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"K.B. The Suspect" by Marcelijus Martinaitis [BTBA 2010 Poetry Finalists]

Over the next seven days, we’ll be featuring each of the ten titles from this year’s Best Translated Book Award poetry shortlist. Click here for all past write-ups.

K.B. The Suspect by Marcelijus Martinaitis. Translated from the Lithuania by Laima Vince. (Lithuania, White Pine Press)

This guest post is by Kevin Prufer, whose newest books are National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008) and Little Paper Sacrifice (Four Way Books, forthcoming). He’s also Editor of New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008) and Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing. We’ll have another post by Kevin tomorrow . . .

Who exactly is K.B. the suspect? Is he a sort of Post-Soviet everyman, wandering the streets of Vilnius, bewildered by the rapidly changing city? Or is he something more sinister, a character who, according Marcelijus Martinaitis, was not a member of the KGB, but could have been, had he been asked? Is he a symbol for all Lithuania, or merely an alter-ego of the poet who created him?

He is, of course, all of these things. In Martinaitis’ brilliant poetic sequence, K.B. emerges as both a distinct personality and a slate on which recent Lithuanian history might be written, interpreted, or erased. “The reader does not know for certain what K.B.’s background is and never finds out,” translator Laima Vince writes. “Similarly, in Lithuania today people do not know about their neighbors’ or colleagues’ pasts, and even if they did, there’s nothing they can do about it.”

But for all these poems’ historical and political ambitiousness, K.B. comes across memorably and vividly, quick to make keenly insightful (and sometimes absurd) observations, a loner perpetually cut off from others, commenting on their actions both nervously and analytically. Often, he addresses the beautiful Margarita, who suggests for him both perfect aesthetic beauty and our human inability to achieve transcendence. (Once, he observes her taking out the trash, making “little noble aristocratic steps” among the dumpsters.) Or he comments on the creeping Western influences of commodification and commercialization, at one point interjecting into his narrative an advertisement for Colgate Toothpaste:

I repeat—
the safest thing of all
is the toothpaste Colgate.

I’d also like to remind you
that by using this toothpaste daily
your teeth will remain healthy
a hundred years after you are gone.

All around him, he senses a sort of amorphous danger—perhaps it is Lithuania’s recent past waiting to re-emerge, perhaps it is only nerves—so K.B. keeps to the shadows, observing, fantasizing, and writing it all down. “My documents,” he tells us,

are in order. I haven’t been tried.
I’m without my gun and almost without any thoughts.

Only parasites, all manner of insects,
flies and worms creep across my face,
crawling into my mouth, my nose,
they suck my blood.

Any direction I turn someone is hiding, fleeing,
staring suspiciously, cowering, collaborating, keeping silent:
I could catch them all, crush them under my feet, end it.

Finally, these complex, paranoid poems create for us a sort of shadow-world of the Post-Soviet Eastern European consciousness, a world brought harrowingly to life through Marcelijus Martinaitis’ startling sense of character and Laima Vince’s fluid, witty, and deeply engaging translation.



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