LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 50, No.2 - Summer 2004
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavėnas
Copyright © 2004 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
ATEMPORAL, UNBOUND, ALWAYS IN FLIGHT:
POETRY OF BIRUTE PŪKELEVlČlŪTĖ
Institute for Research in the Humanities, Madison, Wisconsin
This presentation is a synthesis of a more detailed analysis, "Birutės Pūkelevičiūtės vieta šių dienų moters poezijoje" published in 1995, and an introduction to her poetry in Spanish Birutė Pūkelevičiūtė y la poesia contemporánea de mujer (2002).
Long before Elaine Showalter would formulate her famous definition of the three stages of women's writing,1 Birutė Pūkelevičiūtė published her first book Metūgės (New Shoots, 1952), which assures her place among the "female" poets. A book of uncommon originality and great daring in its maturity and experimentation with a totally new poetic discourse, it presents the experience of love from the perspective of a modern woman. Such a decisive severing of ties from the tradition exacted its price: instead of greeting it with joy and amazement, critics met it with silence or even negative reaction. As a consequence, the poet abandoned her innovative verse/poetic prose and turned to narrative and drama, for which praise was not scarce. Her second book of poetry, Atradimo ruduo (Autumn of Discovery), only came out in 1990, confirming that her verse remains atemporal and unbound.2
The world of the poetic persona in Metūgės gains by having been written before the era of feminist criticism: it is not inspired by theory, it does not preach rebellion, nor is it tainted by sociopolitical programs.3 It simply transmits an eternal and yet, at the same time, a very contemporary living experience of woman. The most innovative aspect of this book is the introduction of the erotic element: not in a provocative way, nor half-hidden in a traditional lyric complaint, but as a natural component of life. Up till then, traditional love poetry in Lithuania was characterized by restraint.4 The accent fell on the spiritual aspect. It was expected that a woman poet would silence and hide deeply her sexual desire. Allusions to physical love were admissible only in satirical poetry. The vanguard poets of the 1920s and 30s did introduce more daring representations under the cloak of surrealism. Breaking the syntax, juxtaposing seemingly unrelated fragments, deconstructing words and traditional images, they created poems of great complexity and accessible only to a high-level intellectual minority. There were no women among them, however. Gradual freeing from the tradition took a long time in women's poetry in most European countries.
Looking at Pūkelevičiūtė's work, the question arises about the possibility that the trauma of exile and the necessity to start a totally new life provided the basis for freeing herself from all artificial restraints, once she had lost what counted most.
It would be unjust, however, to consider Metūgės as only erotic or even exclusively love poetry. The emphasis lies on woman's intimate relation with nature. Since woman is part of it, she conceives of love as a natural phenomenon and feels the impulse to practice it freely. Pūkelevičiūtė also stresses women's magical power by introducing images, which only later would be referred to by feminists (e.g. the witch) and entwining them with the notion of natural growth:
Young forest witches, my young mothers,
suckled me with the sweet milk of their breasts.
An intimate bond with nature originates another important theme that comes up in women's poetry: a different perception of sin and the necessity to liberate herself from restrictions imposed by bourgeois morals. The I stands out as an active being, not a satellite of the masculine ego.5 It is not difficult to find aspects in the poetic persona's attitude that coincide with Héléne Cixous' or Luce Irigaray's theories: emphasis on woman's right to jouissance, expression of desire that does not debase and transmits a sense of physical plenitude.6 The body represents the source of life, taking it into account leads to full consciousness, in which intuition and emotion collaborate with rational perception. The new experience can only be transmitted authentically by a new form of expression, which the French feminists will call "body language."
Lithuanian poetic tradition cannot boast of frequent use of the prose poem. In Pūkelevičiūtė's work, it stands out by its powerful imagery related to love; it calls to mind the English imagists of the twenties and thirties, the neo-symbolists in France, the unsurpassable poets of the Generation of 27 in Spain. The end product is achieved by masterful coordination of many stylistic devices: alliteration, paronomasia, symbols for attaining density, and repetitions that create and maintain dramatic tension and an intensity of feeling. The fact that the author is also a playwright shows in the structure of the poems and reaches full development in the two long pieces included in Atradimių ruduo. The texts are visual, one can follow the sequence of scenes, which are also helped by magic or fairy tale elements. The pendulum swings between the ancient components of the popular folk song and heroic epic. Always close to nature, inanimate objects or abstractions acquire human qualities:
It is the bright May celebrating his wedding,
and drunken bees lose their way home at night...
The thought is often veiled by the word or the image. The aim of more than one poem is to create a specific ambiance, to which symbolism is added by means of magic ritual and rhythm. From the very first poem on, the importance of the senses is accentuated:
The whistling wind turns the green windmills,
the green windmills wade up to their knees
in soft, warm grass.
The five parts of Metūgės correspond to a woman's evolution through perception of the five senses which facilitates progressive consciousness. The book starts with the awakening of nature, which induces sexual awakening in the young girl. Maintaining the discourse on the level of nature, an erotic undertone suggests a similar process in the human body. Nature and the poetic I fuse:
In the forest's thicket beats its huge heart.
Can you hear it?
The sounds are heavy and restless.
The last word becomes a synthesis of the lyric I. The description of spring points to a reaction of the heart. The awakened indefinable desire will accompany the I throughout the entire book; also man will have to acknowledge it: "you will have to pay tribute to its sign." The primeval virtue of woman is underscored: "I am blessed, like the fertile soil ready for sowing." By stressing the parallelism woman/nature, dignity is added to the ritual of fertilization, insisting on continuity: "I come and go, and in my body sleep your unknown sons."
"Early Dreams" still contains quite a few romantic elements, but sweet dreams often cover up erotic notes. There is an insistence on the freedom to act. The frequent use of ellipsis, connotation, and ambiguity achieves multilevel meanings. Final effects are produced by suggestion. Accumulations of negative vocabulary act as an invitation to rebellion. All becomes double-faced. The play between what is seen and what is intuited betrays a constant search for identity, for the meaning of one's existence. In this part, the theme of maternity is developed, fusing very concrete scenes of giving birth with almost supernatural manifestations:
Because I, like a chunk of rock, break asunder
. . .
At night, my cradle fills up with sharp-edged August stars.
Also, the dichotomy between the official practice of religion and personal religiosity is exposed, emphasizing the importance of free choice. This coincides with another theme often discussed by feminists today: an active, conscious construction of self. The section ends with an open note.
In the central part, "The Blade," the tone changes: it becomes sharp, cutting, metallic. Alicia Ostriker interprets it in the works of young American poets today as characteristic of their readiness to fight for their rights. Mention of liturgical elements and biblical allusions facilitates ambiguity and points to subversion. The traditional attitude toward the "fallen woman" is called into question. Erotic insinuations become more frequent, substituting a strong young man for the figure of God:
You are young. You are aflame. Your sleeves are pushed up.
Your will be done...
We are only vineyards. Filled with compliance.
The reflection in a mirror and the inner self are constantly juxtaposed. The feminine I acquires more rapacious qualities, as stressed by Claudine Herrmann and Helene Cixous.7 Not infrequently, woman is compared to an animal, again recalling that she is part of nature: "My paws are tender, I like plundering by the wayside." The effectiveness of the images is helped by alliteration. (Pūkelevičiūtė has an extraordinary feeling for sound effects.) At times, a traditional figure appears, weaving or winding wool like Penelope. In this part, the woman is two-faced: the divided self analyzed by feminists. On the one hand, she is the traditional woman, fragile and submissive, on the other, the "new woman," who follows her own desires. Instead of the humbleness preached by the Church, qualities of pre-Christian goddesses are evoked: a universe in which woman shines and reigns:
He likes lowered heads and feeble knees. And here I come,
and sow, and officiate, and bless.
I - myself.
The inner battle continues.
In the fourth part, "To the Girls," transition from childhood to feminine plenitude is depicted. Repetition of the leitmotiv of the first part, "I am restless," confirms continuity. The primacy of the body plays an important role here; sensual imagery is intensified. Different facets of woman alternate: "I am a she-wolf, a lynx, a green snake" is juxtaposed to "I walk quietly, open like a wound." The return to everyday occupations within the realm of family - to slice bread, to pour warm milk - points to woman's sacred destiny as mother, which confers power. The affirmation "everything leads me to mature" implies fertilization. The section closes with a benediction of the fruit.
In the fifth part, "My Mothers," affirmation of woman in close contact with nature continues. She is not idealized; the emphasis highlights her strength. A host of women file through these pages: women who work, suffer, enjoy some bright moments, have their moments of anguish, give birth, bury their dead. They must rely on themselves: there is nobody to defend or comfort them. Only in fairy tales do twelve brothers come to protect them. The dynamics of these poems are generated by metonyms and the development of a single image. The strength comes from inside. This stance entails an adjustment of biblical texts: if the Virgin is to be accepted as a model, then the ordinary woman must bear fruit also in order for her children to bring salvation to humankind. If the Virgin is adored as immaculate, then it is wrong to look for sin in the other women: "Conception is without blemish." Martha and Mary appear side by side, as do mother and daughter, next to active women who take the initiative into their hands and do not renounce physical desire:
Now their hair is like dense linden honey.
Their feet are broad, their breath smells sweet.
In the same poem appear romantic heroines:
And those other women, Timid swallows After the first September frost they wrap themselves into mournful shawls.
Throughout this part, numerous allusions to religion and far-reaching existential questions are interspersed:
Inscrutable is the face of God. Like a mask.
The last part, "Tales of War," transfers the reader to a
different universe. Here, woman is only one of many elements in a world filled
with signs of evil, which are transmitted almost as apocalyptic visions.
However, not only horrors and frightful events are shown: one has to learn to
listen in order to perceive some echoes of fairy tales as well.8
There is a radical change in the use of vocabulary: the black shadow of the
viper, wells filled with bitter water, black herds of cattle, a charred brand,
the phantom of a moon that has hanged itself, broken chains, crazy shepherds.
Joyful rhythms are replaced by terror-inspiring movement: "frightened bells toll
incessantly," foreign occupiers feast in a monastery in ruins,
and "the broken surface of water does not cease to cry." The feminine figure appears as a witness who records the horrors with her sharpened sensibility.9 She must control her grief and remember that her destiny is to suffer: a theme that is fully developed in one of the long poems of Atradimo ruduo. The silence filled with grief is transmitted by shortened verses, words, sentences:
Hoarse organ. Long candles.
A great part of the imagery is related to death, downfall, ruin, but even here a certain mode of resurrection is predicted: woman's duty is to preserve, to give life, to prolong the Creation. In a circular movement, some poems return to the world of nature presented in the first part:
Cut open the black turf. New springs
and passions of future generations sleep there.
A hopeful ending will also be given to Atradimo ruduo: in the last piece of the third part, "Matins," the theme of search for God is developed, presenting a synthesis of a reasoning creature who does not ban emotions. Hope is not excluded from the last lines:
Perhaps you are quite near?
Perhaps already planting in the desert of my soul
A shoot of hope?
Metūgės offers many themes and images that were later taken up and discussed by feminists: the right to love, disposing of the body as freely as a man does; converting the traditional dove or a bird imprisoned in a cage into a freelysoaring eagle; consecration of the snake; search for plenitude; and the equation of woman with water, the source of life. The sacred element is brought forth reviving ancient goddesses and putting emphasis on pre-Christian rituals.10 Remarkable is the book's structural unity achieved by repetitions that, at times, produce the effect of litanies, a skillful alternation of the individual and the collective I, and the dramatic building of scenes and sequences, all of it enhanced by the author's extraordinary ability to create unique visual images accompanied by equally impressive sonority. Those seeking elements of subversion will find them here, but above all, the book represents a hymn to woman's inner strength.
Most poems of Atradimo ruduo were written much earlier than 1990 and published as separate units. The shorter poems are almost contemporaries of Metūgės. Therefore, the book is not marked by the same unity as the poet's first attempt at poetry. Its three parts differ in theme, presentation, and the stylistic devices used. The first one, "Mass for the Wife of the Traitor," is especially complex. It is based on a real event - the betrayer of a freedom fighter who had escaped and was caught and executed - and posits a series of questions regarding guilt and punishment, as well as the principle of justice (official and moral). The presentation is more narrative than lyrical. It invites reflection; imagery plays a less important part here. Skepticism and irony find their way into the development of the theme. The text is based on connotations and comes close to postmodern patterns of writing11. Very important is the unsaid, the undefined, the ever-changing. Actually, the poem represents a double process: an anguished questioning by the author provokes a similar activity in the reader. There is a constant change of temporal levels, an unceasing ramification of images by free association. The text is less visual; its aim is not to create beauty, but to introduce multiple nuances of meaning. In a poem of relatively short extension, philosophy, theology, history, personal emotional experience go hand in hand. The poem is presented as a mosaic with some unfilled spaces that allow it to construe double meaning. Although the supposed protagonist is a man, it is really his wife who emerges as the leading character, contrasting a woman's duty/destiny as wife and mother.
The central part, "Lament," was published in 1960. It could be considered an answer avant la lettre to Alicia Ostriker's complaint (in 1985) that women still seem not to have mastered the technique of a long epic poem. In "Lament," Pūkelevičiūtė, working on a new concept, heroism in a feminine mode, has centered the action around feminine figures, erecting a monument to Lithuanian women: mothers, sisters or lovers of heroes who perished defending their country against foreign occupiers. A similar approach to woman's lot can be found in prose texts by Romualdas Granauskas (Red Forests) and Vanda Juknaitė (The Wake): the same intensity, the same condensation of the essence of several generations of women12. "Lament" surpasses Lithuanian history. It is a rare example of universal poetry very tightly linked to Lithuania's past and presented from a woman's perspective. The three main characters of the dramatic poem are women. Pūkelevičiūtė does not heroicize an individual I in any of them; rather, she dwells on repeated situations that require a woman/mother to continue giving birth to sons who are doomed to perish. One woman figure prolongs another, forming a chain, creating a collective I that reconfirms the myth of the eternal woman. The structure of the poem has the bearing of Greek tragedy: the monologues of each woman are accompanied by a different kind of chorus.
One of the choral voices assumes the meter and the imagery of popular song. The refrain underscores the most essential aspects of life. The parts in free verse, the discourse of each protagonist, concentrate on the ultimate meaning (often, the shortest line acts as a premonition). The macrostructure of the poem is circular: it suggests woman's and the nation's destiny. The lines introducing each principal speech do not give particular details, but rather seek to achieve a globalizing effect. There are also interventions of the night watchman at the beginning and the end; they offer "objective" presentation and reflections. Repetitive indication of the hour works as a fatal tolling reminding the reader that this is not an exceptional occurrence. A dramatic tension of mystery is created at the very beginning in the first scene: "I have not seen his face, nor do I know his name." At the same time, it can be read as an allusion to the tomb of the unknown soldier. Magic is enhanced by repeating the symbolic number twelve, which is sometimes subdivided into sixes and threes. The chorus of mourners transposes the reader into the pagan era with its customs. Here, the intimate link with nature is underscored.
The initial lines serve as a setting, but it is a setting that lacks temporal and spatial precision, striking a universal note:
A catafalque draped in black.
The most extensive part of the poem consists of two-part laments by three women: mother, sister, beloved. The first part of each intertwines allusions to Lithuanian history, each with a different enemy preparing the assault. The second evokes the dreams and illusions of the dead hero, his love of life, and the readings that helped him to form his ideals. (Intertextuality helps to place every scene historically.) In all three, the strength and the physical beauty of the son-brother-lover are emphasized. These parts work through epiphanies, establishing clever transitions.
In the evocation, a mythical agricultural Lithuania is recreated with insistence on the country's illusions for the future. All becomes weightless, full of light, floating in the air. The text oscillates between myth-reality-fairy tale-popular song. Pain and grief do not eradicate beauty. Throughout, the accent falls on strength in defeat: the immured monks intone a psalm of resurrection while dying. There is a great economy of stylistic devices and even words: the poem is very dense and has great suggestive power. It shows the best qualities of drama, never seeking melodramatic effects. Like great tragedies, it brings catharsis. Having started with the exhortation "weep, lament for him who died for his country," in the last lines it reaches the transparence of Schoenberg's "Transfigured Night:"
Transparent, truly transparent, is the water
of the fountain of souls,
White, very white, is the linen of the souls' shroud,
Sweet is the souls' bread.
Not loss, but possible rebirth is underscored. The greatness described surpasses grief. The change of the seasons - and with it, transition from life to death - appears as a natural phenomenon. The question repeated by the three women -"what flowers, what petals will you turn into?" - receives an answer in the last lines spoken by the night watchman: "And you will be born again, return as flowers and petals." Resurrection is one of nature's laws, and the Great Mother assures continuity of humankind by means of the unbreakable chain of her daughters.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacres et simulation. Paris: Galilee, 1981.
Ciplijauskaitė, Birutė. "Birutės Pūkelevičiūtės vieta šių dienų moterų poezijoje." Naujasis židinys (1995 vasaris): 129-36. --------. ______. "B.P. y la poesia contemporanea de mujer." In Entre el sol y la desposesion. Poemas de Janina Degutytė y Birutė Pūkelevičiūtė. Ed. & transl. B. C. Cadiz: Universidad, 2002. 93-99.
______. "Intemporal, sin fecha, desde siempre volabas." In La construction del yo femenino en literatura. Cadiz: Universidad (in press).
Cixous, Hélène. "Le Rire de la Méduse." L'Arc (1975): 39-54.
Daujotytė, Viktorija. Moters dalis ir dalia. Vilnius: Vaga, 1992.
Gimbutas, Marija. Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 BC. Myths and Cult Images. Berkeley: University of California
Granauskas, Romualdas. Duonos valgytojai. Vilnius: Vaga, 1989. 75-79.
_______. "Red Forests," Lituanus. 1977, Vol. 23. No. 4; Lituanus, 1980, Vol. 26 . No. 3.
Herrmann, Claudine. Les Voleuses de langue. Paris: des femmes, 1976.
Irigaray, Luce. Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un. Paris: Minuit, 1977.
Juhasz, Suzanne. Naked and Fiery Forms. Modern American Poetry by Women: A New Tradition. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
Juknaitė, Vanda. Šermenys. Vilnius: Alma Litttera, 2000.
Montefiore, Jan. Feminism and Poetry. Language, Experience, Identity in Women's Writing. London: Pandora, 1987.
Nesaule, Agate. A Woman in Amber. Healing the Trauma of War and Exile. New York: Soho Press, 1995.
Ostriker, Alicia S. Stealing the Language. The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
Paz Pasamar, Pilar. Philomena. Sevilla: Fundacion El Monte, 1995.
Pūkelevičiūtė, Birutė. Metūgės. Toronto: Baltija, 1952.
_______. Aštuoni lapai. Chicago: Lietuviškos knygos klubas. 1956.
_______. Atradimo ruduo. Darna, 1990.
Showalter, Elaine. "Toward a Feminist Poetics." The New Feminist Criticism. Elaine Showalter, ed. New York: Pantheon Books,
Žukas, Saulius. Lietuvių meile's lyrika. Vilnius: Vaga, 1989.
1. Elaine Showalter, Toward a Feminist Poetics (1985). The three stages are feminine (traditional); feminist (militant); and female (fully conscious and confident)-
2. A definition of women's poetry by the Spanish poet Pilar Paz Pasamar, which I chose for incorporating in the title, seems particularly appropriate to transmit the core of Pūkelevičiūtė's poetic world.
3. See the poetry of Adrienne Rich, Diane Wakoski, and Denise Levertov as examples. The important programmatic books appear in the 1980s: Alicia S. Ostriker, Stealing the Language; Jan Montefiore, Feminism and Poetry. Language, Experience, Identity in Women's Writing; Suzanne Juhasz, Naked and Fiery Forms. Modern American Poetry by Women. Regarding the latest developments, Birutė Ciplijauskaitė, "Intemporal, sin fecha, siempre volabas" (2003).
ė. See Saulius Žukas, Lietuvių meilė's lyrika and Viktorija Daujotytė, Moters dalis ir dalia.
5. Alicia Ostriker comments on it in detail.
6. Héléne Cixous, Le Rire de la Méduse; Luce Irigaray, Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un. Enlightening is the study by Rosalyn Jones, The Currency of Eros. Women's Love Lyric in Europe, 1540-1620.
7. Claudine Herrmann, Les Voleuses de langue; Cixous, op cit.
8. In this respect, Pūkelevičiūtė's world is infinitely more human; as in her memoir-novel Aštuoni lapai (Eight leaves, 1956), which deals with the traumas of war and exile, when compared to Latvian author Agate Nesaule's novel A Woman in Amber, which concentrates on the negative aspects of a similar experience.
9. This is true also of the poetry of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, and of Spanish women poets writing during and after the Civil War.
10. See Marija Gimbutas, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 6500-3500 B.C. Myths and Cult Images.
11. Jean Baudrillard's Simulacres et simulation could enlighten the reading of this poem.
12. Lituanus, Vol. 23. No. 4 (1977).; Lituanus, Vol. 26. No. 4 (1980). (In Lithuanian see Granauskas, Duonos valgytojai, Vilnius: Vaga, 1989, 75-79).