LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 29, No.1 - Spring 1983
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1983 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Jonas Zdanys. Voice on an Anthill.
Manyland Books, 84-39 90th Street, Woodhaven, N.Y., 1982. $4.00.
The very first poem of Jonas Zdanys' first book of poetry Voice on an Anthill introduces the reader to the poet's style, theme, and perspective:
A blade of morning,
a fighting of light,
a web of voice,
a song of the hills —
spilled sweetness —
and the dark trees
salty with silence,
incredulous. (p. 2)
This is the first in a sequence of twenty-three poems, "Still Lifes," which comprise the first section of the book. The poet's economy of words is striking: each of the eight lines has from one to four words which join natural phenomena — grass, trees, hills, spiderwebs — with abstractions — the feel of morning, the "spilled sweetness" of the awakening hills. The same words are used both directly and indirectly. When they are direct, they function also metaphorically and metonymically. The personified "dark trees," for example, mean the trees not yet illumed by the sun as well as the lingering silence of sleep and of night itself. When used first of all indirectly, they are also direct: a phrase such as "A blade of morning" evokes the actual piercing sunbeams and the blades of grass. Immediately and consistently, then, the poem functions as a literal description of morning and a figurative presentation of any kind of awakening.
The rhythm of the poem alters when the contrast between light and dark is established, with line 5 transitional. The iambs lose their first unstressed syllables, thereby jarring the meter as the light surprises the trees. The number of stressed syllables is two throughout the poem. The tension between the strict accentual pattern of the lines and the number of syllables, which varies, creates the impression of both formal and informal language, of great concentration and yet lightness. The melody of the lines is further affected by the repetition and variety of sounds: the assonance in line 2, for example, the alliteration of lines 5 and 7, the consonance throughout the poem of the liquid "I." With the exception of the first two lines, the lines end with a sibilant. The most masterful stroke, however, is the contrast of the last line with those preceding. It retains the rhythm and the "s"-rime, but it is only one word, and that a Latinate one with a more relaxed rhythm. This line shifts the poem from the external, albeit personified, world to the internal — the reaction of the trees to what is happening around them. At this point the trees and the poem's readers merge, for this poem is completed by the readers' response. Indeed, the structure of the poem assumes the cooperation of the reader: the missed syllables, the feminine endings echo the beatings of his heart and the waves of his mind. The reader's face registers incredulity as he witnesses the awakening in the poem and the awakening of the poem for him. The poet has most effectively used prosody and etymology to produce such a subtle, overpowering effect.
Zdanys' poem of eight lines may be described in many paragraphs, with still more to be said. This is true of all the poems in the book. They are short, or joined in sequences, and they are full of meaning, suggestion. Nowhere does the poet falter. His control of the poems is complete, yet they remain open-ended for the readers, who must finish the poems by unraveling their intricacies.
The images of the first section of the book are mostly from New England nature: birds, feathers, trees, roots, water, rain, reeds, and finally the earth itself. Anatomical images personify these natural phenomena, underlinging the continuity of man and nature and the same vitality in both. In poem 12 of the "Still Lifes" sequence, for example, there is "The jawbone of the river," the "fingered grip" of the shore," "the moon's bitten fleshand blind blood" (p. 7). Nature's blood courses through what is above and beneath the crust of the earth; it also unifies creatures of the sea, sky, and land, among them man himself.
Nature is a stable entity, whose every element, however, is constantly changing, acting and being acted upon. These elements either actually move, or motion is suggested by the play of light — sun, stars, sky — or water. Lack of light causes pain, and the feel of death becomes stronger as the light recedes. Death itself is ever-present in conflict, combat, and domination, e.g., poems 19 and 20 in "Still Lifes," (p. 11). The final victor, however, is the life-giving sun (poem 23, p. 12).
Section II of twelve poems begins with "North Light," a poem in three parts, presenting a wintry terrain. In the dry, cold north "An old dream of beginnings and endings . . ." (p. 15) remains. Something lost and regretted is, however, retrievable. The six stanzas and the entire poem end with the word "light," a promise of life and continuity.
Sun, wind, and rain enliven the countryside; the impression of beauty they create and the life they impart last even after they have passed:
. . .
Something stays here long after
the wind and rain have passed
beyond the hills and the sun
dips across trees and vines
. . .
Something. And in your eyes, wings,
a beauty beyond words marked by rain,
a quickness of wind.
("October Wind in the Wine Country," pp. 16-17)
The poems are about nature, but they are also about man; the outer scene reflects the human inner landscape, as both the outer and the inner worlds share warmth and communication, light and consciousness, cold and isolation, darkness and death, wind and thought, rain and life. Although humans are discrete and may distance themselves from nature, they see themselves and each other in the context of nature and are sensitive to its moods and changes. In "Block Island Blues" the lovers are engrossed in each other but ever aware of what is happening around them:
. . .
Dusk: adamant still, we kiss.
In this last light, sitting
on the mudflat beach,
we talk of love. Now night:
high above, circling seagulls
wail for water, for light.
Flood tide and morning will alleviate the restlessness of night for both the couple attempting to disregard it and the birds disoriented by it.
The tension between two people is paralleled in the setting in which they meet in the poem "Rock":
. . .
. . . It is
sad to meet again
like this, to watch
the salt tides
in the black
crevices of rock,
to hear the dark birds
clamoring for rock,
to shrink, half-afraid,
backs bent, from the sea
toward rock. (p. 25)
They must face a truth of which they are afraid, a truth like the unpleasantly grey sky and sea, and so they move toward the rock that seems safer than "The indifferent, reckless waves of sky and sea" (p. 24). So much has happened by the sea that its tints and tones are one with those experiences.
Despite the sadness the inmost treasure of nature, and thereby of man, hidden beneath apparent mortality, is life, snug and warm. In the prose-poem "Hollow Tree" the threatening lifelessness surrounding the tree is insignificant compared to the secret life of the tree: "— its branches sang of life in the hollow, in the beak-carved hollow, where birds lay sleeping beneath pale feathers, beneath the weight and warmth of pale feathers" (p. 28). Life is complacent in the face of deathlike night because it is unconquerable.
Some of the nine poems of the third part of the book move more directly toward people and their abode, the town. Here also the poet observes the ebb and flow of life. Fear, anxiety, disappointment, and love are what he sees, e.g., "Poem: Old Age," (p. 39). Experience is stark when it is not tempered with or soothed by nature. A voice is heard on an anthill. That kind of perspective brings sadness and loneliness. Although the endeavor to touch life is troublesome and painful, it is devoid of despair and bitterness. The poem "Voice on an Anthill" is descriptive, direct, without comment, and, in a sense, wordless because nothing more can be said:
. . .
The earth is dark and hollow
where I stand
wrapped in shadows, cold,
a colony of ants
clutched in my hand. (p. 40)
The book of poems ends, nonetheless, with an affirmation of the unity of life, sea and sky and land coalescing, dreams and waking merged, distinctions and divisions overcome: "A world turned inside out, all flesh peeled off" ("Poem," p. 41). Voice on an Anthill presents a world that is one, a world in which man and nature experience light and darkness, joy and pain, birth and death together and in a similar way; a world in which man and nature are metaphors of each other, analogues of unseen processes and pictures of evident patterns.
Without exception, the poems of Jonas Zdanys are compact and intricate, vivid and subtle. They are the work of a sensitive, acute, precise, and intense poet.
University of Illinois at Chicago