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Baby Names, a Dead Moose, and Crepitating Leaves:
Introducing the Vilnius Review 2022 Paper Edition


Many of us have seen a moose by the side of the road. But what if it is a dead moose? What if it’s in the middle of the road, in winter, and you have to slam on your brakes, and you’re skidding towards the trees, and the car that killed the moose is already in a ditch, and there’s a woman in it, and you don’t know if she’s dead or alive, and you don’t know if you’re dead or alive? World and underworld. Past and present. The living and the dead. Intertwined. This, and more, you will find and, perhaps (or perhaps not), untangle in Eglė Frank’s story, “The Moose on the Road,” from her debut collection, The Dead also Dance. Macabre, erotic, and strange, her stories keep you reading. Furthermore, her female characters are written with depth and complexity, and her writing is a welcome contribution to Lithuanian short fiction, a field increasingly inhabited by women.

The journal you are holding has much else to recommend it. I am, in fact, recommending it, which is a new job for me. Perhaps because I translated eight out of the ten authors of poetry and fiction here, perhaps because the editor-in-chief, Marius Burokas, was tired of writing introductions to the paper edition of the Vilnius Review after seven(?) years in a row, I was (strongly, yet gently) urged to write this. Ah, but the pleasure is all mine.

Speaking of baby names… Oh, that was a tricky piece to translate. Greta Ambrazaitė, who recently gave birth to a baby girl, plays with the meanings of popular and traditional Lithuanian girls’ names. We don’t have such names in English. Fir. Bird-cherry. Any takers? No? Well, to see if I managed to convey what she was up to, you’ll have to read the poem. And the rest of them, too. For, now, a few years removed from her virtuosic debut, Ambrazaitė’s wild imagery and language is more restrained, more focused. A newly formed family has drawn her poems into a familial orbit, encouraged an investigation into roots, yet the horror and love of her vision still abrade each other, catch fire, burn... but now with more clarity to the flames. This is a talent to be watched and wondered at.

Which isn’t to say the rest of the poets here are small potatoes. Far from it. I mean, there might be something potato-y about all of us over here in Lithuania, but you get my drift. Gintaras Bleizgys, after all, has won just about every prize a Lithuanian poet can win. His sometime Donnian desperation to reach God is absent in this latest collection. But one can still find the sharp, minimalistic lines and the earnest, self-abasing search for some kind of understanding and connection in a world that is often indifferent or downright cruel. This is perhaps best illustrated in his long poem “For Laima Kreivytė.” Kreivytė is also a poet (her work available, in fact, on the Vilnius Review website) as well as an art critic and curator and LGBT activist. Bleizgys, besides being a writer, is a businessman and an active Protestant believer. Strange bedfellows? Nah, they’re both poets, human beings who have been stung by the words of others. Bleizgys wanders through a forest reading her book, carrying on a conversation with her in his mind, searching for a peace that slips away into the rising shadows.

Antanas Šimkus’s poetry also rarely leaves us in peace. The lyrical themes of spring and love are undercut by the presence of death and the devil (a figure deeply rooted in Lithuanian folklore). Mixing free verse and more formal poems, Šimkus reveals a finely tuned lyrical eye. Universal themes merge with the personal, and gritty details of Vilnius give way to a vision of Bethlehem. Different perspectives clash. His young son goes out on a date, and the poet sees the blossoms already swept to the side of the road. The visitor he brings to his hometown sees a graveyard, while the narrator sees beauty everywhere. The perspective you can take on things seems just as important as the thing itself, and Šimkus’s poetry not only investigates this multiplicity, but tries to move us to a position from which we can grasp what is worth grasping before it is gone.

The poetry of Nerijus Cibulskis might be even more on the side of pure lyricism, with little of the personal, biographical nature of much recent work by the younger generation of writers (millennials). His work is marked by strong, grounded imagery, and yet the ground can suddenly shift, as when a poem moves from a couple in a starry field to the moon like a little boy being buttoned into the sky by Urania (or is the moon the button and the sky the boy?). Or when a cormorant spreads its wings to make a hieroglyph—but one that no one can read. Or when the images float ungrounded like crumbs to lead us out of the forest (labyrinth? Is poetry our Ariadne’s thread?). There is much to enjoy as the poems touch the very sources of wonder in us. What more can we ask of art?

But then what of those confessional millennials I mentioned? We have one of those here too. Ramunė Brundzaitė’s second collection of poems, The Fellowship of Empty Bottles, is true to its title as a look at the terrors and tribulations of giving up a life with alcohol and of trying to figure out who one is without it. Not an easy task, as I can say from experience (a Gen X confession?). Brundzaitė’s smartly observed poems navigate their way through this fraught psychological landscape, buoyed by an underlying compassion for others and for herself (often underestimated in importance). Her experience of working in a call center has also made its way into her new poems, adding a touch of rueful humor to her themes of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and the feeling of being adrift.

Of all the poets here, the youngest (but still a millennial), is Birutė Grašytė-Black whose debut collection, I Paid with Lilac Leaves, won the Lithuanian Writer’s Union First Book Prize. The Black in her name comes from her husband, American poet Malachi Black, who can now finally(!) read his wife’s poems. So who says poetry translation doesn’t do any good in the world? And I think he will be pleased with what he sees. Grašytė-Black’s lyrical poems have a subtle, sensitive touch, maneuvering through the multiple meanings of words as well as through the landscapes of childhood in the countryside. If there is innocence here, it is not naive, indeed, it is not without the perspective of experience (innocence with experience?). I mentioned crepitating leaves in the title. You can find them in her poem, “October.” Or can you? In Lithuanian, the word for moon and month is the same: menuo. The October moon is caught in Lupus’s maw and crepitates underfoot. The leaves crunch, but the moon may be there as well, shimmering perhaps in the water of the river. Such moments do make translation seem impossible. But not all is lost. Perhaps something can even be gained back. “Crepitates” is, after all, a bit of a reach from the Lithuanian. An attempt to give something back for what language took away.

Fiction presents such challenges more rarely, often because one has more room to work things out. And with some writers, the language is so straightforward and clear that the issue for the translator is more one of finding the right voice. I have always loved the voices in Undinė Radzevičiūtė’s prose. In Minaret and Seven, she has returned to writing from the perspective of her biographical self. Almost a memoir, a novel in the way that Knausgaard’s novels aren’t exactly novels, it poses the question of what happens to a writer who goes to a prestigious residency in a foreign land, gets sick, is laid up in bed, and can’t write. She observes the world around her, the people she is holed up with, and she remembers stories from her past, the ones she has written, and the mysterious ones told to her that seem echoed by her surroundings but remain themselves – inscrutable. What excites me as a reader and translator here is that I recognize the intelligent, fiercely independent, sardonic voice of the narrator. An excerpt of my translation from her debut, Strekaza [Dragonfly], was published in Trafika Europe 15 (online), and now I see that that Undinė has returned, though calmer, wiser, less bitter with the world. Irony, sharp dialogue, limpid sentences, a strong female lead… Her work is unique in Lithuanian fiction, which still tends to prefer long, baroque phrases, and it is a wonderful change of pace.

The theme of a writer abroad is continued in Akvilina Cicėnaitė’s The English Dictionary. It is another work that feels like a memoir but is labelled as a novel. Though here, the “abroad” is one of emigration. Cicėnaitė probes the dusty corners of what it means to be homesick, to miss a country that will never be what it was to you in your past. She portrays the conflicts and misunderstandings of a cross-cultural marriage and the desperate desire to be fully understood in a way that can only come through sharing a language and a cultural background. The style is more poetic meditation than Radzevičiūtė’s crisp dialogue and acute observation, and in that respect is more traditional for Lithuanian fiction. Yet its emigrant narrator struggling with the brute facts imposed on her by emigration marks it as unique, inflected with an Otherness that is not so common in Lithuanian literature.

In some respects, Tomas Vaiseta’s novel Ch. is the most traditional of the Lithuanian fiction offerings here. It could also probably be called the most “literary,” or “intellectual.” It is essentially a long internal monologue of a person on the margins, a stagehand grieving his daughter’s loss, exploring the nature of existence from his small corner of the world. It has elaborate baroque sentences, philosophical thoughts, absurdities, and reflections on language but not a lot of action, except for this excerpt in which cats hunt a sparrow (“demon”). Lyrical, poetic, contemplative fiction with long internal monologues that has been a common feature of Lithuanian (male) writers, and Vaiseta’s novel carries that tradition into the present.

And then there is the essay. As part of the Vilnius Review’s ongoing series of lyrical essays, “Reflections on Belonging,” Zigmas Pakštaitis contributes a more fragmentary approach. The self, and the sense of where we as selves belong is pieced together, he seems to say, with no overall unitary vision, though the past is never just the past but can reappear, re-establish itself, and so root us to a kind of identity that we construct through our interactions with that past. Well, the reader is welcome to interpret that essay differently, and that seems part of the point.
The other essays herein are more academic, that is, they are reviews of the works that have been excerpted and translated. Written by literary critics and literary scholars, they give the reader a better grasp of the work as a whole, as well as some sense of literary and cultural context. There is a lot of literature and a lot of context, and each issue of Vilnius Review can only scratch the surface. But baby names, a dead moose, and crepitating leaves are a start. I hope you enjoy the journey.

Rimas Uzgiris









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