there // looking / through the sun-roof / at the sky”. There is an atmosphere of almost childlike excitement to rediscover the world, making even everyday objects like new traffic lights, oddly elating: “they built a new traffic light / for us / a month ago / it was turned off / but now i’m standing / for the first time / at a red light… / and it feels good / because i’m thinking / how people can be / such big lights” .

The illusion that this state will last forever is slowly but methodically broken down in later chapters: the texts become darker as ineffable tension rises. Primarily, the here and now becomes the there and then: even though adolescence, or at least the euphoric period of adolescence, is still very close, we come to understand that the time of harmony and joy has come to an end. With this realization comes an intensifying feeling of loneliness in the world; other people, their actions, and the mode of being in the world becomes an annoyance, a disturbance, and an intrusion into the subject’s consciousness: “you people who have opened your windows / speak quietly into your phones / today you should shout less / at your bitches / assholes / and children / because your words on high / turn into a kind of telepathy for me”. Memories of the harmonic past function as an opportunity for escape: “… i want to escape / from my classes / which i don’t have / but it’s good to remember / that feeling / when you leave in the morning / and passing the school / you end up in the forest / with your new / pack of cigarettes”. Religion, drugs (“asdf”), and meditation (“šizofrenikas bando medituoti” [the schizophrenic tries to meditate]) are employed in the hope of recreating a seamless connection with the world. However, even these practices cannot overcome the feelings of detachment or his internal fragmentation and bring the lyrical subject to an elated state that moves further and further from his actual experiences (“prieš metus” [a year ago]).

The interpretation of human relationships in sms gėlytė is also specific. The girls in Saulytis’s poems are not other, remote, or unknown: relationships with members of the opposite sex in the works of both poets and prose writers who choose to explore youth and adolescence are usually problematic. Also, communication with and even the representation of young women are not seeped in eroticism. On the contrary, not only does the lyrical subject communicate with girls via text messages and phone calls, he also, in a way, identifies with them. The subject often observes teenage girls and imagines their everyday lives: to him, those lives seem carefree and even blissful and therefore relatable to his own states of mind: “an underage girl / smokes a cigarette / on the fifth-floor balcony… // she has her moment now / for a few minutes / and she knows – // upon closing the balcony door / she’ll go to the table / pick up her phone / and see / the flashing / of a newly missed message” ; “and teenage girls / will play guitar outside / and you will accidentally / end up in their  / amateur video / with your hair down / free / an actual living being / with your shirt / nicely buttoned / knowing them / down to the last one”.

A refusal to construct strict oppositions and the belief that “everything is made / of the same matter” is linked to another feature specific to the identity of Saulytis’s lyrical subject: a fluid, soft desire that is directed at everyone and no one in particular and is exemplified by conjunction: and and. This state is, of course, directly connected to the liminal identity of a teenager (or someone just transitioning out of adolescence), as it is a period of searching and not of definitive answers. Regardless, the relationships with girls fall into the realms of talking, texting, holding hands, falling in love, and not seeing each other, whereas erotic experiences related to men have permeated the subject’s early memories: “but really / i like writing to monika / because she has this pink jacket / and she never meets up / with me / because really / i like to lie in your bed / and kiss the handsome painter from the looney-bin”. In Saulytis’s poetry, the textbook kindergarten kiss with a cute little girl is replaced by the “dick measuring” of the boys, which is just as textbook but much less explored in Lithuanian poetry: “I can’t speak for you but for me / today I’m especially / getting hard from the thought / of sexual organs / in my mouth / in childhood / vova and i are standing / under the balconies of / justiniškės / with our pants down / and his is much bigger / a year later / we will return there / more than once”.

Homoerotic motifs are not a novelty in Lithuanian poetry written by men, the most notable example being Geležinė vėjarodė (The Iron Weathervane), a debut poetry collection by Karolis Baublys. The main themes of this collection are the multifaceted relationships between men: the father-son relationship, brotherhood, friendship, erotic relationships, and male desire. In Saulytis’s poetry, however, bisexuality or homosexuality is not a position but a fluid state linked to the narrative of maturing and the search for identity. Prevalent motifs in this narrative are the unfinished, open nature of identity and the faith in the possibility of something or someone, be it God or the subject himself, that can transform his identity and remake it to the point of being complete. Incidentally, the first poem concludes with the hope of transformation: “but there are moments of weakness / when i really want god / to take me  / and just do me / do me good.  // maybe i’d be different then / and no one would / judge me”, and the final one closes with the promise of new life: “me too soon, / i’ll live / also with you”.

To summarize, Saulytis stands out in the context of debuting writers of recent years for consciously avoiding the “big” topics and the poetics of high modernism, with all the rich metaphors and cultural symbols that go with it. On the other hand, the naiveté or the Naïve art features of the poems are only superficial: the everyday vocabulary, the concise phrasing, and the apparently trivial situations are all used as the means to convey the experiences of a maturing person. Of them, the most important are the emotional instability and a constant balancing between joy and disappointment, love and separation, the desire to preserve the old self, and to search for a new identity. Instead of the know-it-all attitude often adopted by young poets, Saulytis chooses the position of an observer and a questioner. “How is everything, and how should it all be?” asks “būti” (to be), one of the strongest poems of the collection. The best thing about it is that the lyrical subject answers this question ambiguously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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