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reflections on belonging

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Lina Buividaviciuteby
Neringa Butnoriūtė

 

 

The recent years have given us an increased number of poetic debuts by authors from varying age groups. Even though the reader with a pulse on the Lithuanian poetry scene will find little to surprise them, it must be said that the young generation of poets, who were born in the Lithuanian independence era, are rapidly expanding their native poetic horizon.

So, if I were to have written this piece several years ago, I would probably have begun it by discussing the various prescriptive poetic attitudes and influences. We have seen a prolonged establishment of the spiritual aesthetes; only a few attempted to “sociologize” their poetry and place a topical focus in their work—in Lithuania this was associated with being political, an element of the Soviet era. The rest were keener on preserving poetry within the realm of high art. Their works sought creative ways of expanding the limits of perception and answering life’s complex questions—what is human mortality? What does it mean to live? What is the essence of writing, what is poetry in itself? Literary critics and the older generation of poets have placed artistry on a high pedestal, almost equal to philosophy and holy scripture (Rimvydas Stankevičius, Aidas Marčėnas, and Donaldas Kajokas, for example). This influenced the attitude on how a poet works with language and on their relationship to everyday occurrences. It was a very binding attitude. To speak in such manner, the poet required the confidence of their reader, and the reader in turn had to be able to feel that the poet had charm and was able to utilize original metaphors. The poetry was very, even radically, literary: instead of providing an outlet to directly experience reality, poets sought to represent it in symbolic meaning. Even the avant-garde poets dealt with the question of art for art’s sake in their work (Tomas S. Butkus, for instance). Little wonder, then, that the debut poets first sought to subscribe to this attitude and keep up in terms of maturity and sophistication, and only later began to refine their personal style.

However, last year’s poetry books published by young poets show us that this attitude is not as relevant anymore. For example, Lukas Miknevičius’s book Empty Beyond the Wind (2019), written in the spirit of the aesthetes, was unanimously described as “old-fashioned” and “boring.”[1] While Vaiva Grainytė’s Gorilla’s Archives (2019; http://vilniusreview.com/poetry/380-vaiva-grainyte), which inventively narrated the “epic” of the world and focused a lot on consumerism, was received as an event in literature and considered a top pick for the Most Creative Book of the Year award. The determinants have surely changed. To what end?

In view of the most recent Lithuanian poetry, its authors acknowledge the complexity of existing in this world as a natural thing. They are realists, much more prone to reflect upon social relationships and relevant issues and inclined to seek a mode of speech that normalizes the social media discourse. Naturally, their poems contain a stronger imprint of psychologism, marking the imperfect thought process of a (maturing) individual, while autobiographic narration is present as well. The relationship with the subject is shifting, too: they focus on the person who is average, someone who does not believe in authority yet does not have the answers to all questions either. We see a growing habit of showing life for what it is—natural, devoid of taboo, awkward, and narrated using very authentic, casual speech, the narration itself marked by extremes, from naïve honesty to nihilism.

Wide in its range of topics (including sexuality, addiction, pornography, and trauma), this poetry is focused on a more liberal reader and thus generates new literary demands: to translate authors that meet their expectations, to question the phenomena of social media poets (e.g., Rupi Kaur), and to seek ways of bypassing traditional literary reading spaces. You’d have a much harder time now finding a bar in Vilnius that was not once a venue for poetry readings, slam poetry is as popular as ever, and open mic poetry nights are becoming a casual sight. All of this regulates the usual schemes of debuts and recognition. It also redefines what is today considered an interesting and relevant poem.

But is the poetry written by the younger generation truly bold and diverse? I would not venture to say so. Today’s debut authors are marked by how ethical their poetry is, not by any novel aesthetic strategy. Neither are any of them truly avant-garde (with the exception of Tomas Petrulis), while their social criticism is comparatively bleak—issues and injustices are presented only as a summarized context for danger. So in terms of this aspect, it is currently much easier to see the younger poets as those with an increasing sense of criticism and a passively resistant attitude that yields an advantage to the artist (Mantas Balakauskas and Simonas Bernotas, for example). The poets are inclined to gather into groups of conscious outsiders and keep their distance from the dumbed-down “office plankton” reality and the exaggerated and perfect lives flaunted on social media. We are yet to see whether this will amount to anything.

 

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The authors of this year’s poetry books are also best described as realists. But a deeper dive into the common context of their work gives us a window into each of their particular styles.

Mantas Balakauskas’s book Vexation is marked by a non-conformist attitude. In a globalized world the driving force of which consists of the demand for prosperity and never-ending discoveries and achievements, the poet chooses to demonstrate a critical take on the mainstream way of thinking: “victories mess up a carefully planned catastrophe.” In his poetry, defeat is the acknowledged fate of the individual, yet the acceptance of this defeat does not imply peaceful resignation. Balakauskas’s poetry contains a lot of militaristic images and vocabulary, which guide the reader to the perspective that reality is an unsolved conflict between the individual and the crowd. It may seem that the latter has the upper hand, but the poet is inclined to subtly tilt the balance of power to show that the individual is not a mere cog in the machine. When the poet presumes that he is “an empty round in a little boy’s pocket” he does not ask the reader to pity him. One the one hand, this establishes the classic attitude of the privileged artist. On the other, such a defeat in Vexation can also signify a Pyrrhic victory.

In giving his book the title Vexation, Balakauskas tells us that he considers being vexed to be a powerful weapon. Within vexation lies a wave of disappointment and anger. It has its own cause and its designated target. Thus, a psychological condition in poetry is not a mere result; it remains the axis for the dramatic charge of the poems. This poet finds his artistic power not in creating alternatives but in independent contemplation; he utilizes not some trivial positivity, but a nihilism that stirs the conscious mind (“a murder / is described easier than a flower / in all its glory”), an imagination that overcomes the absurd. However contradictory it may seem, Balakauskas’s texts do not seem to be destructive or distortive. On the contrary—this poetry feels like a breath of fresh air and an original attempt at defining personal freedom.

Laura Kromalcaitė’s debut book We Were Never Here focuses on the feelings of alienation and solitude. Unlike Balakauskas, this poet chooses a vulnerable position: she emphasizes the voice of the naïve and completely insignificant individual. It is a way to discover the world, to ask, and to describe the sensations that make us feel uncomfortable.

The poems frequently comprise two perspectives on reality. The first perspective closely follows the harsh environment, and the other captures the vulnerable self. Both perspectives create an atmosphere of insecurity, replace reality with a dreamscape, or instill a sensation of déjà vu, which only strengthens the artificial nature of the world. In this way We Were Never Here delicately highlights the universal idea that the most authentic of our experiences are inhibited, private, and do not correspond to the laws of our time. This pertains to one of the most striking images in Kromalcaitė’s poetry—the comparison of the chaos and insecurity felt by an individual to the Anthropocene-affected ecosystem. The poet interprets global ecosystem issues in terms of a cataclysm that not only affects the relationship between humans and the natural world that they have enslaved but also encompasses social relationships between people. In her poetry, the coercion to act “like a human being” and not unlike an individual’s true self becomes a challenge—until they are tamed by another person (the need for attachment and animal behavior are frequent motifs) or when that individual manages to experience true love and passion (“by touching you cease to cry”). The all-encompassing degree of alienation is reflected in the depersonalized and gender-neutral style of writing chosen by the poet—after all, in Lithuanian, generalized speech is conjugated using the male gender.

The essence of Nojus Saulytis’s poetry lies in what we would generally call “youthfulness.” His debut book SMS Flower draws the reader into the horizon of an individual undergoing maturation, a process full of lasting impressions, first attractions and separations, bisexual discovery, and religious rebellion. Saulytis’s writing is close to the style of the “new honesty”: it is a naïve stream of consciousness comprised of everyday and psychedelic imagery. This strategy is complemented with pictures from the author’s personal archive, giving the work a diary-esque quality.

The visual poetry of Saulytis seems clear and frivolous only at first sight. SMS Flower offers an insight into the complexities of life (“I don’t get it / what’s this paranoia / as if yesterday you weren’t / holding my hand”). Naivism is what helps us to look at the world without any preconceived notions, without any expectations of the environment, but the poems confront the reader with problems that initiate the speaker into the adult world (the death of a loved one, university graduation, hormones’ effects, etc.). But it appears that the speaker is feigning, and that the naivete serves only as a mask from behind which the speaker can reiterate safe formulations that emphasize restrained despair, anger, and lust. A trance-like desire to attain the object of lust is present, colliding with illusions that never correspond to reality (“next time I’ll bring more / of everything”). Because of this, even the most banal occurrences become painful.

Ieva Toleikytė made her debut with Mustard House (2009), a collection of short stories that borders on the magical realism genre. Her works of that period were clearly marked by an attempt to tame the idea of death and reconcile with the feeling that there’s more to life than we know. A decade later, her poetic debut Slippery Red Palace (2020) is a much more realistic take on life, yet one that retains a magical quality. This book earned Toleikytė the Young Yotvingian Prize.

Slippery Red Palace is influenced by the confessional model of poetry: there is the hint of an autobiographic tone and a sense of tragedy, but there is an originally crafted distance to these elements—the poet instead creates an atmosphere built on the surreal and the mystical.  For example, she presents frequenting an overgrown cemetery as being easier than describing frequenting a café. To delve into grotesque art from the Middle Ages or to watch The X-Files is more interesting than paying attention to social happenings. The intrigue in reading the book comes from the author’s desire, expressed by her tone, to explore and wonder at that which creates confrontation with negative experiences (decomposing bodies, parasites, foul water, etc.) and have a deterring allure to them. On the one hand, this allows the speaker to see herself not as some higher form of life, but as a miniscule organism affected by the same laws of biology as other life forms. On the other, it serves as a background for universal contemplation on personal boundaries, unhappy love, temporariness, and strangeness as a valuable quality.

Toleikytė’s poetry delivers the impression that only the things that we know, that we are aware of, that we have seen actually exist. So, “secrets” are dealt with using two artistic sources: scientific knowledge (biology, anatomy, physics) and the type of imagination ascribed to the genre of fantasy (“and then the sphinxes shall close their eyes / and the diamond lasers from their sockets / will pass you”). Feelings are materialized, too: “while kissing my shoulder, took a bite from my heart.” Traditionally spiritual elements are mere ornaments and metaphors—here, the chimeras borne of imagination and attempts to understand their laws of motion are much more real. Anything is possible; perhaps we will find a way to lift the spell binding their imperfection? Slippery Red Palace stands out as the poet’s “investigation” into this possibility.

Tomas Petrulis’s poetry, too, uses a naïve language to narrate an awkward world. But the creative aims of this poetry are very different from those of his general literary context: Petrulis described his work as an attempt at writing poetry that would be similar to religious poetry in its nature. We will find in his recent poetry book Sterile, not unlike the ancient Anacreontic poems in which various trials are sent by the god Eros. The various temptations are associated with Christian martyrdom: the subject, naturally influenced by irritants and triggers, testifies in their own particular way to their “falls” and “enlightenments” experienced in the modern-day world. The sinful consciousness interprets the world as a symbolic system of permissions and prohibitions. Sterile retains a topical focus on what it means to transgress a boundary and raises universal questions on the normality, rationality, gender identity, tolerance, openness, and other factors that repress an individual.

Petrulis’s poems are marked by a bold imagination that enables the writer to playfully merge obscenities with Christian motifs and emphasize that the physical, mechanical body hides irrational desires. This has greatly expanded the boundaries of Lithuanian poetry, so fond of noble suffering, by actualizing sin and offering a radical and philosophical interpretation of it. Primitive rhyme serves an important function in Petrulis’s poetry, as it publicly declares that which is frowned upon if said openly. “The Word becoming Flesh” here does not signify only a godly act but also a perverse action: it turns the target of speech into an object of lust, and the action of communicating into an eroticized form of bodily contact. The poet amply utilizes this feature, seeking to emphasize the intimate passion of faith and reveal how the system abuses individual thinking to a degree of absurdity: “order! / and suddenly order descended down the escalator / and moistened the order-keeper with her soft lips / […] for the caress of the order / drives the order-keeper mad and hinder him from apostasy.” Petrulis’s Sterile is greatly unconventional poetry that seeks dialogue and transgresses established boundaries.

 

 1. Dragenytė R. “Surimuok ir numirk.” Metai, 2020, No. 1. https://www.zurnalasmetai.lt/?p=7527

 

 

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

 

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