Gytis Norvilas (b.1976) is a poet translator and essayist. He graduated from Vilnius University having studied theories of history and cultural theory. Norvilas has published three poetry collections: Stoneshards (2002), Breakfast of Locusts (2006) and Discharge Zones (2012). His first book won the Druskininkai Poetry Fall award for most significant debut. His latest book was recognized as the most creative book of 2013 by the Lithuanian Literature and Folklore Institute. He is a member of the Lithuanian Writer’s Union since 2010. He lives in Vilnius and is the editor of the weekly journal Literatūra ir Menas. His poetry has been translated into English, Bulgarian, Russian, Latvian, Georgian, German, Belarusian and Ukrainian.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

by Lina Buividavičiūtė

Gytis Norvilas review 02Gytis Norvilas, Grimzdimas. Vilnius: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2017

Gytis Norvilas is a well-known literary figure in the world of Lithuanian literature. The cultural fields that interest Norvilas can best be described in an overview of his work—as the editor of the weekly Literatūra ir Menas magazine, a poet, an essayist and a translator. His first book of poems, Akmen-skeltės (Shards of Stone) (2002), received the Jaunojo Jotvingio award (which is awarded to poetry books by authors no older than 35). After his Skėrių pusryčiai (The Locust's Breakfast) (2006) collection, he published a book entitled Išlydžių zonos (Discharge Zones) (2012) that received the Lithuanian Literature and Folklore award for the year's most creative book. It was also nominated for book of the year.

I'd dare call Norvilas's fourth book, Grimzdimas (Sinking), a programmed book, though it's worth noting that this is not “programming” in the traditional sense. This identification is based on the author's own statements in the book (and is also emphasized in Grimzdimas's foreword):

every poem has its horizon, its place—for me, a very concrete place. Poems are anchored in clear geographical spaces <...> a poem is and must be a crime. A crime against flatness, language, society, faith(-lessness), festivity, infamy <...> poetry must be spicy and uncomfortable, it must irritate, it can't allow for peace—not for the author, not for the reader, and not for language itself. It should also comfort. It must comfort and hold you close, and, in my understanding, it can only comfort by taking away your last hope, or, in other words, your illusions and phantoms, which only multiply your suffering.

This quote is an excellent reflection on the quintessence of this book and its creative program. I selected spatialization as a key to crack open Grimzdimas's shell. This paradigm of location is supported not just by the poems' content, but by the very principle by which the book was formed—Grimzdimas consists of four parts (the third consists entirely of the author's drawings), the structure is referred to as “topographical,” and three of the book's section names refer to locations: “dykros” (moors), “kelio žymėjimas.ritualai” (marking the road.rituals), and “dugnas” (bottom).

Norvilas indicated the ideas important to the book in its epigraph of sorts, which cites an excerpt from Attenborough's film In Love and War, statements from Beckett's The Expelled, Wright's Celestial Waters, and Miller's Tropic of Cancer. One of the most meaningful intentions in Grimzdimas seemed, in my mind, to be the quote from In Love and War: “Please understand— there are some places where I must go alone.”

Therefore, I read Norvilas's book as an effort to access a somewhat heretical subject through the self and the Other and to experience the world through authentic loneliness—to name and mark the places that were important to the creation of this identity through physical and spiritual journeys.

The aforementioned paradigm of location is achieved in several ways in the book: exact mentions of spaces in the text or the poems' titles (towards Babtai, edge of the city, in Antakalnis, by the river, reminiscences from Krekenava, reminiscences from Gergiškės, etc.), through broader and more abstract spaces (wildernesses, childhood, motherland, homestead, transformer, etc.), and, of course, in the internal spaces spreading through the body of the poem. We can see the overlap of external and internal spaces in the poem “keleivis” (traveler): “now a cloud, the night, a python, steel moves along my body, through all of its cellars and nooks” (p. 15).

I get the impression that, by marking locations and spatial trajectories, the author not only realizes the aforementioned concept of the road or the journey, he also provides the guidelines for movement through his already challenging poetry. Every location indicated is linked to the subject's status, and the internal worlds of the people in the poems intersect with broader spaces and with the reader's world. The reception of Norvilas's poems can be based on the principle of recognition—though the poetic subjects' moods often cross over into the realm of phantasmagoria, the exact external and internal spaces always help ground the poem, maintain its context, and explain the poem's meanings: “a herd of wild cows ate from my hip bone; they wandered here from the wilderness, from my childhood” (“akmenų piemuo” [shepherd of stones], p. 21). For the subjects of Norvilas's poems, the experience of past time through nature is very important, as is the way this feeling is interwoven with the experiences of the present. In some places, this is identified very specifically (during Easter in 2014), but it can be more abstract elsewhere: “now my mother is leading me by my hand to the hill/and now:/a resilient body of fog—a cool, moist blade of grass” (“pievomis šliaužiantis rytas, arba Krekenavos reminiscencijos” [morning crawling through the fields, or reminiscences from Krekenava], p. 18). The survival of one's being in nature and exact crumbs of past time come together with fantastic images to form a unique poetic vision—for example, in the poem “rudens manevrai” (autumn maneuvers), where personification is used: “crosses march through the fields with backpacks.” By the way, these crosses are also named as a phenomenon of insignificance/nothingness (“their road gazes at nothing,” “their birthplace is nowhere”) and this both bears witness to existential emptiness (a Daoist element) and focuses the attention on the journey itself, which is apparently Norvilas's poetic goal. The author considers the process of traveling to be the most important thing—through memory, through childhood locations, through alien worlds (the poem “7 kvadratiniai metrai” [7 square meters], which may have been written after he read poetry in a prison), through the self and the Other, through emptiness, and through real and imagined locations. The crumbs of childhood experiences mark or can be felt in many texts, filling the poems with authenticity and allowing the poetic subject to explain the world they live in to themselves and to the reader, which allows the latter to better understand the context of the “self” character.

Many of the poems seek to grasp the self and the world, to refine the self's internal space, and to give it a name: “there is only intense reality and myself—a tendon being stretched by the brutality of time at the edge of the city, in Antakalnis, by the river” (“ruduo. miesto pakaraštys,” [autumn, edge of the city], p. 14); “my heart is a tree trunk torn from a bog <...> I have now become smoke, mist, fog” (“akmenų piemuo” [shepherd of stones], p. 21); "I am a murderer” (“7 square meters”), “I become more and more nothing, a heretical worshipper in a wooden cave” (“grimzdimas 1” [sinking 1], p. 29). These quotes create degrees of existence, from dependence on the world of the living (the trunk from the bog), the essential aspects of existence (stretched by time), and the experience of identity (the murderer) to disembodiment and abstraction (smoke, mist), sacrificed to a somewhat Šliogerian (Šliogeris was one of the most famous and significant Lithuanian philosophers, who referred to the subject as “the son of insignificance”—incidentally, Norvilas dedicated one of his drawings to Šliogeris) insignificance or emptiness. A meaningful identification of the disembodied self is made in the poem “vonioje” (in the bath tub), which uses poetic language to name the media or the eye of the beholder that is at once necessary and disastrous for the subject. It not only passively reflects, but takes over and usurps as well—in the end, the subject loses its external projections of the self and begins withdrawing within itself. This concept is much like Sartre's opinion: “it was no longer I shaving, but the grew cleaner and smiled in a reflection of emptiness and of sinking into mist, began to withdraw with a wake of steam, a film that now separates me from myself and from woman. my image dissolved and disappeared. I grow distant. very distant.I emigrate once and for all into my internal foreign landscapes and provinces.the more there is of womanhood, the less there is of me” (p. 98)

Death also has a place in Norvilas's poems. It resides alongside life, seemingly its equal. This idea is presented in “iš slaptų sodininko užrašų” (from a gardener's secret notes), a de-sacralized poem with the context of a religious and philosophical demiurge—“in the gardens, this world and the other are confused—life and death flow from the same watering hose” (p. 34).  With connotations of the aforementioned dissolution of the self and of transformation into mist, the “wanderer buried on the page” that is mentioned, the potential for death “in and through language” (these images seem to announce that the subjects and their worlds are “buried” in the text while also making reference to the writing process), “the eye closed shut,” the declaration of a dichotomy between the murderer and the victim, and the images of death developed in the poem “kūnų tiesintojai” (body straighteners) serve to destroy futile hopes—“there is no surrealism, there are no souls or afterlife” (“autumn.the edge of a city,” p. 14).

The poetic subject cares not just for the spaces that reiterate the self, it cares for the Other as well. However, the experience of and reflection on that Other is provided through the lens of the self. For example, the poem “tu mano kokainas” (you are my cocaine) praises a woman's body. This poem seemed to me to be a post-modern version of “The Song of Songs” with a very original sense of ambivalence—it mentions both the reality of the body (a wilting, aging body) and of poetic images (“the lips of your groin are wrapped tight like the wings of a bat”). The poem, “europos litanija per mano dievą ir dūmus arba infidele europe (mišios būgnams, trikampiui ir šešiems kontrabosams”) (european litany through my god and smoke or infidéle Europe (mass for drums, triangle and six contrabasses) ), is unique, expressing concern for the world of the living and a different way of seeing and protesting it, claiming that the personal understanding of God is de-sacralized, and imitating a litany. With consonance and repetition (it earns its name as a “litany”), the sharp, mythologically based (Zeus's kidnapping of Europa) text pairs mythical and biblical contexts with swearwords—a very dynamic, living and authentic example of Norvilas's poetry. The danger of the world of the living, its disintegration, and its downfall are all somewhat ironically and hyperbolically portrayed in the poem “sėdėjau kambary susiėmęs už galvos ir spoksojau į nugenėtą liepą” (I sat in a room with my head in my hands and stared at a trimmed linden), but the notes of existential downfall or the flashes of the drama of Job step into a philosophical or Taoist blessing of emptiness: “it's peaceful now when I'm so empty. I laid down and rested” (p. 95).

Norvilas's poetry has various contexts as well, including literary, biblical and mythological contexts, but there aren't too many, and those that do exist flow organically into the fabric of the text. The expression of the poems is also interesting—its bold, and sometimes crude, but clear and precise language, interesting images, and strong, original metaphors (like “Sinking”) seem to match Norvilas's quote in the beginning about the concept of uncomfortable poetry. Incidentally, the poems sound great when read out loud—this reveals the poetic language's true melodic and rhythmic beauty. This is very clear in the poem “dykros II (iš Anykščių šilelio rekonstrukcijos)” (moors II [from the reconstruction of the Anykščiai pine grove]). The changing form (from three-line segments to poetic prose) and interesting graphic decisions (I read the drawings like poems) also contribute to Grimzdimas's charm. My last words are about the name. Grimzdimas (sinking) is also connotated by one of the quotes from the epigraph, several of the poems' names, and the concept of the book itself—moving deeper into the self, into the world, and into emptiness. This is good poetry. It is challenging to read and analyze, but it does help the reader remain spatialized.
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