Laura May Webb examines a new series in translation of poetry from the Baltic region, published this month by Parthian Books.
The Baltic region is the market focus of the 2018 London Book Fair and sees the translation of literature from the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into English, in many cases for the first time. And it might not be what you expect.
The Baltic states have a strong poetic tradition. Although traditionally dominated by men and their poetic vision of nationhood, the Baltics have their own Great Female Poets such as Betti Alver and Marie Under (Estonia), Vizma Belševica (Latvia) and Salomėja Nėris (Lithuania). But there is a generation of new female poets who are redefining poetry in the Baltics. In 2013, the debate over ‘female poetry’ was thrust into sharp focus when Estonian poet Jürgen Rooste described young poetry as defined by ‘bad girls and good guys’. So, who are these ‘bad girls’ and what is it that makes them ‘bad’?
Minotaurs, mermaids and pigeon shit…
Lithuanian poet Aušra Kaziliūnaitė’s volume The Moon is a Pill is an acknowledgement of freedom, a questioning of reality and a search for identity within this new-found freedom. The volume is tinged with a sense of frank discontentment, a lingering resentment of patriarchy and a rejection of the lyricism of previous ‘female poetry’. In this collection, the surreal and the everyday combine, and body, weather, landscape and seasons are inextricably linked. With a nod to the era of Soviet occupation, Kaziliūnaitė asks ‘who can stop you writing what you want?’
an old writer looks at me with disgust
and squeezes some words out through his teeth:
who can stop you from writing what you want?
we must understand that his times were those of censorship
and we now live in a greenhouse like some kind of tomatoes
What is life like a hundred years after Soviet occupation? A combination of blissful ignorance and painful self-awareness according to this collection, with reflections such as ‘someday all my friends will die’ and observations like ‘i saw another person’s dream trying you on for size’. Kaziliūnaitė is philosophical yet blunt to the point of brutality. And make no mistake, this is entirely intentional.
This brutality is an integral part of Kaziliūnaitė’s poetry, acknowledged by the author herself. Not something to be afraid or ashamed of. There is a fearlessness in contemporary women’s Baltic poetry that is uncomfortable and admirable, perhaps in equal measure, and a confidence that is demonstrated no-where better than in Latvian Madara Gruntmane’s Narcoses.
I’ll say I’ve gone blind
I’ll fall asleep not wanting to wake up
I won’t even fall asleep
I’ll smash into a million tiny pieces
so you can stick me back together
From the smell of condoms to the smell of bread, Madara Gruntmane’s Narcoses gets up close and personal, inviting the reader in to lie amongst the rumpled bed sheets and explore the blurred boundaries between love and sex, between feminine sexuality and objectification, to experience the male gaze, to both want it and reject it. It is a gritty, raw journey through the heat of the night to the cold light of day and what it means to be a child, a mother, a lover and a wife. Gruntmane tackles sex, rape, pregnancy and abortion in this collection of poetry that is defined by her status as a woman. There is a vulnerability in the coarseness that might not be apparent at first reading. Gruntmane explores what it is to be a woman, bold yet fallible, both weak and strong, fearless and afraid, needy and independent.
‘I don’t believe you love me and I don’t believe you don’t’ — Gruntmane probes the spaces in-between, leading us in to dark places. At times, Narcoses reads as a confession, at others, accusation. There is a dream-like quality and a languid sexuality, but we never quite know if the author is in control. There is a longing for connection and an air of dissatisfaction that transcends time and place. The sacred and the profane intertwine and reflect the complexity of what it is to be a woman, not a Latvian woman, not a woman in a post-soviet culture, just a woman, full-stop.
Estonian writer Eeva Park echoes these sentiments in The Rules of Bird Hunting: ‘I am who I am, shameless, deceitful, timid, and still you water me, with your morning light’.
Park’s collection sees a return to the themes of nature and womanhood. Reading through this book is a slow unravelling of ideas and experiences, a quest to find meaning in relationships, and a sense that the answers are just out of reach. More allegorical than Gruntmane’s stark honesty, Park’s collection drifts from animal metaphor to parable-style poems with an undeniable religious sentiment, but not in any traditional sense. There is a rebellious tone, bordering on accusatory, in For Starters –
God didn’t banish anyone.
He was the one who left leaving us on our own in Eden,
leaving us everything—
all of this wretched paradise.
Park then takes on the role of guide and wise-woman as she leads us through the years, addressing her fears and the changes in her body and mind. It is a refreshingly honest account of growing, not necessarily up nor old, or maybe both. The tone is slightly bitter, bordering on melancholic at times, with a sense of nostalgia and a longing for innocence lost. ‘It’s easy at the beginning’, she tells us, ‘a kid is a kid is a kid, but then she starts to realize, that she will become a woman trickling blood and milk’. There’s a painful recognition of the passing of time but an inherent wisdom that she shares — ‘Now since the well is empty I’ve started to love the rain’. Amongst the delicate warnings and veiled regrets is a true sense of empowerment. There is no apology for the fear, no hint that she would do anything differently. Park tells us who she is at the same time that she questions it herself. Park also explores what it is to be a woman, to be ‘a rope made of veins’ and to walk that rope, to stagger in the cold, to worry about money, about love, about ageing, about death.
These three Baltic poetry collections are bold and unashamed in their exploration of womanhood. They strike the difficult balance between personal and universal. They are situated within the context of their respective countries but not to the exclusion of those outside. They are challenging and unafraid and perhaps reflect the freedom of a centenary of independence. Free from state and self-censorship, these poets write with a candid honesty that distinguishes them from the tradition of previous Baltic poetry and the ‘Great Female Poets’. Stripped bare, exchanging lyricism for cynicism, these poems and their authors redefine the concept of ‘female poetry’. Does this make them ‘bad girls’? Bad, mad, sad, these authors dare to show us all the complexities of being a woman with a brutal honesty rarely found in poetic form.
The translation of these authors into English is an opportunity to recognise and appreciate what is different and what is the same, across countries, cultures and the ages. Reading these works invites solidarity and, certainly for me, admiration of these women who are brave enough to describe honestly what it means to be human, and most importantly, to be woman.
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Laura May Webb is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.