An article from the Spring 2015 issue of Sacred Heart Magazine. Please turn to pages 27-28 after clicking here.
- Manchester Community College. April 14, 2016
- Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival, Baltimore, Maryland: Poetry Evening. July 2, 2016
- Wallingford Public Library, Wallingford, Connecticut. “Red Stones and The Relationship of Paintings and Poems.” July 14, 2016
- Sacred Heart University, November 10, 2016. “Worlds Imagined: Co-relations Between Art and Poetry.” Exhibition Opening, in conjunction with Literary Spotlight. University Art Gallery.
- Sacred Heart University, February 1, 2017, 4 p.m. University Art Gallery . Book Launch: St. Brigid’s Well.
- Watermark, Bridgeport. March 7, 2017, 3 p.m. “St. Brigid’s Well and the Poetry of Place.”
- New Britain Museum of American Art, March 9, 2017, 5:30 p.m. “Red Stones and The Relationship Between Poetry and Painting.”
- Yale University. Pierson College Common Room. June 2, 2017, 9:30 p.m.
- Watermark, Bridgeport. Three White Horses. September 26, 2017. 4 p.m.
- Wallingford Public Library, Wallingford, Connecticut. “Three White Horses: How Time Stands Still in Lyric Poetry.” April 12, 2018. 7 p.m.
RECENT BOOK REVIEWS
For the online review of Three White Horses published in World Literature Today, please click here
Through the Long Darkness in Jonas Zdanys’s Three White Horses
Jonas Zdanys is a master lyricist. The bilingual poet (English and Lithuanian) displays his versatile ability with a variety of poetic styles in several recent collections. In Red Stones (2016), in collaboration with Steven Schroeder’s painting, Zdanys features consistently metered, twelve-lined poetry. He skillfully accomplishes this form without violating language or context. His prose-poem collection, The Kingfisher’s Reign (2012), exhibits a rare cooperation with verse and scene. They are some of the finest prose poems of which I am aware. Thin Light of Winter (2009) presents a richly satisfying mediation, partly in tribute to his Lithuanian family in the former Soviet Union. St Brigid’s Well (2017) is one long lyrical poem in which he explores the lyric and place. It is an uncommon joy to find a poet so adept at a variety of poetic forms and linguistic styles, especially while maintaining such an intense, interesting, and beautifully haunted lyricism.
In Three White Horses: Still Lifes (Lamar University Press, 2017), Zdanys once again exudes a magnificent display of language, probing the psychology of winter. This collection moves darkly toward us in a free-form, dreamlike reflection, a liminal sensation occurring in the deep of night. In this “allegory of winter,” a lyricism flows from speaker to reader in a spellbinding entrapment. For example: “I push against the cold damp walls / of this place, outlined by no rules and / modulating this hard pursuit, and time seeps / away slowly to a desolate mark” (“The counterpoint to grace leads to a cave”). The awareness of winter intensifies the longing for light. With this, the book reflects the still-life form while simultaneously embodying an ethereal, soul-enthralling, mystical longing. We are moved almost languishingly through the enduring darkness of night, within a shadowed longing for light. A numbing existence, ironically, vivifies fleshly, corporeal, human desire.
Having read a number of his English works, some Lithuanian translations, and having heard him read from his work, I am persuaded that his ability of language—his precision, his power—is a paradox. He masters the use of language, not because he seeks dominion over it. This poet doesn’t control language or use it (as some amateurish, dramatic grab for attention); rather, he listens, feels, senses the living art that even common language makes possible. He allows language to form his very soul, illuminate his vision. I’m not exactly sure what Pound meant by the “luminous detail,” but I sense that Zdanys is as close to consistently revealing luminosity as anyone. His work glows without gaudiness. His acute sense of detail shimmers in his phrasing.
An enthralling bonus, in Three White Horses, the remarkable artistic talent of Chinese artist Sou Vai Keng accents his words. Her abstract ink paintings, like vivid clouds, softly hover close to a remembered summer dusk. They invoke a mysterious dark glow of a winter sunrise. The collaborative effect is real. The imagined, symbolized “allegory of winter” becomes pronounced in this collaboration.
Considering the conceptual bases that has made still-life painting a viable artistic endeavor no doubt helps us identify with the speaking voice in this book. An innovative approach to Memento Mori and Vanitas seems to shadow the speaker’s courageous attempts for clarification throughout the book:
These memories come and go
more often now and time takes me
in the darkness by surprise.
I do not want the silences of either.
I watch this winter night curl up
in smoke as God’s mystery covers
the far corners of the earth
like snow that falls for a hundred
years on every living thing.
I see your face in each falling seed,
breath with your breath in the frozen glass.
In the white stillness of this room,
in the final minutes of a sudden dream,
I bear the name that I’ve been given.
(“I remembered white butterflies”)
Zdanys captures the chaos of light, the mysterious affinity with darkness, and in profound cooperation with language, he interchanges these feelings of chaos, mystery, longing, and contentment—bringing the horses to life, even as winter ever-so-slowly dies. As winter grudgingly gives way to the distant hope of renewed light, we realize, perhaps tragically, perhaps futilely, that death is a process in which psychological or even spiritual awareness increases as the possibility of renewal in fact fades. Each renewal of life moves one closer to the greater, lasting dark—a separation from the body. Reflecting this, the human voice, with its uncertain restraints, becomes even more pronounced. The image of white horses invokes a variety of mythological possibilities, which, I believe, readers are free to associate from a variety of traditions within various cultural-historical contexts.
The Three Horses allegory provides a symbolic backdrop for human longing mixed with the inevitable: “The clock strikes midnight / . . . It had snowed all day, the sky fading / to brittle knots / . . . And the sky turned dark as a wilted rose, / black and brittle at the root. / And the shadows leaked unfocused / at the center and the edge” (“The clock strikes midnight”). It is too simplistic to say the speaker moves from dark night to the dawning light of morning. That movement is implicit, though the struggle occurring in the darkness—the wonderful, valiant, intimidating darkness—anticipates coming light. But the anticipation is wrought with struggle, and its outcome is uncertain. The poet’s writing is an act of faith in the best sense of the humanistic/Catholic (universal or even religious) tradition.
Too often, contemporary readers (especially Americans), schooled to eagerly anticipate the light, to celebrate the arrival of daylight, cheapen, diminish, or otherwise fail to appreciate the darkness. Three White Horses serves as an unhurried guide through the long darkness—not fighting but embracing its necessary tenure. This is yet another significant contribution to the literature that affirms humanity’s most vital quest, realized not by denial but by honest, artistic confrontation. — Ken Hada, East Central University
An article about the launch of St. Brigid’s Well on February 1, 2017, in The Spectrum at Sacred Heart University. Click here.
There is description here, but there is also action — not just describing a place as an outside observer but of making a place by being in it. Describing, founding, representing, exploring, containing — and defying containment as the dance of poetry is inclined to do — defines this remarkable poem. — Steven Schroeder
The full review as published in Big Muddy, A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley, from Southeast Missouri State University Press:
Zdanys, Jonas and Steven Shroeder. Red Stones. Lamar University Press, 2016. Paperback. 104 pp., $15.00
This collaborative effort takes readers to the heart of the purpose of art. Various definitions, various demands of art have their moments in history, with varying positive effect while, no doubt, offending some. Red Stones, however, with its layered aesthetics, reminds us that art first of all has something to do with a combination of beauty and insight beyond the immediate subject. The visual power of the collection confronts us with the simple, timeless truth that we are inclined to investigate that to which we are attracted, and moments of insight are often most profound when the senses are alleviated from the momentary drabness that broods all around us. Red Stones is a captivating combination of visual art and lyrical poetry, artistically arranged by Regina Schroeder to offer a profound aesthetic experience. I recommend it to any reader, and even jaded respondents whose definition of art demands something more avant-garde, something more ironic or abstract, obtuse or conflicted, will concede the aesthetic value of the collection is not compromised at all. Initially inspired by Andrew Wyeth’s tempera McVey’s Barn (1948), the collaboration consists of 60 lyrical poems, accented with fourteen paintings, representing various media, including watercolor, acrylic, ink, and oil on a variety of canvas.
The poetry is masterfully controlled; each poem is constructed with twelve lines, most with systematically consistent use of syllables per line. Though this may sound prescribed and deflating, just the opposite effect awaits the reader. Clearly Zdanys is a master at metric control, and his structured lines do not intrude at all on meaning. Rather, his ability to make the line flow smoothly, aphoristically, is enhanced by the structure. Anyone who has ever tried to write in a structured, rhythmic manner knows this challenge, and Zdanys’ skill is pronounced. More than anything, what elevates each poem from the potential threat of an arbitrarily imposed, dulling structure are the moments of epiphany that each poem contains. To put it more precisely as Schroeder explains in the afterword: “the poems in this collection … don’t contain epiphanic moments so much as they are such moments” (83). The epiphanic style of each poem illuminates the tenor of the individual poems as well as connecting a poem to preceding poems and anticipating those that follow. Red Stones functions something like the dawning of day—light arises gradually and intensifies and moves across the sky (even as it warms and illuminates us beneath its effect), but it leads surely toward sunset.
Consider the poem which contains the title phrase “red stones”: “Forgive me. I dreamed your death, the paling of red stones” (64 line 12). This paling sensation, the decoloring through time suggests the ultimate archetypal struggle. The lyric, as managed by Zdanys, is not shallow or escapist, but rather the poet uses his systematic control of rhythmed lines to establish the archetype, offering order to a chaos none of us can fully name, one none can escape. Some other examples of lines of epiphany:
* “you will never sleep, wrapped in red blankets, / will stammer on all fours with unwelcome ghosts. / Outside, eyes closed, the future taps it stick” (50 line 12).
* “our last necessities whispered / on our search for eternity’s / blue dream paling in a flat land” (5 lines10-12).
* “my longing for eternity / and the impermanence of birds” (27 lines 11-12).
* “the brittle scent of air as I fell” (37 line 12).
* “I will stay the quick dust I was made to be” (62 line 12).
These are but a handful of his lines. Readers will enjoy finding their own place within the contexts that hold these evocative lines. More profoundly, readers will feel the gentle tug of eternity as they move from poem to poem, going into certain uncertainty.
The visual art, then, by Schroeder (and designed by Regina Schroeder) complements this lyrical order. While the poet’s lines are structured, seemingly, in a traditional pre-modern organization, Schroeder’s art is less predictable in form. Some of it is a blurry combination, reminiscent of post-impressionism, never quite standard, always leading us away from the moment, even as we are attracted to it for reasons we may not always realize. Light is the concern for both Zdanys and Schroeder, and in the case of this collaboration, it seems the paintings offer a visual glimpse of the eternal. Something beyond words and grand moments makes color possible, the everlasting idea that inspires, maybe even requires, human response, signified primarily in words. One might conclude that Schroeder’s painting represents the timeless, the infinite, while the structuring of the poet’s words indicates the human need to organize, to make sense, to be structured, admitting finitude while always being aware that the finite is not everything. In this regard, the paintings offer a brilliant timeless context from which the poems emerge. This collaboration does not offer a one-to-one ratio of painting to poem; the narrative as a whole is not numerically consistent—only fourteen paintings sprinkled unevenly throughout the sixty poems. I imagine looking up into a dark night where the stars are scattered, unevenly distributed, separated by time and distance and thus brightness (to the human observer). The paintings do not illustrate the poems of course. Nor do they necessarily interpret them, or even comment upon them. Rather, they establish the universe wherein human speech becomes possible. Light, color, language, all mingling, reacting in an eternal dance. For our part, we can only touch what we can touch, imagine what we can imagine, but that is the ironic glory of finite beings reaching beyond the self toward infinite light.
The poetry suggests that individual anxiety is subsumed within the greater archetype, a reality of existence that shapes us even as it so often eludes us. Everything, finally, is about death—that coming reality is light whose shadow already extends earthward. In the meantime, light colors us and the lyrics join the paintings to hold death, for the moment, in the distanced shadows. This limited human response is not simply to pretend in delusion something that will never be, but it provides the surprise of honest, aching celebration of significant moments, articulated so successfully in Zdanys’ statements of epiphany. Taken together, designed so skillfully by Regina Schroeder, the work is brilliant, offering the best of lyricism, the fullest potential of aesthetics. Red Stones is stunning. —Ken Hada
“Red Stones’s collaborative effort sees Jonas Zdanys’s precision of language in these twelve-line lyric poems contrasting with the textural abstractions of Steven Schroeder’s paintings. Zdanys, a celebrated bilingual poet who writes in as well as translates from the Lithuanian, navigates from the physical to the philosophical in these short poems that leave the reader always hungry for the next one to begin.” –World Literature Today, Nota Benes, September 2016
“This synchronistic collaboration by poet Jonas Zdanys with poet and painter Steven Schroeder and printer and designer Regina Schroeder is a triumph. The poems in Red Stones are as apparently effortless as they are highly achieved, especially with such lines and images as those of an angel whose footprints resemble porcelain. Rilke would not have only appreciated that, but we can imagine him smiling, serenely. Steven Schroeder’s watercolors bring quite an astonishing and uncanny resonance to the poems themselves. Regina Schroeder’s contribution of aesthetic design is also very apparent, as well as there being an ostensible harmony of these three artists accomplishing a highly desirable result of a book well wrought, lavishly illustrated, and beautifully rendered. Few books of contemporary poetry are graced with such beneficence. This is one of them.”
— Wally Swist, author of Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love (Southern Illinois University Press, 2012) and Invocation (Lamar University Literary Press, 2015). The original link is here.
“Cormorants…is a beautifully written, incantatory and meditative evocation of life, both of the human and natural worlds, and of light, darkness, time, infinity and transcendence. It is seamlessly unified, and “hymnal” in the spareness and musicality of its language. A masterful work, indeed. The beauty of the writing is perfectly complemented by the excellence and sensitivity of Regina Schroeder’s vision and handiwork.”
–Larry D. Thomas, 2008 Texas Poet Laureate
The Kingfisher’s Reign (Chicago: Virtual Artists Collective 2012)
“The predominant tone of his work is elegiac. He yearns…for an evasive permanency. Anguish for communion permeates much of the poetry – the longing for recovery, the allure of distant memory, the echoes and resonances of an earlier time. The poems reveal a searching intelligence, melancholy, aching for a new integrity. They are as much love poems as nature poems, reminiscent of the best of Rainer Maria Rilke and Peter Levi, sometimes playful, sometimes fantastical, sometimes the stuff of dreams. Zdanys’ poems drink generously from the wells of Impressionism and the luminous density of philosophy. These are difficult poems – evocative, tantalizing, embedded in their own mystery. And they invite us into a world of shifting memory and Proustian wonder. Tough. But worth it.”
–Michael Higgins, Canadaeast.com/Telegraph-Journal
“The Surprise We Expect: A Review of Jonas Zdanys’ The Kingfisher’s Reign ”
The Kingfisher’s Reign defies categorization, resists simple analysis. Indeed it soars above the critic’s pulse. For days I have lived with this volume, returning to it over and over again, and each time I enter the world anew. The lines are lyrical, to be sure. Wonderfully lyrical. Tragedy seeps between the lines, of course, but there is something higher represented in this collection – a harmony of bliss and regret, a celebration of anticipation with lament.
These eighty prose poems bend the readers’ knees to submission. They remind us of how little we control of what we think we know. They invite us to pretend we master language when, all the while, language is forming us, reducing us to echoes, mimicry mistaken for deity. Set on an eternal stage that always seems new, Zdanys’ lines wrap around the pages of reality as if we are mere conduit – the coursing energy, inside, defining our singular existence.
Forgive my obtuseness. The poems are accessible (if I must use that word). The images are familiar. The rhythm, the repetition, the resonance – all form a tantalizing dance between reader and page. There is nothing hard about these poems at all, but that familiar accessibility is exactly what makes them so hauntingly refreshing. We’ve been down this road before, readers must surely surmise, but oh how the path continuously turns and every turn offers novel epiphanies, renders childlike discovery. For a child alone in a field coming upon death for the first time, all subsequent death reflects that first shudder, that original displacement of innocence. Every recurring return to the field promises the surprise we expect.
The Kingfisher’s Reign moves me to something like worship. The prayer I feel is the prayer I am reluctant to breathe. The praise I am hesitant to voice, constituted by the poet’s craft, leaves me powerless before the elegant themes of Everyman and the life he claims. I invite you to read with me, to search, to worship. I cannot imagine not sorting through these pages for years to come. — Ken Hada
“Zdanys joins words into unexpectedly meaningful formations in which the philosophical thought overshadows the beginning of the feeling. His poetry is intellectual and speaks of the beginning of the beginnings of the mortal,… a world of mirages where the contours of the visible world disappear… The crossing of the border is dangerous: the subject approaches the philosophical state of nothingness, but cannot experience it to the end, because he is alive and living. Yet, while he is alive, the human has the right to be unfinished. This is the state of being ‘in the doorway’ and the key to his poetry.” -The Vilnius Review
Solitary Architectures, Selected Poems by Kornelijus Platelis, translated by Jonas Zdanys
Kornelijus Platelis is a world-class poet whose work, in translation, I discovered a decade ago when visiting Lithuania, and it gave me an extraordinary window into the troubled soul of the place: the voice of a graying man in gray weather in a crumbling gray city (as the title poem of this new collection so lucidly portrays). But also the moments of beauty and transcendence, as in the flash of color in the opening poem “Milk and Tomatoes,” which turns out to be a quietly witty extension of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say.” These are quiet, meditative poems, for the most part, mixing history, myth, reality and dream in linguistically cunning small stories of the alone speaking to the alone. How Jonas Zdanys has managed to translate poems from the oldest surviving Indo-European language (which is extraordinarily complex) into such naturally flowing, colloquial, American-sounding poems is a complete mystery to me, being hopelessly monolingual, but one suspects it points to the deep resonance of the original poems as well as his genius as a translator.
Given the depth, range and subtlety of the work, it is not surprising to learn that a small part of Platelis’s resume includes translating Keats, Pound, Eliot, Cummings, Ted Hughes, Heaney, Milosz and Szymborska (among others) into Lithuanian, or that he, himself, has been translated into Armenian, Belarusian, Chinese, Czech, Estonian, French, Gaelic, Galacian, Georgian, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Macedonian, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish and Ukrainian, as well as English. There is an ease and inevitability of metaphor and classical allusion that bespeaks both great learning and great learning worn lightly as the poems conspire toward a rich and layered complexity of haunting lucidity. Whether the subject is love, architecture or Passover, the poems are full of remarkable invention, entering through mysterious, surprising doors and exiting through equally magical ones. They intrigue and satisfy.