Tomas Venclova was born in 1937 in Klaipėda, Lithuania. He graduated from Vilnius University, travelled in the Eastern Bloc and became friends with poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, as well as Natalya Gorbanevskaya and Joseph Brodsky. Venclova took part in the Lithuanian and Soviet dissident movements and was one of the five founding members of the Lithuanian Helsinki Group. His activities led to a ban on publishing, exile and the stripping of his Soviet citizenship in 1977. Since 1985 Venclova has taught Slavic languages and literature at Yale University. He has been the recipient of numerous prizes including the Vilenica 1990 International Literary Prize, the Lithuanian National Prize in 2000, the 2002 Prize of Two Nations, which he received jointly with Czeslaw Milosz, the 2005 Jotvingiai Prize, and the New Culture of New Europe Prize, 2005. He has published over twenty books including volumes of poetry, literary criticism, political commentary, literary biography, translation and books on Vilnius. His work has been translated into many languages including by Czesław Miłosz into Polish, and by Joseph Brodsky into Russian. He has two poetry books in English: Winter Dialogue (Northwestern University Press, 1997) and The Junction: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2008). His latest poetry book is Už Onos ir Bernardinų (Beyond St. Anne's and the Bernardines, Apostrofa, 2023). Now Venclova lives in Vilnius and is active in the contemporary cultural life of Lithuania – one of its most well-respected figures.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

by Virginija Cibarauskė

Tomas Venclova review 02Tomas Venclova. Eumenidžių giraitė. Vilnius: Versus aureus, 2016.

Tomas Venclova — a poet, literary critic, translator, and a professor at Yale University—occupies a paradoxical place in Lithuanian literature: he is a noticeably distant (both in time and in space) and an extremely influential poet at the same time. Several generations learned from Venclova’s precise poetics and his broad, concrete lexicon.  Born in 1937, Venclova has, since a young age, been interested not only in literature but also in exact sciences and cybernetics, which were very popular in the Soviet Union in the 1950s–60s; in 1962 he even published the book Raketos, planetos ir mes (Rockets, Planets, and Us). Later he became interested in structuralism and semiotics. We might assume that this particular interest was at least partially responsible for the poet’s special attention to structure and the purity and even strictness of form. Rigid classical forms became a means for managing the chaotic, volatile, and destructive experiences of the time. In this respect Venclova’s poetry is paradoxical: echoes of despair, alienation, and other émigré experiences are embodied in a lexicon and poetic forms that are both graceful and as hard as a diamond.

As a poet, Venclova debuted with the collection Kalbos ženklas  (The Sign of Speech) in 1972. Due to his special attention to metric structures and breadth of cultural contexts, this modest book, printed in a run that was small for that time, immediately attracted attention.  According to Venclova’s biographer Donata Mitaitė, readers’ and critics’ attention was attracted not only by the book but also by the demeanour of the young writer. Thanks to his early call to be a poet and scholar, and his striving to dissociate himself from Soviet reality, Venclova delved deeply into contemplations on poetics and various intellectual issues, and his awareness of these fields was so deep that his friends and acquaintances compared him with Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevsky's Idiot[1].  In 1975, Venclova wrote “An Open Letter” to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Lithuanian SSR in which he stated that Communist ideology was alien to him; he was granted permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union in the same year.

Despite (or maybe due to) emigration, the empire as a cold, menacing world to which one cannot return but which cannot be abandoned either remains the central element of Venclova’s poetic worldview. Meanwhile, it is impossible to take firm root in the world outside the Iron Curtain, and it is this existential rootlessness that enables existence based on objective observation and extraordinary openness to other forms. In the new collection Eumenidžių giraitė (The Grove of the Eumenides) this type of existence is defined through the metaphor of moss, a plant without roots or seeds:

The conciliator of worlds, intervened
In the gap between gneiss and the mist of skies,
He is equal to time. His essence is fulfilment
In the country where the dome is pierced by loneliness. (p. 19).

With his biography as a poet-exile and with his breadth of cultural understanding Venclova resembles such poets as Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz, both of whom were his personal friends.

Venclova teaches structuralist reading of text in American universities, and therefore it is paradoxical that the poetic contexts of his poetry and its semantic layers are best revealed through the context of his biography. It is impossible to separate the poet’s biography from his work and the texts relevant to him—those he has translated, analyzed, or commented upon. In general, Venclova is one of the most biographical poets in Lithuanian literature, but his biography focuses on intellectual and existential aspects and never turns into a promotion of the intimate details of his personal life.

Original poetry and translations of poems important to the poet in the latest collection make the reader realize the deep relationship between Venclova’s work and its natural environment:  cultural and literary contexts. The texts are almost evenly balanced: sixteen new poems and eighteen translations. There are several clues or codes to explain such an unusual structure for the collection.

First is the title of the book. In Latin, the Eumenides are “the dear, the pleasant.”  This is a euphemistic name for the Erinyes, who hounded criminals, reminding them of their past crimes. In this respect the collection can be perceived as a whole body of memories, interpretations, and reflections triggered by personal texts and those written by others, or even universal narratives of culture that surround the subject. For example, the opening poem of the collection, “Gyvųjų motina” (The Mother of the Living) is a poetic interpretation of the biblical narrative about the banishment of Adam and Eve from paradise. Unlike the biblical story, the main focus is placed on Eve, the mother of the world whose “womb matured always” (p. 6). Peculiarly, it is the woman’s body that makes forms more perfect than herself possible (“Baroko sferos, gotikos ogivos”/Baroque spheres, Gothic ogives) (p. 7). On the other hand, femininity is likely less important than the emphasis on creative forces, the possibility of the individual to overcome the boundaries of time and space with their work. Meanwhile, the theme of guilt remains a sub-text for the collection. This sub-text only can be recognized and understood against the overall context of Venclova’s work and his biography as an exile:

The Almighty is gambling with fates, and we lose our vision
And realize—you won’t be able to deny the guilt,
When the sky heats up, and the body is turning into ice. (p. 38).

In Venclova’s poetry expressions of culture—language, its architecture, cultural texts—often lend meaning and structure to reality and impart the promise of eternal life to it. A worldview of this type is asserted in the poem “Jūroje trečią valandą nakties” (In the Sea at 3AM).  Travelling by sea at night, the narrator feels the presence of an unknown island close by (that is because the collection is oriented towards the epic and not a lyrical structure):

[...] through the cells of my cheek and forehead I guessed:
close by, on the right, an invisible
island was hiding, as large as death

without the lights. A heavy black-light star […] (p. 31).

Like in epic stories, vision is given special significance. Since the island is invisible and inaudible and is only a tactile sensation, it “cannot be experienced.”  Yet the temporary atrophy of sensations, which implies death, is overcome with the help of language, which is compared to resurrection:

But silence ends and there remains a sentence
Thus the body, the fourth day in the cave,
recovers voice […] (p. 32).

On the other hand, the image of fading voices appears ever more often in Eumenidžių giraitė.  This image is directly related to the idea of instability of memory and simultaneously with that of obsessive sensitivity. In the poems “Į pietus nuo prospekto” (To the South of the Avenue) and “Prie stiebo” (At the Mast) the speaker is surrounded by voices that are difficult to engage in a conversation, and it is not obvious whether they belong to former friends, or to the tireless Eumenides, or sirens, or to “The Existing One.” The narrator of “Į pietus nuo prospekto” returns to the locus amoenus, the dear location of safety and calm, of his youth. This place of safety is the house of the Venclova family in Vilnius (“Abejinga sostinė, vargšas gubernijos miestas”/ The Indifferent capital, a poor city of the province), to the south of Gedimino Avenue (Lenin Avenue in Soviet times). Although the way is the same and “the summer sun lingers on us like before,” we, that is, former friends from Venclova’s school and from the time of studies, are part of “the past”; the space no longer remembers the words that were spoken.  The lands of the past where “wit, prayers, quarrels melted […]” resemble the kingdom of nobody or of the dead that emanates only dull murmurs and “white noise.”

Images of death, decay, and non-existence prevail not only in Venclova’s original poetry but also in the larger part of his translations. At the beginning of this article I mentioned that despite his special significance to Lithuanian literature, Venclova is a distant poet. The distance, both temporal and spatial, is revealed through the poets he translates: John Donne, W. H. Auden, Czeslaw Miłosz, Richard Wilbur, Wisława Szymborska and others, many of whom are laureates of the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes, are of venerable age or already deceased. Thus, Venclova finds the classics, rather than contemporary work, interesting and influential. This interest does not diminish the value or relevance of the translated texts but allows the boundary that separates Venclova’s poetic worldview, his contexts, and refined techniques from contemporary Lithuanian poetry to be felt. Compared with Venclova’s strict metric schemes, the latter appears fluid, strangely blurred and approaching spoken language; it concentrates mostly on everyday experiences that often are of an intimate, personal nature, and no longer aspires to the formulation of conceptual, generalizing insights.

Meanwhile, in Venclova’s poetry the sacral dimension remains important even in those instances when the subject is historical reality or personalities. For example, in the poem “Beatifikacijos procesas” (The Process of Beatification), which tells the stories of a nun who rescues Jews and of a guild the nun rescues, the nun’s sacrifice is compared to the sacrifice of God/Christ. On the other hand, the poem is free of pathos and the act of sacrifice is not extolled. The meaning of self-sacrifice remains obscure and hidden: although the rescued woman receives direct proof of God’s existence, she lives an ordinary life and does not even remember the one who sacrificed herself for her:

Some nights she would dream
her jail. She tried not to remember it during the day,
and then couldn’t remember it due to Alzheimer’s
(which was, actually, salvation).  
Someone will probably
ask whether it was worth her fate[…],
for such a price to be paid? (p. 11).

Death breathes in landscapes that are dried out and ravished (by wars and disasters), in the sweltering air, in “the night of memory.” Yet there remains faith in the universal order characteristic of a mature, modernist world perception, which lends meaning to scattered details, fragments, objects, and lives. In Venclova’s earlier poetry, the analogue of such order was language, which overcomes erosion and silence: “But silence ends and there remains a sentence” (p. 32). However, language and culture are defeated by natural order and the law of the soul is transformed into dust, which is prominent in the closing poems of Eumenidžių giraitė (“Vakarykščiame ore” /In Yesterday’s Air, “Eumenidžių giraitėje”/The Grove of the Eumenides). Symbolical manifestations of this order are a fossil hiding in eternal darkness, coal that becomes a diamond, a shard from an ammonite, and the dense summer silence enhanced by “the ruptured echo of breathing” (p. 39). The earth and life are ruled by moss (“a starving wanderer / whose dry and indifferent fingers / turn into stone yet don’t die,” p. 19) and amorphous plankton which defeats emperors and empires:

Septimius, after us there will be plankton,
Much earlier than the boats of licurgi.

Although we do not know where everything vanishes,
One is clear: mare overcomes us. (p. 21).



1. Also see:  Donata Mitaitė, Tomas Venclova: Speaking Through Signs, Vilnius: Lietuvių literatūros ir tautosakos institutas, 2002. your social media marketing partner


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