In 2013 the world lost a great poet: Marcelijus Martinaitis. His writing contained a rare concoction of laugh-out-loud humor, and agonizing poignancy. There are few poets who can hold those two opposites together long enough and close enough to capture them in a poem. It makes perfect sense that Martinaitis is a translator into Lithuanian of Chilean Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, another poet who could fuse those opposites.
Martinaitis authored at least fifteen collections of poetry. He also played a leading role in Lithuania’s movement for independence from the Soviet bloc, including getting elected to the Supreme Soviet to advocate for his nation’s freedom. His poems about his Lithuanian version of Everyman, Kukitis, were recited and sung during the Sajudis movement that finally gained independence for Lithuania in 1991, after 46 years of Soviet occupation. Those poems were published in the book The Ballads of Kukitis, issued by Arc Publications, and beautifully translated by writer and poet Laima Vince. And Lithuanian is no stroll in the park to translate—it’s an old-school language with more cases and declensions than ancient Greek.
It was after the fall of the pro-Soviet regime in Lithuania that Martinaitis’ subtlety as a poet emerged even more strongly. In his book K.B. The Suspect, with Laima Vince doing the translation honors again, and published by White Pine Press, Martinaitis explores the complex terrain of a country liberated from occupation but still reeling from decades of secret police repression. The Vilnius that the character of K.B. inhabits is a city where ghosts of former dukes coexist with hoboes who sort through dumpsters at night, scavengers whom Martinaitis called “the trash angels.”
Here’s a poem from K.B. The Suspect:
K.B.: About the Hidden Mirror
by Marcelijus Martinaitis
I was permitted inside the room of the hidden mirror.
Time flew backwards at an alarming rate,
and afterwards forwards.
I saw reflected in the mirror images
a few days old, months old, years old.
They materialized before me
then crumbled into dust and decay.
I myself materialized again and again
in ways I hadn’t been for a long time.
Time was falling apart.
I could watch how I was disappearing:
an infant, a teenager, a young man,
a soldier in uniform, a lover in a car
huddled against a woman,
walking a dog, surrounded by well-wishers,
and almost the way I am now, like the day before yesterday—
none of it coherent,
an endless chain of losing myself.
I met with the present—
I reunited with my true reflection,
the one that can’t see itself.
(translation copyright © 2004 by Laima Vince)
I love that final irony at the end! The speaker of the poem can view right before him every moment of his life from the beginning, but the one moment he can’t pierce is the present. Irony is the dark bread of life in Eastern Europe, so it’s no accident that some of the masters of that mode have sprouted there, from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Milan Kundera to Wislawa Szymborska.
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