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Tadas Zaronskis (b. 1992) is a poet and translator. He got his BA in Philosophy from Vilnius University and an MA in Contemporary Philosophy from École Normale Supérieure de Paris. He has been publishing his poetry in the Lithuanian cultural press since 2010. Zaronskis is also a translator of poetry and philosophy from French. For his poetry, he has received the Antanas A. Jonynas Prize (Druskininkai Poetic Fall 2019) and the Young Authors’ Readings Prize (Poetry Spring 2020). Zaronskis’s debut book Spalvinimo knygelė draugams (“A Coloring Book for Friends,” Bazilisko Ambasada, Vilnius, 2023) was included in the 12 Most Creative Books of the Year list (Institute of Lithuanian Literature and Folklore, 2023) and the 5 Best Poetry Books of the Year list (Lithuanian National Library, 2023).

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Tadas Zaronskis review 02Tadas Zaronskis. Spalvinimo knygelė draugams (A Coloring Book for Friends). Vilnius: Bazilisko ambasada, 2023.

Even though the cliché metaphor teaches us to never judge a book by its cover, the minimalistic pastel-blue soft cover of Tadas Zaronskis’s collection of poems leaves little to be judged even if we wanted to. While A Coloring Book for Friends is considered his debut, it has been a long time coming. With his first poems published more than 10 years ago and several poetry prizes under his belt, the philosopher-writer-translator offers a compelling and unique, albeit somber, reflection of a cosmopolitan existence. Four aptly named chapters (“How to Protect Yourself from Angst,” “Rdhd,” “For Nowhere There is Permanence,” “Short Periods”), contrary to the innocent cover, let the reader know what to expect: reflections on anxiety, romantic relationships, and destruction and decay as well as the brevity of existence.

The majority of Zaronskis’s poetic strategy consists of taking a kernel of some concrete experience and dressing it up in self-importance and resignation, from which a vortex of descriptive language springs into existence. His textual urgency threatens to overwhelm the reader like a flood, inundating them with violent yet reserved imagery and dissociated sentimentality. Sporadically appearing pompous rhetoric and declarations (beginning with an epigraph from Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education: “He found that the happiness that he deserved by virtue of his sensitive soul was slow in coming,” p. 5) contrast against the depressive austerity, creating a shimmering game of light and dark, where a melancholic authenticity emerges between layers of irony.

The poems carry a certain Western European sensibility thanks to the instances of literary and philosophical intertextuality and the late-capitalist setting with its relentless pressure to perform, manifesting through struggles with health and finances as well as eternal boredom (“academic writing is boring but what’s even more boring / it fails to even compare, is to live in my apartment / to button-up my shirt / at the break of dawn / more than one study confirms it,” p. 10). The world depicted is wholly material and contemporary, one in which references to a mythical realm (“the rooster gave a sign and now is watching / how we, like weathercocks, point to the devil” p. 46; “a whitest white demon’s tooth / is always flashing in the rear-view mirror,” p. 47) are few and far between, serving as a reminder that there’s very little magic left in a world encroached upon by cities filled with looming darkness and constant distractions.

While existing in the long term is regarded as painful (“JJ is tormenting the saxophone just like we are all tormented by being,” p. 56), bolts of eternal youth, or more precisely, eternal boyhood filled with manic juvenile intensity, pierce the depressive landscape. A tension is felt between the refusal and the inability to step into adulthood (“I’d like to grasp at words / but I’m going to grasp at nothing / and I’ll stand stupefied / on a black dancefloor / between adolescence and my thirties / and today disappears / for fuck’s sake,” p. 25), at least partly because there is nothing and nowhere to grow into (and no one wants to pay for it). The pervasive imagery of mold (“and the city is a light mist of guilt / in which the mold of experience grows,” p. 41) illustrates the negative character of growth: it is present, but as a sign of destruction and decay, as in growth over something rather than growth of something. It also reflects in the way Zaronskis’s poetry is constructed, words crowding each other, bunching on top of one another, building meaning through excess, or sometimes through rhythm and other times through syntactical breaks.

The material lack, the misanthropic declarations, and the desire to saw off heads are offset by a constant search for connection. But in most cases, the connection is either unsatisfactory or already lost (“what splits us apart / curses drama silence / anything we come across splits us apart / and yet we can’t split up for a gray couple of weeks now,” p. 32) and is mostly communicated through its physical aspects. The strictly corporeal expression of love interest raises the question of whether there is any way of describing your relationship to the person you desire other than through making them an object, as suggested by the ultimate lovers’ discoursographer Roland Barthes. While sex and text have already been combined into (not necessarily but usually unpoetic) sext, I would argue that in at least one instance, Zaronskis manages to masterfully mix poetic and sexual experiences into a different kind of sext: “when Marina is reading, the narrative water floods her pelvis / the loops of her sex tremble squeezing the currents of the text / and she allows herself to be sailed into nothingness opens her wet / thighs closing the pages she has read and is currently reading” (p. 62). This type of poetic mixture of different realms more than makes up for all the (in my humble opinion) unnecessary mentions of semen. But sometimes it is difficult to judge the poetic quality of something you yourself cannot produce.

The main critique that I have of Zaronskis’s texts has to do with the repetition and reuse of imagery. There are just so many carnations (and flowers in general), alcoholic beverages, objects stuck under nails and so on. It is possible that, in order to convey the intensity of the experiences depicted, a choice has been made to focus on a smaller repertoire of imagery. But at the same time, it could simply imply a lack of flexibility and be a sign of poetic stagnation. However, if the statement “all of the meaning / fucked itself out of the words” (p. 18) is to be taken at face value, maybe the words themselves don’t really matter? But then the question arises: what does? One powerful aspect of Zaronskis’s poetry is the construction and deconstruction of the self, which adds to the postmodern uncertainty of the possibility of meaning itself: “standing next to the broken window, I am a schema of a skinny guy / anonymous combination of ones and zeros: something / between sixteen and thirty-three, maybe sickly / or simply burnt out, emaciated by neurosis and the movement of / the particles of sun and wind, visited by premonitions of nonexistence, empty-eyed towel-in-thrower.“ (p. 41). The constant questioning of selfhood and its ambiguity is closely related to the question of meaning. Yet, what comes up through the overbearing insistence of meaninglessness, is exactly that: meaning. At times, it may be unpleasant and unsightly, but it is there, nonetheless.

In a way, trying to describe Zaronskis’s poetry, especially in a foreign language, one really feels that “failure is infinite” (p. 78). Sure, I can generalize on the themes, illustrate them with examples, and try to pinpoint some of the poetic tactics used, but after having done all this, I feel that a better way to convey the impact of these poetic texts would have been to choose one poem and pick it apart word by word, explaining the rhythms. Yet even then, success would not be guaranteed. Trying to explain poetry often feels like a failure, which itself is depressing, but in the end, what the reviewer cannot accomplish, the reader may feel for themselves. So just like in Zaronskis’s writing, much is pointless, but there is at least that bit of hope left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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