Latvian Feature

poetry by Māris Salējs

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The Butterfly's Apology

Māris Salējs

By Māris Salējs

Translated by Inara Cedrins


Linguistic philosophy states that the “eternal questions” have risen simply from incorrect usage of language. If this thought is logically followed, one must accept that perceptions of the world, as well, are consequences to the incorrect usage of language. If we used language correctly, differences (heat —cold—cold—light—darkness, life—death etc.) would evaporate. The world would no longer be delineated by phenomena. In the end, even the difference between oneself and the world would vanish. There would no longer be anyone able to differentiate the essences of earth. Our world would no longer exist.

How to follow that? The only way to correctly use language — is not to use it all.

To continue my thought: small nationalities also follow paths of incorrect usage. Latvians, Lithuanians, Livonians, Estonians, Finns, Lapps, Wepps, Kurds. . . exist only because they are labeled as such. In truth they have only become visible to the eyes of larger nations. Their language is also incorrect. They have the nerve to call things by words not understood, separating and collecting a plart of the world to themselves. You see, even small Indian tribes in Brazilian jungles are meddlers underfoot for highway builders.

The universal globalization process on earth is domineered by elephant-sized languages (English, Russian, German, French and Spanish). Misfits, colorful butterflies of language, are short-lived, making a marginal appearance only.

But. . .

If this barely noticed butterfly is much older than the enormous elephant? Perhaps it flew through the air even before elephants stamped their feet upon earth. It is enough for some butterflies in an unconscious moment to flutter wings, in order to strike a whirlwind from the air, that sweeps elephants in Indian and Africa from their feet.

Perhaps this insignificance is a simile of an unimagined occurrence: or the fact of being unnoticed is an aid to accomplishing something inevitable? Catch all the butterflies and there will no longer be whirlwinds? Not in existence. Perhaps there will be nothing any longer. It could be an auspicious end to the world.


What is the Latvian language? Isn't it such a butterfly? Toward such butterflies, history has been unmerciful: from a once full Baltic language group, only Latvian and Lithuanian remain. Linguists study these with etymologists' absorption — as the most ancient relics of a living Indo-European body of language.

After a peripatetic journey of some 1,000 years, the current Baltic states having been annexed first by one, then another conqueror — Germany, Poland, Sweden, Russia, and, in the end, the Soviet Union — after a series of pestilences and wars, the assimiliation politics of the dominator: indeed it is a miracle that this country, this literature, exist— a literature which had to be preserved under the circumstances of totalitarianism, in order to keep alive this unique linguistic cosmos, guarding it from being devoured.

The core of poetry is metaphor. Thus, it is most difficult to interpolate poetic passages. Therefore, Latvian poetry translated to other languages and cultures loses the impact of metaphor, which originally was a double-edged blade— directed to the reader searching for a secret message. Poetry was a rare means through which an oppressed nation could approach subjects in literature, not merely objects. For just this reason the “poetics” and “metaphorisms” of the oppressed culture were strengthened. Poetry and metaphor are the most difficult to pinpoint in meaning, and control. They cannot be chopped down, because their roots are in another world.

Now the situation has changed. After the passing of fourteen years since Latvia in 1991 achieved independence, poetry is facing another problem. Having swerved from its earlier tasks (those now performed by institutions, responsible in a democratic environment), it has lost its primary popularity, stopped “fitting the thanksless prophet's role” (Guntis Barelis); now the questions arises, what is the real endeavor poetry makes?

Yes, now democracy is in place— but democracy of a specific post-Socialist Eastern European brand. Very few idealists who fought for independence appear today in the government. Nowadays, those in power are pragmatic, and as in Soviet times, hold no illusions about the system, managing nevertheless to work very well within it and make the best of it. When Perestroika began, and later with the Awakening, they were farseeing and foretold the crumbling of socialism. They allowed a “singing revolution” to take place in the Baltic states. In every situation they knew how to take the most advantage. Perhaps for just this reason—their enviable ability to knit themselves into reality—pragmatists, not idealists, rule the country at this time. What holds sway now is a democracy that has its own nature, a mixture of ferocious capitalism and imported technology. Of course, after Latvia joined the European Union, our government, whether willing or not, must adapt to new norms of law, improve work environments, manage the transformation of government-owned enterprises to privatization, turn over to their management greater independence, overcome corruption. At least for the time being, these corrections are cosmetic: to upgrade the facade of the country, to give an impression of progress.

All powers have strived to impact the arts. If in socialist times this was done with a measure of brutality, in the structure of democracy it is done with a finer touch, using the economy as direction. This is no longer “a battle between a flower and an axe” (as the distinguished poet formulated in her time)—repression, forbidding of publication, imprisonment, secret service organized “unfortunate incidents” and “suicides.” Currently, there is a gentle effort to genetically modify this blossom: to attach mass culture, as end to salvage: to change it into a purely utilitarian value. Thus, the situation is created in which “serious” literature becomes uninteresting, boring. Culture is supplanted by subculture. At this time Latvia has cultural publications in numbers that can be counted on the fingers of one hand that are independent from the rather conservative and, at times, from campaign-oriented ownership or party financing: it is likewise worth noting that within the count are one weekly newspaper with a section dedicated to literature and two literary journals. It was only two years ago that, through the efforts of writers, a Latvian Literature Center was founded —its mission to popularize Latvian literature in Latvia as well as in other countries.


In truth, the relation between art (and philosophy) has been known since the time of democracy in Athens, if not earlier. Only the masks change.

Therefore, it is more significant that personalities are created in times of struggle for independence. The process of creation requires independence from strictures and social pressure; from literary modes. The poet cannot be forced to lose honor in this way, or lower himself in accordance with the laws of power. But the price for this is too high—as is apparent in world history and in instances of Latvian cultural history.

Yes, Dante in his immortal work had to reckon with political opponents, who drove him to exile from the city of his birth. But he dealt with them as an artist, not as a politician. Today we remember the words of the political protestor in the Divine Comedy only for its sake, not the other way around. Here also, nothing in Latvia stopped the outstanding poet Knuts Skujenieks, after leaving the hell of a labor camp, in reentering the battle on the side of the oppposition; not lowering himself in his poetry to vilification, but attesting to the sovereignity of poetry, acting as a catalyst to new poets and nurturing a generation. The pressures of power also did not undermine Belševica when a campaign to weaken her was launched after the publishing of her poem “Indrika Latvian Notes on the Edges of Chronology” in 1969. The payment for not buckling was harsh—resulting in official staging, as in the “suicide” of her son, the poet Klāvs Elsbergs in 1987.

Who can state now, in the fourteenth year after occupation, that poetry and poets should have rescued their creative independence? Should it have been a deeper assumption of beauty? It seems not. If, in the first years of occupation when poetry was met with a vacuum of public interest, an understandable confusion took place, then it can almost certainly be said that after 1990 Latvian poetry acknowledged its mission.

What is this mission? Perhaps it can be forumated as: to waken the soul of the people, to set awareness working in a broader realm, to enable seeing the world as a whole rather than as fragmented, to make it possible to taste existence. If poetry is aware of these obligations, it can allow itself to be also social, political, religious, feminist. . . as said by the evangelists, “Love, and do as you like.” In just this inextricable relationship to pressure from society and the norms of power is hidden the strength of poetry, and also the fearfulness of the poet's profession. For example, an event in Latvian history: when in 1959 the murderers of the poet Uldis Leinerts were tried, they were asked why they had clubbed their victim to death. The answer was:“ His eyes held an unnatural brightness.”