LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 47, No. 3 - Fall 2001
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 2001 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Riga, engraving, 1547
A NOTE ABOUT VIZMA BELĐEVICA, A LATVIAN POETESS
ASTRIDA B. STAHNKE
"Wherever a nation... goes forward, there... goes her poetry," said Aspazija, the foremost Latvian poetess of the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. She said it in 1902. And thus it has always been with the Latvian nation—the people. Poets and musicians, more than politicians, have set the tone—the first saying the words, the latter setting them to music. Together, they have inspired the people, gathered and led them until they have become a force. Then the politicians come in, and the struggles and fights for freedom and independence turn into revolutions and wars and, finally, the declarations of great political moment. Then, even the politicians try to speak and write in poetic terms and often disappoint and confuse the people who trust them. But in the beginning, there—in Latvian territory—has always been the WORD.
During Soviet rule, from the end of World War II until its collapse in 1990, there, among the poets, lived and wrote Vizma Belđevica. She was born in 1931, started writing poems in the mid fifties, during Stalin's rule, and continued until the ascendance of Gorbachev. In 1987, she told me that all her poems worth publishing had been published and that she had nothing more to say. Since then, however, her autobiographical trilogy Bille has been published and is a best seller, demonstrating her superb talent as prose writer. But the focus of this essay will be on Belđevica the poet and her poetry. I wish to emphasize that this is a subjective essay and not a scholarly analysis. Others, notable Dr. Rolfs Ekmanis, have done that.* Her poetry has been analyzed at many literary conferences and poetry readings in Latvia and abroad. During the sixties and seventies her poems were translated into approximately forty languages of the Soviet Union, and recently into languages of the "Free World." She has received numerous prizes and awards. She has traveled to the Scandinavian countries, Ireland, France and elsewhere, where she has been listened to and honored and where her poems have been published. For example, in 1995, at the University of Stockholm, at a literary conference, the Irish poet, essayist and translator Desmond Egan stated: "Her range is impressive... she is a poet for our time... a genius, with the intensity and piercing insight of a great artist." To date, three volumes of poetry and the first volume of Bille, translated by Juris Kronbergs, have been published in Sweden. And the translations, into various languages, continue, assuring her a permanent place among twentieth century Eastern European writers.
I met Vizma Belđevica for the first time perhaps at the highest moment in her career, in the spring of 1983, when she was honored as the poet of her people in a special poetry concert in Old Riga, in the Small Guild House. I felt as though I has stepped into a paradoxical space, where medieval, Soviet, and Latvian orders and languages fused in a strange amalgam. The hall was packed, the stained glass windows lit by the setting sun, the atmosphere quietly charged. When she came on-stage, applause roared. She was seated on a throne-like chair. Then came the actors and actresses who recited her poetry, which struck me as extraordinary, forceful, and judgmental—not only of the big and strong who oppressed the weak, but also of herself (the persona) who was afraid, a loner, different, a being in an alienating world. With each poem, it seemed, the voltage of charged undertones increased until, in the end, came the Skandenieki (a censured folksinger group) with flowers. They surrounded the "throne" and laid the flowers all around her and, standing in a circle, sang praises in abstract, indirect folk songs, rich in transferable meaning.
After the ovations ceased and the hall emptied, my host guided me forward, through several doors until we came into a crowded room. And there she was, a rather ordinary woman. She was laughing, talking, smoking, while autographing the performance program. We were introduced. I— as "from America." We exchanged some words, and then she signed one of the programs and handed it to me. It said, "To Astrida who is very far." Our eyes met, and somehow, in spite of the distance, I sensed that we became linked.
I was the first Western translator/writer who had faced her thus. In turn, for me, it was as though I were confronting the self that had been left locked behind the Iron Curtain, when my family escaped in October 1944 and Latvia was cut in two by the onslaught of Russian and German forces. But I said nothing. Thanking her for the autograph, my guide and I left the ancient hall. After I returned home, cautiously, starting with Madaras (literal translation: picking madder root flowers), I began translating Belđevica's poems. I sent her the translation and confessed that I did not know what madarŕ were. I did not remember such flowers in my meadows. She sent a picture of them with a complimentary note about the translation and a few suggestions, corrections, explanations. Yes. Of course. Then, I recalled the flowers, with tiny star blossoms, tendrils that stuck to my bare feet, and bitter roots that women dug up for home remedies and dyes. The symbolism was clear, but Belđevica told me that her poems are not symbolic. No? I wondered. Then what are they? But I did not dispute. I translated more and sent them to her, and she sent them back—with comments and corrections. (Her English is excellent. She has translated a large amount of English literature into Latvian, including Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Milne's Winnie the Pooh, poems of T.S. Eliot and much more.) Our collaboration continued until 1995, when a volume of her poetry, such as I had envisioned, was completed. So that is the gist of our relationship. The next step is to find a publisher, thus hopefully making her works accessible to a wider international audience.
Belđevica's is a voice that needs to be heard in English, even in translation. It is a voice that opens the long-closed Soviet-occupied world, be it Latvia or any other Eastern European country that shed its shackles with such force that, it seemed, the earth trembled and the mighty fell. The poetry also reveals- inroads into the poet's psyche as it deals with censors, family members, and pressures to conform. It is a woman's voice beating against male-dominated hard lines; the persona tries to escape; she even wants to die, but cannot. And then the voice becomes a hushed, underground murmur until the ground breaks: until the metaphoric shoot breaks through last year's leaves and blooms.
Also, Belđevica's poems are like hidden photographs of the country. Through the permitted nature metaphors, we see, as in black-and-white prints, the trampled fields and meadows, the polluted springs and the sea, the ploughed-up skylark's nest, with "the children" gone. And we also see the smart crow, looking with one eye at the dawning light. We feel the strength and the beauty of endurance. We are made to face the truth; and the truth, so pure, hurts so much that we want to turn away, even as the persona often does. Still, the collective reaction of the people, quiet or loud, was outrage. Such outrage that, in time, the system was brought down, alas, also with the poet, who then "had nothing more to say."
Now she is quiet and ill, perhaps sustained by the knowledge that once, when it really mattered to her people, she was "Vizma. Simply Vizma... the conscience of her time and her nation." (Knuts Skujenieks in preface to her volume Ievziedu laika, Riga: Liesma, 1988.) To us, living outside our countries, she is an honest voice, a revelation of what we had escaped—what my parents, in a horse-drawn wagon, galloped away from when the bombs fell and the borders burned, placing a wall of fire between those on the outside and those on the inside.
This year, 2001, Riga is celebrating its 800th birthday. The city is spruced up. Some ancient buildings have been rebuilt and renovated. The Old Rathaus (Melngalvju nams) stands again in the old Hansa marketplace, close to the Daugava, undoubtedly more beautiful than ever. The opera house is also renovated, as is the Freedom Monument. And Riga will host many guests, the international jet set and some of us. There will be* celebrations on every corner this summer, as the linden trees bloom and the colorful crowds mill along the rivulet Ridzene, often mistaken for a canal. But this is the new Riga of the twenty-first century. Only a short time ago, Riga was gray; Riga was crumbling; Riga was left alone. Belđevica mortared that postwar Riga in her poems, which I present here in my translation as a reminder, a historical footnote, a contrast to the dressed-up Riga, illuminated with fireworks like a giant birthday cake. I am also submitting selected poems that reveal the breadth of the female artist's emotional palate in a rigid society, where sympathy with nature provides the only true escape and solace.
As I put these words and poems together, I wonder what is happening to the current Latvian poets and their poetry? Who is holding up the WORD now? Is poetry still "the guiding pillar of light," as Aspazija put it, or is that romantic notion obsolete—like her long skirts and plumed hats? Can great poetry thrive in a struggling democracy that was wrenched free at such risks and sacrifice, for which people paid with their nerves and ideals?
Last time I was in Riga, I saw moss gathering around the statue of Rainis—the greatest of them all...
* See, for example, World Literature Today, spring 1998, Vol. 72, p. 287-296, and Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twentieth-Century Eastern European Writers, Vol. 221, ed.: Stephen Serafin, Hunter College of the City University of New York, Bruccoli Clark Layman Book, the Gale Group: Detroit, San Francisco, London, Boston, Woodbridge, Conn., 2000. Also Latvian Literature Under the Soviets, 1940-75, Belmont, Mass.: Nordland Publishing Co., 1978.
I am a woman.
I am silence.
And silence must not say, "I love you."
Silence is the first to know
That when the acorns falling on the streets drum in the autumn
The oak tree is already on his way to winter's white aloneness;
Likewise he knows that silence will bear another spring
And labor hard in the floods' desolate contractions
Until, with one long moan, the ice will break.
A woman is the first to understand that.
And silence also.
I put upon your palm the heart of the woods
And the tiny loganberry told you what depth
Lies in the intricate entanglement of its roots.
You did not understand.
I passed to you the silent longing of the heather
And for loyalty—a green pine branch
That would endure the most outrageous frost.
You did not understand.
I sought out an empty bird's nest;
The down was full with love's warm simplicity
And the gentle presence of each daily care.
You did not understand.
Have you ever seen how the peat swamp burns?
Neither flames moan nor sparks fly spitefully—
There is only bitter silence,
so bitter that it takes one's breath away.
Without a sound inside the querulous marsh inebriation
Sink down the white burned-up stars of moss.
Without a sound the fir tree folds her needled branches
Over the sinking earth and with the earth dies silently.
But when at last you do hear, do understand
Why silence choked the throat so bitterly
It will be too late.
Only a black hollow will lie in the quiet field ready
For some wandering cloud to turn it into a lake
And rock mute fish in its waves.
And sometimes even the sea is silent, quiet,
Not even a droplet breaks on the sand.
So endlessly the sea waits for something
That she dare not murmur.
And then I say to her:
"Oh, sea, dear sea,
Oh, little girl, this age is very hard for you!
Let me fluff up your silky dune pillow
And place it underneath your tired head.
Rest for a little while.
I know—they often pile burdens
On you and never ask if you can bear them.
And they call you a strong woman.—
How sadly shine in your dark waves white strands!
So young and yet so gray...
So young and yet so tired..."
And she hides herself inside my hands,
And amber drops flow and flow.
"Well, weep out your grief... it will be better."
Great stillness fills the earth...
The sea weeps.
A LATVIAN HISTORY MOTIF: OLD RIGA
(LATVIJAS MOTIVS: VEERIGA)
Winds rage. Winds howl. Riga is silent.
Silent are the naked stone women.
Silent are marble beasts.
Spires are silent. On the tips of spires—
Winds tear. Winds roar. Riga is silent.
Like a key that is silent
When around the iron, sweating beats
A robber's pulse.
The conqueror always falls.
His blood upon the pavement
Will be silent.
Winds hit. Winds beat. Riga is silent.
Indifferent? Spiteful? Cowardly?
Don't ask. No one will answer. T
he transitory must scream:
The eternal affords silence.
I was today deep down in madaras,
Deep down by the roots, there, in the cool damp earth
That sees no sun; there, where brown stems
And tiny bloodless leaves mutely breathe.
Nowhere does the earth smell so strong,
Nowhere does the bitter joy—to live—
And the sweet wish—to die, to dig into the earth—
Entwine together. My eyes are closed,
And that within my veins
Is not my blood, but tears, and those
Are not of grief, nor even joy, but those
Are tears of sacrifice so poignant
That they dare not flow down my cheeks.
What am I? So useless for this life,
So happy, so very unhappy,
So—no and no, one single NO and—no?
That yes is bright like a half-blown flower,
Like a child's soft palm.
That NO is black-red
Like a bull's bellow when he tears a clump
But wants to tear the flesh.
And my lips cannot pronounce one single—YES.
Neither can lakes float anymore, nor man
Can guess their names; but there was a time,
When lakes did roar and float throughout the sky
Like heavy clouds, and fish darted like lightning
And water grasses bent and twisted green,
And sparks of waves glowed above the woods
When through the deep the sun's eye
Looked down on earth, and the WORD had power
So great that it could call: Lake, drop down to earth!
There was a time, when the elm said: Do not cut!
And man did not and sat beneath the tree,
And they both talked a long long time
About their offspring and about their daily cares.
I, it seems, I was a poppy in those times,
So sweetly did I bend with every wind,
With grasses did I dance. I looked deep
Into the gray-blue eyes of cornflowers,
From my juices and my seeds
Evaporated warm and heavy dreams
That, like full warm quiet heads of wheat,
Touched the hand.
Didn't I then ask questions of man or beast—
Who took his share and who was dazed by it?
Is that a jaybird in the frost or a snow bunting?
Is that an eagle there in that adar branch
Or is it man?—Dream madness to a poppy
Is like love madness to the cuckoo—
Without honor and shame it flaps about
And wants to drop in every nest
Its rounded seed—
That egg from which will hatch either a song or blossom.
Now the slumberous poppy herself by insomnia is struck!
Torn from its roots it walks
All over the asphalt,
And there is nothing for the roots to grasp,
To grow into again. I look above
To see if perchance some lake has risen high up in the sky
They will ask me: Where were you?
And I shall say:
I was in madaras, deep down into the roots...
I was there all day long.—
They won't believe me.
And then I'll add:
I listened to the aspen.
THAW IN LUDZA**
The people, not believing anymore in the power of heaven,
Did not put the roof on the church.
Trees have walked into the church
And pray for our sins.
They pray to the sun and the air
And the waters' holy spirit:
Blueness, forgive them, for they
know not what they do.
The gnarled arms reach toward heaven,
With humped backs the trees are begging,
And perhaps already their prayer has been heard,
For so peacefully sunlit is Ludza
That the reflection of the lakes stately
Walks through the quiet streets
And the crow looks with his blue eye
Into the face of the "passerby
And with a tilted head listens
Whether the aspen's catkins begin to break open...
And maybe others don't know it,
But Ludza knows what she does.
Translated by Astrida B. Stahnke
* Madder hunting; inside of madder flowers. Madder—a herbaceous climbing plant of the genus Rubia, esp. having panicles of small, creamy flowers. In Latvia, they bloom profusely in open meadows in June and July. The roots of this plant produce strong red dyes.
** Ludza: A small town in Latvia, in the District of Latgale, which is known for its beautiful lakes and gentle landscape. It is mostly Catholic and boasts of many churches of the medieval period. During World War II and the establishment of Communism many churches throughout this region and all over Latvia were demolished and desecrated.