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Review: Six Lithuanian Poets, ed. Eugenijus Ališanka

Six Lithuanian Poets and Six Polish Poets are the fourth and fifth books in a series called 'New Voices from Europe and beyond', following volumes devoted to Basque, Slovenian, and Czech poetry. Some funding comes from the EU's 'Literature Across Frontiers' project; the series is designed to supply the oxygen of translation and readership to the languages and poets featured, and to open windows onto poetic scenes and developments across the new Europe. Despite the 'beyond' of the title, then, the series focuses so far on European poetry, and largely on countries of the former eastern bloc which entered the EU in 2004. These volumes attempt to address a paradox in their recent international reception. Until 1989, interest in the literatures of communist Central and Eastern Europe was sustained in the West, and publication and translation relatively frequent. The subsequent opening of their literary scenes to the market, and the relative ease of travel and communication, has paradoxically deprived them of attention; now that their writers are no longer required to testify to the triumph of the human spirit in adversity, interest in translating and propagating their literature has waned. This series admirably attempts to attract new interest, and to recontextualize these literatures in a united Europe.

The focus in the introductions by individual editors tends notwithstanding to be less on comparison with contemporary poetic practice internationally, and more on a genealogical narrative which describes the internal development of a national literature. The Lithuanian volume, for example, offers an editorial 'Short Introduction to Lithuanian Poetry'. This is a hard task in ten pages, but a necessary one: it is unlikely that the volume will meet with many readers who will not need it. The editor, Eugenijus Alisanka, begins under Tsarist rule in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Lithuanian literature and its alphabet were banned, and proceeds through the period of independence, 1918-40, to the effects of the Soviet invasion and occupation of 1941. Lithuanian literature has to struggle not only with an interrupted history, but also with the burden of responsibility that literature bears under tyranny. Alisanka reports a saying that Lithuania is a country of poets, whose art was charged with the duty to preserve the nation, the language, and, ultimately, the truth'. The poets Alisanka assembles here, publishing in the climate of post-Soviet independence, are in reaction against this responsibility. The introduction suggests that one of the clear signs of the recovery of literature and criticism is the fact that there are fewer references to politics. In some lights, this would be seen as a neutering and reduction of poetry's scope; that it is reason for celebration here seems rather another symptom of frailty than a sign of robust health.

A constant theme in this volume is anxiety about the purpose of poetry. Aidas Marcenas writes, the introduction suggests, about the impossibility of poetry. But what comes across is rather the compulsion to write poetry, despite having nothing to say: His Ars Poetica begins:

The world is ending, therefore
you must write poems
... as though doing meaningful work...
work like building a house, or
a boat for your dwindling family - even if
there won't be anyone to live in it.

If the poem was formerly made to do duty as the ark preserving national culture and 'the truth', these poems are arks with nothing to save, or temples without a shrine - a holy temple / for a long-dead religion. Several of his poems describe writing poetry as 'idiocy' (as in 'An International Forum'); if so, Marcenas's idiocy is sophisticated, treating the traditional scope of poetry obliquely and with conscious irony.

Kestutis Navakas' sequence 'From an Unknown Poet's Diary' describes a festival at which

incompetent poets alternating with one another will read for a long time
I feel uncomfortable here - as if I were eating the leftovers of sandwiches
collected from between their teeth

- a bitter image of poetic tradition. Gintaras Grajauskas has similar deprecation both for poetry and the contemporary poetic scene. Poetry Readings presents two models of how a poem might be read:

with self-important pathos (it seems [the poet]
will burst into tears from the beauty of it all), or in a monotone, knowing [poets] are condemned
to waste time on formalities
necessary to no-one.

Grajauskas encapsulates the dialectic of self-irony throughout this volume: poetry as grandiosity on the one hand, irrelevance and anachronism on the other.

Sigitas Parulskis' ingenious, knowing poems are deliberately bathetic; like Marcenas, he plays with the paradox of well-written poetry which refuses the poetic. Squirrels counterposes the speaker's lustful descriptions of his lover's body with the ludicrous overwriting of what would be said if I were a poet; Poetic Interests deliberately violates the dignity of poetic tradition by imagining Homer, Sappho, Pound, and Eliot in obscene situations. It begins Barely awake, I understand that I've been thrown out of the field of poetic interests; the disorientation is less regretful than gleeful.

Daiva Cepauskaite's poems are narrow columns, rarely with more than four words to a line. These channeled units generate poems out of very little material: one untitled poem begins

There is a game -
find what shines, and proceeds to name shining things, culminating in a sheet of paper
awaiting the poem.

I Want To Say retracts every statement it makes. Cepauskaite has a light-hearted sense of the absurdity of poetry as an activity - her Poetry begins

I am a cow named Poetry,
giving some milk,
usually 2.5% fat.

Alisanka's own contributions include a poem, not, by now, surprisingly, entitled Essay on Lithuanian Literature, which begins less and less am I able to answer the question why I write. The sentiment is common to the poets represented in this volume, and the pressure to answer it, or the ironies it raises, generate many of these poems. On this showing, the release from poetry's political and moral burden has left an unbearable lightness, under which Lithuanian poetry can only ask itself - wittily or nostalgically - what it is supposed to be doing.