Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Nijole Miliauskaite

Nijole Miliauskaite (1950 - 2002) was one of the two most important post-World War II poets of Lithuania (the other is her husband Vytautas Bloze). She was born in the village of Keturvalakai in a country devastated by the political and military events of the previous decade: Lithuania had been occupied by Soviet forces in 1939, the Nazis in 1942, and the Soviets again in 1944; as a result of the Soviet occupations, as much as one third of the population had been executed or transported to the Siberian gulags while another large number had fled to the West, and military action between Soviet forces and partisans was still continuing at the time of her birth. As a consequence, she was born into a family deeply poverty-stricken like most Lithuanian families at the time. By the age of 10, her parents had been forced by circumstances to send her to an orphanage, where she spent several years. She was able to to attend the University of Vilnius, obtaining a degree in literature and an editorial position. It was at this time that she came into personal contact with the dissident poet Vytautas Bloze whom she later married. But he himself had his work banned by the KGB for anti-Soviet tendencies, and both of them lost their status as registered residents which meant they couldn't hold any state-provided job or subsidy, couldn't qualify for either food or housing and were forced to depend on friends for both, and were constantly spied on and harrassed by the KGB. In the early 70's, he became ill and was hospitalized in a mental institution where he was given inadequate and improper medical treatment (a common practice for known dissidents) which further damaged his health. They were married during this period; eventually, after 10 years, he was released, and she nursed him back to health, working long hours at such jobs as dollmaking and embroidering tablecloths, all the while continuing to write poetry. Finally, their lives improved in 1991 when Lithuania successfully broke away from the Soviet Union. Both she and her husband were recognized as major poets of their language, and both were able to publish their work openly and without censorship, including much work that had been surpressed during the Soviet era; she particularly was honored with a number of important awards (the Writer's Union Prize in 1996 and the Lithuanian National Award in 2000). She died in 2002 at the age of 52 of breast cancer. An excellent detailed memoir/critical assessment of her and her work by Laima Sruoginis is available here.

Although she doesn't dwell on her experiences in the orphanage, Miliauskaite does consider how the experience has affected the person she has become in this untitled poem:

all the fears of childhood
all the dreams of terror
nightmares, the loneliness of children
the sense of guilt

a face pale as the sky fades
and longing

for something to free her
rescue her

a timid girl
still hides
in the soul's secluded rooms
in weeds, mirrors, wind
old photographs

I cannot chase her away

how cold
how thin are her hands
on your palms, my love


she knows nothing
she understands nothing
but when she furrows her brow
and listens to the voices
of her clouded spirit

floods her suddenly
like heavy breathing
incomprehensible sweet sorrow
how good it is
to grieve and wait

her body aches, still grows

wants to be alone
tries on mother's clothes
chooses herself a name
searches books for a suitable biography

of unattractive face, reserved
gaping at a glass ball
at a float swilled by the sea
at a mirror
is hungry
to see

her purpose
her destiny


by the river, farther on, beyond the border
the red convent school
where you grew up, a timid frightened

a distrustful
look, two teeth
hidden in the mouth, a watchfully guarded
square of solitude
what arrogance
of the one that you once were

the sweet taste of rebellion
that first touched your palate
in the convent school

what belief
in the self
and life to come

of the one
that you once were


blushing you lower your eyes
and you have no place to put your long
twig-thin arms, you hide your breasts
beneath heavy braids, under pleats and folds

on the avenue
of old hollow linden trees
head and lap
full of yellow blossoms –
I love this summer, these
brick buildings,
a large cool poultice
for a fevered
growing spirit

I would joyfully throw off
this worn orphan's dress
made of the devil's hide, wool, the strongest
fabric of poverty
worn by many girls
before me
and that outgrown washed out dress, filled
with the kitchen's stifling air and vapors
and the alkali that eats at the hands,
with patched elbows,
the dress that cannot be worn out –
the feel of the orphanage
that does not leave you
even if you molt your skin

I hide it
at the very bottom
under old
books I have read in secret
in the stuffy darkness of the eaves
and slam shut
the heavy

(Translated by Jonas Zdanys)

She also explores the past of her family, particularly -- as in this unnamed poem -- through photographs:

a few old photographs from among those
we would look at on Sundays
together with my grandmother, taking one at a time
from the wooden box: this is my brother Praniukas,
my sister Agotėlė, there, the collective,
the threshing-machine, neighbors
the school, at the other end of the cottage (girls
with short hair, bangs to their eyebrows, boys
with shaved heads, the teacher with hair in a crown
of braids), here they scatter
flowers, there are my relatives, at some service
(most likely the feast of St. Stanislaus),
your grandfather, with a giant mustache, when we lived
in the Malijonušės' house, here's you, still small, and
me, in Marijampolė, here's the bridge across the Šešupė,
there's the servant girl, a cat in her arms, your father
(I wonder if he's still alive), a funeral, me
with a flock of geese, and here we are, with both girls
(so serious, in white holiday dresses, that's my mother
and my aunt Zoselė), and here we are, look, when we came

old-fashioned, funny clothes, copied gestures
in our faces concentration and patience
the dialect, easily recognizable, sung intonations, odd words
already so familiar that we are sorry
when they fade away
work, more important than anything else
and in the evening the fragrance of the garden
beneath the window

to gather all this, put it
safely, like a photograph, into a black box.

(Translated by Jonas Zdanys)

Exploring the past, not just of herself and her family but of her society, as well, is important as a way of coming to define what values are important, as in the following poem:

"They Tell of the Warsaw Uprising"

– I was nineteen

with flamethrowers
(it was a new weapon then)
from house
to house

I slipped
on the stairs, hurt myself – such
a sticky mass, jelly, something spilled, an open
door into the room, where
the parents slept, and here
a newborn

– did you understand then that you weren't fighting
the regular army
but civilians?

– I didn't see
anyone with a uniform
some had bands on their arms, some
had insignia

I later heard that one or another
crawled out from the piles of corpses
but there, where the flamethrowers passed,
no one was left

(he covers his face with his hands and weeps)

– I, she says, crawled out, I
one woman says
still only a girl
I went to the hospital
to visit my mother

they took us there, into that cellar (she points), people
fell and fell, I covered my head
with my hands (if only they wouldn't hit me
directly!) fell
and did not move

they hurt my shoulder, I was silent and didn't move, people
fell and fell, one on top of another
they left, I was afraid to move, suddenly
smelled smoke

I had such
long thick braids then, I pulled
a scarf from a corpse, tied it on –
I was most afraid that fire
would catch my hair

I choked
when I could no longer bear it
jumped through the fire –

– when the processing began

when it began

I couldn't sleep

(he weeps
the old

(Translated by Jonas Zdanys)

She also talks about her relationship with Bloze, as in this poem that describes a visit to him in the psychiatric hospital where he was confined:

"The Visit"

endless corridors
the convent's interior garden
worn stairs
doors, white wards

numbing cold
fetters the feet, the hands
persistently hidden
eyes full of fear
with my last ounce of strength

I recognize
the walk, the movement of the arm
beneath the trees
on the grass people are eating

it is difficult to imagine
how much suffering there is
in waiting rooms, operating rooms, crossroads
a face

a selfish healthy joy
beyond the gates
summer, heat, wind blows
my hair and white dress, I need something to drink!

endless corridors
a labyrinth
silent madness
and perhaps: suicide


so much horror
in this peaceful landscape
as if it had been
stricken by paralysis

a scream remaining
behind clenched teeth

walked outside the windows
knocked about the attic
rummaged through the books and laundry
sniffed around all the corners
with a bat's sensitive ears
fixated on the hospital's heavy breathing

a paralyzed landscape
he lies with eyes open
face twisted
given up to your will

an aimed
blow to the belly
to the empty place below the ribs

the sky descends
like a metal press
from beneath which will spurt
the grape's acidic juices.

(Translated by Jonas Zdanys)

Further, she talks about her love for him and how it affects her:

in the damp places
near the well
I search for horsetail – so my hair
would be light and shiny
as silk

I crumble oak bark
cut up the roots of sweet-flag
and burdock
gather cones of hops
birch leaves

spread out and dry chamomile
in the dark
rinse with stinging nettles

so my hair
would be long and soft
when you see me sitting by the window
combing it with a comb of bone

so my braids
would bind your feet

at night
I bathe in the quiet
forest lake
in moonlight

spread my linens on the grass

brew you something to drink
from grasses gathered on St. John's night
from roots
from the waters of the well of life
from magic

o grasses of sleep, bitterly sweet
of oblivion

(Translated by Jonas Zdanys)

There are moments, though, when their situation and life leads her into a dark view of things:

once again spring
catches us by surprise, sudden implacable

where is that
sweet smell coming from, I find it: the poplar's
green buds, opening

the joys of spring
have become the sorrows
of this spring

the Madonna's right cheek
has been cut
twice by a sword – these are not tears
that roll down her face but drops of blood

the sky is clear, only the sun
seems covered with something
shines as if through smoked glass

I see you: an ordinary woman
expecting a baby

kneeling before a dark
filled with endless tenderness

in your womb you carry degeneration
and death

(Translated by Johas Zdanys)

But at other moments she experiences a more optimistic hope:

"Even My Hands Are Restless"

even my hands are restless
laden with stiff laundry
taken from the clothesline
here in a small town

it can't be
that in your life not even you will ever
pull open the gate, enter a green yard, go to the orchard
where clean white laundry billows against a breeze
wholesome, fragrant

and where I would come to meet you
slow and quiet
as the last day of summer

(Translated by Laima Sruoginis)

The constant surveillance by the KGB even after he is released from the hospital takes its toll:

five years of wandering
through strange rooms
through hospitals
through uninhabited islands

how thin are the threads
that hold us together
with the world
how painful

the spider web
dying to break free

we run, we run
searching for shelter
for a homeland

and our every step is documented
registered and evaluated
by the one
who follows us
and punishes
with silence, mishaps, suspicion, hopelessness

(Translated by Laima Sruoginis)

A home of their own is one of the things they both wish for:

you would like to live
in the old house
with thick walls and wide windowsills
on which you would sit embracing your knees
as darkness came

you would easily grow accustomed
to the cosy ghosts
of this house
and would listen to something
forgotten playing in the moonlight

sometimes an unfamiliar barefoot
child with a long nightgown would run in
and would ask you to take her on your knees
the stairs would creak, as if someone was climbing
above the ceiling steps, a cough

those hands that sewed
the covers of these chairs
have long since gone to dust
and the colors have faded

how much warmth
and love in these patterns

and you too will someday be
only a ghost
in an old house

(Translated by Jonas Zdanys)

But she also recognizes that, even once they have secured a permanent home, change and the desire for change will remain:

"Basic Overhaul"

in a frenzy I turn the whole house upside down
from basement to attic, amazing myself, I can't stop wondering
what imp has possessed me, it's really
so ludicrous

with no prior plan, although at times
it seems all predetermined inside me
I choose what to discard, what to give away and to whom
and who could even see a use for

any of the things I find, forgotten, useless
badly made
so many that are worthless, that now have nothing to say
yet were all so significant once

I leave no closet untouched, haul out
boxes and trunks, look the bookshelves over
pull out and turn all drawers upside down, even the secret ones
even those securely locked, with the jewels and photographs inside

in the evening, dusty, exhausted, my head
wrapped in cobwebs, I look into the clear
water cupped in my hands: yes, it's me
making changes and changing, desperate for change

(Translated by Vyt Bakaitis)

In these two untitled poems to a friend's daughter, she thinks about part of what her life has cost her:


I look at you
as you sleep
in the wicker bed
where so many children
have slept before

my best friend's
little daughter

your breath is like warm waves
with the smell of fragrant
chamomile blossoms and of milk
it fills the whole house

your dream
passes on to me
so quiet, so peaceful

could there be
an angel
bending over you – with
golden transparent wings
somewhat like a dragonfly's

you grow in your sleep
too quickly, too fast

I think of nothing
I just keep looking
at a sleeping child

only a child
make peace
between me and the world

* * *

you rushed in
such a sweet little thing

one summer day
a few years ago

rushed into my life

and you're still there
holding your breath
you are watching me
as I unwrap a doll:
first the head, then
two arms, body, legs,
it says hi to you

I made it
just for you

and you
press it to
your heart
in this so
incredibly clear
sun-washed field.

magic child,
you will never be mine

(Translated by Grazina M. Slavenas)

There have been other costs, as well:

"Doll Maker"

a murky profile
in the window; lamp light glares against yellowish curtains
jerks forward, swings round
bends again

dumb shadow, stranger to all
you sit beyond midnight, sewing dolls
look, your friend, your confidant – the moon
is rising

shred by shred, pattern by pattern
day after day

each doll is always different; her expressions vary
as if alive –
hairdos, clothing, everything, yes everything
suits a social position, a class

only, does anyone need her?
will anyone deliver her
into out-stretched hands, will anyone's heart
beat faster, from joy

you seat Piero by the mirror –
sad, pale, in shiny satin
clothing, you move towards the window
to talk with the moon
to complain, to seek comfort:

– each one of them
carries away a scrap
of my soul

(Translated by Laima Sruoginis)

But there has also been gain:

small willowtree, in full bloom
in a yard winter left cluttered, at the tail
end of april, locked in by the everyday

flowering as if inspired

a cloud
drifted down from the sky
is what you are like, with your yellow tinge, soft
as the touch of a hand
that has an exotic fragrance, all covered with bees

I was blind, not having seen you for so many years
till today
you opened
yourself to me, unexpectedly, in all
your beauty

a buzzing
cloud, grown
radiant in the immensity of spring

at this moment, your soul is
that close: shockingly clear

(Translated by Vyt Bakaitis)

And not the least has been the strength to endure and to recognize what has been gained out of suffering:

"Time to Transplant"

this spring I must transplant, it's about time
my aloe, old, gnarled
aloe vera, treasured beyond words
by those who know its healing qualities
hidden deep within

what a tangle of roots, tiny ones, thick ones
so tight that there is no way
I can remove it, no matter what I do,
I grab a rock and smash the vase

and why, after all,
were you so stubborn, clinging
to the clay walls of the vase
with all your strength?
what was it you were holding onto?
don't scratch me, don't scrape my arms

don't tell me you liked
your prison, narrow and poor as it was,
where you never had enough water or food, after all
you'll get a new vase, spacious and beautiful!

my soul, don't tell me that you too
are clutching at the unstable
temporary walls
of your prison

(Translated by Laima Sruoginis)

NOTE: There is an extensive collection of Nijole Miliauskaite's poetry available online here.

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