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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Lina Buividavičiūtė

by
Rimas Uzgiris

 

 

Valdas Papievis Echo review 02Jonas Mekas, Words Apart and Others: Poems 1967 & 1998, Rail Editions, Brooklyn, New York, 2018.
Translated from the Lithuanian by Vyt Bakaitis

It is with great pleasure that I can now introduce Jonas Mekas’ poetry to the English-speaking world. For a long time, Mekas was primarily known in America as a film critic, the founder (along with his brother Adolfas) of Film Culture magazine, a leading critic for The Village Voice. Certainly, people also talked about him as a major figure in the post-war cinematic avant-garde, the man who put a moving-picture camera in Andy Warhol’s hands, the man who filmed the Velvet Underground, filmed the goings on in Warhol’s Factory, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsburg, Nam June Paik, the Fluxus art movement led by George Mačiūnas (another Lithuanian immigrant), even the Kennedy clan. He sure got around. But how many actually saw his films? I too had known him by reputation only, until, browsing in my parents’ bookshelves while home on break from grad school, I discovered an autographed copy of a first edition of Pavieniai žodžiai (1967, Chicago), inscribed to my mother. (“Mom! You know Jonas Mekas?” “Well, he gave a reading, I asked for his autograph…”) This third book of his Lithuanian poetry forms the basis of Words Apart and Others: Poems 1967 & 1998, dual-language edition, translated by Vyt Bakaitis (Rail Editions: Brooklyn, NY, 2018), and it is some of his best work in the genre. Rendered literally, the title would be, “Words one by one”, for this is how the poems are written (except when he breaks apart a word over a line break and it becomes less than one). Such a strategy is harder to pull off in English due to the plethora of articles and prepositions that our language requires. Bakaitis has come up with a wonderful solution, changing the title to something more poetic and true to the English version by allowing for the inclusion of Mekas’ later poems. The English collection’s title also emphasizes the “apartness” of the texts, both in terms of their visual breaking and falling down the page (sentences and words torn apart), and in terms of theme: Mekas’ poetry is full of nostalgia, yearning for a lost home, an immigrant’s sense of isolation, thus, another kind of “apartness”, a separation deeply felt, and yet resisted. Perhaps typical of the immigrant experience, he lives two lives. One looks back to where he came from: “We still are displaced persons, even today, even today, and the world is full of us, every continent is full of displaced persons. The minute we left, we started going home, and we are still going home, I am still on my journey home. We loved you world, but you did lousy things to us.” (Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, 1975). The danger (aesthetically, at least) of this kind of nostalgia is that it can result in a form of neo-romantic sentimentality. Mekas’s 1998 poems, included at the end of this selection, are less effective as a result. There is a haunted beauty to their lines, but they give themselves a bit too easily to the longing for home:

Ah, how I’d like to be seeing you now, all the little people from
my childhood, out on a blue stone, among the thyme-sprigs,
that smell, that space — waving to my mother on her way to
milk the cows, with her scarf white and a milk
pail in hand.

(from “In nakedness of sky…”, Words Apart)

The other life (of the immigrant) looks forward, building a new identity out of new experiences, and the result, so often seen in Mekas’s films, is of an artist creating out of fragments, past and present interwoven, never quite whole but clipped together into a kind of unity nevertheless:

start
out
word
by
word,
thought
by
thought,
act
by act,

try and
build
myself
up,

leaving
everything
open,

without
knowing
where
to go —

all on
intu
-ition,
letting
improvi
-sation
guide me,
a
-voiding
firm
-ly
paved
roads

(I know
where
they
lead to,
Eu
-rope!)

(from “In the Woods”, Words Apart)

The fragmentation of language enacts the fragmentation of the immigrant’s experience, especially that of a war refugee who had to flee for his life. “I have lost too much,” he says in Lost, Lost, Lost, “so now I have these bits I am passing through.” We might, however, put Mekas’s aesthetic in a wider context. His bits and pieces that need to be pieced together are reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s famous line in The Waste Land: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,…” That poem was written in the wake of Europe’s self-destruction in World War I. The Second World War did nothing to reduce its relevance. Thus, I think we can see Mekas’ project as Eliotic, though not exclusively so. Mekas knows first-hand of the ravages of Western civilization in the 20th century, yet takes a more distinctly American and Romantic approach to the solution of the problem (where Eliot became ever more British, conservative, and religious). He seeks to embrace the fragmentation as a kind of freedom, an improvisatory path (think of jazz) that will lead him along new (unpaved, non-European) roads. There is a kind of melancholy resignation to this, but it is far from Eliot’s despair:

so what,
let
thoughts
stream
at random —
each
memory
apart,

fragmented
places,
friends —

let
them
fall,
the way

words
do.

(from “Remnants of a Journey”, Words Apart)

As in his poetry, so in his films, Mekas constantly turns back to the world as a source of wonder and amazement. In this, he is more like Walter Pater than Eliot. Pater developed a philosophy of art in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry that saw the world of our experience in constant flux with no great unifying system to bind it, “for art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” (from The Renaissance, “Conclusion”). Harold Bloom has described this perspective as “Heraclitean Romanticism,” (in his introduction to Pater’s Selected Writings), and I think this is a key to understanding Mekas’ work. The flux and fragmentation of culture, society, history, and the individual is something Mekas experienced first-hand, yet he came to embrace the fleeting moments of beauty he encountered without any reaching after an over-arching narrative to give it grander meaning. The moments are what matter. We can see this in his films, and we can see this in his 1967 Pavieniai žodžiai (fully reproduced here). The book is composed of five sections, the first four being sequences, the middle two of which I have quoted from above: these latter represent, we might say, the dark night of the immigrant’s soul and his attempt to work his way out through acceptance of his situation. The first and fourth sequences are more purely imagistic and find space for his ever-present delight in the world around him:

It’s just
this image

just this
river
-willow
a bird swings

just this
burning
sun
in the lips
of a stream
just this.

(from “Images”, Words Apart)

The fourth sequence, “At the Shore”, describes a trip to France. There is soul-searching and loneliness here as well, but it is always interspersed with observation and wonder at the world around him, as well as the peace (limited as it may be) that comes from that:

Day’s
done,
heart’s
stable.

Here
lies
the wine
-red
sea.

Echoes of Homer (“the wine-dark sea”) are present throughout Mekas’ work, as when he addresses a fictive Penelope at the end of his memoir I Had Nowhere To Go. We can find such allusions as well in the work of another Lithuanian immigrant poet: Tomas Venclova. In both, there is the sense that Ithaca is both there and gone, a kind of mirage of memory. Yet, even if the immigrant artist can’t quite reach it, home (or the idea of home) proves to be a source, a wellspring from which he can draw that which gives him the strength to continue his song. The closing section of Pavieniai žodžiai enacts this quite literally, as longing for home, and the sense of it’s loss for good, leads to the verbalization of the musical scale:

my
home?

— Not
that
far,

not
that
far —

just
up
to
the
grave

the grave

do
re
mi
fa
so
la

ti
do

(from “Closing”, Words Apart)

In this respect, Mekas may be closer to Seamus Heaney than to T. S. Eliot. The former also looked back to his home in Northern Ireland as a source, his “omphalos”, as he called it, the Greek word for navel that also stood for the sacred island of Delphi: the “navel of the world” for the Ancient Athenians. In his film, Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, Mekas calls his home town of Šemeniškiai, “The center of the world.” So often for immigrant poets, that navel is both an absence (the umbilical cord has been cut, home will never be home again) and a source of strength (a kind of well, and here we might think of Heaney’s “Personal Helicon”). They are  paradoxically, rooted in their un-rootedness. Of course, immigrants will have their differences, and it is Mekas’ more traumatic cutting from his roots that brings him closer to Eliot in grasping after fragments. (Heaney’s emigration was fully voluntary, return relatively easy; Venclova, for that matter, also never embraced an aesthetic of fragments, remaining more conservative, holding on to established forms.) This reader, however, cannot escape the feeling that the presence (in memory) of Mekas’ absent home gives him the ability to continually experience enjoyment of the ephemeral beauties of this fragmentary post-modern world in which he finds himself, a kind of experience that was never enough for Eliot. Mekas is, indeed, a romantic, much more so than the elder poet. (He says as much about himself when he talks in a film about his preference for Chopin—but in which film was that? The shards of experience don’t cohere so well in memory, even if they are spliced together in film, in printed words…) Yet if Mekas was more romantic than Eliot, he was also more of an avant-garde artist than Heaney or Venclova. In fact, he was most experimental in the artistic language he knew best and worked longest to develop: that of cinema. I suspect also that his Lithuanian poetry, connected to an absent omphalos, to his mother(’s) tongue, was more prone to romanticism and conservatism due to these connections. Mekas may have been more free with his cinematic language because it wasn’t so closely tied to home. Be that as it may, there is a compelling tension in his artistic work between the romantic and the modernist, evident especially here in Words Apart as well as in certain films like Walden, the above-quoted Lost, Lost, Lost and Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania. We encounter there, on the one hand, the romantic observer full of praise and wonder, questing and questioning, commenting ruefully on what he sees, while, on the other hand, we are made to face the modernist ruins in which he lives, a sense of the collapse of world-defining and soul-defining narratives (“I haven’t trusted any mind since I left my home,” he says in Lost, Lost, Lost). And the co-presence of these aesthetic voices (usually a combination of actual voice in speech with stylistic disjunction and the chaos of disorganized perception) gives his work its unique power. Mekas relishes the passing moments, even with the constant and painful reminder that they are all passing, that there is no unifying, redeeming whole. The co-existence of these terribly brief moments in time has a ghostly aspect to it. Sometimes, even, the past becomes superimposed on the present bringing them into an eerie alignment like on a double-exposed print:

I sat there, by this quiet New England lake, looking across the water, and I
almost cried. I saw myself, walking with my mother across the field, my small
hand in hers, and the field was burning with red and yellow flowers, and I could
feel everything like then and there, every smell and color and the blue of the
sky… I was sitting there and trembling with memory.

(I Had Nowhere To Go, 1991, reprinted by
Spector Books, Leipzig, 2017, p. 469)

We might compare this passage with how he speaks of some indeterminate third person (can it be anyone but himself, a self alienated from himself?) in Lost, Lost, Lost: “Sometimes he didn’t know where he was, the present and past intermingled, superimposed, and then since no place was really his, no place was really his home, he had this habit of attaching himself immediately to any place…” But when no place is like home, every place is like home:

leaving
everything
open

(from “In the Woods”, Words Apart)

I hope I have to some extent convinced the reader that despite Mekas’ work in different genres, despite the fact that he is known for very different things by different people, there is a unity to his oeuvre that can be seen at both a thematic and stylistic level. This can best be observed in his poetry by focusing on the scintillating fragmentation of language in his poems from 1967, for it is here that his writing most approaches the technique of his films. Thus, it is a joy that Vyt Bakaitis has finally made this work available to English language readers. They are in able hands. Meaning and effect are carried across the language barrier. I would quibble with some of his phrasings and word choices, but as both of us are poet-translators, let this be our private battle. The reader need only enjoy the beauty of the passing moments of those poems.

 

 

 

 

 

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