Rimas Uzgiris

- Lithuania -

Rimas Uzgiris is a poet, translator, and critic. His work has appeared in Barrow StreetAGNI, Iowa Review, Hudson Review, The Poetry Review (UK) and other journals. He is the author of North of Paradise, published by Kelsay Books (2019). Tarp, a collection of his poetry in Lithuanian translation was published by Kauko laiptai (Kaunas, 2019). He is 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 Vagabond Sun by Judita Vaičiūnaitė (Shearsman). Uzgiris has contributed significantly as editor and translator to two anthologies: How the Earth Carries Us: New Lithuanian Poets (Lithuanian Culture Institute), and New Baltic Poets(Parthian). 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.

Rimas Užgiris: A Master of Multicultural Poetic Narratives

I first met Rimas Užgiris during a literary event – I was a participant of a contest, and he was part of the jury. I took a liking to him – he struck me as an honest and witty man, and his remarks were profound and accurate. Our paths crossed occasionally since then, and Rimas left me with the impression of a very sophisticated and very likeable individual. So this time, I’m very eager to present his work.

 Rimas Užgiris – poet, professor, and translator – was born in the state of Colorado and grew up near the city of New York. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MFA in creative writing from Rutgers-Newark. Rimas Užgiris teaches at Vilnius University, is the author of five poetry book translations, while his works and other translations are published in numerous Lithuanian and foreign periodicals. Many of us eagerly awaited for Rimas to publish his first collection of poems. And, finally, in 2019 – an especially fruitful year for the poet – Užgiris’s poetry book(s) was (or were, given the circumstances) published in English and Lithuanian. The English collection North of Paradise was published by Kelsay Books, while the collected Lithuanian  translations, under the title of Tarp (Lith. “Between”), were released by the Kaunas publishing house Kauko laiptai (the excellent Lithuanian translations were done by Marius Burokas, Dominykas Norkūnas, and Edgaras Platelis). In addition, both book covers are adorned with details of paintings by the poet’s wife, artist Monika Furmana.

 Tomas Venclova emphasized the peculiar paradox of Rimas Užgiris’s creative  pattern, saying that despite writing in English and “occupying a clear place within the field of American literature,” Užgiris is still a Lithuanian poet. Because of such a complex and multifaceted identity and belonging to several cultural fields at once, publishing a Lithuanian translation of Užgiris’s book posed a challenge. Because of the circumstances surrounding the Lithuanian literary space, at times it seemed as if Rimas the translator overshadowed Rimas the poet (yet there is no question that he is equally good as both). Given this, I’m very glad to state that Rimas’s books finally came out at the right time and place and now make it much easier to present him as a talented (Lithuanian) poet.

In his poetry, Rimas depicts a striking journey of his subject across both internal and external countries. From Northern America to Eastern Europe, from efforts to capture the diversity of moods to the hunger for true home and placing oneself in language. This journey is bidirectional: from lived experiences to philosophical and conceptual inquiry and back, it is dynamic, retaining the poetic grip on ephemerality, the hungry soul of the lyrical hero, but always seeking to locate the foundational sources of life. The author is excellent at operating on several linguistic registers; the intertextuality and sophistication of his poems are followed by authentic experiences, sensations, and attempts to drink from the fountain of life and ato once to transform these lived experiences into poetic language. Rimas’s poetry eschews clichés and is characterized by original metaphors and unexpected imagery.

I will go into more detail about the Lithuanian poetry collection. The well-chosen title Tarp reflects the core concept of the work. Tarp (Lith. “Between”) references being in between America and Lithuania, the condition between a subtle longing and irony, historical facts and intertextuality, between the city of Troy in North America and Vilnius in Lithuania. The book covers a wide existential panorama – from the story of the subject’s relatives, who were war refugees, to settling in a new country, from divorce to a new love and fatherhood, from The Internationale to jazz and tango. Every detail carries meaning; contexts are interwoven. For example, the epigraph – a quote from Jonas Mekas (“After I was thrown out, kicked out from my own home... I decided that my country is ... the Republic of Poetry”) –corresponds to the insights by the subject in the first poem of Tarp: “Like a hermit crab in the sea, / or carried like a louse, Odysseus / with no Ithaca, I live in between / the lines. Maps cannot contain me. / Son of refugees. English is my house.” (p. 8). Such a Heideggerian discovery of one’s true home is the starting destination, a reference point for the subject, because they take many journeys across different cultures and locations. Alongside the outer chronotope and the ever-changing imagery, the inner spacetime becomes especially important, as it shelters moods and unique stories. Rimas Užgiris bases some of his poems on facts from his own life, later using poetic language to convert and transport them onto a conceptual and universal level. The subject contemplates identity, the question of belonging, and captures the shifting emotions and moods. The condition of searching and questioning is especially evident; attempts at authenticity are clear (no doubt a touch of Rimas the philosopher). However, the sophistication and intertextuality are supplemented with a joie de vivre, which goes to say that his poetic subject is not only concerned with contemplating life but, first of all, living it. The locales and the experiences associated with them are equally important. For example, the streets West Village guard memories of meetings shared by a couple of people, the ruins of Troy signify losses, the Brooklyn Bridge marks a paradoxical cosmic stupor, the MO Museum becomes witness to the love for a particular woman and for art, while the poem “Something about Vilnius” is a tale about a nation and its life.

It is especially delightful that Rimas Užgiris is able to portray Lithuanian without any pathos and unnecessary sentiment. The portrait of Vilnius created in his vision is vivid and expressive, yet it also feels like “home – whether we like it or not” (p. 59). Historical details are taken by the author and woven into a peculiar image wherein several perspectives form the basis for understanding the poem. For example, the poem “Shards of One World” provides an originally interpreted story that places the fragments of shrapnel from an explosion that displaced the fates of people and nations. The variety and importance of music in these verses must also be noted. It is used to develop moods and vary between them – from the blues, the inventive Gymnopédie of Erik Satie, and virages of tango and jazz to the song of a Lithuanian bird, the movements of heart valves, and the whizzing of bullets. These musical references are also signifiers of different cultures and worlds and testify to the experiences of the subject.

I am very glad that Rimas Užgiris is consistently being regarded more as a Lithuanian poet. Užgiris’s poetic style signifies his inventive ability of using language and his creative talent and doubtless makes him a vital addition to the house of Versopolis.