A Knife into the Groin of Everyday Life
Authors of the Week: Lithuania
White winter, a farmstead, a forest, peace. Suddenly a scream: piercing, to the bone. Then blood on the snow. And then people gathered around the large body of a hog. Dishes to collect the blood, the blue flame of a Primus stove crisps pieces of skin, the ritual has begun.
For a long time, the slaughter of a pig was the sign of reality in Lithuanian poetry. The reality without which poetry gets nowhere. The slaughter of a pig is like the stamp of life experience in the text.
Sigitas Parulskis put this stamp on his poems more than once. A dreadful existential experience, a brutal yet sacral ritual:
Fragments of the Beginning of a Myth
slaughtering a pig
in the beginning of February
snowy sky with
a cooling pig’s head
a pregnant mother
her hair in blue braids
not yet born –
already with a bloody
This stamp of pig slaughter on our poetry has not faded. With the 21st c. into its second decade, Mindaugas Nastaravičius wrote the poem “we slaughtered but didn’t eat” containing an epigraph from the now classical author, Romualdas Granauskas: “These days young poets grow up not having seen a live pig.” In readings, the epigraph was enough to draw laughter. Apparently, now pigs make us laugh.
Have I slaughtered a pig? No. I haven’t slaughtered one. I knew that the long knife with a groove in its blade for the blood to run out is the one used for stabbing the pig. It’s long so as to reach the heart. I only listened to the scream from my home. I did see how they dressed the pig, opening up its “books of bacon” – as in Parulskis’ poem “The Process”.
I have beheaded chickens. I have buried blind kittens. But I never slaughtered a pig. A pig is big, bigger than me and all my experience. Eventually, I grew distant from that farm, from those winters. I opened books of paper and stayed there, stayed with dry and dusty paper.
All my life I have been learning to read, write; I taught and studied the texts of others, thinking about how to better get into their guts. No kittens are buried, no chicken heads chopped off. Hammering a nail into the wall creates serious complications. I hold a pen in my hand, not a knife. My home is an apartment, the building has a superintendent, the roads are plowed, money drops into my account and food comes by car to my door. I walk and think, write and fail to understand, what is it now that seeps into my bones? Indifference, fear of death, sadness?
I turn to look at that yard and think, where did life go? Texts, nothing but texts all around. In all the rooms, in the computer, every day. Friends become profiles in social media, while family begins to get on my nerves when I can’t focus for long on a text.
It doesn’t make me feel better to recall that in my studies we received stamps in our exam books for postmodern courses that led us to believe there is nothing on the other side of the text.
I feel as if someone has drained the blood away from me. Paper blood is not enough.
I ask myself, naively, where life might hide under all these texts. And where can I go with these questions if not to John the Evangelist. But he doesn’t console much: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40, NIV).
The Bible is an austere book. It doesn’t caress your head. Irritated, I think that the Bible is itself just a text on my lap. I put it aside and turn on the TV.
But there, unbelievably, Françoise Sagan drives a knife into me:
“Whoever has not pressed down the accelerator pedal has not felt how the whole body tenses, whoever has not surrendered to this temptation has not felt the solemn, icy silence of death, whoever has never loved speed, has never loved life and, probably, has never loved anyone.”
Well, no, I have not surrendered to the temptations of speed. Maybe I risk too little? Is that why it sometimes seems that nothing reaches my heart? Or perhaps it has already become a piece of crumpled paper?
Irritated, I decide that this is a story of a girl who gets her first contract at the age of nineteen – for a million and a half francs. The story is not really about me at all.
Would I drive around in Jaguars, spend time by the sea or in the casino, ride horses, if I received a million and a half? Does life only begin when you get that much money? Whatever the case, a millionaire doesn’t need to slaughter pigs in the silence of winter. And what can such a millionaire tell me? Maybe the classic authors of Lithuanian literature, those poor, churchyard mice, are actually closer to my sensibility?
When you look at the origins of Lithuanian literature, you see that literature existed at the margins of life. The first authors where priests or medical doctors. This makes sense. They were the educated people who could write. And writing was not for them the most important thing in life. They worked to change reality, not to write a bestseller. And they changed it. They created a national identity; they fought against the ruling power’s attempt to trample down Lithuanian culture; they fought for sobriety too, and more.
No, I’m not saying I never learned anything about life from texts, that I did not draw blood from the opened rib-cage of poems, that in field-dressing a book, I never held the hot beating heart in my hands, and that in bleeding it out, I never made blood sausages after. I learned and experienced. I lived the lives of others. Now people in so-called life rarely tell me something new that I have not experienced in a text.
But do we lack artists here who almost completely ignored reality? Many kinds of people have made great art – the poor and the suffering as well as the inheritors of wealth, writers who never worked a day in their lives, those living alone, those with families, both ascetics and bohemians, both social activists and those colored butterflies fluttering without regard to the changes taking place around them.
And how the choices of these butterflied can stagger you! Like the poetry of Kęstutis Navakas, choosing to live to his last breath in his own fairy tale, his own myth, refusing to surrender an inch to the requirements of surrounding reality.
And the horror of that, as the poet Sigitas Geda often said: without a tragic fate there can be no good literature. Near the end of his life drew a knife against his daughter. He yearned for life but for a life shot through with his ideal literary exemplars: François Villon, Charles Baudelaire, Antanas Strazdas. Not even those authors but their images, the images of them he created for himself: suffering, oppressed, marginal.
Yet how Geda looked down his nose at Navakas: too full of mannerisms, empty, the poetry of a beautiful bowl that doesn’t hold a thing – or so he wrote in one letter. But who can find a more contradictory poet than Sigitas Geda? The passage about Navakas’ emptiness and mannerisms comes before a great self-reflective sigh that he himself has no talent for family life, that his relationship with his son is poor, that he gives all his time to himself, in other words, to literature. For literature grinds the meat of life into sausages, drains the blood for blood sausages, and only then does life takes on forms that we can recognize.
Wikipedia informs me that the grooves in the blade of the knife are just called “grooves for blood”. But really, “the grooves work to stiffen the edge so that the blade becomes stronger”, and “the carved grooves make the blade lighter”. So then, what do I know about the reality of grooves?
I am writing this text next to other texts. The texts insert themselves into each other. Here is the poet Kornelijus Platelis’ letter to Sigitas Geda, written 43 years ago:
“I am not in the mood to write poems at all. There just isn’t anything to write about. Doesn’t it seem to you sometimes that we are strangely isolated from life? Everything that happens in poetry is just a fiction with no basis in reality.”
How does Geda answer?
“To create nothing is, certainly, alluring. But if you don’t create in our surroundings, how do you avoid being sucked into banality? How do you preserve the Flame, the breath of Wisdom, which the soul can at least approach when we create?”
And what are “our surroundings”? That same old sibling, our everyday life: “our quotidian life is poor and dreary, governed by the same old struggle for that same old poor and dreary existence.” So writes Sigitas Geda, sheltering with his wife that year at the home (most likely) of his friend, the writer Leonidas Jacinevičius.
Is artistic creation a knife with a groove in the blade, thrust into banality’s groin to air it out? Where there is air, there can be Flame. Wikipedia says that such an understanding of the function of grooves is mistaken. But we encounter all kinds of mistakes in life. We encounter mistakes when slaughtering a pig. The biggest mistake – to fail to hit the heart in the first thrust.
Mein Gedicht ist mein Messer, I recall when I pour myself a whiskey to maintain the Flame. “My Poem is my Knife”: I need to go and translate this poem by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. For when you can’t feel life anymore, good literature can still, even if rarely, singe you to the soul.
Yet I can’t find Enzensberger in my bookshelf. Something has to be done about all these books. Though I find “Mack the Knife” on Spotify:
Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne
Und die trägt er im Gesicht
Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer
Doch das Messer sieht man nicht.
If I drink too much now, the Flame might singe me to death. And they will find me with this Brechtian knife in my chest. The melody is just right, I think, fitting. But I go to the faucet for water.
Translated from Lithuanian by Rimas Uzgiris
 Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white
Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear
And he keeps it out of sight.
(tr. Marc Blitzstein)