The poet, translator and essayist Kęstutis Navakas (1964 ̶ 2020) was the aesthete of Lithuanian poetry, a dandy who didn’t believe in the boundary between life and art. He made his debut in 1988 with a collection of poems Krintantis turi sparnus (Wings On A Falling Man). Navakas grew up in Kaunas, which features in his work as his beloved city, and was heavily involved in the city’s cultural life. Alongside writing for the cultural press, at one point Navakas had a bookshop, which was one of the first private organisations in Kaunas to put on literary events. He also worked for television as a book reviewer, and translated a great deal of poetry from German and English.  

His own writing is marked by a very playful attitude towards language. Yet Navakas’s playfulness is of a serious kind – it’s a doctrine of art and life: the game, just like art, dismisses every sort of pragmatism and therefore manages to escape the banality and gloom of everyday life. Navakas writing is elegant, erotic, and full of joie de vivre, with slightly decadent overtones. For him, no word has a single fixed meaning; he associates freely, even phonetically, and frequently uses quotes and references to spice up his writing. ‘I am an adventurer,’ he once said in an interview, which perfectly characterises both his personality and his work. 

Navakas emerged as a mature visionary poet in his sixth and last collection of poems, net ne (Not Even, 2018) – playful and deep, serious, even tragic.


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by Ramūnas Čičelis

Kestutis Navakas review 02a

When any historical era ceases to thrive, artistic and literary forms tend to gain a certain pretentious expression, reminding us that everything comes to an end eventually. The most salient sign of such an ending in the seventeenth century was Rococo architecture, which indicated that the grand Baroque period was concluding. If such art tells us anything new, it is only that if we want to understand how, where, and why we are still living, we must fully comprehend this conclusion.

Kaunas poet Kęstutis Navakas’s new book entitled net ne (even no) is a testimony to the end of European civilization. In many poems, the speaker, both implicitly and explicitly, compares himself to a person from the late Roman Empire, and the reality that surrounds him is a space filled with things from that time. The poem “warrior,” printed on the back cover of the book, is a direct affirmation of such identity: the subject identifies himself with an ancient Roman warrior who, surprisingly, has no one to fight against. When more than two thousand years ago Roman civilization experienced a period of decadence, the conquests ended and people began to simply satisfy their basic instincts. Navakas’s book demonstrates the opposite stance, which is therefore stoic: even when almost everything is lost, the memory of aesthetic taste and higher art remains, and that is exactly what constitutes the basis of most of the book’s poems. Metaphorically, the protagonist finds himself in historical times, while the surrounding material things and nature acquire mixed shades of both romantic majesty and horror. By returning to historical Rome and comparing its gradual dissolution with our times, Navakas comes to a broad conclusion, relevant to Lithuanian readers and beyond: the way our ancestors lived for several centuries and, in a way, how we still live now will soon become impossible—the cultural foundations of Western civilization are simply about to collapse. Moreover, since the poems’ warrior doesn’t have a direct enemy, this shift is a quiet one, with little protest against how our time and that of future generations will be very different from what we know. This semantic core, however, doesn’t make Navakas’s book solely “current affairs focused”: the protagonist indulges in the ever-rarer luxury of today’s world—a preserved cultural memory.

If Navakas’s new book was to be analysed in the historical context of Lithuanian poetry, the voice of the first part, “even,” would be similar to that of Henrikas Radauskas, a poet who wrote while in exile in the US in the 50s and 60s. Radauskas had an expressly aesthetic stance and retreated from viewing the world ideologically and as a utilitarian tool for reaching goals, which indicated thought processes that were already happening within the Lithuanian exile community, mostly due to World War II: beauty was considered to be one of the last shelters for those awaiting the end of cultural history. But this first chapter of Navakas’s book doesn’t follow Radauskas entirely—it is just a proximity of style, with no lack of self-observation. Radauskas always avoided looking at his poetic style from a distance: he was a man who once said he believed in the fairytale more than reality and almost never once doubted this during his personal creative journey. The serious stylistic game that Navakas is playing, on the other hand, shows that the author is capable of assessing himself and his language from a detached logical and aesthetic perspective.

The Rococo style poems of the first part, rhyming so pleasantly you can almost physically feel it (because it recalls Western cultural roots), are counterbalanced by the second part, entitled “no.” Here, the poems are more poignant, seeking less aesthetic impact but more focused on the philosophical basis of an individual’s place on Earth. This basis is swept away from under his feet by existentialist reflections on the relationship between two people and the realization that all the absurdity, lack of meaning, and patheticness that had long been concealed and pushed out of our consciousness are, in fact, still present, and are emerging with new poignancy. So, the second half of the book also signifies an ending—one of a specific Lithuanian literary and poetic era, an era in which the most eminent were precisely writers influenced by existentialism. As a poet from the older generation, Navakas deliberately chooses an old-fashioned voice and in this way becomes a sort of last "warrior," one who does not protest against Lithuanian poetic traditions and is wise enough not to oppose to the new poetic trends. This is why Navakas’s current poetry collection should be considered—in Navaesque terms—an incrustation from the past on the present warrior's sword, that is, on the entirety of contemporary Lithuanian poetry.

An interesting detail is that in this latest book Navakas is not just making global conclusions but also manages to play a trick, which can be locally appreciated, by naming the book not even. Last year, another poet from Kaunas, Donaldas Kajokas, published a collection of poems called Poezija, o gal ne ji? (Poetry, or perhaps not?). Navakas, thinking just as deeply and widely, takes up a humbler position: perhaps these texts of his are not even poetry, or not even poems? At the finish line of a cultural paradigm and its historical eras, both authors ask a timeless question: what is poetry? A more naive reader might start looking for declarations that poetic aesthetics and beauty as a cultural pillar can postpone the inevitable end.
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