LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 34, No. 1 - Spring 1988
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 1988 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
IMAGE DEVELOPMENT IN THE POETRY OF LIŰNE SUTEMA
The Ohio State University
Liűne Sutema, born in Samogitia, Lithuania in 1927, a major poet in her own right, is the sister of the major exile poet, Henrikas Nagys, and the widow of the major exile novelist and short story writer, Marius Katiliđkis. One of her best friends, now also deceased, was the fellow poet, Algimantas Mackus, a harsh and noble speaker of exile and of death. Thus both in her life and in her work Sutema has lived in a universe of people and words which, in enfolding her deepest human affections, also shared with her an intimate, though often tragic, discourse about the solitudes of death and dispossession. This is at least one reason why her art, graced with a lively, original imagination and filled with passionate humanity, is also tempered by a certain stoic moral fortitude. In this way, Sutema's poetry helps us to enjoy the richness of life as well as to endure the adversities of the human condition.
The present paper shall focus on Sutema's own voice in her discourse with those dearest to her as well as with us all. It will advance the proposition that she speaks as one who has gradually understood and resolved the dichotomy between the fact of exile and the illusion, clothed in the romantic garb of Lithuanian poetic tradition, that we did not so much lose a world as that we carried it with us, enshrined in the reliquaries of accustomed poetic images and symbols, no longer commensurate with the breadth and depth of our postwar experience.
The process toward this resolution first of all involves the paradox of rejecting, abandoning to die in the harsh desert of realities, the entire emotional ambience and universe of values supported by the stylistic and symbolic norms of traditional, mainstream Lithuanian poetry, while at the same time recovering and preserving that very emotion and those values as themselves and not as a set of well-worn poetic devices. The next step is to rescue and revive those same abandoned conventional devices, but in such a way that, while articulating what the heart has preserved, they would also depict how the new alien world of exile has intertwined with and grown into one's body and soul. In her 1962 collection entitled Nothing Is Alien Any Longer, Sutema describes the achievement of these purposes as a physical, organic event:
Nothing is alien any longer,
The tree I knew not has now grown
and spread its branches in my eyes —
the net of veins inside its prickly leaves,
a fine-spun web of tangled threads,
is breathing in my palms.
My lips have grown accustomed
To feel its succulent, untasted fruit (p. 29).
In a particular sense, one could describe Sutema's poetry as the human, not the divine, story of death and resurrection in which the cross becomes the tree becomes the poet and her word.
But how does a word die? In as many ways, it would seem, as there are memories, regrets and different hues of feeling. Rainbow-colored visions will become dried-out fish scales by the shore of a forgotten pond. The tree at the end of memory lane will be consumed by the vermin of time. The bluebird of dreams will sit on an antique dealer's shoulder staring at reality with large, uncomprehending eyes. Wizened old children will go on playing in the land of remembrance that has lost its name, tossing rusty helmets, sunken ships and wrecked planes back and forth among themselves. The snows of yesteryear will be dead and deep over the land that once was life. Beyond all that, the word also dies and therefore lives again in the act of yielding it, and what it means, to time, as in the collection, The Nameless Land, (1966), where Sutema says:
I return the dead-end street, flanked with poplars.
Beyond the gate, there is the cemetery,
with a Lithuanian name —
I return the street to those who hold rny childhood
in their cramped and twisted palms.
Let them guard my childhood,
let them force it to say and say again
the same old slogans, oaths and promises (p. 54).
It then also dies and lives again in the opposite act of refusing to yield it, and what it means, to time, as Sutema says in the same collection:
I will give up nothing —
I will deny that I still have it.
I will carry it all within myself,
I will preserve it in the catacombs,
so that the endgame should be mine (p. 40).
Among the many deaths of the word in Suterna's poetry, two in particular: death by fire and death by water stand out as the most dramatic and most universal. Both of them also carry the deep mythological seeds of new beginnings, of words and meanings that can grow again and fill the empty land of exile. To speak of the fire first, in her collection Time of Famine (1972) Sutema writes:
IT IS TIME TO BURN, IT IS TIME TO BURN
WORDS FOR WHICH THERE ARE NO MORE THINGS —
WORDS LIKE A NUTSHELL WITH THE KERNEL GONE,
LIKE EMPTY PODS ON FLOWERS AND ON TREES,
WHEN SEED IS SCATTERED,
LIKE BATTLE STEEDS WITHOUT THEIR RIDERS,
LIKE HOUSES WITHOUT PEOPLE,
ABANDONED FOR MANY YEARS.
The words I brought with me
have no more things,
the things I brought with me
have no more names —
I wish to stay in No Man's Land,
so there would be no home,
so I would need not leave it or betray,
so that 1 would not yearn for home (p. 14).
The point is, of course, that in the alien land of exile it is not possible to see, for instance, the sky, or birch tree, or a flower, and call them by these names, because "flower", "birch" and "sky" are words whose meanings have been left behind, in the blossom-studded woods of home, under a sky as blue and spacious as the knowledge that you belong there. Such words cannot describe what was not there when they were born — the mute and terrible reality of blood and war and the parched long journeys across the sands of dispossession.
The destroyer word "fire" retains its meaning, however, because of its function in Sutema's poetry and also because in the poetic vocabulary of any place or time it has also symbolized passion. Here we come to the emotional core in Sutema: the shells of words are empty not because the poet has lost that feeling which they once embraced, but precisely because she has not lost it: the feeling is there, it is a fire that consumes the heart beyond endurance, so that it must be transferred to the words again, that is, infuse them again with a new passion filled not only with the memories of "them", but also with the experiences of "now." In this context, to say with Sutema that the time is now for burning is like saying that the heart must now speak.
What this also means, of course, is that the fire is not an apocalyptic outside force, much as it may seem so, but rather the creative essence of the poet's own self. This is well articulated in another poem from the same collection, entitled "I Defend Myself":
I defend myself. My city is ablaze with fire.
The sparks are streaming, burning through
with stars the darkling vault of heaven.
The church bells melt: their copper, ringing,
drops down into the leafless forests.
Along the dikes, the flames run straight into the maws of wolves,
as if to open gates —
the campfires blaze into the maws of wolves
as if to open gates —
And I defend myself. My city is on fire —
the roots of trees suck in the molten copper,
the wolves are choking on the flames (p. 38).
First of all, let us note how this cataclysmic drama describes the birth of poetry. The stars acquire their being through the burning sparks of the poet's passion that pierce the heavens. The molten copper, so easily perceived as autumn leaves, turns them into the ringing knell of time, a thing of dread and beauty, especially when we can see how this time itself is decomposing, filtering down into the roots to feed another future. Thus in the mind's eye we can see again, in Autumn hues, the cosmic passion play of death and resurrection.
But now the wolves. At the end of the poem, we learn what they are:
Now I rest under the trees that once were,
having defended my city —
as, satiated for another century,
the wolves reentered into me (p. 39).
The wolves and fire are one: they are the poet's soul, the fierce and predatory passion of her love. The poet has become herself and now can speak with words that have regained their meanings in an alien land.
Death by water can be a baptism and a purification. Sutema turns to water imagery first of all for the sake of freedom: to wash out stale things that have usurped the place of knowledge, be it of the heart or of the mind, so that it should again become possible to doubt and not to know, that is, to plant a seed of something new and strange in the empty inner landscapes now cleared of stale affections. This is how Sutema puts it:
Now I can doubt again.
My unconscious has washed out
unto the sunny Summer day
the heavy, needless things
I used to carry inside me —
just like the lake washes out
dead fish and weeds, and roots,
and sometimes even human bodies.
Now I have it all before me
(all that I used to be so sure of),
now I am free again
now I can doubt (The Nameless Land, p. 14).
When we recall that some psychologists consider the creative act to be emergence of hidden worlds from the unconscious, we can perceive the irony of Sutema's reversal of the process. It is a searing, but also a cleansing irony, because it removes the dead layers of inherited language and allows us to touch reality again. Such an ironic reversal is quite typical of Sutema; we may cite, in passing, another example of it from the collection Vendetta (1981):
In vain they taught me,
in vain they ran their fingers
down the Holy Writ: "Turn Thou the other cheek." I have no other.
Lord, do not forgive,
for they do know what they have done.
Lord, do not forgive,
for I, too, know what I am doing (pp. 12-3).
This is the knowledge that comes after the freedom of doubt and after the baptism of fire and water. Then the mind can return back to the primeval sea of the subscons-cious to meet the terrors hiding there, because the new poetic word cannot be built without such confrontation. Again, as with all truly original poetry, we are not speaking of anything new: it was already well understood in the mythology of ancient Greece that the poet must descend to Hades to regain Eurydice. In a sense, Sutema does just that in her poem, "1 Am Afraid", from Vendetta. It is a journey, perceived as green and slimy drowning, deep into the past we have inside us, among the dead who once gave us life.
The poem begins rather like a symphony, with the statement of the basic theme:
I am afraid — my fear is green, a deluge,
it floods and covers me,
as I, enveloped in the smell of fish and mud — am drowning —
you cannot save me with your green and slimy hands —
I'm drowning in the Water King's embrace (p. 37).
Then the waters of the nightmare become the brooks and lakes of home remembered:
The Water King, he rocks and swings,
he swings me, —
by all the lakes in which I used to wade,
by tidal waters where I used to pick the reeds,
by all the brooks in which I gathered up the stars —
I am afraid, I am afraid — my cry
will, like a green fish, dart across your face (p. 38).
And finally we meet the dead:
I fear — I fear the past —
my fear is bitter green —
my father slowly walks around the grove
that long ago was put to axe
and overgrown with tacky houses
like poison mushrooms.
Father — stop — I am afraid,
rest, father, don't you see,
how green the trees that you have planted
in what was once a prairie? Father, we are here (p. 40).
Sutema's poetry is in a way a journey back from the father's side into a world he never knew. Like all journeys, it is a story that takes its time in the telling. Finally we realize that it will never do to speak of Sutema's poetry in terms of little knots of images — the lyrical principle alone. In the earlier stages of her development, in such books as Be it as in a Fairy Tale (1955), the poems were for the most part tightly structured to form complete and self-enclosing entities, and they were also short and focused upon a single point of experience. Later the poems began to extend in scope and change from being single scenes or statements into narratives with something like a plot. At first this plot told mostly of a journey, sometimes into a land of memory and dream, as in the cycle "Notes from a Lunatic's Journey" in Nothing is Alien any Longer where we see the poet's memory as an extended, silent nightmare moving along the path of moonlight into the streets and forests of forsaken home, through rain-soaked landscapes, meeting and not meeting mother, home, childhood, until the traveler moves out of it all into the freedom of not knowing what she is. In The Nameless Land almost every poem is a narrative with the poet as the central figure. The new values of old words, the liberation from the past, and the commitment to it, develop as sequences of symbolic or real events in the mind of the author. In Time of Famine we see dramatic stories like the poem "I Defend Myself" referred to before. Finally, in Vendetta every poem is really a legend or an extended dedication becoming dialogue with friends living or dead, or a dream, a nightmare, but always a narration rather than depiction of a static framework for the poet's experience. In reading this, one may begin to think that it is perhaps true that the creation of a world is a story and not just a word, and that all truth aspiring to completeness must in its nature be epic, in poetry no less than in prose. Sutema's new poetic world does therefore unfold before us as what it is — a great book of life.