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Aušra Kaziliūnaitė (b. 1987), a poet, philosopher, and writer is distinguished by her unique poetic style, which combines visual imagery and precision of form with a philosophical relationship to the world that is an inquiry into the essence of things and phenomena.

Kaziliūnaitė is the author of five poetry collections (Pirmoji lietuviška knyga [2007], 20 % koncentracijos stovykla [2009], Mėnulis yra tabletė [2014], esu aptrupėjusios sienos [2016] and Jūros nėra [2021]). Her works have received notable literary prizes: the Jurga Ivanauskaitė Prize, The Young Artist Award (bestowed by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania), and the Elena Mezginaitė Prize. Kaziliūnaitė’s works have been translated into 18 languages.

In 2018, Parthian Books (UK) published The Moon Is A Pill, a collection of Kaziliūnaitė’s poetry translated into English by Rimas Užgiris. Kaziliūnaitė has read her poetry at international poetry festivals and participated in writers’ residency programs in both Europe and the US. She was invited to the International Writing Program 2018 (IWP) by Iowa University (USA) and participated courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Kaziliūnaitė holds a degree in history and religious studies. She defended her doctoral thesis and earned her PhD in Philosophy from Vilnius University in 2020.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Virginija Cibarauske

by
Virginija Cibarauskė

 Translated by Diana Barnard

 

Ieva Toleikyte review 02Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, There Is No Sea: Kitos knygos, 2021

According to the publisher’s blurb, Jūros nėra (There Is No Sea), the fifth book of poetry by the poet and philosopher Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, is conceptual and performative. In it, the author develops the idea actualised in her earlier collection, Esu aptrupėjusios sienos (I Am Crumbled Walls): the interaction between images and texts expands the semantic trajectories of the collection. ‘I Am Crumbled Walls’ included both Aušra Kaziliūnaitė’s poetry and Laima Stasiulionytė’s photography: work distinguished for the combination of the monumental and the mystic. The peculiarities of book design (by Anton Zolo) resulted in the photographs playing less the role of illustrations to the poems, but more that of a dialogue partners. At the same time, the semantic axis in ‘There Is No Sea’ contains the aspects of reality and image that are originally conveyed both by the poems and the book as a physical object, which stirs the reader’s imagination through the senses – touch, vision, and even hearing.

Original book design and the outstanding appearance of a publication are nothing new in Lithuanian literature. Foreign publishers are often attracted by the design of Lithuanian poetry books. Yet the unique design of a publication does not always guarantee the originality of the poetry within, and often a dialogue or at least a minimal interaction between text and images just does not happen. Not in the case of Kaziliūnaitė’s latest collection, her collaboration with Agnė Dautartaitė-Krutulė, the book designer, was truly rewarding. Is it possible to experience poetry through your body and your senses? Can a book become a sea or a poem transform into a mirror? These are the questions that the duo of poet and book designer ask the reader.

‘There Is No Sea’ is an event. I am first of all speaking of the encounter with the book: you take it in your hands and the adventure begins. Diverse aspects of reality and image relevant to various trends of Modernism and especially of Surrealism constitute the conceptuality and the underlying idea of the book. For instance, in one of his paintings, the surrealist Rene Magritte depicts a pipe and writes ‘This is not a pipe’ under the image. The perceivers are struck by a cognitive dissonance: they are looking at a pipe and at the same time the painting claims it is not a pipe. What is it, then? In fact, there is no pipe in the painting: there is an image of a pipe. Kaziliūnatė speaks to the reader in a similar manner: ‘There Is No Sea’, declares the title of the book, and it is true: there is no sea in the book and cannot be. However, as a material and tangible object, ‘There Is No Sea’ creates the impression of the sea and enables the reader to experience the absent sea indirectly, through associations. The book has a ‘double’ cover of white and blue paper: the blue layer is slightly corrugated and resembles small waves. When flicked through, the book creaks like a mast in the wind; the mirror paper of the inside of the cover lets the reader see their distorted image and the title of the collection that only becomes meaningful when transformed into a reflection. Once you start reading, it turns out you will have to hold it horizontally, with its spine upwards. When holding the book this way, the turned pages resemble waves rolling toward the shore.

The attitude that you cannot directly experience the world and the subjectivity of the self, that you always need a mediator through which or in which existence of the world and the human is reflected on the mirror surface, as in the title ‘There Is No Sea’, can be considered the foundation of Kaziliūnaitė’s model of the poetic world. Her earlier collections were dominated by the idea of destruction of the surface that hides the essence, of penetrating the surface, or its (self)opening; it was a declared aspiration to see what is behind the skin, behind the curtain. Such an encounter with mystery happens in ‘spring’, the opening poem of the latest collection, in which the poet draws an analogy between a wound hidden by clothes and an unfolding bud. Both symbolise a violation of the body’s surface, but only the former has a negative connotation, and the latter a positive one; in the poem, they overlap, merge, and lesions turn into blossoms:

sitting next to you I can smell it:
your clothes hide wounds

magnolia blooms
have broken through your skin

                        (Translated by Rimas Uzgiris)

The connection between the wound (žaizda in Lithuanian) and the bloom (žiedas) is emphasised by the phonetic properties of both words, the repetition of the sounds ž (zh) and z.

In most of the poems in this collection, the symbolic gesture of ripping or shredding the surface of the poem is replaced by the idea of reflection without destructive overtones: hidden existence and its forms are reflected in various objects such as the moon, human consciousness, a poem, or a mirror. To see this reflection, you do not have to destroy or take apart; you just have to find the angle that would allow you seeing that other, secondary, and mysterious reality on the plane of mundanity:

the little match girl

on nights such as this
when it’s more than minus twenty
on the other side of the glass
when the cold is like a dream
a rabbit with the eyes of a girl
        hops through emptied streets

                        (Translated by Rimas Uzgiris)

The idea of secondary reality, which is simultaneously real and fictional, invented and imagined, unfolds consistently in the poem ‘conference’, which could be seen as a manifesto in the context of this collection. In this poem, the sea is a non-existent object created by human imagination; in its essence, it somewhat resembles the objects of research discussed at various academic conferences, which balance between reality and a researcher’s imagination triggered by theoretical ideas:

everything is quite simple
you just lead a person to their emptiness and give them a bathing suit
they do all the rest themselves:
gurgle, sough, swell scream, bluster and all that other nonsense

that means they’re hooked, now they’ll tell everyone of the sea

                                          (Translated by Rimas Uzgiris)

However, the reader who has succumbed to the illusion of there not being a sea, will remember, sooner or later, that the sea actually exists: many of us have seen the sea or swam in it, at least once. Still, depending on the peculiarities of one’s void, everyone sees and experiences the sea in a personal way and has an ever different and subjective image of the sea in their consciousness: he or she

they’ll see their faces in the sea, see the glimmer
of all the multicolored stones, shells of dead mollusks
[…]
late at night, standing before the mirror, the people will hear seagulls
see reflections, see wavering faces and the bodies of the drowned tossed on shore

                                          (Translated by Rimas Uzgiris)

In ‘conference’, Kaziliūnaitė brings the academic context to the foreground and raises the issues of the real image or imagined reality, and it is closely related to her biography: in 2020, Kaziliūnaitė defended her doctoral thesis in philosophy in which she analysed the asymmetry of the gaze in philosophy and cinema. There are further reverberations of academic fashion in her work. For example, the presumption related to the main postulates of the theory of meaning, that an object and its properties are defined through difference and through what this object as such is not, is highly relevant, as when a person defines their identity through relation with non-human beings:  

I learned how to be human from old trees
from yellow birds
[…]
I learned how to be human from the rain
        from the southern wind

                        (Translated by Rimas Uzgiris)

The reader can recognize the division between the ‘theoretical’ and ‘practical’ parts of a scholarly work: the poems open with realistic images of nature, a listing of objects, and then there is a sudden leap to abstract epistemological questions on the (im)possibilities of understanding reality and the issues of meaning:

holy

pedestrian smiles, a cold spring, lectures, films
shoes in the wrong spot, sex, monday’s sirens
a pidgeon flies into church –
none of it appears to mean anything

and that’s the only reason
it appears

                        (Translated by Rimas Uzgiris)

Although poems of this kind should raise an eyebrow, they are actually quite predictable, while the laconic insights and questions sound somewhat superficial:

I am the chewed-up cores
of the people I once met

        but did I ever meet them?

                        (Translated by Rimas Uzgiris)

It often happens that the so-called ‘practical’ part of a poem does not properly ‘click’ with the ‘theoretical’ one, and the concluding insight surpasses, with its ‘weight’ and abstraction, the situation at the beginning of the poem, which is the pretext for the insight. Yet when the pretext is sufficient, as in, for instance, ‘no, thank you!’, the poem genuinely resembles a semantic adventure when right until the end you are kept in suspense and are totally unaware what leap of thought awaits you. In general, the strongest works in this collection are the narrative and longer poems (even when the narrative rests not on events but on alternating images): ‘there is a river’, ‘how we were gods’, ‘in the cage within us', ‘poetry’, ‘souvenirs’, ‘all flowers wilt’, ‘if i lose my hands while walking…’.

Aušra Kaziliūnaitė’s earlier collections contained quite a lot of grotesque and Gothic elements. The latest book highlights vitality and light, which are symbolically represented by the image of spring: ‘spring’ is also the title of the opening poem in this collection. The interesting thing is that the poet conveys the season with the meanings localised in the canon of Lithuanian poetry: it is the time of renewal, of physical and spiritual revival. Admittedly, the euphoric atmosphere of spring contains in itself a drop of nostalgic sadness, too. One of the most beautiful poems of this type is ‘spring that’s love’:

and you’re standing there, vanishing in sunlight
buried under an avalanche of spring
lost for all time

there is nothing else but light
and more light
[…]

how can you need
when you have at your finger tips
the light of all the suns that have ever sparked
and on your lap
the delicacy of all the flowers that have ever faded

                        (Translated by Rimas Uzgiris)

The central metaphor asserting the emotional atmosphere of the poem is given by the lines ‘on your lap / the delicacy of all the flowers’. Thanks to the light of spring, plants emerge from the soil, but in spite of the all-encompassing rebirth of nature, spring’s creations are temporary, delicate, and fragile, just like spring-struck people. The image of wilting flowers is also used in the personification of death:  in ‘all flowers wilt’, death appears as a neighbour, a woman from the next flat, who brings a bunch of flowers unexpectedly. Contrary to what might be expected, the intimacy of this neighbour is neither oppressive nor frustrating:

i hear a knock, i open the door:
my neighbor from the other side of the wall

i used to hear her, in the evenings, washing up
i’ve seen her out of the corner of my eye a few times –
the first time was in childhood
when our dog Lord didn’t come home
and again
when grandmother didn’t come
[…]

and here she is standing in front of me with a giant, red bouquet of blossoms

their heads bob with satisfaction in my trembling hands

                                          (Translated by Rimas Uzgiris)

Although confessional styles offering a close connection between the subjects of poems and the personalities of the authors abound in contemporary Lithuanian poetry, there are no direct connections of this kind (autobiographical elements, for example) in Kaziliūnaitė’s poetry. One can say that she possesses the unique talent to speak personally but without going into personal details, without exposing traumatic experiences that are so fervidly admired by confessional authors, and without extolling her own individuality. In the chosen tone and angle of view, the speaker of her poems frequently resembles the omniscient third-person prose narrator even when the speaking is done in the first or the second person. Such an impression is probably created by emotionally reserved, declarative phrases, and the aspiration to know the other or, simply, otherness that is so prominent in Kaziliūnaitė’s work. The important thing is that she seeks parallels and not differences between ‘I’ and what is not ‘I’. Vytautas P. Bložė, a poet who belongs to the canon of Lithuanian literature, asserts in his manifesto poem of 1965, paraphrased by younger writers, that

a poet has the right to speak
in everybody’s name [...]

a poet has the right to live
everybody’s life.

Although Kaziliūnaitė’s standpoint might appear similar, it is actually quite different: instead of speaking ‘in everybody’s name’ and living ‘everybody’s life’, she chooses to recognise and know all others in herself. In the poem ‘poetry’, the experience that both unifies and eliminates differences becomes possible when the gazes are coordinated to look in the same direction: ‘we don’t look at each other / we watch the aquarium fish’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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