LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 42, No.3 - Fall 1996
Editor of this issue: Antanas Klimas
Copyright © 1996 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Jonas Mekas, I Had Nowhere to Go,
New York: Black Thistle Press, 1991. Paper. $14.95.
Jonas Mekas (b. 1922, in Lithuania) is a very complex personality: a poet of some repute, a film critic, an essayist, a film-maker, an editor, a philosopher and, apparently, an eternal D.P. (Displaced Person).
In this book, half a diary, half a memoir, he sketches his long and arduous journey from a small village in northern Lithuania all the way to the World Metropolis, Manhattan, and to some fame.
Those of us who are more inclined to read poetry, will always remember his poems, Semeniškių idilės ("Idylls of Semeniškės") which came out in 1948 (in Germany), and others. There are people who admire Jonas Mekas for his alternative films, underground films, if you wish. Others will remember him as one of the publishers and editors of the bi-monthly journal Film Culture (since 1954).
Jonas Mekas also has admirers as far as Japan both for his poetry (in Lithuanian) and for his film-making.
We do have several books on the life of the refugees of World War II. But most of them are in Lithuanian. One wonders why Jonas Mekas chose English. Especially since he does state in this book that he'll remain a Lithuanian forever. And yet, he chooses English. Possibly to show that he finally found his second home, in New York City, first Brooklyn, then Maspeth, then Manhattan?
For those of us who were refugees in Germany after World War II, and then D.P.'s, and then came to the United States, most of what Jonas Mekas writes is understandable. Being a contemporary of Jonas Mekas, I can even recognize most of the people he mentions, mostly by their last name. I even remember the Ginkus candy store in Brooklyn which, in the late forties and early fifties, was the main meeting place for the newly arrived Lithuanian Displaced Persons (D.P.'s). But to someone who's not gone through what Jonas Mekas writes about these will be only some impressionistic images, and not full ones either. Only glimpses!
For example, how these D.P. camps were administered, first by the UNRRA ("United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association") which Mekas does not even mention, and then by the IRO ("International Refugee Organization") which he does mention several times.
And his studies, and his work as the editor of a literary journal only glimpses. Mekas, for example, hardly mentions and then only very briefly and sketchily the fact that most of these D.P. camps had their schools, choirs, churches, folk dancing groups, sports clubs, all kinds of cultural and youth organizations, etc. Mekas mentions all of the above only in a few sentences, often even just in one.
Apparently, Jonas Mekas, his brother Adolfas and their "crew" were some sort of "rebels", early hippies of those days. I read somewhere that Jonas Mekas, when reading his poetry in one of the D.P. camps, used to shock the people by appearing... barefoot on the stage. Just to tease the stuffed shirts, and other conservative people.
What makes this book interesting to me are two things: first, Mekas loves the down-and-out people. Secondly, he has a fine sense of humor. Just to cite a short passage. Mekas is already in New York City, having arrived there in 1949, and is working in a small factory. During the lunch break, several of his co-workers are sitting in the yard, eating lunch. Here ensues this beautiful scene:
I finish my milk and pull out a book from my pocket.
They look at me. Or rather stare.
"You know how to read?"
"No. I'm just looking at it, to see how it's made", I say.
If one were very pedantic, one could find some slight discrepancies. For example, on page one, Mekas writes:
When someone asks me, today, what Lithuanians eat, I answer: "I don't know."
However, on page 383, we read:
Ah, the women of Lithuania... They knew how to make bread. And kugelis, they used to hand-grate the potatoes, cut in some bacon, ah.
But this detail does not detract from Mekas' love for his native village and its people.
Although Jonas Mekas does give a few glimpses of his obsession with film-making, there is very little about it. And very little about the journal, Film Culture. And, to me, the last paragraph is ambiguous:
"Penelope. When I was sitting today and looking across the water, and back, across the landscape, I suddenly had a feeling that my past had caught up with my present. I have arrived almost at the point of departure. I felt strongly my childhood coming back to me. I almost cried...." (p. 469)
I'm not sure whether Mekas wants to say that he still "had nowhere to go". That New York City, and this New England lake was his (second?) home.
University of Rochester