Laima Sruoginis & Marcelijus Martinaitis


Laima Sruoginis

A Singing Revolution: Translating Marcelijus Martinaitis’ The Ballads of Kukutis

IN THE AUTUMN of 1988 when I traveled to Vilnius to spend a year there studying Lithuanian literature, the power of the Lithuanian Reform Movement “Sajudis” could be felt everywhere, from the grim woman wearing a “Sajudis” pin who sold you ice-cream on the corner to the groups of students and professors in the University halls discussing reforms. We would be excused from classes to attend demonstrations, while during lectures students passed sign-up sheets to get people on buses to protest the faulty nuclear power plant operating in Ignalina. that summer women in country villages fainted when they heard students — who had ridden from the cities on bicycles with tri-colored flags — speak openly of reforms, when just a few weeks before one could be imprisoned for such an act. The summer was a carnival of defiance to fifty years of tyranny and suffering.

The key figures behind this miraculous reawakening — which seemed to make even the most devious citizen a better person — were a handful of poets, writers, artists, and musicians who chose the word “Sajudis” (Unity) to name their organization. One of the key figures in this group was the poet Marcelijus Martinaitis, a professor of Lithuanian literature at Vilnius University.

I first heard his poetry, particularly The Ballads of Kukutis, set to music and performed by the musician Vytautas Kernagis, while I was still a high school student studying at the Lithuanian High School in Germany. Martinaitis’ poetry struck a chord in me then. Ever since, I’ve greatly admired his work, and I’m not the only one. Martinaitis is considered a living classic in Lithuania. During the fifty years under the Soviet Regime when Lithuanians were cut off from the Church (the nation being 90% Catholic), people looked to poets for spiritual guidance. Poetry offered a means of inner resistance to the harsh and brutal world created by the Soviet Union.

In this context, Martinaitis’ picaresque character “Kukutis” created the opportunity for people to laugh at the regime as well as to examine their own souls. In ballads such as “Kukutis’ Sermon to the Pigs,” Martinaitis chastised local party officials who were doing so much to ruin ordinary people’s lives while bettering their own. From our vantage point in history this ballad can be read almost as prophesy:

Oh you pigs!
You’ve eaten up my best days!
So grow now into hams—
Europe will cram you
into the longest sausage ever
reaching from Zuveliskes to La Manche!

Like the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s persona, Mr. Cogito, Kukutis’ spirit has the power to escape from his body and enter a variety of different realms, thus gaining an understanding not accessible to the average person. But, despite his magical powers, Kukutis is plagued by all the complexes of the oppressed. He is ashamed of his appearance, his poor personal hygiene. Even in this sphere of the fantastic, the “powers above” do not let him have complete control. This is painfully evident in the ballad “Kukutis Gazes At a Stewardess:”

When she glaces at me—
how ugly my mouth is,
how completely rundown I am,
how my right leg gets in the way
when I climb into the airplane.

Yet Martinaitis offers his readers hope and condolence, a prophecy of rebirth, in ballads such as “Kukutis’ Swallow’s Hymn.”

How beautiful it is for you spring,
when it’s spring
when it’s beautiful;
when, to the fields with plows and hoes,
after a long winter’s exile
all of Lithuania returns.

I found Martinaitis’ work so rich and inspiring that I decided to translate it into English so that I too might become a “message bearer.” I grew up Lithuanian-American, and always felt I was on a continual bridge back and forth between two cultures. Poetry translation, particularly the translation of a work as powerful as The Ballads of Kukutis, was my own way of helping to build this bridge between tiny, archaic Lithuania and the United States. However, at the time I made this decision, I could not imagine how complex and diverse this work would become and how far it would take me. For example, at Vilnius University I joined the History Department’s Ethnographic Singing Group so I could begin to learn Kukutis’ dialect, the songs common to his region, how to deal with the various aspects of Lithuanian folk mythology and culture found in Lithuanian folk music and poetry. Also, having Marcelijus Martinaitis on hand to advise me was of course an immense asset.

Three years of my life have gone into these translations, perhaps the best three years of my life because during this time I’ve witnessed a miracle — my country transforming herself from an obscure province of the Soviet Union into a European nation in her own right. I’m glad to have lived through a singing revolution, and to take part in it by helping to bring Kukutis’ message to the English speaking reader. —New York, 1991


Marcelijus Martinaitis

Kukutis Dreams up Zuveliskes Village in the Cathedral Square

lays his head on a loaf of bread
and dizzied from the summer’s heat
dreams up Zuveliskes village
in the Cathedral Square

Like after the great flood out of Noah’s saved ark into
the square pour forth flocks of sparrows and dogs
bloated cows one year old calves and girls surrounded
by bulls with wreaths made of the first dandelions of
the year on their heads at the end of the Cathedral
Square leaning on a pitchfork Mr. Little Fish happily
stares at a lamb standing before the bell tower show-
ing off an inverted sheepskin coat the entire square
becomes crowded with Zuveliskes from all corners
something live comes crawling out hurrying every-
thing starts to bellow moo cackle oink whistle crow
cackle neigh squeal bellow quack hiss cluck bleat cock-
a-doodle-doo howl yelp cackle and smell like a cattle
yard’s warmth in a manure wagon’s wheels the cool-
ness of a hundred year old pantry the hot depths of
whiskey unclean old people’s words Zuveliskes village

sets itself up from the Vilnele river to the bell tower
with the cow’s footpath stretching right through the
very center of the Cathedral with the laziness of an
afternoon’s nap and the suffocating noise of historical
chickens clucking with Antose on the hay wagon and
her firmly pressed together breasts

An officer approaches Kukutis and shouts:
Kukutis—   Stop—   Dreaming—
In a public square—   What are you looking for
Kukutis—   In women’s cleavages—   What
will Europe—   Think about us—
In a historical square—   You’ve bred—   Pigs—
You’ve built—   Pigsties—
Chicken coops—   Abolished farmsteads—
Already crossed out of the inventor’s lists—
Stop—   This dreaming—   Immediately—

Stop dreaming up
that cow trampled farmyard
on the beautifully paved square,
those backwards serfs,
those hitched wagons over there
near the bandstand
where soon the orchestra must play

Make—   Room—   Immediately—
For our countrymen—   They will look at the bell tower—
Do you—   Understand—   What—   You are doing—
Without permission you’ve dreamt up that barefooted
Mr. Little Fish with a stork’s nest over his head—
What if someone were to film him for
the anthology of Lithuanian poetry?—

Ambulances rush over
and the fire department
armed with fire hoses
starts to chase back into the ground
the risen from the dead,
washing the animals
and the smoky serf’s huts
overgrown with moss,
while in front of the bell tower
the Saturday volunteer help
starts to knock over the well.

The frenzied officer
screams hysterically into Kukutis’ ear:
Kukutis—   Stop—   This dreaming—
Can’t you see—   What—   You’ve done—
Can’t you see—
How you are dreaming in color—
How will we look in front of the world now—
Clean up the square—   Stop dreaming up
those old goats—
They are not allowed to rise—   They
are registered in the death registry
as illiterates—
They won’t be able
to march ahead of time with us—
There is no resurrection—
There is not afterlife—
And therefore they don’t exist either—

As soon as the Saturday volunteer help
knocks down the pigsties on one side of the square
Kukutis dreams up Zuveliskes again
on the other side
with Mr. Little Fish
lovingly watching
how bread is kneaded,
how it is softly pressed
out from between the women’s wide breasts.

The officer begins to scream
even more furiously:
Stop dreaming up that dirty Mr. Little Fish—
Don’t you see what he’s doing
turned away behind the bell tower—
Can’t you see how our countrymen
cannot admire the bell tower clock—

Don’t you see—
How many gawkers he’s attracted—
Don’t you see how many cars have stopped
in front of the crosswalk
Can’t—   You see—   That—   It’s—   Not a joke anymore—
You must—
Let the newly arrived
brotherly Samogitian delegation
pass through the Square
to greet Lithuania—

(Translated from the Lithuanian by Laima Sruoginis)


Marcelijus Martinaitis

Kukutis Opens His Eyes

Kukutis opens his eyes
at the same time
in Zuveliskes,
in Warsaw
and in Paris.

Having opened his eyes
in Zuveliskes he sees
a crow;
in Warsaw he sees
that same crow take off
and in Paris it flies away.

Kukutis grows seriously frightened:
is he the one and only one
to open his eyes
and see that same crow
in Zuveliskes,
in Warsaw,
and in Paris?

And in general:
is a person
to wake up at the same time
in Zuveliskes, in Warsaw, and in Paris?

(Translated from the Lithuanian by Laima Sruoginis)


Marcelijus Martinaitis

Kukutis Beats Scholar Pliugzma’s Dog

Kukutis volunteers to watch scholar Pliugzma’s dog.
Throughout the day the dog stares at him;
doesn’t let him move about freely.
Pliugzma’s pedigree dog
soon shows his teeth,
his own low Kukutis-like origins.

He growls
as soon as Kukutis nears the book shelf,
stretches for a book’s bindings
or when he examines the pictures.
Snickering, he emphasizes
that Kukutis doesn’t know French,
or English;
that painted Parisian landscapes
are incomparable with those of Zuveliskes!

Pliugzma’s dog
leads Kukuktis around Vilnius.
Kukutis walks behind him
afraid of getting lost,
avoiding the dog’s freshly cut farts
during which Pliugzma’s dog
keeps stopping to emphasize Kukutis’
his cultural illiteracy,
and his wooden leg
always lagging behind him.

(Translated from the Lithuanian by Laima Sruoginis)