Review of Bootleg Copy by Laurynas Ketkus

I am pasting into this blog a review of Bootleg Copy: Selected Poems by the Lithuanian poet Laurynas Katkus. This review is in the current issue of Pleiades 33.1, Spring 2013, and can be read about and ordered here:

Bootleg Copy: Selected Poems, by Laurynas Katkus, Translated from the Lithuanian by Kerry Shawn Keys, Visual Artists Collective, 2011, 89 pages, Paperback.

A quick survey of the titles of Laurynas Katkus’s new selected poems will give the reader an impression of the breadth and depth of the poetic imagination of one of the most exciting young poets currently working in Lithuania, in terrific American translations by the poet Kerry Shawn Keys.  It may also reveal wider implications about what the poets in Vilnius are doing these days: “The Young Address Their Fate,” “Raising of Spirits,” “A Student in the Free University,” “October Holidays,” “Money,” “Ode to a Jellyfish,” “Inflation in March,” “A Motif from Rembrandt,” and so on, reflect not only the skill, ambition and scope of this particular poet, but a sampling of the potential concerns of an entire generation of Lithuanian poets who came of age during the transition from Soviet occupation to democracy and capitalism.  One can get an idea of the chaotic and interesting state of Lithuanian poetry simply by sampling some lines almost at random from the ambivalently named title poem:

He sleeps under the threadbare snowflakes of the nappy blankets which once snowed on the seaside dunes.

The shelves of the cupboard are weighted down with monitors, processors, floppies, and hard discs

The long lines of this poem contain more than the usual fascinating blend of folk urges and political surrealism American readers have come to expect in a general way from Soviet Bloc writers, and in specific, from Lithuanian ones, several generations of whom developed a distinct and unique coded imagistic patois in order to write around the censors. Of course, these lines carry more than a whiff of all that, but what fascinates me is, as always, a matter of the variation of the influence: the title, the long lines, the surface subject matter.  It’s a world that also consists of a number of Western influences, ranging from Whitman’s long lines that hang in the balance between the Bible and the journalistic ‘leaves of grass,” or misprinted newspaper pages from the contemporary Nineteenth Century print shops, to name a couple.  The poem’s texture and subject matter, however, indicate a rowdy, contemporary setting all its own, a world likeable and no less dark than the generation of Katkus’s parents, imbued with the quirky atmosphere of Frank O’Hara’s Personism to the kind of imagery you might find in The Matrix, or for that matter in any young person’s studio today, be it in Manhattan or Shanghai: databases, motherboards, algorithms, and chips exists in this world simultaneously with the particular hauntings of a small and lovely country that has been occupied since it was an Empire itself, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea:

His body is lead-like, behind the eyelids only an occasional swish of turbid eyeballs.

Rows of numbers, flashes, multiple and commanding movements: these are the chips whispering in the dark.

Overloaded, discordant, infected with viruses, they suffer a cruel slavery.

Every second in this city they are touched by the hands of barbarians.

Only you can save us, Vygis, says the Mother Board, cut a window to freedom.

“Come to us, and you will be the most pliant, most perfect algorithm!”  Such lines strike me as totally new but redolent and haunted by a past that I’ve come to know from visiting Vilnius several times—the stories about the tanks on the perimeter of the city, of aggressively ideological native editors doing the bidding of their Soviet overseers.  After having been born into such a world, how exceptional it must have been to watch it change so brutally quickly, before the tanks even had time to fire on the city!

This and other poems reflect an obsession with that most difficult of blessings and obligations: freedom, at least as it might be defined and implemented in a capitalistic system.  One sees this, ironically enough, in such poems as “October Holidays,” with its obvious historical reference, when Katkus opens with the image of eerily silent pianos and closed textbooks that culminates in what he calls “our ageing, October-born State,” a poem that would have been impossible for obvious reasons decades before.  What’s new is the directness, but the poems can’t avoid the influence of the poets who managed to stand up to the censors in oblique and clever ways, paced to the survival pulse, like Vytautas Bložė and Sigitas Geda.  Other noticeable influences are Joseph  Brodsky and Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas, who both left their native lands, and also, in a conceptual way, Walter Benjamin, for whom Katkus is the translator into Lithuanian.

What strikes me about this poetry is how well-disguised the strangeness is and how direct a poet like Katkus can now afford to be; the mother calling her son home at the end of it could be happening in Des Moines, or Richmond, for that matter, but the subtext fairly brims over with a subverted, buried energy that Katkus makes familiar for non-Lithuanian readers: “tomorrow to awaken to the rumble of tanks and brass bands./So it goes, such are the holidays, in our ageing,/October-born state.” What astonishes me about these lines is that they catch the weariness of such an event in the years just before the system was to fall apart forever, so that the reader hears the surface tone of those holidays in a way that’s unpredictably colored by what was about to happen to that political system, almost as if the poet and not the boy can hear that the destruction of that system is part of its historical inevitability. In the poem addressed to Fate, perhaps Katkus comes closest to directly naming the oddly blessed—and difficult—historical reality of his lifetime: “And the further it goes, the worse, Fate: people/already are walking through us.” I can’t imagine a more robust evocation of the voice of Lithuania, a country poised on a scales between the past and where the present moment shrinks and expands into what’s to come.

Or consider a poem so concretely and yet ironically titled, “Хлеб, 1972,” in which the poet considers a government bread truck from the speaker’s childhood.  Midway through this short lyric, in a stunning apostrophe, the speaker actually addresses the bread itself in a way that speaks subtle volumes. “Black, blind bricks,” the poem says, “don’t give away/when the blockade will be over—/abruptly, like an odor.” One need see only as far as the title, in Russian, to encounter the complexity of being a poet today in Lithuania. But the subtleties reach far past that in a multi-voiced series of poems that appeals to more than a complex historical intelligence, but also in strophes that are delicately balanced on the scales, here classical and direct, here obliquely mythic, saturated with folklore and the kind of dark surrealism that, unlike in America, carries an urgency born of the obvious political realities.

Laurynas Katkus belongs to a new generation of Lithuanian poets, the ones who bridge the gap between Lithuania as it is today—with its former Jewish ghetto renovated with international UNESCO money and all the social problems of a new democracy—and the Lithuania that was a Soviet satellite state, with its bread trucks, October Holidays, state-controlled libraries and tanks.  The poems in Bootleg Copy are not historical records of either time, but the vibrancy of this stream of image and lyric is a music of two worlds colliding in a such a way that makes the reader a witness to it.

This is no longer a Lithuania in which the state told you how to write—and live—like the editor from the Sixties who once screamed at the poet Kornelius Platelis—when he dared to write a poem that was not ideologically and historically sound—“We all have to walk through the shit; only you insist on wearing white silk stockings!”  That world is the one that Laurynas Katkus and his peers remember being children in, reaching adolescence, and becoming adults; now, the reality is far different.  A few years ago, I might have begun this review by pointing out that we in the West can hardly be expected to understand an entire system of government that came crashing down in a matter of days – for when the Wall fell in Berlin, Soviet troops were out of Lithuania in a matter of months. The truth is, after the financial collapse of 2008 and the near destruction of our banking system, not to mention the ecological shocks that are bound to change our entire way of life, we might take more than a simple literary interest in the work of this generation.  Now we can see shades of ourselves in this work, in a way, or at least we should be able to recognize at least some of the radical, chaotic energy that suffuses and washes through these poems.

One window-light melts slowly into the air,

Like a sweet bonbon disappearing in the mouth.

Almost like sitting and waiting for the war to begin.

On the screen in the movie house.

The absurdist coding of Lithuanian history must have taught Katkus as a young man that the war can’t be won. Even as a not-so-distant memory, Soviet ideology – along with the current ideology of money from the West – what a duet!—must insist that it’s always won. On a thread in the balance, these poems hang like the Sword of Damocles.



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