The Week before the Festival: Druskininkai Poetic Fall

Daily Femininity

A Review of Featurettes by Indrė Valantinaitė

/ by Elžbieta Banytė

I told someone once that erotica in Lithuanian poetry is usually covered up, hidden under these thick brocade curtains. In fact, I can’t imagine what kind of material brocade is – it’s a word I know from novels, where landed gentry would lounge about in front of the fireplace in old sagging armchairs in the evenings, and there would always be brocade curtains. This fabric was clearly expensive, noble, and it was probably thick and heavy and well-cut. You could probably feel their soft weight and intriguing smoothness when opening them. At least that’s what it seemed like in these novels. There’s no brocade in my life, of course, never was. This word, much like velvet, remains an inexplicable and romanticized metonymy for lush aristocratic things.

Sheathed in a cover of velvet-like green is Trumpametražiai (Featurettes), the third book by Indrė Valantinaitė (b. 1984). The title alludes to the meaning of the material, as cinema seats are often covered in a similar one. The reader’s expectations are instantly roused – this poetry is going to be cinematographic, broad, minimalistic. Well, at least it should be. Such a shift from one media or genre to another is already familiar to the poet. Valantinaitė was presented Jaunojo Jotvingio (The Young Yotvingian) award five years ago, precisely, in autumn 2012, for her book Pasakos apie meilę ir kitus žvėris (Tales of Love and Other Beasts). The award is traditionally given to young poets for the best book of the year. The very word tales in the title, and the intertextual reference to Gabriel García Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons, demonstrate the amplitude of Valantinaitė’s poetry: It narrates, it possesses a mythological dimension and a dominating motif of love, especially erotic love. And if we got away from the textual plane, and considered the author as an actual person, we’d see she’s interested in cinema, French in particular, and that she’s not only a poet, but also a singer.

In Featurettes, the archetypical, outlandish, mystified domain of the first book is left behind, moving to the daily life of a young modern woman. The book is divided into three parts, marked by Roman numerals but no titles – therefore, it’s worth looking for a succession between them, although it is never revealed. But the titles of the poems are telling: The first text in the collection is titled Būtų nuodėmė nešlovinti gyvenimo (It Would Be a Sin not to Celebrate Life), and the last Tamsai išleidus nagus (As Darkness Gets its Claws Out). In other words, it is evident, before even starting to read, that it’s going to be a journey from brightness and beauty to danger and darkness.

The direction of thought is also revealed by the epigraphs of the three parts. The first one is an extract from Oskaras Milašius’s poem Vėjas (The Wind): “Eik, bėk su manim per jūrą, aš noriu tau parodyti / Tokias gražias padanges, tokias gražias, jog verksi” (“Come, follow me to the sea, for I want to show you / The skies so beautiful, so beautiful that they will make you cry”) (p. 7). Experiences of beauty do prevail in this part of the book: A swan rising with the sun (Gulbė pakyla – The Swan Rises, p. 10), a glimpse of an opulent church (Bažnyčios – Churches, p. 19), a bouquet of flowers (Puokštė – A Bouquet, p. 23) and others. Character-fully, there’s sadness in every experience in the poems (e.g. in the poem Laisvės alėja, the lyrical subject is eating a lavish serving of food in a restaurant located in her grandmother’s house, who was starving at one point during the war), and there are moments of enlightenment in every sadness (in Regėjimas – Vision, the apathetic and disappointed subject sees “tuos virpančius, perregimus siūlus, / besidriekiančius aukštyn nuo kiekvienos / krutančios gyvasties” (“those trembling, see-through threads, / running upwards from every / stirring living thing”). There’s an attempt to construct the texts as epiphanies of sorts – an opening, a flash in which something is brightened up, becoming clear, or, on the contrary, clearness is transformed into a mystery, unawareness. The expectations brought by the title are met not only by this narrative structure, but also by the making of intense visuals. If the poem is read as a cinematographic text, the visual is either zoomed in or zoomed out, e.g. the poem Riedanti karietaitė (Rolling Carriage) starts with a description of the situation: “kilmingi ir prasčiokai” (“nobles and peasants”) are riding in a stagecoach, then “mamos nosis, tėvo akys / prosenelės plaukai” (“mother’s nose, father’s eyes/ great-grandmother’s hair”) mysteriously emerge, and only when the view is zoomed out, do we realize that we’re looking at an old family picture in a photo album. The poetry is thus metonymical, rather than metaphorical – it is dominated by daily life, which opens up its many sides when viewed through the eyes of an attentive observer focusing on meaningful details. Though the very idea that there’s sadness in beauty is a romantic cliché, the reading is made interesting by the development of the visuals – the poetry is metonymic rather than metaphorical. This is typical to contemporary Lithuanian poetry: It is characterized by vers libre and common, unsentimental language; the thematic support is sought in daily life, in travels, while poetic images are brought out of an object or a specific place. Surely, the poetic language that Valantinaitė selects is somewhat romanticized and sugary – a swan, a bee, a heart. In the manner of her earlier books, she also employs mythological symbolism to speak about love – e.g. in Lithuanian fairy tales, a swan may turn into an enchanted princess who is shot and brought back to human form by a hunter.

The second and third parts of the book start with the epigraphs by Charles Bukowski and Leonard Cohen, respectively. The manner of disclosing the meaning of the text is the same as in the first part, but there’s a clearer and more open turn to experiences of love, which is often painful. In truth, a division between these two parts remains unclear to me – nothing would have really changed, if the poems were swapped places – what we need is a pronounced thematic thread and an inner logic, explaining why the texts are arranged exactly in these parts and exactly in this order, because texts about loss can be found in both parts. The sense of death is intensified in the third part, but there are glimpses of it in the second one, e.g. the poem Orfėjas (Orpheus). In other words, while the structure is certainly not scrappy, it is also not fully sustainable. One has to admit, however, that these two parts reach the closest point of approach to femininity and masculinity, or rather to a revelation of the way that these cultural concepts are perceived from the perspective of the lyrical subject. This is a record of erotica, of falling in love, of being in family and other similar experiences.

Featurettes is interesting in its way of sticking to the traditional, and I’d even say old-fashioned, custom to hide the erotica from the flesh – what remains are the reflections of desires, traces, suspicions, but they are pushed away, covered by the abundance of details and hints, e.g. a bride languidly fixes a strap (poem VakarienėThe Dinner, p. 36), ice cream is melting in the mouth (poem Mėgstamiausi ledai – Favourite Ice Cream, p. 37), a woman starts to cry when asked to name the one person closest to her heart (poem Cirko trilogijaThe Circus Trilogy, p. 58). Besides, various coverings get direct mentions in the texts: Snow, “ažūrinė vabzdžių kūnelių užuolaida / ant automobilio stiklo” (an openwork curtain of bodies of insects / on the windscreen) (p. 51), “gražiųjų rūbų klostės” (“folds of the beautiful clothes”) (p. 42), “oversized megztinis” (“oversized sweater”), revealing a shoulder (p. 38). Here the erotic effect is created by the means that are traditionally considered “feminine:” Lace and smocking are more enticing than nudity, like Roland Barthes said with reference to fashion of clothing. The hidden body is even more erotic, provoking a longing to unfold the smocking. While Valantinaitė’s poetry is generally varying in traditional images and even stereotypes in places, it’s precisely through the concealment of erotic content that it becomes more interesting; otherwise, it would be too simple – an angry reviewer could describe them as shreds of a diary with no deeper meaning. The poetry is saved from this only by the method of “telling without telling,” a curtain of language and images that creates distance and mystery.

Overall, it’s worth mentioning that Valantinaitė manages, in most cases, to retain the language that is traditionally employed by female writers in Lithuanian literature – using diminutives, images of the body such as heart, neck, breasts, etc., and at the same time not turning the poetry into a jumble of sweetness and sentimentality. Besides, both men and women can go and leave their significant other: There’s no trace of the faithful Penelope myth. In the poem Gera žmona (Good Wife) a woman goes on a business trip, and in the hotel, “patalynė kairėje tik retkarčiais būdavo sujaukta” (“only occasionally would the sheets on the left side be rumpled”) (p. 41). In Žaidimas (The Game), a woman finds a sign of infidelity – someone’s earring – and leaves her husband. In Favorite Ice Cream, a woman is jilted. Some of Valantinaitė’s strongest poems are the ones that, following Helen Cixous’s idea, can be ascribed to “women’s writing” that derives not from the symbolic plane, but from the reality that deals with a woman’s body and, therefore, is not restrained by the conventions of logic: “Dar neparašyti eilėraščiai miega ant tavo odos: / kaktos, skruostų, vokų, lūpų...” (“poems not yet written are sleeping on your skin: / your brow, your cheeks, your lids, your lips”) (p. 30). It’s sure hard to deny that a heart clothed in a sweater decorated with braids of a feeling (Megztinis – Sweater, p. 31) is on the verge of the banal and the tasteless. But as accurately pointed out in the afterword by the editor of the book, poet Kęstutis Navakas, Valantinatė’s poetry is generally on a dangerous verge: “Serious” art on the one side, “bright-colored princess world stretching away right to the Barbie doll” on the other (p. 67). And, if truth be told, Valantinaitė’s best texts exploit this verge to their benefit, and the worst ones to their disadvantage.

Valanatinaitė’s “featurette” poetry is correctly defined as archetypally feminine, due to the passive position of its observer and its language. Nevertheless, it very often manages to overcome banalities and stereotypes. The poems of the collection are, without doubt, uneven (this is perfectly normal), and in some of them, the reality exhibits itself in a dull way – insights we’ve heard hundreds of times, such as the question proposed by the lyrical subject: “is this the real life and is this as real as it gets?” All the same, it is highly recommended to open the mysterious velvet cover of Featurettes: it’s not the hit of the year, but certainly earns its place in the best of the month list.


Translated by Kotryna Garanasvili

Elžbieta Banytė

was born in 1990, Vilnius, Lithuania. Currently, she is doing her PhD research in the Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore. Her topics of interest include Lithuanian literary criticism, Modern Greek literature, poetty translation, contemporary Lithuanian literature.