The New Queer Poetry of Lithuania

/ by Rimas Uzgiris

‘Speech after long silence; it is right’

– Yeats

 

After a long silence, we can now find three poets writing on LGBT themes in Lithuania: Karolis Baublys, Laima Kreivytė, and Giedrė Kazlauskaitė. There are, I would say, three things which unite these poets. First, they are the first openly gay poets writing in Lithuanian (and maybe the first gay poets of Lithuania). Neither communism nor Catholicism proved welcoming to queer writing, and the literary culture did not change quickly. Baublys explains, ‘I didn’t want to and couldn’t stay in Lithuania, primarily because of the society’s conservative view of homosexuality. It was in Paris that I discovered an inner freedom that allowed me to express myself, and my sexuality’… So, the publication of their works is worth celebrating in itself:

The culture has opened enough to allow their voices to be heard, and to be heard as the poets want them to be. Second, their work is marked by a meditatively personal, if not downright confessional, free verse style. Lithuanian poetry has only recently become more accepting of the confessional mode. Perhaps this feature of their work should come as no surprise, reflecting, as I see it, the need to articulate clearly an identity that has been suppressed from the culture and literature for so long. Though they often speak of themselves and their experiences, all three poets are very much engaged with the world around them, as well as with the worlds of literature and art. This brings us to the third similarity: Their work abounds in an intertextuality that, in differing degrees, puts them in a relationship with queer art and literature of the past. As Baublys put it, ‘intertextual allusions help give distance form personal experiences, looking at them from a wider field of cultural signs, universalizing individual experience’.

 

All three also share a certain scepticism about being labelled. For instance, Baublys asks, ‘is it correct to “crown” Oscar Wilde as an LGBT poet? His work, after all, strives for something more than is allowed by narrow LGBT boundaries’. While Kazlauskaitė says, ‘I don’t like being presented as an LGBT poet because that ghettoizes me’. Similarly, Kreivytė states, ‘All these categories – LGBT, woman, etc. – put you into a certain framework – usually much smaller than you are. And men’s poetry is just regarded as the universal canon. I don’t believe in such divisions’. Yet none of these poets shies away from their experience. Perhaps because, as Kreivytė points out, ‘When your experience is ignored or silenced, you take a “negative” label and carry it like a flag. That’s why I have chosen a title Sappho’s Purgatorial Library for my first book of poems’. Her eponymous title poem uses the classical illusion to weave a double theme on lesbian relationships and books. Indeed, on the surface it is about books, but in Lithuanian, ‘knyga’ is feminine and takes the feminine pronoun naturally. The poet then animates the books, giving the work its double meaning and frisson:

younger ones hold beauty contests

while their elders hold

to values tried and true

linen clothes

long-term relationships

though sometimes a third gets in between

but it’s no bother

because there’s always someone

at one’s side

making it hard to decide

which love is best

and one catches the general ecstasy

from such an intimate

press

A love poem like ‘you are’… addresses the fraught quality of lesbian relationships in a conservative society, where ‘gripped by fear / two drunk fairies / kiss under linden leaves’. But like her peers, Kreivytė’s interests and allusions are wide ranging, as attested by her ekphrastic ‘Waiting’, dedicated to the feminist artist Faith Wilding. The poet riffs on the theme of waiting with references to Beckett, Virginia Wolff, Tennessee Williams, a street-person of Vilnius, girlfriends, and more:

Waiting for when I can

be alone

in a room of my own.

Waiting for a morning without an alarm,

an evening without the news,

a day without a mobile phone,

a week without responsibilities.

Waiting for books

to read me

because I don’t have time for them.

Waiting for you to give a sign

in the sky, on Facebook, or through the window.

Waiting for someone to tell me

what I’m waiting for.

As Kreivytė says, ‘I think intertextuality is queer in itself – you are not going straight to the point, expressing your thoughts and feelings. You want them to resonate with distant voices, expand your spatial and time limits’.

 

The poems of Karolis Baublys are similarly rich with references, while remaining rooted in lived experience. Much of the first section of his recent debut deals with family relationships, particularly with the loss of a brother and an absent father. In ‘Orange Peels’, a boy plays in his mother’s closet, ‘between toy cars and your mother’s dreams’, and then a guest arrives:

a bearded stranger with the stench of sweat

is that you

father?

just the scent of oranges in the furrows of your palm

just the golden ivy fingers

through the open window

 

In ‘Two Points on a Curve’, the poet stands at his brother’s grave contemplating the latter’s meaning to his life, aghast at the indifference of ‘the architect of the world’:

the iron weathervane above the grave

answers the hoarse voice of the wind

by turning its quiet song into a scream

 

the sleepy architect flinches

and clumsily picks his left ear

inserts ear plugs

and turns over on his side

satisfied

asleep

The second section of the book traces homosexual themes from both a personal and intertextual perspective. As the poet says, ‘it was very important for me to think through and think over the already existing, uniquely coded, history of homoerotic iconography to understand its expressive distinctiveness’. So, in ‘Caravaggio’, prefaced by a quote from Shakespeare, we see the history of a failed relationship with a painter:

Michelangelo is jealous of your talent

but the flavour of betrayal would drive him mad

my king

faithfulness was just childish foolishness

a woman’s artifice to you

I’m tired of playing the fool

and your paintings make me sad

and vengeful

 

red wine in a sliced throat

black elderberries

in the place of eyes

 

When it comes to Giedrė Kazlauskaitė, we can trace a development over her more extensive publishing career. As she herself says, ‘It was very clear in my first book that I am speaking about homosexual relationships, then that theme grew a little boring. In my second poetry book, I write about non-traditional motherhood, while in my third, there’s only a few hints of that because I found new themes’. So, we see, in the early ‘Arranging the shelf…’, the poet bemoaning a break-up:

You were my confessional, my shelf

for a worn-out book.

You were pages for my words,

ink for my pen,

 

what there is of poetry.

 

We can only guess that there is a woman involved from the phrase ‘you would have to… become something like a woman, something that / would amaze those who knew you before’. This tendency towards coyness is partly explained in ‘Silentium’, where the poet dreams of an internal guard dog straining to get free and attack those who pose a threat to her, her partner, and their daughter. This complex work interweaves themes of her daughter’s slow speech development with the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and the poet’s relationship to her family:

…I was behind on my dissertation,

even my mother lost her faith, saying:

‘What do you need those studies for?’ And I would dream

of her discovering our life together – condemning it, demanding

divorce (separation), mourning, terror, and then our aggressive,

white guard dog would get free: he could really attack people,

and we needed to hide to avoid the butchery.

 

Even though we lived in a cave (the catacomb figure is too high),

we would see the true letters of our names

in the shadow theatre of Maidan, but we remained silent

because of the dog.

It would, perhaps, be going too far to conclude that the poet’s reticence is motivated by fear. Indeed, I see it as more of a rhetorical strategy that she uses while discussing any number of themes, often to great effect. In ‘Collecting Colorado Beetles’, a poem about family, we almost don’t realize she is discussing the holocaust until that realization bowls us over:

The only estimable moment in the context of the photos –

it’s said my great grandfather who went to drill toilet holes

for livestock wagons

 

came home and cried.

....
Rimas Uzgiris

is a poet, translator, editor and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow Street, AGNI, Iowa Review, Hudson Review and other journals. He is translation editor and primary translator of How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets, compiler and translator of the Lithuanian section of New Baltic Poets (Parthian), translator of Caravan Lullabies by Ilzė Butkutė (A Midsummer Night’s Press), Then What by Gintaras Grajauskas (Bloodaxe), Now I Understand by Marius Burokas (Parthian), The Moon is a Pill by Aušra Kaziliūnaitė (Parthian), and of Vagabond Sun by Judita Vaičiūnaitė (Shearsman). He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark University. Recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Translation Fellowship, and the Poetry Spring 2016 Award for translations of Lithuanian poetry into other languages, he teaches translation at Vilnius University.