Time to Transplant
In Memory of Nijole Miliauskaite
by Laima Sruoginis
The WeaverA poet's biography cannot begin to encompass the enormity of a poet's inner life—that reservoir of thought, emotion, intuition that engenders the poetry and perhaps only occasionally can be glimpsed through the surface of the routine of everyday life.
A poet's biography only skims that surface. What is publicly known about Nijole Miliauskaite's life is this: She was born in Keturvalakai, Lithuania in 1950; she earned a degree in Lithuanian Literature from Vilnius University in 1973; her first collection of poetry Ursules S. portretas (The Portrait of Ursula S.) appeared in 1985. That collection along with her later collections Namai, kuriuose negyvensim (The Home We Will Never Live in) (1988), Uzdraustas Ieiti kambarys (The Forbidden Room) (1995), and Sielos labirintas (Labyrinth of the Soul) (1999) were regarded as distinguished works of literature in Lithuania and were also popular with readers. In 1996 she was the recipient of the Writer's Union Prize, and in 2000 she received the Lithuanian National Award. Sadly, Nijole Miliauskaite died of breast cancer on March 27, 2002 at the age of 52.
And yet, the breadth of Nijole Miliauskaite's life delves deeper, beyond what her official biography can reveal. Perhaps the place to turn for Nijole's inner biography, or perhaps the labyrinth of her soul, is her own poetry. The life that Nijole laments in her poem The Weaver as short, hungry was all the more richer for its brevity and the external hardships that she managed so gracefully to transform into art. The poet begins The Weaver in the first person, looks back on her childhood in the third person, but then uses the second person to address her childhood self from an adult perspective. The reflective quality that this poem achieves through alternating point of view is typical of Nijole's work; the technique allows her to examine her self and her life from a variety of perspectives. The poems written in the late nineties foretell the poet's own impending death. Nijole was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001, and at the time of diagnosis was told that she'd probably had the disease for about ten years already. Although the poems written in the nineties are prophetic, they are never bitter, but in contrast are whimsical, playful, casting death as an inevitability, as an opportunity for spiritual transformation. One sees all of these characteristics in the following poem:
Time to TransplantNijole knew the healing properties of plants and herbs well; she relied on them. Her daily life was punctuated with gathering, drying, and preserving. Nijole had a personal relationship with her herbs, plants, vegetable garden, and fruit trees—for her they were animated beings—each one alive with its own personality, its own inner life. In this poem Nijole tries to convince the Aloe vera plant that she is doing it a favor by transplanting it to a larger vase, but the Aloe vera resists the move, clings to the sides of the vase, scratches her arms. As she is trying to convince the Aloe vera that the change will do it good, she suddenly realizes that her own soul too is clinging to the temporary walls of her body, its own prison, and that even though the prison is narrow and poor and that her soul, like the plant, never had enough water or food living within that prison, the impulse to cling to the familiar is stronger than the advantages of change. By the final stanza the poet realizes that it is not only time for the plant to be transplanted, but for her own soul as well.
In a recent letter Nijole's husband, Vytautas Bloze, wrote to me, Everywhere I look I see Nijole's unfinished work. Many of Nijole's friends feel the same way; it seems that she left this life too soon, just at the beginning of a very promising literary career, just as she was finally able to purchase a home for herself and her husband in the country and begin to renovate it. During a telephone conversation soon after Nijole's death her husband told me that even as she was dying, in her final days, she planned ahead for the time when she would be gone, took care of their affairs, purchased dried fruits and nuts to get him through the early weeks of mourning.
She also saw to it that we would meet for one last time. I traveled to Lithuania in May 2001 with my three children to visit friends and relatives. I had written a letter to Nijole and Vytautas telling them that I was coming. They'd just returned from a poetry tour in the United States when I arrived in Lithuania. Nijole called me at my great aunt's apartment in Vilnius and told me that she only had one free day before she would be hospitalized in Kaunas for radiation treatments, and that she had organized a friend to pick me up from Vilnius and drive me the two hours to Druskininkai to see her. The efficiency of her planning amazed me. She'd arranged a two hour ride on a two lane road through endless forest to her town, and had arranged her radiation schedule, so that we could spend an afternoon together, and had done all this only a day after returning from an overseas trip. When I arrived at the couple's two-room apartment in Druskininkai, Nijole had prepared a table full of delicious Indian delicacies for us. Nijole and Vytautas, more than a decade ago, had embraced Eastern teachings, mantric singing, dietary control, and an enhanced sense of transcendent mystical connection to the world made possible through their belief in Hindu teachings. Indeed, the importance of unintentional karma entering into their consciousness was so central to the couple's beliefs that they would not eat factory baked bread because they felt that they could not know whose karma had passed into the bread during its preparation. Nijole was bright and exuberant that day and told me matter of factly about her treatments, about how her own study of Reiche healing helped her, and about how art therapy was allowing her to work through still unresolved childhood issues. After lunch we drove out to Nijole and Vytautas's cottage in a nearby village. I was amazed at the amount of renovating and gardening the couple had done—he in his seventies and in poor health and she with her chemotherapy and radiation treatments that required long hospital stays. Nijole was vibrant and energetic that entire day, took endless photographs of us together, showed me her blue kitchen (blue was a calming color she explained) in which she had even managed to paint her refrigerator blue, and insisted that we drive deeper into the farmlands to see a local phenomenon, a boulder of gargantuan size in the middle of a field with many myths and stories surrounding it. Nothing about her demeanor revealed that she was as sick as she actually was. In fact, I left Druskininkai that day not even realizing that Nijole's cancer was beyond cure. I found that out only recently when I ran into the Druskininkai poet Kornelijus Platelis at the Frankfurt Book Fair. We talked a little about Nijole and he told me that from the initial diagnosis Nijole was informed that her cancer was too far gone for her to expect a recovery. Nijole knew from the beginning of her illness that she did not have much time, but she filled that time with the energy, love, and generosity that were so characteristic of her, and so familiar to all who knew her.
For Nijole life and art were inseparable. The minutiae of daily life constituted the soul of her work, or rather, her daily life took on a spirituality and vibrancy that came alive in her poetry. And Nijole's life was not an easy one; in fact, one could argue that her life had been quite hard. The sense of homelessness that prevails throughout her early poetry is in part the result of political persecution, and in part the memory of being sent to live in an orphanage as a child. But the theme of homelessness in her poetry moves beyond this limited and rather literal interpretation, expressing, on another level, her feelings of spiritual isolation and the difficulties that she faced as a sensitive individual, as a poet, as a woman, as an extremely shy and quiet person living in a loud, aggressive world that was always somehow foreign to her very being.
To read Nijole's story, one needs to return to her poetry, and to take another look at her biography. Nijole Miliauskaite was born in Keturvalakai, Lithuania in 1950. She was born to young parents in a poverty stricken alcoholic village that had been ravaged by World War Two only five years previous. Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union for a second time in 1944, and by 1950 partisan fighters was still fighting Soviet troops in the forests all over Lithuania. This conflict often spilled over into the villages, and the bodies of the dead partisans were dismembered and displayed in the village market squares. By 1950 a third of Lithuania's population had been exiled to death camps in Siberia and another third had fled to the West. The desolation and helplessness of that era is difficult to express in words. This was the climate Nijole was born into. However, she never wrote directly about her historical moment. Instead, he wrote about her life the way she lived it within her moment.
Nijole was one of many children. Her family was poor and times were hard, so eventually she was sent to live in an orphanage. The poet depicts the tragedy of those lost early years in her first collection The Portrait of Ursula S.
I know that even now you don't dareThe setting of the poem may be sad, but never for a moment does Nijole let it defeat her. In her own quiet, stubborn, persistent way she forges on with her own plans for herself. The first poem in the collection challenges the reader and asserts the poet's existence as a force to be contended with.
all of childhood's fearsIndeed, the conceit of the poem is that she knows very well how to say much more than a single word and she will say it. While she is that shy girl/who still hides/in the soul's folds she is finding her voice, and partly she finds her voice with the help of her husband, the poet Vytautas Bloze. Because of her marriage to the dissident poet Vytautas Bloze, The Portrait of Ursula S. was published when Nijole was already thirty-five, which is late for a young poet in Lithuania. While still a high-school student Nijole discovered an early volume of poetry by Vytautas Bloze. She wrote him a letter expressing her intense interest in his poetry at a time when such a correspondence was politically dangerous. He wrote back and the two continued to correspond over a number of years. Their correspondence did not cease even when Bloze became quite ill and was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital. In order to fully understand Nijole Miliauskaite's poetry, it is necessary to understand the life and work of her husband Vytautas Bloze.
Vytautas Bloze was born in 1930 in the village of Baisogala, and witnessed the annihilation of his childhood home and community; among his family he alone avoided deportation to Siberia. With the publication of his first collection Septyni Šienpjoviai (Seven Haymakers) in 1961 he began to play a major role in the revivification of modern Lithuanian poetry. Because Bloze rejected the government sanctioned Social Realism and instead used metonyms and metaphors that allowed him a more personalized connection to the world, his poetry was often severely publicly criticized. In fact, at the time his work was not well received by Soviet literary critics and by publication licensing committees.
After the events of the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, which sought to institute socialism with a human face, poets such as Bloze experienced repressions at the hands of the KGB. Once his work was damned by Soviet censors it became increasingly more difficult for Bloze to publish his work. Some of his poetry was listed in the Index Sovieticus Librorum Prohibitorum. Until 1991 the Soviet state supported writers, but since Bloze's work was banned he could not support himself as a writer. He earned a living as he could as a jazz musician and a writer of song lyrics. Much of his early work was buried, stuffed in double-bottom drawers, hidden in furniture. Many of those manuscripts were discovered by the authorities and burned.
Because his father and sister had been imprisoned by the Soviets for anti-Soviet activities, Bloze was constantly harassed by the KGB. He was arrested and interrogated by the KGB for the first time at the age of fifteen, and then was repeatedly arrested throughout the next few decades; for years he was denied the documents that would enable him to register as a resident, and was forced to rely on the hospitality of friends. In 1972 Bloze became quite ill and suffered from a long hospitalization in which he was deliberately misdiagnosed and mistreated—a common cure at the time for dissident thinkers. Nijole entered Bloze's life at precisely this darkest moment.
Throughout those difficult years the couple's correspondence matured into a genuinely felt mutual love that reached a point in which they resolved that they should either meet in person or cease to correspond. They decided to meet for the first time while Bloze was still in the Psychiatric hospital. The fact that Bloze was hospitalized and considered politically dangerous did not deter Nijole from meeting him. In a poem titled The Visit Nijole captures the tension of these early visits with her future husband:
The VisitThe contrast between the misery of waiting rooms/operating rooms crossroads/in a face with the freedom outside the hospital gates where the wind whips [her] hair/[her] white dress/makes [her] thirsty reveals the tension in Soviet Lithuania between the lives lived by citizens hounded by the KGB and those who are allowed marginal freedoms. Outside of the hospital gates she can feel physical sensation, while inside the hospital gates there is only a sleepy freeze. Soon she will enter into the world of the sleepy freeze and become a fugitive within the boundaries of her native land along with her husband.
The couple decided to marry, although Bloze was still committed at the hospital. Undaunted by the fact that Bloze is quite ill as a result of the insulin shots and other forced medications that are meted out to him during his hospital stay, and the fact that he is twenty years her senior, Nijole enters into the marriage with a sense of hope and at the same time a recognition of the gravity of Bloze's situation. In an untitled poem she describes the personal challengers of their early life together:
a crowPerhaps Nijole elected to share Bloze's life with him because she recognized in him her own suffering. In the following poem she writes those who cannot adapt/institutionalize/ infants in rows/in the asylum/recognize one another/from the eyes. Her own experience living in an orphanage prepares her for her meeting with Bloze. Through a set of symbols that only they can decipher they recognize each other.
those who cannot adaptWhen Bloze is released from the psychiatric hospital, Nijole nurses him back to health. The early years of their marriage are not peaceful however. Because he is a censored poet and is constantly under KGB surveillance, the communist government refuses the couple the necessary documentation to purchase or rent an apartment or even a dorm room, and the two are forced to stay with friends, moving from apartment to apartment, dragging shopping bags filled with manuscripts along with them. Constantly on the move, constantly tracked by the KGB, Nijole documents this epoch of their married lives in the following poem:
five years of wanderingFinally, in 1979 the couple is able to make a permanent home for themselves in the isolated town of Druskininkai two hours away from Vilnius, Lithuania's capital and cultural center. Because of the couple's self-inflicted exile from the intelligentsia of Vilnius, the KGB slowly began to relax their surveillance and the couple's lives were able to settle into routine—a routine of survival. Nijole earned a living for the couple by sewing dolls and embroidering ornate tablecloths that were sold to tourists in the town's souvenir shops. She supplemented the meager amounts of food available in the shops during the lean years of the Soviet period with vegetables and fruits grown in her garden, and by gathering berries and mushrooms to can for the winter. At this time Bloze's sight was failing, and so Nijole typed and edited his manuscripts for him. Nijole transforms the routine of day-to-day existence into the lifeblood of her poetry. The following poem captures the years she spent earning her living as a craftsperson.
The Doll MakerIn The Doll Maker each doll carries away a scrap of the poet's soul—each doll takes time away from the poet's true calling—writing. The dolls are as carefully crafted as the poems, and like her poems, they are released into an anonymous world, where the poet can only hope that they will be received into outstretched arms.
Although The Doll Maker laments the difficulty of Nijole's chosen life, many of her poems celebrate the love she and her husband feel for each other. This love is woven into the fabric of the poems in delicate ways. In this poem, while the poet is embroidering a tablecloth, a mysterious you surprises her by placing flowers and branches on the windowsill.
Eye by EyeThrough sharing an intense spiritual practice the couple grow closer together as the years pass. In Wear this Robe one feels the joy of a shared inner artistic and spiritual life:
Wear this RobeIn Lithuania Nijole Miliauskaite is important as a woman poet. Her work embraces a practicality that is familiar and important to women, and that is recognized immediately by her female readers. Coming from a culture in which the old boy network governs most publishing decisions and in which women poets are more often than not regarded as lonely isolated females trying to reach out to others through confessional poetry (the words of one Lithuanian male poet who I am too embarrassed to name) it takes a lot of courage to write about topics such as shopping for clothing in a used clothing shop or burning the potatoes while trying to write a poem. In a tiny poem tucked into a section of Labyrinths of the Soul called Housework Nijole humorously speaks to the dilemma of being a woman poet in a manner that is immediately understandable to any artistic woman who has ever tried it.
ach, not again! I cannotUsing a conversational tone, interspersed between two longer poems, this whimsical poem underscores the basic question that torments all female poets: Should I spend my time boiling the potatoes and make a nice supper for my family or should I let it all go a write a poem? On a larger plane this statement translates into: Should I follow my dream to write? Or should I be practical and pursue a more steady means of making a living? For a Lithuanian woman like Nijole, born into a generation in which women were socialized to accept that cooking and housework was the domain of women, the question of whether to boil the potatoes or write the poem is not so easily answered. Nijole's answer is to do both. She transforms the clutter of routine shopping, cleaning, gardening, preserving, and budgeting into the subject matter of her poetry. Her work shows that for the artistic woman there can be no line drawn between the labor of life and the subject matter of art. She burns the potatoes, but she publishes the poem.
If one does not believe that boiling potatoes can be the subject for a great poem, then one misses the point of Nijole Miliauskaite's work entirely. In her poetry images are pared down to their essentials, almost stark; the poems are devoid of metaphor. The poems themselves become metaphor.
For years when I'd be asked to translate Nijole's poems I'd skim past the poem At the Store. I never understood this poem until I thought about it within its cultural context and historical moment. The poem is written in 1995, a mere four years since Lithuania's reinstatement of independence. At that time the country was in dire economic straights: several of the major banks had crashed, the government was rampant with corruption, pensions and state sponsored salaries could not be paid. In short, no one had money, except for the Mafia. And yet, in Lithuania, women like to dress well, regardless of their economic status. In fact, the pressure that women put on each other to dress up is tremendous and contagious. One might have nothing to eat, but one is dressed. For many Lithuanian women the solution to this dilemma was to shop at second hand shops. However, oftentimes women intellectuals were ashamed to admit that they were clad in the cast-off clothing of Western Europe and the United States. Yet, the demand for used clothing was high, and in the early 90's hundreds of these second hand clothing shops cropped up all over Lithuania. Everyone shopped there, but no one bragged about it. The poem At the Second Hand Shop captures the tension felt by a woman, an intellectual, as observed by the poet as she herself shops.
At the Second Hand ShopNijole Miliauskaite has left this world quietly shutting the door behind her, but what she has left behind is a legacy of poetry that is remarkable for its depth, perception, spirituality. She was a quiet rebel, proving that one could chose the most extreme life for herself and transform it into a celebration of every day, and have the guts to write about it, come what may.
November 17, 2002
All poetry translations are by Laima Sruoginis