Vitalija Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė

Vitalija Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė (b. 1981) is a poet, literary scholar, doula, and mother of three children.
She completed Master’s degree in Lithuanian literature at Vilnius University and is currently a doctoral student there. Her debut book, I Am Breathing, was named one of the 12 most creative books of 2015 by the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore. In the same year she was awarded the Z. Gėlė Prize for best poetic debut.

Her work embodies the perspective of a free 21st century woman, examining ideas of identity, relationships, and societal roles. In addition, the poems put forth insights about the Soviet and post-Soviet space of the late 20th century, as often as expressed through the voice of a child. Her poetry is notable for bringing to the fore themes and topics often considered too intimate, indelicate, or best kept secret; these include breast cancer, the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of children, and the self-destruction of the individual.

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Vitalija Pilipauskaite Butkiene review 02Vitalija Pilipauskaitė­-Butkienė. Kvėpuoju, Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2015

Vitalija Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė, a litterateur and literary critic, a graduate from and a doctoral student at the Faculty of Philology of Vilnius University, was born in the 1980s. She chose women’s literature as the subject of her doctoral dissertation and was pushed towards women’s experiences, motherhood, attachment parenting, and the work of doulas by factors in her personal life.

A mother to three children, she writes about her work in the press and on social networking sites and speaks about it at lectures and public gatherings. The poetry book Kvėpuoju (I Am Breathing), which in 2015 won the First Book competition held by the Lithuanian Writers’ Union, is not an incidental phenomenon because it encompasses her professional and personal experiences.

The fact that the first book by a young author won popular and critical acclaim, interviews, and reviews during the first year following its publication points to a number of important factors that must be understood when reviewing Kvėpuoju.

First of all, it is a book that expands the thematic field of Lithuanian poetry with its message about the female experience. In Lithuanian literature, poetry is mostly considered a male art, while prose is attributed to women – it was women who debuted prominently during the formation of the prose genre in Lithuania. Contemporary Lithuanian poetry is dominated by male names and experiences, which have shaped the field of themes addressed by the lyrical subject.

Second, it is a book that makes the woman part of the rhythm of the contemporary postmodern  world with its common  human  experience. The woman of Kvėpuoju possesses the analogue of the mythical woman in charge of the spring of life, yet at the same time she is a mortal, vulnerable, exploited, and sick woman fighting for her survival and for the recognition of her world.

Third, it is a book in which the depicted woman displays important connotations of modernist and postmodernist reality in her experience: she belongs to the present world and to today’s reader and reflects the trials experienced by the modern individual.

If we take a retrospective look at Lithuanian poetry, we will see the attractive manner in which the gaze of the male lyrical subject shaped by Maironis, the father of contemporary Lithuanian poetry, creates the dominant values: the “he” of Maironis’s poetry imparts value to Lithuanian historical and geographical sites (the Birutė and Medvėgalis hills, the Baltic Sea, the Šešupė and Dubysa rivers, Vilnius, Trakai Castle) thus shaping the national worldview.

The national worldview of Maironis, just like that of his followers Jonas Aistis, Bernardas Brazdžionis, Justinas Marcinkevičius, and Alfonsas Maldonis is presented as the spirit of the countryside, as the lyrical subject’s spiritual beloved for whom he lives and dies. The nation loved by the devoted lyrical subject becomes the supernatural value that unites Lithuanian literature.

Women poets, who made their debut in Lithuanian literature one generation after Maironis, had to find how to merge with the suggestive national tradition by speaking on behalf of that nation. In her best meditational lyrical poetry, Salomėja Nėris, the first strong lyrical female poet in Lithuanian literature, very beautifully blended the sensations of nature with the supra-nature engrained in the Lithuanian worldview.

The work of Birutė Pūkelevičiūtė, Janina Degutytė, Judita Vaičiūnaitė, Onė Baliukonytė, and Nijolė Miliauskaitė, who followed Nėris, remained within the meanings  of the traditional  worldview and resonated with the versions of the female spirit of the nation from rather different ideological and emotional attitudes. Probably the closest to Kvėpuoju is Pūkelevičiūtė’s collection Metūgės (New Shoots, Toronto: 1952).

The book Metūgės rests on the thesis of a matricentric world developed by the out- standing archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, a friend from the poet’s youth: the mystery of eternal life in a woman’s body that lies at the foundation of the world. This mystery is neither contrary nor hostile to man, because woman’s world, which continues as mother and daughter, is a vital counterpart of father and son.

Woman, however, is closer to the spring of life; her ties with the changes and transformations of life and with the very mystery of life are also stronger. In Vitalija Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė’s book Kvėpuoju, the mystery of life is a key to all the trans- formations of nature, while woman, mother, and daughter, although not separate from man, father, and son, is responsible for human life and death.

Pūkelevičiūtė’s world is positive and euphoric, while the world in Pilipauskaitė- Butkienė’s book is slightly different: it is not sad or grey or pessimistic – it is painful. The volumes of pain are connected by the experience of suffering hiding in the transformation of life. What in Pūkelevičiūtė’s poetry arose from the source of the communal, the mythic, and the sacral and can be perceived as eternal and continuous, is individual and thus tragic in the book of Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė.

Pūkelevičiūtė is convinced that death does not exist and life is eternal through the female body; Pilipauskaitė-Butkienė’s book, which also supports this conviction, displays the experiences of an actual woman of the late twentieth, early twenty-first century.

Against the background of the eternity of nature, these experiences create the strongest dramatic element in the collection Kvėpuoju. Infatuations and loves of childhood, adolescence and youth, the experience of violence and humiliation, and the most horrible lessons taught by next of kin (an act of paedophilic violence experienced as a child and fully realised as an adult woman) evolve into learning how to live, breathe, rejoice, and love. To love gently, understandingly, passionately, with suffering and joy, with sacrifice of self – modern and individual – for a more elevated and lighter reality that has opened in the trials of love.

Lithuanian poetry has hardly known such an open, painful, and cathartic experience as is shown in the book Kvėpuoju. I use the word “hardly” because efforts to express such an experience are present in Onės Baliukonytė’s poetry. Pilipauskaitė- Butkienė’s decision to abandon the romantic and neo-symbolist voice does not mean she is turning her back on the tradition, which is introduced here through quotations, semantic references, and intertextuality. It is a quest for a new – genuine, truthful, and non-metaphorical – manner of speaking.

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