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Review: Six Latvian Poets, ed. Ieva Lesinska

David Hart, Putting poetry on the map, Stride Magazine, 2011

Having become used to these Arc translations, I find myself opening a book by a British poet and finding the poems naked without Preface or Introduction. Where the Preface here by the editor tells us about the poems we are about to read, I reckon I can find out for myself, but also I have to say we are looking at the originals and at her translations, and the Preface overall is well worth reading. The longer Introduction, by Juris Kronbergs (b.1946 and we are told one of the leading poets now in Latvia), has made me think a separate volume of the introductions to these Arc books would itself be a major contribution to cultural and translation studies.

I have had to go to a map to find out where Latvia is. As with other of these Arc books, it seems likely all the poets speak English as a second language, and have acquaintance with Western European and American poets. Who of British poets knows Latvian? This is a complex matter and perhaps is being studied: the movement of styles, influences, even phrases and allusions moving between nationalities in the past, say, fifty years.

We are told there has until relatively recently been a folk poetry tradition, and that 'all Latvians are [or were] poets', that under Communism poetry books sold in their many thousands, that history and the news, the life of the place, was by and large the subject, written in traditional forms, and that now everything has opened up, poetry is its own subject. Or within this tension the personal is.

Too glib a precis, and please make your own judgement in response to Kronbergs when he says, the main issue for Latvian poetry is 'how it sounds' and not 'what it means' which seems to be the main concern of poetry in English. And it is tricky to speak of 'how it sounds' when what we have here is translation.

There is almost a prevailing practice here to do away with punctuation. Perhaps 'do away with' is the negative view; the poems are thought either not to need it or to be what they need to be without it. The lineation does what needs doing. A conference is needed on poetry and punctuation.

Anna Auzina uses some punctuation, her poems seem to breathe the most easily, seem the quietest. (All the poets, by the way, live in the capital, Riga. There must be questions about that, but I don't know what they are.) Anna Auzina's poems may look modern-traditional, but her quotation from Andre Breton (translated from Latvian to French for the English) is the clue to something else (no title):

My man with eyes of sea at sunset
With icy floe eyes
Behind eyelids of mist
With neon glances
My man squinting with one eye
My man with a polar bear's soul
Seaweed on his shores
Difficult to sail through his fjords

and so on. Her poetic forms vary a lot, while the mode is generally this kind of metaphorical statement-making.

Ingmara Balode's running on of lines makes for a rush of thought and feeling, and again her mode makes the ordinary surreal. An unknown paradise begins how I was searching for you in an unknown paradise and then ten or so lines on:

but on the curving pavements by the monument
no one was walking like you
that's whan I got scared -
if we lived somewhere else
under all those citrus mussel covered tables sea pebbles and flying
fish - in matisse's blue blazing sky and the yellow cabins of
watercolour-period yachts
how would i find you there how would I possibly know

To fit my space here I have run on the long line differently, which seems not to matter, the translation already differing in this from the Latvian original.

Unable to read the Latvian, my impression is that all the translations are alive in the way the poets wanted them to be; they could of course be better than the originals, all I can say is that I rate this book very highly for its poems by women as brought across into English.

There could be a conference also on poetry and the personal, with variance in the meaning of what is personal - in relation to other persons singly, in relation to community or nation - not that a conference would be as significant or alive as the poems. For instance, how to discuss this, by Agnese Krivade? (Poems run on through the book, not a poem to a page, and often without titles follow-through is not always clear; this one seems - separated by ** - to be the final part of a poem called Home):

looking for easy, my love? don't look for me
look for pale little spiders
pollen dust worked over by bees

tell yourself a blossoming lawn
drink from a crow, from an ant or from anyone who can it all
go to the skies, twist in a storm, see how the big ones

beauty and grace plough over the globe

There being some punctuation, line 5 seems to shift into a question, but does it? How clear is this translation? I think I trust it, but in that line in the original there are two commas.

A good translation suggests how the poet, if reading in English, would come across emotionally and musically, the kind of presence they would have. I am picking up both a boldness, a confidence on stage, a rush of energy and a sensitivity. Here is some of the flow from the oldest of these poets, Marts Pujats, born 1971, a prose poem (I think so, his poems are either blocked or work by way of very long lines), called Flour and salt, second section:

What misfortune has struck the poor guys - people worried in
the little local tavernas, looking at dark-eyed girls tanning and
sprouting pasta - look at their faces - sipping their sweet wine,
people fretted - what is that expression? - and a little Lombadrian
in a dark skirt brought the men ciabattas sprinkled with olive oil
and crackers for the wine...- and these eyes! these eyes! like
glass noodles -

and so on. As this mode goes on on it is too much like stand-up comedy for me, even the non-prose poems seem to be playing for laughs or whatever superficial effect.

And in turning to the other two men represented here, I see I am making a women-men distinction. Maris Salejs has a different style but is also a statement-maker:

transparency has its rules
I know. a star comes and ruins the glass
it is so frank. so material
it pushes through and shards scatter over the street
then an extnguished air takes the breath away
and a yellow light is drenched
full of eyes, eyes of all those frozen in darkness
drenched with sleep
drenched with the unspeakable

proving still unable to resolve: dissolve
or gather in thick fists for being

This is the whole of a poem or section - between ** .

Karlis Verdins also seems to me to be basically a statement-maker, whether in short-lined poems or (mostly) ones that behave like prose. The women seem to be discovering and having fun and being open to whatever's there, painful or not, and most importantly exercising the medium as one might a musical instrument in a contemporary mode; the men seem to want to be heard talking.

To go back and live with my mum - to go with all of my
things and honestly state: mummy, I tried, you saw for
yourself, I really tried. But it simply isn't for me.
Then I could stay in bed all day, watch soap operas,
live on mum's salary, and later her pension. By that
time pensions are sure to be normal. Help her carry
the groceries, let her scold me, teach me, hug me.
On dark winter evenings keep whining and wailing:

and so on (Mummy, I have a plan!).

How does all this match up with what is being written in the UK? What is poetry when it lives in and between us?