Latvian Feature

Comments on poetry by

Māris Salējs

Edvīns Raups

Knuts Skujenieks

To Be The Roots

By J.C. Todd J.C. Todd

     A language dies as one might expect: the weak find they must speak to the strong in the language of the strong. According to linguist Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, as many as 3,000 languages will go silent in this century. Three thousand languages, comprising half of all the words on earth, will slip from utility into coded secrets and then into disuse, languages such as Karo, spoken in Ethiopia, whose speakers numbered less than 200 in 2001, or the native Alaskan Eyak whose last speaker is 88 years old, if she is still alive. When languages cease to be spoken, their embalmers often are the anthropologists and linguists who prepare them for burial in filing cabinets and audio libraries. They cease to be spoken when no one is listening.

     But what of “little” languages, like Latvian, perhaps threatened but not on the verge of extinction, languages spoken by millions, rather than hundreds or thousands? What preserves these languages, keeps humans listening, during times of hostile occupation, so they continue, in the words of poet Vizma Belševica, “To be the roots. In subsoil where never a ray/Descends.”

     Saving a language sometimes requires war or uprising, sometimes nationalistic urges, and always a people's resistance to hegemony and their unrelenting desire that their language survive as a living tongue sent out to a living ear. Certainly that resistance and desire has driven the people of Latvia as they have emerged from a half century of Soviet occupation to re-establish Latvian as the language of the nation, the language of government and the law. What a complex enterprise this is. Latvian re-emerged as a national language in 1990, squeezed between the global dominance of English and the imposed dominance of Russian. The current ethnic mix of the population is largely the result of massive immigration during the years when the Soviet occupation Russified Latvia. More than two hundred thousand Latvians were deported to Russia, thousands more emigrated to other countries, and hundreds of thousands of Russians were relocated to Latvia. Education, government and legal proceedings were conducted in Russian as was some of the business of daily life. Now, sixty-five years later, Latvians are outnumbered by ethnic Russians and other minorities in some major Latvian cities, including the capital, Riga. Whereas ethnic Latvians comprised 77% of the population in the 1935 census, their share had declined to 52% in 1989 and today is 51%. Almost three generations have lived in a language whose world view does not fully express the land and the culture to which they are born. For ethnic Latvians, to speak Russian risks erasing or obscuring their legends and myths, their folk wisdom, family stories, even the cycle of seasons, in short, everything that has engendered in the word a whole way of life.

     But Latvians have had a millennium of practice in sustaining the repertoire of meanings embedded in their language when it has been forced underground. From the tenth century, AD, when Rune stones in the region of Courland document Viking attacks, until the twentieth century, Latvia struggled against repeated sieges and occupations by Danes, Germans, Russians, Tartars, Teutonic Knights, Poles and Swedes. In 1920, Russia and Latvia signed a peace treaty that relinquished all Soviet claim to Latvian territories in perpetuity, yet by 1940 the Soviet military had violated the treaty and occupied Latvia once more, an occupation that continued until 1990-91 when, with the collapse of the Soviet government, Latvia gained the independence it currently observes. During the centuries of occupations, Latvian dainas (folk songs) have recorded, revealed and handed down not only the cultural heritage but also the effects of oppression and moral resistance to it. When they were sung, and that was frequently, the language emerged, alive with history yet imbued with the sense of hereness that song in throat achieves. By the late 1930's, over 2,000,000 dainas had been collected in the Archives of Latvian folklore in Riga. Collected, but not embalmed for the dainas form the core of a vast repertoire performed by Latvian choral societies. Folk fests and choral competitions have been part of the fabric of Latvian life for centuries, festivals in which the collective consciousness of the nation is awakened in song. When the dainas are sung, the nation listens.

     The submersion of the Latvian language during multiple occupations has not destroyed its roots. Instead it has created a contemporary poetry of displacement and psychic rupture expressed in fragmented images and narratives, a Baltic surreal that emerges from multiple perspectives, blurred definitions of time and place, neologisms and other linguistic innovations, and anti-authoritarian subjectivity. This is a thoroughly post-modern, post-colonial, post-traumatic poetry, as literary historian Karl Jirgens has noted. Paradoxically, Latvia's position as a “weaker,” occupied nation has been transformed into the strength of its literature.

     This issue of The Drunken Boat features a sampling of the poetry of contemporary Latvia. Linguistically complex (closely related to Sanskrit) and infrequently translated, it is a poetry too little known beyond Latvia and its diaspora; readers outside Scandinavia and the Baltics have only recently become aware of the power and vitality of Latvian poetry, and readers in English-speaking countries are for the most part unaware. Translations of Latvian poems rarely appear in U. S. literary journals, with two recent exceptions: the entire issue of Descant: 124 (35:1, Spring 2004) and a selection in the on-line journal Omega (Spring 2005). Perhaps more emblematic of the low visibility of Latvian poetry is the fact that, with the exception of Belševica, Astrīde Ivaska and Imants Ziedonis, none of the Latvian poets published here is referenced in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics published in 1993. Many of the poets in this feature were born after the Soviet occupation of 1940; a few born in the early twentieth century are included: Ziedonis, who was a statesman and scholar as well as a poet; Belševica, whose livelihood and publications were severely circumscribed by Soviet authorities; Knuts Skujenieks, who was sentenced to a hard labor camp in Siberia for anti-Soviet agitation; Pēteris Zirnītis, who until his death in 2001 was a publisher as well as a poet; and Ivaska, who lived in exile in the United States for many years. Providing a framework for them and for the poets born during the Soviet era is an excerpt from Māris Salējs' excellent essay, “The Butterfly's Apology,” which offers a chronology and critical commentary. Providing a comparative context for the Latvian poetry is work from other former Soviet republics (Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Ukrainia) and from Russia as well. The Ukrainian Dovzhenko was born in 1894, the Hungarian Csoóri is of Belševica's generation, while the Russian Lisnyanskaya is from the generation of Uldis Bērziņš and the Slovenian poet Lucija Stupica and the Romanians are of the generations of Jānis Elsbergs and Kārlis Vērdiņš.

     In addition to the traditionally accepted limitations of translation, of poetry especially, we were sensitive to the particular risks inherent in translating from a “little” language into a dominant language. Primary is the necessity to circumvent the monocultural assumptions embedded in a lingua franca, assumptions that might limit articulation or distort tone, diction or syntactical intention.. In translating the literature of Eastern European and Baltic languages, there is an additional necessity to circumvent the American tendency to concentrate on the Jewish experience of the Holocaust, and thereby to (perhaps unwittingly) undervalue the extraordinary suffering of all civilian populations. Separation of families, starvation, epidemic disease (cholera, measles, pneumonia, diptheria, dysentery), debilitating injury, death, deportation, diasporic displacement—these were European traumas during World War II and its aftermath of displaced persons, shifting borders and new nations cobbled together by the power-brokering and diplomatic trade-offs at war's end. Since the defeat of Wales in the thirteenth century (or earlier by the reckoning of some historians), English has been the language of the conquerer. How is it to translate the language of the often-conquered? Or perhaps the question is more clearly articulated this way: whose English will translate the Latvian, whose can articulate the root?

     For this issue, all but one of the translators are rooted in Latvia, either by birth or lineage. Some, for instance, Ieva Lešinska, were born in Latvia and lived in the United States during their formative years. Others, for instance, my co-editor Margita Gailitis, were born in Latvian emigré families living in Canada or the United States, the children of the twentieth century's diaspora. Not only are they bilingual, but during childhood, they were immersed in Latvian culture at home and through attendance at Saturday language schools and summer camps. Some, such as Gailitis and Inara Cedrins have relocated to Latvia; others, such as Ilze Klavina-Mueller remain in the United States. I am the exception; I have no Latvian lineage or language and so I worked closely with Amanda Aizpuriete on her poems and with trots supplied by Belševica's son, Jānis Elsbergs, on hers. As for the translators of the non-Latvian poets, two are notable. Dzvinia Orlowsky is a well-known Ukrainian translator living in the United States. This excerpt is from her translation of Dovzhenko's memoir, The Enchanted Desna. Len Roberts is a former Fulbright scholar to Hungary and translator of two volumes of Csoóri's poetry; we are fortunate to publish these new translations.

     Throughout the four years of poem-gathering and study that culminated in this feature, Jānis Elsbergs has been a faithful guide; his wise, if quiet influence has underpinned our efforts. Our special thanks to him. The idea for the feature was sparked in 2001 over baked salmon and quail eggs with a finalé of Black Balsam liqueor in the Riga flat of Gunilla Forsen, then the Swedish Embassy's cultural attaché to the Baltic states. There I met Knuts Skujenieks and Pēteris Zirnītis, both of whom suggested that I could best engage with Latvian poetry by publishing it in translation. Gunilla also arranged introductions with Jānis, Amanada Aizpuriete, Uldis Bērziņš, and the first directors of the Latvian Literature Centre, Liāna Langa and Pēteris Draguns, who were enormously helpful in the initial planning. It was not until Jānis introduced me to Margita Gailitis, however, that the feature developed a sustaining force. In addition to translating, Margita coordinated the project in Latvia. Through her, we gained further support from the Latvian Literature Centre (under its second director, Marta Dziluma) and the Latvian Culture Capital Foundation, and we received scholarships to the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Visby, Sweden, whose director, Lena Pasternak, was helpful in many ways. Others in Latvia offered assistance: As editor of Kultūras Forums, Edvīns Raups announced The Drunken Boat publication to literary Latvia; and author Māris Salējs and translator Inara Cedrins gave permission to reprint an excerpt from “The Butterfly's Apology.” In the United States, support for my travel to Latvia and Sweden came from the Leeway Foundation and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the vision and effort of Editor and Publisher, Rebecca Seiferle, and the generosity, goodwill and artistry of the poets and translators. Our gratitude and appreciation go to all who gave counsel and support. Our intention has been to be true to the roots.

     We hope the poems open the reader to the power and humility of Latvian poetry, a poetry whose power is, as Ziedonis writes, “uncountable,” and as Raups writes, “heartclean.” Whose humility shows itself in plurality, in the equal worth of the many, as Bērziņš writes, “It's me here; it's him, it's you,” and in a sense of scale, albeit ironic, as Aizpurite writes, “At the end it becomes simple: to write letters to gods/ when everyone else has changed their address,” and in a tolerance for instability, as Zālīte writes, “You disappear without a trace.” This is a poetry in which, as Skujenieks writes:
my bones aren't worth a penny because I have words and they're
not jānis' peter's or knuts skujenieks words these WORDS are
human . . .

even the most vulgar word the most bitter word
is human not for me to know nor you where these words come from
or where they go to
and our lack of knowledge keeps us alive indebted to death
our being
so listen hear beside me root
and you shall not be conquered
A poetry rooted in the human, listening.

—J. C. Todd
     Riga, Latvia, October, 2005
     Philadephia, Pennsylvania, USA, December, 2005


Berelis, Guntis. “Latvian Poetry During the Post-Prophetic Era.” All Birds
     Know This
. Talpas (2001): 5-11.
Jirgins, Karl. “A Kaleidoscopic Perspective of Latvian Culture.” Descant
35:1 (2004): 67-90.
___. “Carnival of Death: Writing in Latvia Since Independence.” World
     Literature Today
72:2 (1998): 269-281.
Melngaile, Valda. “Nature in Contemporary Latvian Poetry: A Changing Vision.”
      Lituanus: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences 17:1 (1971)
Shorris, Earl. “The Last Word.” Harpers (August 2000):35-43.
Silenieks, Juris. “Latvian Poetry.” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of
     Poetry and Poetics
. Ed. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan. Princeton University Press (1993): 685-6.
Steiner, George. “Topologies of Culture.” After Babel: Aspects of Language
     and Translation
. Third Edition. Oxford University Press (1998): 436-95.

Selected Recommended Reading in English:

While our feature anthologizes the poetry of ethnic Latvians living in Latvia,
     Latvian emigré poetry also is included in some of the following texts. For
     an overview of the Orbita group, ethnic Russian poets living in Latvia
      and writing in Russian, see Latvian Literature #3.

Select Anthologies:

All Birds Know This: Selected Contemporary Latvian Poetry. Eds. Astrīde
      Ivaska and Māra Rūmniece. Tapals: Riga, Latvia 2001.
“The Butterfly’s Apology,” OMEGA: 3. Eds. Māris Salējs and
     Inara Cedrins. (a mini- anthology)
Contemporary Latvian Poetry. Ed. Inara Cedrins. Iowa University Press, 1984.
“In Latvia, Observed/Abroad/In Memory.” Descant 124 (35:1 Spring 2005)
      Ed. Larissa Kostoff. (The entire issue is an anthology of contemporary
     Latvian poetry, prose and critical commentary.)

Select Journals/ Poetry and Criticism:

The Journal of Baltic Studies. Association for the Advancement of Baltic
     Studies. Occasional critical commentary on Latvian culture
Latvian Literature. Ed. Pauls Bankovskis. Contemporary Latvian poetry
     and prose in English translation. Published quarterly by the Latvian
     Literature Centre. Selections of some issues available on-line. Email:
World Literature Today. Oklahoma University. Occasional source of
     contemporary Latvian poetry, prose and critical commentary.