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Rimas Uzgiris is a poet, translator, editor and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, AGNI, Iowa Review, Hudson Review, The Poetry Review (UK) and other journals. His first collection of poems, North of Paradise, was published by Kelsay Books (2019). A collection of his poetry was also published in Lithuanian translation by Kauko laiptai (2019). He is translator of Caravan Lullabies by Ilzė Butkutė (A Midsummer Night's Press), Then What by Gintaras Grajauskas (Bloodaxe), Now I Understand by Marius Burokas (Parthian), The Moon is a Pill by Aušra Kaziliūnaitė (Parthian), and Vagabond Sun by Judita Vaičiūnaitė (Shearsman). Uzgiris has contributed significantly as editor and translator to two anthologies: How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets (Lithuanian Culture Institute), and New Baltic Poets (Parthian). He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, and the Poetry Spring 2016 Award for translations of Lithuanian poetry into other languages, he teaches translation at Vilnius University.

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Rimas Uzgiris review 02

North of Paradise
Rimas Uzgiris
Kelsay Books, 2019
103 pages, $17.00

 

The early twentieth century analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is perhaps best known for his provocative statement: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Despite the poetic nature of the aphorism itself (rhyme, repetition, rhythm, parallelism), it does pose an existential challenge for a lyric poet—one who strives to give words and form to the unspeakable and unknowable. Thus, I was especially curious to read Rimas Uzgiris’ new poetry collection, North of Paradise, after reading in the biographical notes that he has a PhD in Philosophy from the prestigious University of Wisconsin. Of course, Wittgenstein doesn’t speak for the entire Western philosophical tradition, but I was eager to see the ways that the discipline of philosophy did or did not inform the poetry of North of Paradise. The collection includes a handful of poems that traffic in subjects suggesting philosophical interrogation and exploration: “Still Life with Women Artists and Platonic Forms,” “Archaic Fragment, K.34,” “Acropolis,” “Shards of One World,” etc. This is perhaps most explicit in “While I was Taking Her Out to Dinner,” complete with references to Derrida and Foucault and a sly wink and nod to Wittgenstein:

platonic forms were falling from the windows of skyscrapers
like confetti—
will someone please give me some spaghetti? …
and the forms continued to fall outside the window
like snow— reminding me again of how the anti-realist metaphysics of derrida and co.
doesn’t get you very far when you’re hungry,
and although, it’s true, you can’t eat a platonic form,…

The title of the collection, North of Paradise, lays out not only the geographical foundations of the poems but also their personal and political dimensions. As Thomas Pynchon aptly points out in an epigram at beginning of the book—one heads east for wisdom, west for adventure, and south for riches. But why would anyone venture north? And in this case, north refers to the Baltics, specifically Lithuania and its capital Vilnius. Yet this is precisely the journey that Uzgiris takes (the child of Lithuanian immigrants to America, who moves back to Lithuania). His poetry is steeped in issues of family, exile, displacement, Cold War politics, and the tragedies of 20th century Eastern European history. Readers of poetry written in English are certainly familiar and accustomed to these subjects, particularly through the writings of Czesław Miłosz and Joseph Brodsky. However, Uzgiris also details  events fifty to seventy-five years later, long (at least in years) after the disappearance of state sponsored fascism and communism, In “Between the Lines,” he tells of his first visit to Lithuania, his granduncle greeting him in his ramshackle Soviet car, and immediately being transported to his father’s hometown, a locale with one leg stuck deep in the muck of the past, the other trying to cross over into the modern world:

….talking
all the way, his words rolling
over me like a rill splashing
off the rocks of my ignorance.
We passed a horse-drawn carriage
full of hay. On TV, three women
in peasant garb sang a dirge.

It seems fitting that most of these poems are found in the first (and longer) section of the collection, titled, “Past Imperfective.” There’s an indeterminacy to them, ongoing, repetitious, never quite over and done with. (Conversely, the second and shorter section is “Present Continuous,” more suited to ahistorical subjects, and therefore more accommodating to lyricism.)

In one of his more ambitious poems, “New Worlds,” Uzgiris compares the Soviet invasion and takeover of the Baltics to the genocide of Native Americans in The Last of the Mohicans,” a novel that seemingly captivated him as a child. The Red Army advancing with tanks and assault vehicles, sowing the fertile farmland with steel mills and uprooting its primal forests to dig mines—all in the name of civilization. The new world sprouting “like mushrooms in wet woods.”:

Chingachgook and Uncas withdrew
to the mytho-poetical heart of the swamp.
Their corner of earth, small as a mouse,
had suffered more plagues than Egypt. 

No deerslayer came to their aid. Collaborators
hid under eaves. The natives were raked like lice
from the trees. Some fled a continent in flames,
crossing a wash of febrile waves, disembarking 

in a newer world where fathers read Fenimore Cooper
to their sons who ran free through wild woods in play…

“Shards of One World,” a ten page poem whose form is more fragmentary than the rest, rehearses these same themes and incorporates various national and revolutionary anthems. Some of these are translated, usually in a footnote, but they all appear in their original language—as if to underscore the historical and international interconnectedness. Besides the Lithuanian National Anthem, there’s also the German anthem, “Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful,” and the Russian version and Billy Braggs’ revision of the British version of  “The Internationale.” The poem begins during the Second World War aerial bombardment and moves back and forth through  German fascism, Soviet communism, the Cold  War, post-war American prosperity. The poem is addressed to a Lithuanian man, presumably a relative [grandfather – ed.], whose life spanned almost the entire twentieth century. Before the Russians came, quickly followed by the Germans, he writes:

You made ties
in a factory by Kaunas on a river
before the war,…
…………
So you took your family
and ran.

It almost seems impossible to view events through any sort of moral lens. It’s simply too complex, the accumulating proliferation of issues, ideologies, events (shifting borders, allegiances), inevitably lead to horrific outcomes:

…………
Shoot the workers
Shoot your brother
        fighting on the other side
…………..
The Soviet soldier gave you the butt of his rifle as a last goodbye.
He must have smelled the German uniform
on your flesh
like sin.

Even longed-for reunions barely provide succor or relief, only a brand new set of exigencies, no less fraught with moral ambiguities.

When you walked into the camp,
the DP camp,  that camp of the living
        after the war,                       
               how
did you greet her,                               
        your wife, Jadvyga?

It is a necessary and welcome relief, then, to find near the end of the collection, a poem like “Mind the Gap.” This is one of several sestinas in the collection and it explores the notion that poetic form itself can re-orient our view and understanding of the world. Sestinas can be especially effective, with their tricky insistence to keep on a track while still allowing for digression, repetition, divagation, and transformation. In one stanza, Uzgiris composes a love song to Lithuania and Vilnius, The city itself an object of desire, a lover--seductive, sultry, alluring, mysterious:

I know and love the pleasures of winding baroque streets.
In the old town, my eyes gaze longingly over the body
of each building, changing facades like phrases, an entire book
written with hungry eyes scribbling a delicious dance.
Walking with sense and purpose turns pleasure into smoke…

 

 

Leonard Kress has published poetry and fiction in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, etc. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complex and Walk Like Bo DiddleyLiving in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz were both published in 2018. Craniotomy appeared in 2019. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens College in Ohio.
www.leonardkress.com

 

 

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