LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2014 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 60, No.1 - Spring 2014
Editor of this issue: Rimas Uzgiris
Introducing Six Young Lithuanian Poets:
Ramunė Brundzaitė, Marius Burokas, Ilzė Butkutė,
Benediktas Januševičius, Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, Donatas Petrošius
UZGIRIS is a poet, translator, and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, AGNI, Atlanta
Review, Quiddity, The Massachusetts Review, The Iowa Review, Hudson
Review, and other journals. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy
and an MFA in creative writing. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant
and a National Endowment for the Arts
Literature Translation Fellowship, he teaches literature and creative writing at Vilnius University.
Lithuanian poetry in the twenty-first century impresses with its diversity of styles, subjects, and forms. The younger generation— those born after 1970 or so, has been especially marked by experimentation, diaspora, and the rejection of old themes. All of these poets came of age as artists in the post-Soviet era. They have seen their borders open, have travelled the world, and lived abroad.
Postmodernism exploded onto the literary scene in the 1990s. It has burrowed into the culture like a bunker-buster bomb. The time has come and gone for poems about countryside cottages, fertile fields with singing birds, the struggling soul of an oppressed Lithuania, the glories of the past... In other words, Romanticism, that nineteenth_century European artistic fount that ran on in Lithuania well into the twentieth century with various neo-Romantic rivulets, is largely dried up. One can still hear a trickle here and there, but for the most part, new springs have been precipitously tapped.
Lithuanian poetry, like the language itself, has been rooted in the countryside. In the words of literary scholar Rimvydas Šilbajoris, Lithuanian is “quintessentially a peasant language, grown from the soil, seasoned in the harshness and grace of the changing seasons, tempered by long endurance under enduring hardships.”1 Lithuania was relatively late in developing an urban culture. Vilnius was long inhabited primarily by Polish and Yiddish speakers. Kaunas was a small provincial city. Most writers were in fact from small towns or the countryside. So it should be no surprise to hear poet and critic Eugenijus Ališanka claim that “folkloric and ethnographic traditions have, for a long time, played an important role in Lithuanian poetry.”2 Many of the country’s first and most influential poets were also clergymen, from Donelaitis, to Maironis, to Mykolaitis-Putinas. As a result, and to a large extent, literature and national identity developed along the lines of rural Catholicism. Šilbajoris, in his historical account of Lithuanian literary development, points out a significant group of what he calls “village prose” and “village verse” writers, whose work was rooted in “the centuries-old traditions of the Lithuanian farming community, since it is perceived to embody the quintessential traits of the Lithuanian national character and culture.”3 Prominent recent poets, such as Justinas Marcinkevičius, Marcelijus Martinaitis, and Sigitas Geda are examples of this school’s reach into the twenty-first century. Of course, there have been exceptions, especially among émigré poets, such as Henrikas Radauskas and Tomas Venclova, or in Lithuania’s first real city poet,4 Judita Vaičiūnaitė, but now the exceptions have become the rule.5 As Ališanka points out, renewed independence in 1990 brought a sense of freedom to younger poets, who no longer felt they needed to carry the weight of national identity in their verse. That freedom also brought about the republication of émigré verse and intensified contact with the outer world. “Poets no longer feel that they are ‘the spokesmen of the nation,’ but on the contrary, that they have to find a language that is in keeping with an increased sense of loneliness and detachment. Poetry becomes more subjective and ironic, an expression of the ‘I’ rather than the ‘we.’”6 Subjective, ironic, urban, contemporary in their themes, the six poets presented here all came of age as writers in the twenty-first century.
This is not to say that Lithuanian culture and history are entirely absent from the poetry of the newest generation. These themes appear in different forms, within a different context and under a more critical eye. Ramunė Brundzaitė, in her 2013 Young Jotvingian Prize-winning debut Drugy, mano drauge (Butterfly, my friend), writes of the sense of dislocation engendered by her studies in Italy. She is rooted in Lithuanian culture and history, yet fully engaged with Italy, and like many Lithuanians living in different parts of Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the experience leads her to question her identity. The first wave of émigré writers were forced out of their country by the Soviet occupation and often looked back with unrelenting nostalgia. Now, the Lithuanian poet faces choices about where to live, and this gives rise to an interrogation of what it means to be a Lithuanian. Thus, in her poem “by the Bernardines,” Brundzaitė compares Lithuanian history to the slimy trail of a slug. The iconic late-Gothic masterpiece of St. Anne’s Church enters her poetry as a skeletal presence. The Lithuanian bonfire, so gloriously celebrated on St. John’s Day, is bracketed. Throughout the collection, Italy appears as often as Vilnius, and the poet struggles to master and integrate her foreign experiences with home, always seeming to miss one place when she is in the other. Clever wordplay slides hand in hand with a lyric sensibility that is both at home and lost in different cultures – from Russia to the Mediterranean Sea.
The poetry of Marius Burokas is more rooted in Vilnius, yet his perspective is also one of questioning. In his second poetry collection, Būsenos (Conditions), he marked himself as a Lithuanian poet while standing naked in an American laundromat – not in the countryside, not on an ancient castle hill. In his latest work from Išmokau nebūti (I learned how not to be), which won him the Young Jotvingian Prize in 2011, his Vilnius is the city outside the renovated, tourist-filled historical Old Town. Dingy dives and impersonal apartment blocks present the reader with a seedy and grim contemporary landscape. One can feel the influence of the American beats and Bukowski, whom he has translated into Lithuanian. Burokas searches for meaning in a fallen world, while death in the form of a naked prostitute calls to him from an apartment window.
Ilzė Butkutė, in her debut Karavanų lopšinės (Caravan lullabies), imagines herself as having been raised in the circus. Like Picasso painting himself as a harlequin, she connects herself to an outsider culture. Poetry becomes her magic trick for transforming the world, for writing herself as a twenty-first century woman, both cutting and soft, growing knives in her garden instead of flowers, making love in a gasmask, or finding a father’s note to an abandoned daughter. She loves both cats and motorcycles. Her femininity is complex and her poetry necessary to a new and more sophisticated comprehension of a woman’s identity in contemporary Lithuania.
Benediktas Januševičius is arguably the most experimental poet of the newest generation, winning the Young Jotvingian Prize in 2007. He has written books of poems blended with drawings, poetry books full of wordplay and word games, and his work tackles contemporary issues with playful wit, wild imagination, and pizzazz. In his new poems, “On genes” and “Where do children come from?” Januševičius deals with two sides of the human reproductive story. Folkloric accounts of the origins of children are treated with irony and humor in “Where do children come from?” But the poem uses this playfulness to surprise us with fundamental existentialist questions having to do with where we ourselves come from and why we are here. The playful questioning of childish accounts of the origins of babies becomes a steppingstone to the questioning of our metaphysical roots and our existential purpose. Similarly, Januševičius answers the seriousness of scientific investigations and manipulations with ironic wit. Genetic engineering and the study of the building blocks of life can be emotionally wrought topics, yet the poet’s absurdist treatment of them allows us to put aside our anxieties and face the issue of our fundamental mutability. Whether in a beauty parlor or in a genetic laboratory, we are increasingly capable of changing ourselves, but are we clear on the whys and what fors of these potentially catastrophic changes?
The poetry of Aušra Kaziliūnaitė, a doctoral student in the philosophy department of Vilnius University and the author of two books of poems, electrifies us with startling juxtapositions, surreal imagery, and unexpected twists and turns. Her poems do not admit easy interpretation, but always enchant us with their vivid and far-reaching imaginative journeys. There is no quaint tenderness or romantic sentimentality in these verses. Cruelty, blood, and death burst out of her poemscapes as metaphysical presences permeating our lives. In her second book, 20% koncentracijos stovykla (20% concentration camp), we find cars impaling themselves on a huge hook in the sky or giant beavers gnawing at the world. This grim imagery continues in her latest work, as the stars sound an alarm that has been ringing for all time, and the moon is a pill, half of which gets stuffed into a dying bird. Our condition is permeated by violence, yet strangely beautiful, and she depicts it with a surprising philosophical calm.
Donatas Petrošius, author of two books of poetry, winner of the Young Jotvingian Prize in 2004 and the Best Poetry Book of the Year Award from the Lithuanian Writer’s Union for his collection Aoristas (The Aorist) in 2010, writes poems from the perspective of the traditional lyrical subject, replete with biographical elements. There is something about his style reminiscent of the New York School, as he strings together thoughts and events in unpunctuated cascading sentences that spill across line and stanza breaks with breathtaking energy. Just when we think we know where we are in a poem, we are startled by unexpected juxtapositions or surreal intrusions, yet propelled along by the relentless stream of language. In one work, a bull being led to market becomes a sacrifice to the gods, and a man on a bicycle becomes a titan from the ancient world. Petrošius can discuss his athletic shoes in one stanza and then, in the next, run outside to check on the magical rope-bridge from his balcony to the four corners of the world. Everyday reality is permeated with both magic and doubt. The poet sees himself with irony, questions his life, yet is surrounded by wonder. One can read much twentieth-century Lithuanian poetry and feel that it was behind the times.7 These six poets inform the world that Lithuania in the twenty-first century is fully caught up. They are not the first to take up postmodern influences, but they have eased into it with integrity and creative gusto, and are redefining what it means to be a Lithuanian poet or even, simply, a Lithuanian.
1 Šilbajoris, A Short History, 13.
2 Ališanka, Six Lithuanian Poets, 15.
3 Šilbajoris, 169.
4 One could argue that other poets from Lithuania (or Vilnius), such as Czesław Miłosz and Abraham Sutzkever, were also city poets, just not in the Lithuanian language.
5 I am also leaving out of this simplified account the various experimental modernist poets active during Lithuania’s interwar period, when Futurism, Symbolism, and general avant-garde experimentalism briefly flourished.
6 Ališanka, 17.
7 See Ališanka’s Six Lithuanian Poets for examples of the poets who came of age in the 1990s and began the processes of change in Lithuanian poetics that are now bearing so much fruit in the newest generation.
Ališanka, Eugenijus, ed. Six Lithuanian Poets. Todmorden: Arc Publications, 2008.
Šilbajoris, Rimvydas. A Short History of Lithuanian Literature. Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 2002.