On Poetry


Jānis Rainis is a Latvian poet

In Soviet hard labor camps,guards often removed buttons and fasteners from prisoners’ clothing. (note for “Button”)

Latvian Feature

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Knuts Skujenieks
Knuts Skujenieks

from “Collected Works” Book I


When people shall read this bitter intertwining
these words not called nor begged for
and think of what created them
whom will they reflect more? You or me?
when people shall think of a soul so lonely
who even powerless can light up a sunbeam
should they say fine the world still has sunbeams
will they know what feeds the sunbeam?
I myself don't know my beloved
you the distant hollow sound of a bell
I don't know but I sense you
and send another line on paper
you tremble like air from the flutter of wings
over my hopes and my sadness
we may separate like low clouds
but we don't wake cold and estranged
for others we may deny each other
but we don't pass each other by
we may be bitter about life's betrayal
but we're chained not only by love
from common refuse we burn the same fire
from a common spiritual fiber
if you should tire know that people will read
again and again ask for the sunbeam
and intertwined we are related
I sing of you while you lead me
your breath in each letter
half of it me


I'm not conquerable I'm not destroyable in the open
field trampled cursed and spat on
don't look at my bones that ever slower
walk under my skin but if you wish to look perhaps
this is a lesson listen to my words listen
listen hear listen again but listen
because my words are my work and other work I don't have
I won't have
a battle in life in which I'll be the loser because
I don't have either a bayonet or war ruse only words
I place in the center in the most open place to root after
a year or two hundred what does it matter? if right now or
after seven ounces of sweat what does it matter?
my bones aren't worth a penny because I have words and they're
not janis' peter's or knuts skujenieks words these WORDS are
if you want to look balance bones on elbows or
put your foot in front but a word is a word even forgotten
it leaves echoes in the forest circles in water and peoples'
discord with life and themselves
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


don't search for the world's guilt
don't expect the bloody comet

the comet won't help us
friends will still be destroyed
revenge will still be the enemies'
but we'll still be in the middle
only the comet's tail will pierce our hearts
but we'll still be in the middle

and the world will still be not good not evil
neither cold nor hot without shame without honour

let's leave the sheets in the bed white
let's not prepare to be blown into air

the comet shall return to its parabola
but we'll still be in the middle
on the bridge
if we haven't prepared our floodlights
for each to return to his own parabola

and the world will stand still mindless and clueless
and we'll still be empty on an empty bridge
with a comet's tail piercing our hearts

if we won't blow ourselves up into our air
if we ourselves won't go through our hearts
the comet will remain just an empty newspaper page
to be torn in four and placed in a toilet
friends will still be destroyed
revenge still will be the enemies'

let's not wait


from the center from silence
from the very core
may it reach you and sink
in the deepest sense

after which I'll start to say
before which I'll stop to say
the word I forever search for
and never shall say


Like a cherry tree that saves at its crest
Its last remaining fruit —
That's how I save my tattered shirt
Its one and only button.

When souvenirs and hope are lost
When the burden grows too heavy
I finger on my chest the button
You've sewn on.

In spite of years and hungers
In spite of snow and sleep
You've mended my threadbare life
With strands of love and eternity

Day wins over night. I gaze
Into the one and only window. Bright.
Not the window. But on my chest
Life burning, your button.


          Il n'y aplus rien de moi
          Et ceux qui craignent les brulüres. . .

                     —Guillaume Apollinaire

This is the last barricade, firing line, red zone.
across it
we no longer shall stand hand in hand
neither friend nor deputy or drinking pal.

This the last day, last sentence, last chance.
On the boundary the word we shall burn.
The word you won't make it through fire.
Only they will remain.

Tonight let's sit on our baggage of reason,
on the backpacks of our sense of honor
let's count the small change of our life
needed to reach our destination — or return.

Let's sit together till the morning.


In some century, some legend
was there an evening, swamplike and silent?
June warmth and lip warmth?
A last bus?

As it's written: year after year. . .
Sod turned over sod . . .
In some poem even to this day
does a loon cut across some heart?

In some country, some cultural dig
was there a camp called home?
a last bus,
a girl barefoot?


with both feet planted into the horizon
a red rider wanders
visibly ages
fades faster than a flower

he doesn't know how to talk to people
the horse does not recognize him

seeing the rider
slowly slowly tear


          Tu tas nebiji, kas bija Ķīnā...
          (You were not the one who was in China. . .)

                     Jānis Rainis*

This story is short.
They broke the hands
of the pianist.

Broke them
in the name of World Revolution
and for the sake of a Bright Future.

They say,
if gods are to be fed
there must be a sacrifice.

And the pianist's
broken hands
the only proof of loyalty
if a human can ever pledge loyalty
to a voracious god.

Even though I'm not
either Chinese
or the pianist
Liu Shikun,
I know a thing or two
about idols
and idolatry.


I can't
My heart grows soft like a horse's muzzle.
My heart begs for bread
from the open palm of a friend.
The heart wants
to be slapped a bit
once again to be strong.

I too am only a living creature
I need
my small place in the sun.

I can't
I don't have a place in the sun.
Across my heart cracks



My eyes fill with blood
my head full of evil thoughts
and my heart
grits strong, fierce teeth

I can
but this is no longer my heart

Translated by Margita Gailitis