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Ugnė Žemaitytė was born in 1999 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Since graduating from Vilnius University in Political Sciences in 2021, she has been collaborating with publishing houses in Lithuanian. She is currently working at 'RARA' publishing house, handling communications while pursuing her Master's degree in Semiotics.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Neringa Butnoriūtė

by
Ugnė Žemaitytė

 

 

Translated by Markas Aurelijus Piesinas

 

Jaroslavas_MelnikasDovilė Zelčiūtė, Koks tavo vardas? – K.: Kauko laiptai, 2023
Alis Balbierius, Aš žudžiau jūrų žvaigždes. – V.: Lietuvos rašytojų sąjungos leidykla, 2023

Spring carries life in terms of new poetry anthologies, live readings, and meetings with poets. But not poetry collections. As per usual, after the end of winter, annually marked by the Vilnius Book Fair, the poets this year were silent. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Two notable books were published during this period by two Poetry Spring laureates, both members of the 1960s generation – the poetry collection Koks tavo vardas? (What Is Your Name?) by Dovilė Zelčiūtė and the collection of poetic essays Aš žudžiau jūrų žvaigždes (I Used to Kill Starfish) by Alius Balbierius.

Even though the books revolve around two themes that may appear wholly incongruous – love and ecology – their equally slow pace, frugal usage of words, and lack of pretense unexpectedly draw out a sensation in the reader that could be described as the experience of meditative mourning. Using a spiritual approach that both poets are fond of, Zelčiūtė and Balbierius discuss life after the loss of a loved one and life before an ecological catastrophe. It’s an interesting coincidence that both poets express a wish to resist daily commotion and consumerism. However, their perspectives differ.

For example, Koks tavo vardas? continues the intimate confessions about loss that Ζelčiūtė is known for. But unlike her previous poetry collection Šokiai Vilniaus gatvėje (Dancing in Vilnius Street), this book uses mourning to examine the love once felt as it newly emerges from memory. As she considers the questions of Christian compassion and sacrifice, Zelčiūtė portrays grief as a light and temporal sensation, which nevertheless always reminds her of her own mortality: “my night is / short not eternal / not heavy not hopeless / mercy / is rising” (p. 39).

These poems emphasize the will of God, who is given the role of the director of the universe: “I am an intertext in my own life / I don’t recognize the main character / I can’t predict its plot” (p. 20). The subject is lost in the midst of life’s urgencies and inhabits a world where each minute must be accounted for – the pace of contemporary life is expressed at the individual level, where death and illness dictate the experience of time: “I look to check the clock / it seems like a joke / life’s almost over” (p. 42).

Factual, bodily, exhausting experiences become the force grounding the subject and sparking appreciation for life’s simple miracles. The first instance of meeting the loved one, directed over and over again in the subject’s memory, becomes the thematic thread in Zelčiūtė’s poems: “how I’ve waited for you / how unaware I was / on the other side of the street / I merely have to look closer / and dare to come over” (p. 24), followed by the simple domestic rituals experienced together: “you didn’t make / coffee for me at seven o’clock in the morning / but I have it all now” (p. 64).

Jaroslavas_MelnikasMeanwhile in Aš žudžiau jūros žvaigždes, Balbierius employs various cosmogonies, not limited to Western traditions of Christianity, to examine the pace of contemporary life, likening it to the menacing elements of nature: “The tide of time is always above us. / Always falling and falling. / And it spares no one.” (p. 27), or referring to the “winds of change, gusts of technology” (p. 147). Balbierius’s collection of poetic essays speaks about nature as a singular entity, discussing its harmonious coexistence and the guilt humanity carries for destroying it.

The subject also conveys strong feelings of an impending universal tragedy. So unlike Zelčiūtė, Balbierius mourns the inevitably grim future: “Is there anything more dreadful than death before dying?” (p. 186). The disappointment and resignation in the face of the religion of consumerism, as well as the individual’s detachment and their subsequent asceticism, are perhaps the results of this precipitate life, which Balbierius examines time and again: “Running from oneself is impossible, just like not running is” (p. 187). So, it seems that these essays expose a paradox of our times, when commotion can be found even in instances of self-reflection.

It is an interesting coincidence that both books emphasize the motif of fatigue. Fatigued by action and by abundance, the authors turn to their daily routines in an attempt to seek meaning in the absurdity of present or future loss. Yet even in this state, they’re still caring and tender toward the other (“there’s enough hope / to be hopeful / and care for the other / here’s a wish / you take care / and I’ll take care too / looking closely / in the direction of Petrašiūnai,” p. 68).

It seems that Zelčiūtė’s world is one without a future, where loss only stresses the ephemerality of life (“stiff nights and a ready heart / no plans for the future only you / like a horribly beautiful possession,” p. 76), while Balbierius remains hopeful, making pledges to himself and to others (or maybe even reciting his own peculiar affirmations): “Back then I used to kill starfish, now I know – I will never do it again. / […] Perhaps back then I could’ve killed even the stars in the sky for ‘the sake of science.’ / I’m glad they’re out of reach, back then and now.” (p. 285).

Both books represent a soft protest against contemporary life, advocating for empathy in the face of the unknown. Yet sometimes the protest seems so soft that it begs the question of whether it really amounts to anything (e.g., “how free I was / when I could say / that I’ve worked so much I could throw up,” p. 42). One thing is to accept the possibility and fact of loss, and another is to pursue one’s own life, thus giving meaning to that which is gone.

Balbierius’s thoughts on climate change in particular cast some doubt: are these soft measures of denomination, self-control, and retreat really enough? “Now I am but a weak man, still filled with plans about art and life, he who tried to live in accordance with, and so permeated by, the renaissance idea of universality” (p. 47). So is this some devastating fatigue that results from abundance? And if it merely results from the contemporary condition of life, perhaps it needs to be called a climate “crisis,” or some other more radical term? Or maybe it deserves slightly more radical actions?

The emotional dynamics of the books Koks tavo vardas? and Aš žudžiau jūrų žvaigždes, despite the season they were published in, aren’t springlike at all. Perhaps these are meditative testimonies, personal confessions about the difficult historical period we find ourselves in, and about mourning, the contemplation of which the contemporary person has neither the space nor the time for. The poems do not spark transformation on the societal or individual levels, but they do gently invite their readers to pause and reflect.

Recommended to those seeking meaningful silence in the noise of informational consumption and exaggerated joy. Because “the daily gifts / most prized are by others / unseen only the two of us know,” “and sometimes you don’t need anything more – only this banality” (Zelčiūtė, p. 46; Balbierius p. 217).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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