Looking at Loss

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BY MOHAMMAD YUSUF
 
Art, Architecture, and Literary Critic: The Gulf Today United Arab Emirates
September 1, 2005
 


Two collections of poetry look at the dark side of life.  "Baltic Hours," a collection of poems by Christian Narkiewicz-Laine, is a study in Gothicism.  The poet describes his Ulysses-like wanderings in the Baltic region, via memories and real time.
 
Perhaps the Baltic region itself is Gothic and fits the poet's mood finding its natural setting there.  "Baltic" comes form the Indo-European root "balt," meaning white.  Thus the Baltic Sea means White Sea.  The same root begins the word Belarus, also known as White Russia, with which place Narkiewicz-Laine is closely connected.
 
He is a European/American architect, painter, writer and poet from a prominent Russian family.
 
"Baltic Hours" offers poetic reflections from the poet's travels in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.  From the ice-bound fastnesses of the Arctic to the lonely outposts of Transylvania, the area is prominent in literature for terror, mystery, the supernatural, doom, death, decay, old buildings with ghosts and vampires in them, madness, hereditary curses and so on.
 
Narkiewicz-Laine, as seen in "Baltic Hours," is a poet of melancholy and loneliness.  He deals in emotional extremes and dark themes. For example, here is "The Old Clock:"
 
The Old Belarussian clock
Hangs on the wall.
It has never worked.
Not since the time it was brought
From Minsk.
It's the same clock
The police confiscated
At the Lithuanian border.
After hours of negotiating
And several packs
of American cigarettes,
it was finally released
to freedom in the West.
Since then, it's neither
Ticked nor ticked.
Only its ominous presence
With that one eye of non-time
That follows us about the room.
 
The poet is a lonely traveller, a disappointed lover, and even his distinguished lineage is fast diminishing.
 
From photographs fade in the past [from "Bridge at Lom"]
I am that sudden moment
When no circumstance prevails;
that astonishing moment when
one's life falls through its emptiness.
 
I am the wind--coming and going [from "Stockholm"]
So therefore, I walk
With extraordinary heaviness.
Footsteps with the weight of which
would bear down on
Any ordinary pilgrim.
Lost in the previous century
Lost in the cobblestones under foot [from "Copenhagen"]
I am disfigured--
I am walking wounded--
Continent to continent. [form "Copenhagen"]
 
I am impure by lonely contrast.
Insignificant in the monotony of
These great distances. [from "Virgin Winter']
My dark soul, however, is like no other.
Any ambition has long ago vanished;
And whatever I do, whatever I see,
I walk the road crucified.
I cannot be redeemed.
Something of myself faded sometime ago.
At some crossroads where I left my first
And last love. [from "Baltic Hours"]
 
This is the fate of a man whose ancestors include:
 
Great Uncle, Prince Dominik,
Died at age 27; killed by Napoleon.
He defended the Czar and Mother Russia.
His subsequent heirs died in Soviet Siberia.
Uncle Witold Tomasz was a revolutionary.
He was arrested in Vienna and Paris
And finally exiled to London.
We worked in the underground,
Producing socialist literature with Pilsudski
The Russian Secret Police could never find him. [from "Nesvich"]
 
The poet says that as for himself, he is more like his Aunt Ameila
who committed suicide (for love):
 
We seeds of an irony
Sown in mindless continuum…[from "Nesvich"]
 
But there is romance even in the depths of despair.  Here are some
of Narkiewicz-Laine's best lines:
 
Your long lost stare into space.
The deep, deep dream in your eyes.
The flush of color that fills your cheeks.
The softness of your lips and your breath.
That one unsuspecting eyebrow arched.
The wedding ring around your finger. ["Inside Norway"]
 
And added to the romance are arresting descriptions, scintillating imagery and sarcastic humor.  We read about "catastrophic indifference," boats strangled by ice, the fragile earth where "too much falls through its cracks" and finally,
 
If money is the root of all evil,
then why does "money talk?"
Isn't that really telling? [from "Never Kiss Someone's Eyes"].
 
You might ask whether there are not too many cracks in the Gothic narrative.  The poet has his answer:
 
I write what I want
To write.
I care nothing about
Who reads what I write or
Who interprets. [from "In the Danish Countryside"].
 
If Baltic Hours depresses, "Greenland," another volume of poetry uplifts.
 
The shimmer on the leaves.
Sunlight bouncing leaf to leaf--
Tree to tree.
Oak trees, walnut trees, poplars, and lindens.
A sudden breeze blows through them
And lifts them
Then returns them back to their former stillness.
Shinning, golden, silver-like. [from "The Density of Leaves"].
 
The June sun: spreading the heat,
Strong, severe, abundant.
Until all the clouds have vanished
Absorbed by the green hills
Still moist form the morning's coolness, rising
Around the valleys further
And beyond, absolutely green--and transparent, no other color
Can define the deepest blue of the blue,
blue sky. [from "In Samogita"]
 
But there is a touch of Gothic in this collection too.
 
The moon frightens me.
Never the same shape.
Never in the same place twice--always in flux.
Always changing in an inexhaustible permanence.
And changing with an ingenious beauty
A touch no one can touch.
A heavy-handed mystery. [from "Epilogue"]
 
There is a byte of philosophy too:
 
There is this constant sowing of seeds on the earth
Whose sprouting is the dawn of creation.
And there is this sowing of the sun, moon and the stars.
Then there is this matter of human being
Whose sowing in the womb is followed by
An emergence into the light at birth
And whose sowing in the earth at death
Is followed by another dawning…[from "Sowing Seeds"].
 
There are epic possibilities in "Baltic Hours" and "Greenland."  The image of the lonely traveller reduced to want yet carrying on with life, much like an [Roald] Amundsen or [Robert Falcon] Scott, is heroic.
 
Narkiewicz-Laine might have failed in his ambitions.  But he is strong enough to look straight at it and carry on.
  
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