Monday, December 07, 2009


It is a spring day and I have crossed Cathedral Square in Vilnius to enter the dark and high ceilinged halls of the Lithuanian Writers’ Union. In the bar, I wait for my co-translator Ruta Suchodolskytė. I order a glass of wine and sit down to take out the script for 108 Moons which is marked by my pen with questions and quandaries. The waitress delivers my wine. I thank her, but before she has had a chance to return to the bar, the only other customer has stood up and taken her by the hand. Music is playing. They dance: the other customer and the bar-maid. They dance, a waltz and I watch and become entranced. It is the kind of entrancement I feel when reading Jurga Ivanauskaitė’s moving poems.

‘Hope for Ivanauskaitė lies in translation’, wrote Howard Jarvis not so long ago. He praises her work in the Central Europe Review but bemoans its limited audience. Since Jarvis wrote his piece in the year 2000, Jurga Ivanauskaitė’s work is being translated gradually into more and more languages. There’s not so much in English however. And that’s one of the reasons it gives Ruta and I so much pleasure in bringing you what are the first translations of Jurga Ivanauskaitė’s poems into English.

Ruta and I have collaborated over the last five years to create what the writer Frank Sewell has called, when referring to the process of translation, ‘cover versions’ of the originals. When it came to the provocative and popular Lithuanian writer Jurga Ivanauskaitė literal translation simply did not work. To capture the essence and living voice of the originals was a difficult task. What we were most interested in conveying was the strong personality behind the poems, their longing and humour, the natural facility for image and metaphor within them, and the searching and brazen truthfulness of the work.

Of course, an old Indo-European language like Lithuanian did not make it easy. A highly inflected Baltic language with 12 written vowels, which was banned in education and publishing in 1864 following the January Uprising, it has, Ruta told me, a shifting syntax. This she explained to me during Poetry Spring in Vilnius in 2009 when our many emails about Jurga’s work were temporarily rested while we talked about her work and its journey into English. In fact, these discussions were essential in gaining access to the poems, to gain their permission to be conveyed into another language. During the process I often thought about Nabokov’s description of how the transition from one language to another is much like the slow journey at night from one village to the next with only a candle for illumination.

Lithuanian also has a free, mobile stress, and is characterized by pitch accent which gives prominence to a syllable within a word, the placement of which can give different meanings to otherwise similar words. But these challenges also became the pleasures of the text. Indeed, many of Ivanauskaitė’s own challenges were the source of her inspiration, like the top-hatted figure of ‘pain’ who stalks her in a poem of the same name. Born into a repressive regime in the old Soveit Union in 1961, Jurga studied at the Vilnius Institute of Arts before publishing her first book at the age of 24.

Dancing in the Desert, Jurga’s first book of poetry, appeared much later in 2003. She had already been to Tibet and written novels and non-fiction on the country, its people and the Buddhism she became so immersed in. But her spiritual search was not a simple acceptance of a new set of religious rules. While she was thoroughly knowledgeable and engaged in a new way of knowing the world, a new way of being, she struggled with the clash of Western hang-ups and Eastern aspirations. Much of Dancing in the Desert is marked by the transformative process of reflection and rigorous self-inspection which results in an epigrammatic, pithy and piercing poetry.

What I feel when I read her work is the presence of a compassionate and longing voice, one which has a seductive intimacy to it, a voice which will tell the hard truths, but which has an ironic twist to it also. Jurga’s journey can be both joyous and lonely. Mount Kailash, karma, yogi, stupa, and other Buddhist terms abound, but there is nothing notional or purely existential about such allusions. Jurga’s second and final book of poetry Ode to Joy was published on the day of her funeral in February, 2007. In it, she faces her own mortality with a steadfast stare and a brave wit and irony, ‘I fall into NOWHERE when / I desire sweetly to disappear’. There’s a noticeable lack of self-pity and when she does risk sentimentality it is passionate and convincing, ‘it would be so wonderful / to spit into the face of disease / and die from love’. Her work engages with worldly temptation and highlights the contrast between the physical world of desire and a spiritual world which is less pure than she thought it might have been. There are allusions too to the illness which would eventually take her in 2007, ‘the doctor sinks his fingers / into the winds of my body / counts the remaining days’.

The poems in 108 Moons are glimpses into something essential about our existence. Sometimes the lyrics are confessional, sometimes surreal, sometimes realistic as in the poem ‘The smoke of incense’ where Jurga imagines herself as a child:

on a white side-street
I find comfort
in a small piece of iron

But these short lyrics are also turned by Jurga into spells, riddles, and curses. She is a shape-shifting devotee of silence, throwing ‘chrysanthemums into the fire’ and facing her temptations with a tough-minded honesty. Her spiritual journey is charged with the erotic and in one poem she admits she is obsessed with desire. We decided to call the book 108 Moons after one poem where the 108 moons stiffen into a rosary. 108 is also a very important number for Buddhists and Hindus. In fact it’s sacred number for them and a significant one for others too. On a mala, or set of mantra counting beads, there are generally 108 beads. Hindu deities have 108 names. Shiva Nataraja dances his cosmic dance in 108 poses. It’s the number of sins in Tibetan Buddhism. Hindu Kshatriya Dhangars have 108 clans. The lineage of these clans is from solar and lunar dynasties. Some people also like to point out that the diameter of the Sun is nearly 108 times the diameter of the Earth, the distance from the Sun to the Earth is nearly 108 times the diameter of the Sun, and the average distance of the Moon from the Earth is nearly 108 times the diameter of the Moon.
Trust me, I could go on.

Instead let us leave you with an image of the mighty fallen,

Once fallen everyone
will swarm
with ruthless smiles
between the propeller blades

It’s an image that stays with me in the same way the image of the dancing bar-maid at the Writers’ Union stays with me turning, revolving and transforming itself into something else.

108 Moons, The Selected Poems of Jurga Ivanauskaitė, is translated from the Lithuanian by Paul Perry and Ruta Suchodolskytė and published later this year by The Workshop Press,

For orders or queries contact Paul Perry at
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