Authors of the Week: Lithuania
The actor and theater director, Valentinas Masalskis, once asked: if you are hit by a car while crossing a road on a red light – is it a chance event or determined by law? We were talking about events in playwriting – what can be foreseen, sensed beforehand, versus what happens unexpectedly in the stories we are making.
Back then, a decade ago, I answered that the person struck by the car, streaming blood, is a chance event. Yes, the car was speeding and didn’t manage to stop, but the opposite could have happened: no car, no blood, just a red light and a person who ignores it. No, said the director, it is an event determined by law because if you always walk through red, at some point you will end up on the asphalt. However, if you get up from the asphalt, if the white lines flashing in your eyes turn out to be the white lines of a crosswalk and not the garlands of mourning, if you are only slightly injured – then that is a chance event.
Chance or law? Is it an event that occurs by chance or one determined by law? I ask myself this question when I read scripts, follow the news, contemplate the lives of friends and the choices they make. About my own life as well, though it is always easier to dissect others and the plots of their lives than our own – it is easier to find explanations as to why our friends ignore red lights, and we feel we know how a friend lives and thinks even if we only last spoke a decade ago, however, it is not so easy for us to explain what is happening to us and why – then everything stops being so elementary, so lawful. Then, it’s unexpected, unbelievable, accidental.
At this point, we could start to write a play about two poets who meet to talk about their creative work, but talk instead about life only to find themselves surprised, well after midnight, as to why they spoke so little about poetry, and so dryly at that, surprised at how all their wine has been poured out over work, children, and parents. Why do we speak so passionately about others, but lower our eyes and fail to find the right words when we speak about ourselves? If I were to write this play, I might begin with such a dialogue:
FIRST POET: My life is much more difficult than yours.
SECOND POET: Mine likewise.
Rimantas Kmita called in the evening, asking about Versopolis and my unwritten text. I was holding my seven-year-old son by the hand at the polyclinic, there to get his stitches removed. I told him a hundred times that he shouldn’t run on the stairs, that he shouldn’t run down in just his socks, or barefoot, or with shoes, that stairs need to be climbed down, not run down. Chance or law? He was in a hurry, looking for a lost Lego piece, slipped and failed to grab hold of the bannister. Nothing tragic – a split chin, blood on the stairs, three stitches. Rimantas and I are still talking, I am listening to his thoughts on how texts arise, while life subsides, and my son is sitting next to me, gripping my hand, a bit nervous (his first serious injury, his first and only question: will it hurt?), and here now is the doctor inviting us in.
Having just seen a boy of around ten leave the examination room alone, hearing that I am still speaking on the phone, my son gives my hand a tug and whispers in my ear: “I can go alone.” I let go of his hand and let my gaze follow him into the room. I tell Rimantas this is what I’m going to write about – about the creative work for which I have no time, about life and my son whose hand I’m not holding anymore because I’m talking to you about writing. My son comes back in fifteen minutes. Our conversation is finished.
Life or art. Art or family. Everything or nothing. We have poured out words and wine over these questions hundreds of times, back then, full of youthful enthusiasm, full of single-minded answers, still ignorant about life and art, yet choosing between these “ors” in a flash. I recall almost getting into a fight with a poet friend who once set out such a law well after midnight:
FIRST POET: In point of fact, you, as a poet, already don’t exist.
SECOND POET: What are you talking about?
FIRST POET: Well… family, children. I don’t think you’re going to write anything anymore.
SECOND POET: WTF?!
I understand what he was trying to say back then. I understand that my new poem seemed to him to be accidental. Just a flash of poetry ripped from the prose of life. A pause, not an action. Like a poem “after life ends”. But if the two of us would return to that night’s table, if we could manage to talk about art not as the opposite of life, but as life itself, then I would tell my poet friend that I have never written anything else. And neither has he. Not a single line without memory and experience. Yes, twenty years ago we slaughtered a pig. But as a teenager, I held not a knife in my hand, but the pig’s leg. Ten years ago I wrote a poem about that event in which the blood was real but the poetry – imagined.
Around that same time, I read a poem by Rimantas Kmita called “under shining domes”. He writes of a cashier in a grocery store scanning products well after midnight:
then it hits me, a vision of
a stream of blood flowing from her mouth down her chin
but from some sort of inertia
she still sits at the register
and i remember a poet
and a conversation i had with her
when she talked
and talked and talked and made me listen
to this deep deep music
maybe i’m middle-eastern
she said, they sing songs
with such suffering
aren’t they hip, don’t you think, she said
it cuts through your heart
i like it so much
it’s not interesting
do you understand
this has it all
and there, in my life, is nothing
Everything or nothing. Everything or nothing. While waiting for my son to be born, I kept thinking: how will we live now? how will our lives change? Then beside him, a brother appeared – yet another life in which a pause is possible only in the early morning or late at night. My wife always asks me if I am unhappy that my creative work can only occur in breaks from everyday life, if I feel bad sunk in all kinds of chores, but not in language, if, one day, disappointed in myself, my emptiness, and in the white color of the computer screen, I will just get up and go away to the midnight table? She also asks if we have begun saving for summer vacation.
That selfsame Valentinas Masalskis put on a play a few years ago called Red. It was written by the American dramaturgist, John Logan, and is about the famous painter Mark Rothko getting a commission from a luxurious restaurant. The dilemma: to create a monumental fresco and receive a large payment or to renege on the agreement and choose freedom? This is an excerpt from the dialogue between the painter and his assistant, the twenty-something Ken, in disagreement over whether it’s possible to create a “shrine to art” in a restaurant:
KEN: So an artist has to go hungry?
ROTHKO: Yes, artists have to hungry, but not me.
Nevertheless, he returned the money. At the end of the play, Ken returns to the studio to see Rothko’s wrists dripping red. He thinks it’s blood, though in the play it’s red paint – the painter is getting ready to work. But in life, not in the play, his wrists did actually drip blood. That was not the end of the play, but the end of life.
I am driving my eldest son to school. He asks why we always spend vacation in Lithuania and never abroad. OK, I say, next summer we can go to Latvia, by the sea. We can go to the Mark Rothko art center there. First to the sea, says my son.
Getting out of the car, I give him my hand. As we walk to class, my son tugs at my sleeve, and I bend down to listen: “If you can, don’t hold my hand when we enter the school. Only hold it when nobody sees.” Driving home, I remember some lines from Dainius Gintalas’s poem, “not like vegetarians”:
better to be a weak poet
and a strong father, my son
better to be a screaming poet
and a listening father, my daughter
As soon as I read Rimantas’s essay for Versopolis, “A Knife into the Groin of Everyday Life”, I decided that I’ll call my text, “Blood”. But I am not writing it yet – I am still living life: today I was standing with my son at the intersection, a red light in front of us, not one car, not one other person. We were standing there, waiting, I was holding his hand firmly, explaining to him that this is what the traffic laws require. But really, there are no such laws.
Translation by Rimas Uzgiris of Mindaugas Nastaravičius’s “Kraujas”