Jennifer Lee Tsai reviews Judita Vaičiūnaitė

Vagabond Sun: Selected Poems – translated by Rimas Uzgiris, published by Shearsman (2018)

Reading Vagabond Sun: Selected Poems (Shearsman) by Judita Vaičiūnaitė (1937-2001) is a deeply immersive experience, offering a fascinating and rich insight into the work of a major Lithuanian female poet of the post-WWII period. These are vivid, intense and memorable poems which explore a range of aesthetic concerns, still hugely relevant to the contemporary world: cultural identity, history, mythology, the city and female experience. Vaičiūnaitė was born in Kaunas during Lithuania’s fleeting interlude of independence, a period which was marked at both ends by the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Later, she moved to Vilnius with her family after the Second World War and spent the last decade of her life in the newly independent Republic of Lithuania. This historical backdrop provides a hugely significant context through which to view her poetry; much of her work, like those of her contemporaries such as Tomas Venclova, implicitly suggests a resistance to Soviet ideology and rule. Many of her poems are homages to the city and deal with Vilnius’s complex history as a multicultural centre; at various points it was home to various ethnicities including Polish, Russian, Jewish and Belarussian inhabitants. A poem from the cycle ‘Castle’ proudly celebrates the ‘many tongues’ of the city and eyes the future with optimism:

                Silversmiths, salt-sellers and cobblers,
                          may you live here in concord.
        All homeless wanderers of goodwill –
                      may you build this Vilnius.

Elsewhere, ‘Vilnius. Archaeology’ dramatizes the search for identity and the source of the speaker’s origins. There is a simultaneous acknowledgement of the city’s ‘sombre past’ and the enactment of an excavation for ‘our roots’, only to find them, ‘full of pain’:

                   We dug up a miserable Troy,
                          an impoverished, little Pompeii,
                   the city’s sunken, sacred horizons
                         – limestone grown ulcerous

As well as writing terse, compact, lyrical poems, this selection of Vaičiūnaitė’s work includes four complete sequences where the author explores themes of history and mythology in depth. Notable among these are a cycle of poems entitled ‘Canon for Barbora Radvilaite’ where she utilises the dramatic monologue in a manner reminiscent of Cavafy to write about a historical, tragic love story. Barbora Radvilaite was Queen of Poland and a Grand Duchess of Lithuania in the 16th century. She was purported to be a great beauty and was already a widow when she married, in secret, Sigismund II Augustus, the Jagiellon dynasty’s last male monarch which caused a scandal. Barbora died young tragically and was accused of witchcraft and promiscuity by her contemporaries. The cycle of poems consists of seven monologues offering different perspectives on this historical story. Barbora’s voice is one of fierce defiance, rejecting the limitations of life and death, to rise again, finding solace in her city:

                Like parchment that doesn’t yellow, I will not age.
                Love will be my power of endurance, like lines for the poet.
                I was born here.
                           I became the renaissance of Vilnius.
                From here I take my charm, the allure this place maintains.

                Once dead, I returned. My coffin was dark and tight…
                Once dead, I returned – believing in my own sky

There is a remarkable sequence of poems which utilises marginalised female voices from Greek mythology. A cycle entitled ‘Four Portraits’ uses dramatic monologues from the perspective of four women from Homer’s Odyssey: Circe, Calypso, Nausicäa and Penelope. Here is the tragic voice of Calypso expressing her love for Odysseus and subsequent anger at his abandonment and rejection:

                   Not with the brightness of their cheeks,
                                nor with the luxuriance of their hair,
                                nor in height did any equal me…
                   But the gods are jealous of my happiness.
                                I fear their wrath. I am building a boat.
                                I bring you axe and auger.

I was particularly struck by Vaičiūnaitė’s focus on female experience, her attention to themes of love, sexuality, the experiences of being a single mother and the intense expression of female desire. There are many startling, imagistic poems, as seen, for example in ‘The Red Dress’:

                     A red dress throbs on a rope
                               like a torch left behind.
                     Moaning, clawing pines
                               assault the hotel window.
                     Someone washed the dress at dawn.
                               Someone wrung it out.
                     the radiance. The weather –
                               mindlessly sunny, humid, and sharp.
                     A red dress throbs on a rope –
                               yet still, it will break free.

Here, Vaičiūnaitė asserts the primacy of female sexuality as an illuminating force that cannot be extinguished and will, despite attempts to restrict or subdue it, achieve liberation. The image of the ‘red dress’ is juxtaposed with odd contrasts, ‘the weather’, the ‘pines’ at ‘the hotel window’; her work often suggests a struggle with the constraints of a patriarchal world.

Images of the sun abound in this selection of Vaičiūnaitė’s work, endowing it with a vital, arresting quality. As well as the title poem of the collection, there are references to ‘walls’, ‘which glow with sunlight/trying to tell us something, full of lucid life’ (‘from To the Only City’), ‘the sun’ which ‘turns like the first mother’s primordial millstones’ (‘Juodkrante’), ‘the sun rolls over an empty green plain/to meet with catastrophe’ (Pool Hall’), ‘the pale, sleepy sun’ (‘Blossoming Pear’), ‘the frothing sun’, ‘from the cycle Castle’. In ‘The Street Ship’, the speaker looks back at an ephemeral love affair, ‘the crumbling façade/drifts into darkness, coming apart, sails chafed/by the sun’s remains’. In the opening poem, ‘Every Day’, the speaker of the poem refers to the ‘strength’ needed to ‘emerge from these four walls/so that my strophes, poured from sun, thunder and nerves, /might, like bowls, collect the yellow summer sky’. She exclaims that, ‘I’m waiting for a miracle, /vainly trying to forget/yesterday and myself. /All that’s left is the mustard sun’. We get the sense of an urgent need to speak, of the narrator’s desire to break out of an imposed interiority and to align with the vitality of the universe.      

A significant feature of Vaičiūnaitė’s work is her shifting of the traditional lyric form, what her translator Rimas Uzgiris labels as ‘the Lithuanian neo-romantic tradition’ which valorises nature and rural life towards something more spiritual, nuanced and modern. This can be clearly seen in the final poem of the collection, ‘Wagon’, which offers a glimpse of transcendent possibility amidst the stark and often, bleak realities of life:

                  The railroad tracks will emerge
                                 from last century’s red brick
                                 station, overgrown with ivy.
                  The train window will frame a solitary birch,
                                 then marshes, ravines…
                                 And in the narrow, swaying wagon,
                  checking tickets, once again, the conductor
                                 will stop in front of you,
                                 and you will be short a few measly cents
                  for happiness,
                                 and you will stand alone, pushing the walls
                                 with your palms, already tracked by the years…
                  Still, while the bolt hasn’t yet struck,
                                you will travel on with your standing ticket
                                      and feel a wild, divine weight, a charge –
                 left with the poor,
                                you will yearn for a ray of light
                                like the spark of childhood, hot and true.

This selection of Vaičiūnaitė’s work begins with poems from her first collection, Spring Watercolours, published in 1960 to her last, in 2000. Throughout, she explores a wide range of references from Classical and Lithuanian mythology, modern jazz, historical figures, contemporary city dwellers. Her work conveys a modern, unsentimental and distinctively feminist perspective on life, that of a modern, educated woman living in the city. The poems also encapsulate the experiences of being a single mother, a flaneuse, a bohemian struggling to find freedom and to define herself in a patriarchal world. The translations undertaken by the poet, critic and editor, Rimas Uzgiris, are skilful, sensitive and alert to the subtle nuances and musicality of Vaičiūnaitė’s work. One of the most renowned Lithuanian poets of the twentieth century, Vaičiūnaitė is still largely unknown outside of Lithuania; this collection, suffused with highly lyrical, tender and melancholic poems, will hopefully bring her work to the wider transnational audience that it deserves.

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