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Review: Six Latvian Poets, ed. Ieva Lesinska

Marcus Smith, Envoi issue 162, June 2012

from the article Where All that's Solid Melts

Latvian poetry has been traditionally been rooted in folksong and a concern for the Latvian land, its people and their fitful attempts at national identity and independence under the yoke of the Russian Empire and then the U.S.S.R. In the Communist years poetry became a secret code skirting censorship with poets like Ojars Vacietis, Imants Ziedonis arid Vizma Belsevica attracting audiences in the manner of the Yevtushenko and Voznesensky in Russia. Now that freedom has finally come, the poetry audience has shrunk and the poetry has changed. As leva Lesinska, editor of Six Latvian Poets, another in Arc Publication's continuing series of eastern European poets, notes, the six poets here represent a younger generation writing and coming of age since the disintegration of the Soviet Union culminating in 1991 in regained Latvian independence and

An overt engagement with history or social issues is almost totally absent... perhaps because of an instinctive fear that the weight of history may squash their own creativity, perhaps because of a desire to place themselves in the broader context of world literature or simply because of a youthful opposition to their predecessors.

If so (it seems mainly so), it is first not surprisingly to find in a nascent period like this many poems dealing with childhood or employing child-like voices of whimsy, innocence and regret running into the hard new realities of newly discovered freedoms
and unexpected constraints.

Anna Auzina, after being, she says, a 'nice, lovable, sincere and childish poetry girl,' admits becoming more self-conscious now. Earlier poems like Breakfast In The Clouds have a pleasingly playful and sensuous quality ('ll take pictures / of me naked) not unlike listening to quirky Icelandic chanteuse Bjork. Childhood should be filled with happy streets... like conveyor belts with nice people, cafes, music: step on [the streets] and you're happy / step off and happy you're not. Familiar children's themes, the locked garden gate (let's get acquainted the garden is green / but I want so much to go past the gate) and solipsistic wilfulness (a child wants to be in a house ancient and large and for guests to come seldom and single) lead though to adult ambivalence and frustration: But life. Cheese wine salary party / rain pollen happiness choice sandwich thunder. Life perhaps should have more. Yet Something Seems Wrong obliquely examines a young couple, the woman pregnant, walking pleasantly enough in a park, but with Auzina artistically disturbed: I am their creator / Yet I am not sure / What is wrong - with them. Still, the wilful voice of a child remains the prominent poetic voice: I can draw anything / and no one can stop me // I can draw angels I can draw devils and other people won't be able to argue. Stylistically, Auzina and the other five poets consistently use modernist techniques (clipped, language, no punctuation, unusual phrases), which often mirror their individualistic concerns and spontaneous streams of emotion.

Agnese Krivade plays with concepts of childhood in more overt and visceral ways. Her first book, simply titled Childhood, looks like a girl's scrapbook and improvises as a child might. Whatever is said, it is said as if without thinking, just fooling around, Krivade explains. ... the rhythms form as if by accident, as if on second thought. Come, They Told Me is a prime example, playing off 'The Little Drummer Boy' and its rum pum pums while providing grim satire and aptly conceived disillusionment: come they told me I came but was beat up along the way / my vessels were broken not even a drop of oil on my hand. Her voice is a childlike voice quickly maturing (for first everything is as you look at it and second depends on whose talking), employing strange formality, as when a baby asserts, ladies and gentlemen, you see, don't you, I am so beautiful and tragic... beside adolescent hurt: my advice is to get rid of friends / when they begin to smell like rotting leaves.

Adolescence, young adulthood and the difficulties of love motivate Ingmar Balode's poetry in the urban setting of Riga. Her best poems rise above her own direct concerns. In Taxi Radio she considers the driver and wonders: how can a person be so alone, alone as the space for payments will have to be made for twenty-five years or so. Her run-on lines serve to underscore themes of loneliness, silence and isolation: looking into the faces of friends, you see highways swish by in their eyes. Road flows, the white white lines and nights, and mornings yet to be flow.

Balode's love poems are just as compelling. In Open, paired with Closed in which everything [is] transformed in silence, the voice of the lover bursts out with the hyper-linguistic energy of a contemporary Dylan Thomas:

there is something open in you same as
you cannot force a flower to close same as
a cat walks you cannot stop him you cannot know

and continues more feverishly:

like gold like sand we are and flow through ourselves
we are huge like giants like castles
invisible dark like a dark
hiding in an oak tree

But Balode is a realist (or disillusioned romantic). Sitting in a Riga cafe near the freedom monument, observing lit up girls and a slacker scene of street musicians and skateboarders, a scene from the West come quickly to the East, she asks, do we really only have one monument / freedom?

Marts Pujats and Karlis Verdins ask questions of freedom in grittier urban settings and masculine 'matey' ways that combine sophistication with self-effacing beery bravado. Verdins' Status Quo equates love and politics (Confessions of love - beautiful like a proclamation of independence) as it depicts a couple who after many years of opposition move into a romantic company flat and do not venture outside on the national holiday. We stole an entire country like one empty heart claims the narrator. Man condemned to be free, as Camus would have it. Elsewhere, Verdins invokes Ginsberg, whose Supermarket in America inspires Angel, an angel of consumption who will set me on a shelf behind glass. Verdin's uses long drop-down lines like the Beats, but their freshness fades when dealing with male issues of identity and isolation. New Life ironically takes place on a concrete island and elsewhere Verdins' first persons are alone in a big house while outside buds are swelling or not wanting to say I love you. Behind allusions to Eliot's 'yellow dog', name checks of Rimbaud and Verlaine, the veneer of tough talk of drowning in beer, Verdins' secret core and purpose reveals itself in To the Eagle where he identifies with a bird who hears our shy prayers, prayers of love that pulse like stars in I:

Many a little star pulses in me sparking, swaying, and galling....
There are many little cities circling around Riga shrieking, shivering
with cold.... That's why I want you to circle around me slowly.

Marts Fujats plays both the hard-guy Bukowski and refined poet as well. A classically trained musician who references Schuman and, unlike the other poets, a general historical past (in one passage an ornamental elephant touches gently the bones of his dead ancestors), he one moment finds himself with a skewered heart and feel[ing] the presence of a naked broad and in another inventing a surreal story of faith:

the churches had wells instead of spires and I let tourists down in buckets
they were heavy going down light coming up
up they came empty and weightless
the tourists climbed into the empty ones

and then one time a bucket came up that was not completely empty.

Like Balode he is acutely aware of terrible silences, comparing them, with more echoes of the past, to a bus stopped in the middle of the night at a border post. As if to fill silence, he will spend a night conversing about ancient languages and ancient writing with drunken freaks. His imagistic handling of a back door scene of an old bicycle, a bucket of rain, a barking dog, a banged up car that shut you up while plums are slowly rotting in the unmown grass evokes Williams without the delight.

After his first book. Mommy I Saw A Song, Marts Salejs, probably the most traditional of the Latvian poets in this collection given his use of natural images, came out with the more emotionally direct Mana politika (My Politics). Technically the most accomplished poet of the group, Salejs transcends nation and self. His language is the language of a dissolving and reappearing world where all that's solid melts into air and then returns again as rippling light, water, clouds, mist, vales of a city, droplets of words as a miniature of his country floats away. He celebrates radiant water crowded with all kinds of / infinitesimal life. Liquid reflections are observed so closely as to be imperceptible (which they are not) like the tinkle of a droplet against water's lid / in a crowd of water-strides / very close to their toes / as water-sparks scatter over the reflections. Lost in the refractory maze of light and subtlety, Salejs considers how the world is resounding opaquely and yet transparent, and that though the symmetry of death is mirrored in a puddle a dark thirst for life remains.