LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 43, No. 1 - Spring 1997
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 1997 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
REMEMBERING JANINA DEGUTYTĖ
State University of New York,
College at Buffalo;
In the fall of 1996, Viktorija Daujotytė published a book called ]anina Degutytė: Klausimai Atsakymai (Questions and Answers). It contains Daujotytė's conversations with Degutytė over the course of several years as well as Degutytė's autobiography which the poet herself refers to as a "sequence of losses and deprivations." In its direct, unpretentious way, this slim volume carries a shattering authenticity. It is one of the saddest books I have ever read. It offers glimpses into the personal life of an intensely private woman who as a child had to learn in the hardest way how to endure neglect and rejection, how to bear ridicule, how to hide her humiliation. Degutytė's mother was an incurable alcoholic who put her daughter through long periods of deliberately cruel mental and physical abuse and to whom the little girl clung with unconditional love. Given the sordid reality of her childhood, we can only marvel that it did not destroy her very soul. Janina Degutytė is a survivor, but not at the expense of others. She did not turn hard or cold. From the injustices which she suffered comes her strong sense of justice, the deep sympathy for the oppressed, an astounding capacity for compassion, the sensitivity for all things living. These qualities are ever-present in her poetry and make her the beloved poet she has become.
Degutytė's poetry is lyric poetry at its best. It is musical in form and language, transparent, intimate, gentle, elusive, intuitive. Behind its deceptive simplicity lie layers of personal and symbolic meaning. Degutytė is never easy. It is not surprising that she lists Salomėja Nėris and Putinas as her favorite Lithuanian poets. In other languages it is Rilke and Rimbaud, Celan, Akhmatova, Tsvetajeva and Pasternak, The spiritual affinities are unmistakable. An undercurrent of sadness is always present, but this sadness is not of the oppressing, hopeless kind. There is, in her poetry, that special sensitivity which is uniquely her own, filled with a wisdom and an understanding which can produce almost a healing effect.
Degutytė was born and raised in the city, in the tenements and backyards of Kaunas. She recalls how on her first visit to the countryside she felt an instant bond with nature, a sense of belonging, as if she had always lived there. This bond is reflected in her poetry. Her relationship with nature is very close. She seems to understand the language of nature itself. She is the poet who talks to trees, who can communicate with birds, hears the stirring of a leaf. Her landscapes are drawn from the familiar nature surrounding her, the austere landscape of northeastern Europe, the landscape of Lithuania, which she loves. Her favorite images are the sea, the sky, the sandy shore, the surf. White and blue are the preferred colors. In Hamlet", from the cycle Roles", a small rippling wave coming from the depth of the sea and expiring at her bare feet is enough reason to be". Her favorite trees are the dark, tall, straight pine on the bare shore of the Baltic sea or the solitary spruce rising against the northern sky, self-sufficient, uncommunicative, unyielding. The spruce and the pine become powerful metaphors, symbols of truth and righteousness.
Reaching into folklore and mythology, Degutytė casts herself in the image of the faithful sister in search of her bewitched brothers. A favorite figure is Antigone, the sister who defies the king's orders in order to bury her slain brother. Now we know that the curse Degutytė tried to redeem and the evil spell which she wanted to cast off was her mother's alcoholism. Another recurring image is the mirror, the smooth mirror surface which cannot be penetrated. All her life Degutytė tried in vain to get to the other side of the mirror". Unable to reach her mother, even so she never abandoned her. Knowing her biography, we are now better able to understand her self-effacing nature, the readiness to sacrifice herself. She has done it all her life. Echoes of this destructive and inextricably co-dependent relationship haunt her poetry, but they are transformed. In her poems we find references to a hard or cruel fate but not so much as an unbearable burden as rather one which she has taken upon herself by choice as a moral imperative. Antigone redeems wrongdoing through personal sacrifice because she adheres to an inner law standing far above what the poet calls temporary human laws, an unconditional moral commitment.
Degutytė is an intensely committed poet. She was one of the first to incorporate environmental concerns into her poetry. She was one of the first to dedicate several poems to victims of the Holocaust at a time when this subject was still unmentionable in the Soviet Union. Her poem The Yellow Stars" coincides time wise with Yevtushenko's Babi Yar" [published in Lituanus]. In her quiet, gentle way, she succeeded in transcending the personal sorrow and in absorbing the sorrow of all Lithuanian women, whom she casts as symbols of silent resistance, of surviving... She is the mother mourning for the slain son, the sister searching for the missing grave. Degutytė's voice, especially in her early poetry, is the quiet but resolute voice of conscience for an entire nation which had no voice. In our own memories, Degutytė remains straight and tall, like those pines which walk in the landscape of her poems, committed to do the good and righteous thing, uncompromising in matters of conscience.
In translation, the thematic aspect is obviously easier to reproduce than the emotional component. To approximate the musicality, the sheer weightlessness of her poems and transport it into another language is a task which requires unending care and patience. There is a personal quality in her poems which is so intimate that just touching it seems like an intrusion. Some poems are like delicate water colors where each stroke has to be exactly where it is. Seemingly casual words can be especially elusive. English has a very different emotional tone and there is always the danger of sliding into sentimentality or pathos. Degutytė is neither. Lovely renditions have been achieved by Marija Stankus-Saulaitė, who is herself a poet. For me, it is a labor of love. Now that I know her biography, her poems appear even more vulnerable.
Degutytė's latest poems, especially those written after the summer of 1989, become intensely personal, inner-directed. The loss of her mother, her own deteriorating health, the certainty of approaching death seem to overwhelm her and to affect her world view. Her last poems are far less guarded, more confessional, there is a new directness, a sense of urgency, but also a weariness and a new tone of resignation. There are numerous references to pain, illness, and to death, the unknown. As we find out more about her personal life and personal tragedies which she bore with so much inner courage, we admire her even more.
Janina Degutytė died of cancer on February 8, 1990. Daujotytė's little book is a true monument of love to her memory.
Note: Gražina Slavėnas' translation of Janina Degutytė's poetry have been published in Lituanus, in The Dirty Goat, in Anthology of Eastern European Poetry (ed. Emory George), Etched in Amber, and, most recently, in Haunted Voices (edited by James Roberts), albeit without proper credit to the translator.