Author portrait
Imants Ziedonis // PORTRAIT

The first two volumes of poetry by Imants Ziedonis (1933) fit in fairly well with the Latvian poetry of the early 1960s. They are dynamic, exciting, and full of rhetoric, and include journalistic poems, apologias for the idea of progress, and the slightly naïve conviction that you can change the world.
But his third collection, “Motocikls” (“The Motorcycle”) (1965), was much more significant. In that volume, the author, reminding us that he still reveres speed as holy, shows himself as a rational thinker who constantly meditates on irrational and inexpressible matters. On the one hand, we find a tendency toward almost classical ethical metaphors and dreams about world order, or at least organization; on the other, an allergy to any torpidity, routine, and essentially to that very same organization. That’s why it’s almost logical that his texts are presented as an infinite string of paradoxes. Within the extremely monotonous context of the poetry of the time, Ziedonis attracted attention with his extravagant formal constructions. For instance, Ziedonis treats motorcycle parts as existential metaphors; a text has been dedicated to each of them, which together form a coherent whole – the mechanical successfully harmonized with the spiritual.
Ziedonis continued similar extravagances in his subsequent volumes. In the cycle “Pieturas zīmes” (“Stop Signs”), Ziedonis granted meaning to the period, colon, and exclamation point; in other places, conjunctions become existential metaphors; and still elsewhere, matters of the soul are spoken of with the help of geometric figures. The heading of his volume “Es ieeju sevī” (“I Retreat into Myself”) (1968) characterizes, to a certain extent, the changes that took place in Latvian poetry in the mid to late 1960s: a movement from social or ethical maximalism to self-analysis; from an apologia of progress to reflections on the theme of eternity; from categorical and unequivocal assertions to strongly equivocal irony and thinking in the categories of paradoxes. This was realized to an even greater extent in Ziedonis’s next book, “Kā svece deg” (“How the Candle Burns”) (1971), in which the author tried to break stereotypes of perception – for instance, as an antithesis to heaviness he proclaims the art of splitting hairs.
This thinking in paradoxes is expressed in all of Ziedonis’s works – he constantly returns to the complexity of simplicity, upside-down correctness, the wrongness of truth, the multiplicity of one and the union of everything, the eternity of a point, etc. The very boundaries of language are most likely too narrow for him.
Ziedonis’s truly modernistic aggression has transformed into a positive ethical program, without losing modernism’s characteristic ironic elegance. His interest in folklore and history has increasingly crystallized. But as opposed to the majority of poets – in the 1970s, the use of folklore was very widespread – Ziedonis doesn’t take advantage of historical materials as an instigator for his text, or write poetry “on themes.” Rather, he weaves through his works a finely spun net, which encompasses an infinite number of signs that, over the centuries, have accumulated meaning and transformed into symbols. All that’s needed is to liberate these condensed meanings, to look at what is behind a sign’s everyday significance. That’s why Ziedonis tends to look at them from a completely unexpected point of view.
He has also tried to create a “formula for Latvianness” – to find the Latvian equivalent to various cultural signs and, most importantly, to incorporate these other cultural signs in a specific context, so that a more-or-less finished system is created. It’s hard to say whether this has worked (particularly because Ziedonis tends to immediately destroy any system he creates). Nevertheless, the empty spaces in our national mythology were at least filled up for a time. In this regard, it’s worth mentioning “Poēma par pienu” (“The Poem About Milk”) (1977), which is composed of approximately two hundred texts that feature two central symbols: a mother and milk. For the most part, these are, at first glance, unpretentious diary-style notes jotted down over the course of a single summer – short episodes from daily life in the countryside, descriptions of nature, historical allusions, and spells. All the tiny details of daily life that have some sort of connection with the dominating metaphor, milk, become poetic details.
Ziedonis’s gloomiest book, “Caurvējš” (“Draft”) (1975), was followed by “Man labvēlīgā tumsā” (“In a Darkness That’s Good for Me”) (1975), the author’s latest attempt to break the inertia of perception. Since the very beginning, Latvian literature has traditionally interpreted “darkness” as the opposite of “light,” as an ally of evil forces and as a milieu favorable for chaos. “Man labvēlīgā tumsā” is dedicated to justifying darkness (though in Ziedonis’s view, any concept connected to darkness is ambivalent – darkness and light are so closely linked that there can’t be any talk of polarities). “Man labvēlīgā tumsā” strives to be transformed into a conceptual whole, to be cleansed of all that is superfluous. Essentially, the book is dedicated to developing and poetically analyzing a single metaphor. The volume seemingly strives to shrink into a single compact metaphor, into an infinitely small point, which, when viewed from this same point, is nonetheless infinitely large.
Something similar happens in the collection “Re, kā” (“See How It Is”) (1981), which include possibly the most extensive momentary apologias ever written in the history of Latvian literature. The volume’s guiding motif is the “re, kā” (“see how it is”) of the title. The author has created so many refined intellectual constructions that now you can exclaim, with naïve excitement, “see how it is!” about the most mundane matters. And the strangest part is that, though excitement can certainly be heard in this exclamation, there isn’t any sign of naiveté. At the same time, “Re, kā” is Ziedonis’s quietest and most balanced collection; the author has finally come to terms with himself and the world.
The collection “Taureņu uzbrukums” (“Attack of the Butterflies”) (1988) is placed within the frame of two symbols of infinity: in the beginning, a world seen in a grain of sand; and at the end, a snake that swallows its own tail. But contact with butterflies is what forms Ziedonis’s “non-linear philosophy.” Butterflies are a “movement inward” (an easily discernible analogy to a person’s spiritual activity), and their stuttering flight is related to the turning points of our being. They are also like a metaphor of absolute, aimless freedom; they unite times and space; and they are not practical, unless you consider them a metaphor of this same practicality.
Following “Taureņu uzbrukums”, Ziedonis has published a few more small volumes of poetry, which include, for the most part, many variations of motifs, in more or less extravagant form, that are already familiar. But the three books of the “Epifānijas” (“Epiphanies”) series (1971, 1974, 1994) compile unique texts that don’t belong to any specific genre; they are reminiscent of essays, lyrical miniatures, ironic or grotesque fables, and trivial allegories. Ziedonis has also written essay-style prose, including two books in the “Kurzemīte” series (1970 and 1974), which formulate their own ethical program; a book about country life in Madliena, entitled “Tik un tā” (“So Anyway”) (1985); and “Tutepatās” (“Youarerighthere”) (1991), which describes the activities of a group, founded by Ziedonis himself, that works to save ancient trees.

Guntis Berelis

Translated by Rihards Kalniņš