/ 2 October 2018

I Am Crumbled Walls

The Heterogeneous Borderline Between Word and Image

Aušra Kaziliūnaitė is a poet whose biography contains poetry writing, human rights activism, as well as studies in philosophy and theory of film (Kaziliūnaitė is a doctoral student at the philosophy department at Vilnius University) – all being activities of equal weight and importance to the specific nature of her poetic language. Four books (The First Lithuanian Book, 2007; 20% Concentration Camp, 2009; The Moon is a Tablet, 2014; I Am Crumbled Walls, 2016) to her name, the author’s texts are characteristically visual (complex, manifold metaphor is the principal technique) and cinematographic. Poems often give the impression of small stories: A bigger picture is shown at the beginning, then an intrigue is created, while the resolution records a transformation.

Kaziliūnaitė’s poetic world view is based on doubting the surface and the matter-of-course, typical to philosophic thought. Despite the clear and precise forms of things and suggestive landscapes, there’s a persistent foreboding that something else is lurking inside every object. The point of writing is to look and show what’s underneath the skin, underneath the everyday life, underneath the surface layer. It’s precisely the understanding of otherness, foreignness, abjection that offers the chance to comprehend the world and oneself. This kind of view is closely related to feminist ideas, critique of anthropocentrism that are important to the poet – in Kaziliūnaitė’s poetry, the subject is not omniscient and unbroken; rather, it’s dissolved, its outlines are changing. The difference between innerness and outerness is also unclear – subjects are often transferred to the inside of things or unfamiliar bodies, while the latter transform, obtaining still clearer signs of subjectivity and intention.

The speaker of the poems is just as undefined and manifold. Despite focusing on social topics, the poet’s ‘self’ doesn’t have a defined (male, female, left, virtuous, etc.) identity. While identification with various objects and subjects is favoured (‘I am a window I am an unwashed glass / through which an old gaze that’s seen all things in its life / looks attentively at summer rain’, p. 15), the speaker is not a prophet or a medium retransmitting news carried by a higher instance. This ‘voice’ (or, perhaps, considering the notably highlighted visual aspect, the term ‘eye’ would be more accurate?) is similar to a scientist engaged in research.

Every aforementioned aspect is important in Kaziliūnaitė’s fourth poetry book I Am Crumbled Walls, written in collaboration with photographer Laima Stasiulionytė (the design of the book was made by Anton Zolotenkov). The interaction between language and visuals is particularly highlighted in the collection – Sasiulionytė’s black-and-white pictures become a partner to the dialogue of Kaziliūnaitė’s poems. The nature of this relationship is precisely depicted by the image of the crumbled walls as used in the title – the borderline between the text and the image remains intact, but its outlines crumble and fade.

The connection between the photographs and the poems is multifaceted. Kaziliūnaitė’s precise and particularly visual metaphors as well as the clearly stressed constructive aspect of the texts present a contrast with the abstractionism of the photographs. What determines the latter is, firstly, that the full object is never shown – only a fragment fits into the frame, while the larger part of it stays behind. Images are seen through this layer of fog, with tree branches, human body parts or objects deprived of their true shapes, or geometric blueprints of fragments of city or landscapes sticking out of the fog, turning into abstract, pure imagery, the meaning of which must be decided by the observer himself.

The poems and a part of the photographs are ‘clasped’ together through some thematic aspect. For instance, the end of the poem ‘Festive Makeup’ (p. 16) states ‘I saw emptied villages, cut down forests / dammed rivers and churches of small towns // In the mirror’, and it’s accompanied by a photograph with a dark mirror for a central figure. The poem ‘The Feed of Sadness’ (p. 101) declares – ‘I feed the fall with myself’, and the text is illustrated with a picture where the column supporting a bridge is marked by the writing that says ‘fall’. This kind of illustrative interconnection where visual text is secondary to verbal text is not a bad thing per se, but against the context of the book it seems too predictable, too conventional. The connections where the figurativeness of the poems do not echo the objects depicted in the pictures are much more successful. As a result, the reader has more freedom to identify, by himself, the connection between the text and the image, or the lack of it, for it can generate meaning just as efficiently.

The complex relationship between word and image, subject and its environment is also the axis of meaning of the most poems. Kaziliūnaitė often eliminates the contradictions by showing that oppositions are merely ostensible, they don’t define anything, nor do they establish the essence. For example, in the poem ‘Stuffed Animal’ (p. 67), the subject is being persecuted by a stuffed bird, which only turns into a real bird when it’s reflected in a mirror, while ‘Foreign Planet’ (p. 82) tells the science-fiction-like story of a scientist landed on an unknown planet to collect specimens. It seems that an unfamiliar landscape is recorded by the eye of a hidden camera, but the perspective is slowly shifting, and a regular room with a banal view from the window comes into sight. Next to it is Stasiulionytė’s photograph: sparse grass, a stretch of sand, naked hands with the palms up looming on the left side, as if there was a man lying on the lawn. But we can’t see the body. Which of these images is ‘the real one’ and which is illusory, which illustrates, explains, expands the other? Or perhaps the line between reality and fantasy, primary and secondary objects doesn’t exist? These are the questions that I Am Crumbled Walls does not answer, which, by all means, is a sign of a fine work.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Kotryna Garanašvili.