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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

by Rimantas Kmita

Donaldas Kajokas review 02

Apie vandenis, medžius ir vėjus (On Waters, Trees, and Winds, Lithuanian Writers’ Union Publishers, 2015), the new poetry collection by the poet, essay and prose writer Donaldas Kajokas (b. 1953), has been almost universally recognized as one of the best recent poetry books. A holder of all possible literary prizes in Lithuania, as well as the Prize of the Baltic Assembly, Kajokas is in general one of those rare and hard-to-explain cases when a poet does not attract criticism or skeptical opinions. At the beginning of his poetic path, which, in his own words, he is not content with, there were still such skeptical voices. After his first poetry collection Žeme kaip viršūnėmis (On the Ground Like on Summits, 1980) Kajokas took interest in Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, which is reflected in his later books. The critics were quick to reproach him for flippant stylization of the East, for shallowness and a lack of authenticity. Kajokas, however, was not an epigone, while the critics’ rebuke often originated from their own superficial knowledge of Eastern culture. The “Eastern aspect” of Kajokas’s poetry is not intellectual: it rises from the practice of meditation as such. Hardly anybody has noticed that he has not written a single formally regular haiku. The poet observed in one interview that “literary historians and scholars take an intellectual interest in the East, but it is something totally different.”

Kajokas belongs to the generation of poets who made their debut in the 1970s and whose core of identity was shaped not by the culture and mythology of the ancient Balts, but by modern Western literature and philosophy, by Far and Middle Eastern cultures considered “exotic” at the time, and by classical mythology. It is the generation of translators of modern Western literature and Far Eastern poetry. It was the time when young people were capable of living their lives as though the communist regime had stopped existing. Rock albums, émigré poetry, and forbidden Western books that would reach Soviet Lithuania increasingly often helped to create the illusion of a separate community. In the society of that time, the status of the art creator was high, and loyalty to authorities could be expressed even in ironic forms.

The latest poetry collection is not lacking in (self)irony, or, rather, a forgiving attitude to a person’s own limitations, either. One of the programmatic poems of this collection is “An Epigraph to the Book Being Written,” in which the poet says “no” to Henrikas Radauskas, a classic of Lithuanian poetry:

no, probably no longer,
read in the youth

and read to pieces,
my radauskas –

not about bakers
not about tailors

about waters
trees and winds
                    (p. 14)

Henrikas Radauskas was one of the first and greatest aesthetes in the history of Lithuanian lyrical poetry and was committed to a poetic reality that defied the pull of the mundane. Probably his best-known line, which also formulates his attitude, is “I don’t believe in the world, but in the fairytale I do.” It is also characteristic of another poem, Žiemos pasaka (A Winter Tale), to which Kajokas’s hint to bakers and tailors refers. Kajokas’s early poetry actually takes off from Radauskas’s aestheticism, too. We can find a fair amount of stylized beauty and peculiar poems-cards. However, soon after the appearance of his book Meditacijos (Meditations, 1997) the next stage of his creative work begins. In the collections Mirti reikia rudenį (Autumn is the Time for Dying, 2000), Karvedys pavargo nugalėti (General Tired of Victories, 2005), and Kurčiam asiliukui (To the Little Deaf Donkey, 2011), the lightness and lucidity of Kajokas’s poems are replaced by rougher speaking, as though the poet is simple-minded and lacking the skills of the craft. The new poems are no longer as melodious and polished as before, but there, too, each syllable counts even if those syllables look as though they had been chopped with an axe. Renouncing melody and linguistic elegance, the poet accentuates his thought that what is beyond language is more important. The tension between linguistic reality and the experience beyond the language intensifies in his most recent collections. In this particular book the author seems to have reconciled himself with the situation of linguistic inevitability:

to be sensibly firmly
and maybe for good

deluded with Lithuanian

you must live
at least a hundred

lives of public and
somewhat secret exiles
“Beveik apie smuiką” (Almost About a Violin), 48–49

In his latest collection, Kajokas is becoming ever more moderate, while his poems seem to be ever less concerned about the form or effects. A poem is composed not of the usual ornate poetic means but of pauses, suppressions, a sudden turn of thought, and of a conflict of word meanings which leaves unexpected insights and enlightenments in its wake. Kajokas’s poems are a prism: passing through them, our gaze at the routine suddenly changes and makes us alert to wonder and beauty. Except that earlier the wonder of his poems used to originate from the sparkling of linguistic paradoxes, the mundane and the miracle, holiness and human tensions, and now there are growing attempts to simply catch genuine moments. It seems that Kajokas’s language and speaking encounter ever fewer obstacles and move, in the words of one of the poems, downstream and “downworld” (p. 103). What prevails is reconciliation and elimination of any questions, in particular those big, philosophical, and religious questions.

And in spite of that, these texts retain a certain pull. There can be no doubt about the importance of the author's figure, which most often resembles the image of a clear-headed loafer. These texts unbelievably match and, one could say, resonate with the poet’s intonation and gestures. The impression of a peculiar, creative diary does not leave you. Except that it is a diary that reflects moods and inner vibrations and not “events.” Although daily routine is misleading and still quite intellectual, there is not a single poem without intertextuality. The effect of a poem is mostly based not on philosophical insights or impressive images, but on the control of the half-tones of a word and intertextual allusions that are embedded into nearly every poem. The poet engages in discussions with Radauskas, Dostoyevsky, contemporary Lithuanian poets, and his own earlier texts. Li Bo, Basho, Zhuangzi, and their tradition of paradoxical thinking are also reflected here. And at this point a question arises: isn't it possible to look at water, trees, and wind without these names?  Why is it not possible to speak directly and without saying “no” to Radauskas? What is the purpose of that cultural bypass when the aim is a direct experience of the world and its recording with minimal means? Or is it reconciliation with the inevitable cultural bypass towards the experience of the world?

Yet the world and life are not a question that would have an answer. Kajokas’s poetry is like an attempt to catch the moments of being in language and to do so as accurately as possible. However, at times, there is that wish to ask if the poet does not know too much. Is not that refusal to know the stance of a wizard and sentimental coquetry?

No matter what, it is Kajokas’s book, recognizable and cozy. In it we find the usual, a la Kajokas, paradoxes of life and light wisdom, as well as the form of the poem that is becoming simpler and more translucent. It is a great pleasure to read a text and feel that the form is of the least concern because the skill of the master provides complete freedom and there is no longer any need to think about the craft. your social media marketing partner


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