LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 39, No.4 - Winter 1993
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas, University of Illinois. at Chicago
Copyright © 1993 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
EXISTENTIAL ROOT CONCEPTS OF LITHUANIA IN THE POETRY OF SIGITAS GEDA
Ohio State University
Sigitas Geda (b. 1943) is remarkable among Lithuanian poets for his constantly changing style and topics of poetic discourse. He has not remained a servant of some particular stylistic manner or thematic line that he might have grown into, or that was chosen for him by his Muse from the very beginning. On the contrary, he regards the full range of possibilities in poetic expression as a large and pliable keyboard for him to play with. Thus he always remains fresh, intriguing, and at times, indeed rather astonishing. This presentation aims to survey briefly some of the main branches of Geda's poetic tree as they spread out and as they are nourished by common roots.
In the early collection, Pėdos (Footprints, 1966), Geda articulates a primeval perception of his country, such as a child may have, or our presumed remote ancestors living on the edge of a mythological comprehension of themselves and the world. In a poem called: "The Beginnings of Lithuania"1 we are shown a vision of the land's creation: "Red and green and/ Humpbacked like a crab/ up goes/ The Lithuanian land." In this land Geda draws no clear-cut boundaries between people, animals and naturethey both seem extensions of each other in a landscape, where "The brown reeds/ Smell of the forefathers' bodies" (Varnėnas, p. 9) and where "Icebergs, stones, birds and humans have walked across Lithuania (p. 31). The perception of such a continuity remains in the background of Geda's poetic consciousness throughout his later works, sometimes advancing to become the dominant element in it. It is a key to much of the complex imagery found in later works.
In Geda's next book, a narrative poem called Strazdas (The Thrush, 1967), the man-and-nature continuum becomes focused upon a single historical person: the priest and poet Antanas Strazdas (1760-1833), known for the lighthearted simplicity with which he stepped over society's contempt for his low origins and over the restrictions imposed upon his religious calling, but most of all for his great, sunny love for the common people. Geda transformed this priest-man into a mythical man-bird, spreading his green, transparent wings over the entire countryside of humble peasant homes and weary people bent over their work by their masters' hand. Geda, however, did not elevate his poetic language to suit this mythologized landscape and its soaring hero. He held on instead to the plainest vocabulary and rough-hewn peasant idiom describing the objects of daily life and the comings and goings of the people with great verisimilitude that was yet somehow differentdifferent in a sacral way, redolent of a strangely humble majesty of love coming down from the huge man-bird above. By this manner of writing, all things large and small, while remaining themselves, did also achieve a mode of being in new dimensions far beyond their material reality.
This, of course, is the common point of poetry and magic, and in his next collection, 26 rudens ir vasaros giesmės (26 Songs of Autumn and Summer, 1972) Geda achieved a near perfect mastery of artistic balance at this very point. The scene now shifts from human affairs in nature to nature itself as a magic land which the poet creates continuously as he moves along from miracle to miracle, each born of his own complex, intense metaphorical speech. Following the poet, we come across such things as "cornflower abyss" to which "no one permits his soul to enter," and a "peewit in the darkness of the rivers, that he was crowned with rings of fire" and penguins holding up the falling sea with their beaks, and "the light of swallows that enfolds the slow world with open spaces," and where "a girl turns her thin/beak toward a fluttering snail..." and so on. Finally, we encounter beings that have completed their passage from metaphor to a literal entity (without, however, losing their metaphorical function) and have in the process become divine: The Breathless One of the Plants, The Distant One of the Sands, and the Spiritus of the Wormwood, and the Dominus of the Owls. At this point of simultaneous creation and discovery where magic and poetry meet Geda seems as much astonished by the apparitions emerging from it as he is inspired by what he has wrought, both most often being the same thing. Throughout this small but extremely complex set of poems, he sustains a poetic persona, the poet's "I," engaged in intimate dialogue and interaction with all kinds of grass and trees, flowers and birds, and with the abysmal height of the sky, and with the vaulted depth of the sea. He speaks to them all, even as they become transfigured to metaphors before his eyes, and we seem to reach yet another point where poetry and magic meetthe point of a conversation in the special language of a magic spell with a world in the process of becoming.
From a dialogue with nature's garden Geda progresses to a dialogue with people, or more generally, with the various aspects of the human mind, and the tribulations of the soul. These dialogues are mostly grouped in cycles dedicated to some particular person, country or monument of culture. Thus in the collection Mėnulio žiedai (Moon Flowers, 1977) we find a braided wreath of poems from Geda's own distant northern land, cool, irradiated by the blue light of the sea, magic and already familiar to us in its various details of plant, bird and stone from the previous book. Technically, the "braiding" is achieved by the steady repetion of the line "I know now what I meant to say" at the entrance to each stanza, inside of which we find broad landscapes and small details, feelings and symbolic objects that echo each other again and again in various modulations in all other stanzas and poems of the cycle. We begin to feel that here the poet's magic is called recurrence, at once a memory and a kind of prayer. Another bouquet of flowers goes to Pablo Picasso. It contains some wonderful blossoms of which some are pink and blue, like Picasso's early paintings, others are dark red and black, like death in the bullring, and others still seem to reach toward a strange "cubism of the language" across word repetitions recalling the ambience of the ornamental refrains in Lithuanian folk songs that also carry no specific meaning.
Another cycle, "Blossoms of the Night," dedicated to Francois Villon, 2 is a particularly powerful evocation of Villon's time and place: the putrid, criminal, desperate and lecherous streets of medieval Paris in the merciless, cold grasp of Winter and of death. Much deeper, there is an intimate conversation between Geda and Villon, focused upon the mystery of being a poet, that is, loving life, turning it into magic strings of words, fashioning a defiant humanity out of the black cloth of despair. Geda achieves this by echoing the situations and moods of Villon's poems across a great distance of country and time, but still in the spirit of a cheerful and defiant camaraderie of the damned, of kindred spirits, "poets maudits." Yet, this Geda, Villon's friend, is the same poet who spoke of his own country jumping straight up from non-existence like a humpbacked crab with the same cheerful lack of reverence for the proper idiom of serenity to discuss a country's birth, and it is also the same Geda of 26 Songs who talked in a friendly way to a grasshopper, whom he held to be of the gods. There is a strain of balance and humor that runs through all of Geda's works and leads to the same point of encounter with poetry and magic. A cycle dedicated to Jonas Mačiulis-Maironis (1862-1932) the most famous "bard of Lithuanian national awakening," achieves a certain transcendence of poetic speech. Geda echoes Maironis' own emotional and stylistic ambience, but not his language. Instead, he conjures up a language that Maironis might have used beyond the divide between life and death, that is, beyond the limited temporal vision which in Maironis' poetry can only manifest itself as sorrow.
The next collection, Žydinti slyva snaigyno ežere (The Flowering Plum-Tree in Snaigynas Lake, 1981) shows signs of disturbance, lack of confidence in the previously achieved harmony of idea and form. Geda seems to have understood that perhaps it was too early to have brought all the threads together in this manner, that this was not yet a resolution of his poetic quest but rather a sort of dead-end where his powers might become enclosed in an unwanted state of "perfection" resembling a tomb. There is an anxiety in the book masquerading as resignation: "Everything is wearisome and bitter to me/ some force is dismembering me/ and not putting me together again..." ("Flowering Plum-Tree," p. 81). There is also an effort to find a way back to the source of both poetic language and feeling and to reduce all complex existential issues to a few fundamental questions accessible to the devices of poetry. First, Geda shows a desire to free his talent from too many subtle words and from the impenetrable complexities of thought and image that they engender. It was as if Geda sought to find a clearing in the Dantesque dark forest of his own verse.3 Thus, for instance, he goes back to some elemental sounds of nature: "The cats are fighting/In the potato patch,/ Yowling as if they were in the moon" ("Blooming Plum-tree," p. 150) and draws from them an elementary lesson: "This is how one tries/ To establish a link/With the world" (ibid.). Then the world becomes understandable, albeit in a manner resembling the paintings of Edward Hopper: "Around me just the sun and light/ the harsh sunflower truth" (p. 77). One can describe this world in short lines, with simple syntax and without fancy metaphors. Yet, this simplicity cannot be truly driven homewhat is a "sunflower truth"? Something still hides in unnamed spaces between the lines and gives the poet no peace, drives him to expand his horizons again, to establish his own articulate link with places and times of the past, particularly as these speak to him of spiritual crucibles in Lithuanian history, for instance, the 1410 battle of Tannenberg, to which Geda devotes a set of poems meditating not on victory but on death. Indeed, one can now see Geda restarting the cycle of his earlier poetry, with the same basic markers:
Lithuania as a myth born of nature, Lithuania as history under the pensive brow of deathLithuania as home, with simple everyday things pleading for eternity; then the world as a place of kindred spirits, a polyphony of human hopes held in the grip of despair, then further, a world that consists not of places, people or things in themselves, but of linkages, relations, transformations, the world, again, of metaphor. Geda's next book Mamutų tėvynė (The Homeland of the Mammoths, 1985) reflects this huge thematic cycle in all its aspects. It is basically a round of poems not connected by any narrative which transmit to the reader perceptions about the relationships of animals, humans and plants with death and with life in terms of hidden universal linkages which appear new to each perceiver and reconcile him with death. The poet articulates such moments through mythologized minutiae of life, such as "a creator insect, unseen before, dressed in the bright garments of God" (p. 9). The self-doubting worm crawls into a poem called "Satan's Dozen" (p. 77) where Geda wonders: "And after thirteen poems, you stop and think/ Is this true what you have felt, what you still see?/ What have you left? No more than what you've suffered through." There are poems composed of interacting semantic layerscoming from art and history, from personal experiences, myth, from references to other bards in other times and places, and all this creates a sonorous, complex resonance. The heaviest emphasis, however, is on Lithuania as a poet's countryGeda seems to be building it piece by piece, talking about its small towns, gravel pits, flax blossoms, storks, Sundays, and dandelions flooded by late afternoon sunand each topic is a poem, and each poem quickly passes from mere observation to deeply focused cogitations on the nature and place of art, humanity, the relevance of plants and insects to meaning divined in poetry, and the relevance of his country, Lithuania, to all of that. Similar meditations abound in Geda's next book Žalio gintaro vėriniai (Beads of Green Amber, 1988). An amusing feature of this books is a set of drawings by the painter Petras Repšys depicting Geda himself in various "candid camera" poses, sitting on a tree branch, eating, lolling in the meadow, rowing a boat, and so on. The casual, even irreverent bearing of the figure relates to the text in a similar way as his sense of humor doesit provides distance and grants some tranquillity in which to recollect the passion.
Geda's latest book, Septynių vasarų giesmės (Songs of Seven Summers, 1991) is filled with a special sort of pensive love which can make his readers yearn for the beauty which the poet himself sees in the roughly executed wooden wayside crosses, and wooden statues of Holy Mary with seven crooked swords in her heart, carved by innocent folk artists, and in the pungent smell of ancient swamps where we can watch how forms of nature become states of mind, and then these states again become forms of another, poetic world. These things Geda has thought about all through the seven summers of songs in the book's title, and long before, in his other books, always coming back to some sort of a primitive but also primeval image of a country that is also a myth, not an elaborate narrative like the Greek stories, but something so simple that a drop of dew on a sunny morning can understand and contain it all. This small and, in a manner, modest book conveys a multi-layered flow of emotion in which each strand, or layer, comes from sources far away and long ago, from the realms of art and religious faith in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, from the awesome silence of the Caucasian mountains, and from the devil-may-care chirping of a small Lithuanian bird. Geda's country is not even Lithuania all by itself, but rather a state of mind in which the poet can meditate upon the return of the stork in the manner in which the mathematician and Bishop Baranauskas, author of some of the most hauntingly beautiful poetry in the Lithuanian tongue, meditate upon the depth and breadth of Hell, and the patriarch Solom suddenly understood his debt to death. In Geda's poetry, the earth resounds in these many strings like an enormous harp of heaven at which the poet-musician's hand is guided by the patient hand of God.
1 "Lietuvos atsiradimas," from: Varnėnas po mėnuliu, Vilnius, Vaga, 1984, p. 7. Further references will be to Varnėnas in
2 See also R. Šilbajoris, "The Francois Villon Cycle of Sigitas Geda" in Journal of Baltic Studies, Vol. XV, No. 1 (Spring) 1984, pp. 3-9.
3 The collection 26 Songs of Autumn and Summer begins with the famous quote from Dante's Inferno" "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita/ mi ritroval per una selva oscura."