Poetry is part of everyone's cultural heritage. But more than that, it's a mirror: Read enough of it, and you'll recognize your own face - often in the least-likely places.
For me, that meant feeling a strong connection to poems I read in a new anthology called ``Eastern European Poetry'' from Oxford University Press. I wasn't expecting to ``see myself'' as I flipped randomly through the pages, but when I came across the section on Lithuanian poets - whose work I had never read - I found a familiar voice and vision. My first discovery came out of a tiny poem called ``Theology of Rain,'' by Alfonsas Nyka-Niliunas:
A girl's footsteps
In the silence of the old face -
The inconsolable landscape
Paint the greeness black,
The erosion of being,
Unknown and never dried
Tears and the theologian
Rain's treatise to the roof.
The language demanded that I stop and reread. There was something otherworldly about these lines, right from the beginning. It isn't a girl that we see, but her footsteps that we hear. The ``old face'' lacks detail, but it's intimately connected to the speaker's perception of the landscape. The eyes also play a crucial role, but they don't have bodies; and the eroding spirit, which lacks solid form, is strongly felt regardless. Even the rain has a presence.
To some people, these details might seem strange. Most American poets publishing today do not use imagery and mood as Nyka-Niliunas did. Perhaps even fewer would feel comfortable writing such a fragile-sounding poem. But all poets reveal their vision of the world through the details they choose.
What Nyka-Niliunas has done is to explore a mental landscape and its connection to the earth's invisible forces. The poem becomes a reflection of what's real to him (Panta rhei - all things flow), as well as a mirror for readers.
Perhaps that's what really stopped me. In these lines, as polished as a glass bead, I found a perception similar to mine, but one that arose from very different circumstances. Lithuania, as the anthology briefly explains, was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1944, and from that time on, its poets fell into two distinct groups: the emigre and the Soviet. Nyka-Niliunas belonged to the former.
It was humbling to think that someone so unlike me had seen the world ``my way,'' probably long before I was born, and that we could share, to some degree, common ground despite divergent histories. Whether we see them or not, there are links between the past and the present. And poetry, on the simplest level, provides a mirror that nudges you forward.
At times the mirror works by showing you the familiar and validating your place at the moment; at other times it prepares you for ideas you've not yet discovered. For me, both happened as I read ``Before Dawn,'' also by Nyka-Niliunas:
A narrow sickle of moon.
A smell of sweet-flag and duckweed
In the reed kingdom.
Darkness changed to whitish silence.
Night ladled up a silver treasure.
The Milky Way
Descended to earth:
On it, returning from town,
Trying to sing something,
Walks my father,
A belfry under his arm.
The contours of stands emerge
On stage of day. Soon will be heard
The first strains of the sun's overture.
Fade slowly in the windows
And in the well's cool waters gleam
The shepherd boy's sleep-filled eyes.
Once again, the poet's vision was familiar. I understood the mood and the importance of the shepherd boy. I understood how the poet was using imagery. I enjoyed the music in each line. And then I began to look forward to what other writers had to teach me.
The poems in ``Eastern European Poetry'' can be seen as a continuum. Each writer represents a different stop along the human journey. By trying on the image in his or her poetic mirror, we broaden our understanding of what the world looks like from another's perspective. We're reminded of the common experiences that shape the human family.
Geologists believe that at one point in time, all seven continents were united in one land mass, and over the millennia they broke apart and drifted. In the book of Genesis in the Bible, people were said to speak the same language until the building of the Tower of Babel. If we use these ideas as a metaphor for the world today, perhaps poetry can do a little to reunite the pieces of the broken global mirror. As I read further on in ``Eastern European Poetry,'' I'm reminded that much of humanity's real work has to do with learning to appreciate one another and standing before our most advanced mirror. * Poetry excerpts used with permission of the publisher: `Contemporary East European Poetry: An Anthology' Edited by Emery George Oxford University Press, 490 pp., $30.