Having become used to these Arc translations, I find myself opening a book by
a British poet and finding the poems naked without Preface or Introduction.
Where the Preface here by the editor tells us about the poems we are about to
read, I reckon I can find out for myself, but also I have to say we are
looking at the originals and at her translations, and the Preface overall is
well worth reading. The longer Introduction, by Juris Kronbergs (b.1946 and
we are told one of the leading poets now in Latvia), has made me think a
separate volume of the introductions to these Arc books would itself be a
major contribution to cultural and translation studies.
I have had to go to a map to find out where Latvia is. As with other of these
Arc books, it seems likely all the poets speak English as a second language,
and have acquaintance with Western European and American poets. Who of
British poets knows Latvian? This is a complex matter and perhaps is being
studied: the movement of styles, influences, even phrases and allusions
moving between nationalities in the past, say, fifty years.
We are told there has until relatively recently been a folk poetry tradition,
and that 'all Latvians are [or were] poets', that under Communism poetry
books sold in their many thousands, that history and the news, the life of
the place, was by and large the subject, written in traditional forms, and
that now everything has opened up, poetry is its own subject. Or within this
tension the personal is.
Too glib a precis, and please make your own judgement in response to
Kronbergs when he says, "the main issue for Latvian poetry is 'how it
sounds' and not 'what it means' which seems to be the main concern of poetry
in English." And it is tricky to speak of 'how it sounds' when what we
have here is translation.
There is almost a prevailing practice here to do away with punctuation.
Perhaps 'do away with' is the negative view; the poems are thought either not
to need it or to be what they need to be without it. The lineation does what
needs doing. A conference is
needed on poetry and punctuation.
Anna Auzina uses some punctuation, her poems seem to breathe the most easily,
seem the quietest. (All the poets, by the way, live in the capital, Riga.
There must be questions about that, but I don't know what they are.) Anna
Auzina's poems may look modern-traditional, but her quotation from Andre
Breton (translated from Latvian to French for the English) is the clue to
something else (no title):
My man with
eyes of sea at sunset
With icy floe
eyelids of mist
squinting with one eye
My man with a
polar bear's soul
sail through his fjords
and so on. Her poetic forms vary a lot, while the mode is generally this kind
of metaphorical statement-making.
Ingmara Balode's running on of lines makes for a rush of thought and feeling,
and again her mode makes the ordinary surreal. 'An unknown paradise' begins
'how I was searching for you in an unknown paradise' and then ten or so lines
but on the
curving pavements by the monument
no one was
walking like you
that's whan I got scared -
if we lived
under all those
citrus mussel covered tables sea pebbles and flying
fish - in
matisse's blue blazing sky and the yellow cabins of
how would i find you there how
would I possibly know
To fit my space here I have run on the long line differently, which seems not
to matter, the translation already differing in this from the Latvian
Unable to read the Latvian, my impression is that all the translations are
alive in the way the poets wanted them to be; they could of course be better
than the originals, all I can say is that I rate this book very highly for
its poems by women
as brought across into English.
There could be a conference also on poetry and the personal, with variance in
the meaning of what is personal - in relation to other persons singly, in
relation to community or nation - not that a conference would be as
significant or alive as the poems. For instance, how to discuss this, by
Agnese Krivade? (Poems run on through the book, not a poem to a page, and
often without titles follow-through is not always clear; this one seems -
separated by *** - to be the final part of a poem called 'Home'):
easy, my love? don't look for me
look for pale
worked over by bees
a blossoming lawn
drink from a
crow, from an ant or from anyone who can it all
go to the
skies, twist in a storm, see how the big ones
and grace plough over the globe
There being some punctuation, line 5 seems to shift into a question, but does
it? How clear is this translation? I think I trust it, but in that line in
the original there are two commas.
A good translation suggests how the poet, if reading in English, would come
across emotionally and musically, the kind of presence they would have. I am
picking up both a boldness, a confidence on stage, a rush of energy and a
sensitivity. Here is some of the flow from the oldest of these poets, Marts
Pujats, born 1971, a prose poem (I think so, his poems are either blocked or
work by way of very long lines), called 'Flour and salt', second section:
misfortune has struck the poor guys - people worried in
the little local tavernas, looking at
dark-eyed girls tanning and
pasta - look at their faces - sipping their sweet wine,
fretted - what is that expression? - and a little Lombadrian
in a dark
skirt brought the men ciabattas sprinkled with olive oil
for the wine...- and these eyes! these eyes! like
and so on. As this mode goes on on it is too much like stand-up comedy for
me, even the non-prose poems seem to be playing for laughs or whatever
And in turning to the other two men represented here, I see I am making a
women-men distinction. Maris Salejs has a differnt style but is also a
transparency has its rules
a star comes and ruins the glass
so frank. so material
pushes through and shards scatter over the street
extnguished air takes the breath away
yellow light is drenched
eyes, eyes of all those frozen in darkness
drenched with sleep
drenched with the unspeakable
proving still unable to resolve: dissolve
or gather in thick fists for being
This is the whole of a poem or section - between *** .
Karlis Verdins also seems to me to be basically a statement-maker, whether in
short-lined poems or (mostly) ones that behave like prose. The women seem to
be discovering and having fun and being open to whatever's there, painful or
not, and most importantly exercising the medium as one might a musical
instrument in a contemporary mode; the men seem to want to be heard talking.
To go back
and live with my mum - to go with all of my
honestly state: mummy, I tried, you saw for
really tried. But it simply isn't for me.
could stay in bed all day, watch soap operas,
live on mum's
salary, and later her pension. By that
are sure to be normal. Help her carry
groceries, let her scold me, teach me, hug me.
On dark winter evenings keep whining
and so on ('Mummy, I have a plan!').
How does all this match up with what is being written in the UK? What is
poetry when it lives in and between us?
© David Hart 2011