Author portrait
Māris Caklais // PORTRAIT

During his lifetime, Māris Čaklais (1940-2003) published approximately twenty volumes of poetry and many collections of essays and biographies. He debuted in the 1960s, a time when Latvian poetry was undergoing serious transformations, a process that he helped instigate. When viewed from the vantage point of the present day, his first collection, “Pirmdiena” (“Monday,” 1965), was the first debut from a young poet in all of post-war literature. It was completely devoid of rhetoric and naïve abstractions and therefore of the pose of “impetuousness”; it was also devoid of any attempts at crawling into the judge’s chair, self-assured excitement, and journalistic poetry. In their place, we find an almost demonstrative willingness to be young (for example, the poet admits “There’s lots I don’t know / Because life is infinite”). In “Pirmdiena”, and particularly in “Kājāmgājējs un mūžība” (“A Walker and the Eternity,” 1967), the “poet as herald,” which was characteristic of 1960s Latvian literature, made way for the meditative lyricist.
In “Pirmdiena”, Čaklais defined his territory. Here, he writes “...about everything that changes and flows.” Elsewhere, generalizing the passage of years, he says, “With everything new becoming / Something old dies.” This imperceptible moment of transformation, when the “old” has not yet died and the “new” has not yet been born, is the focus of Čaklais poetry. In his next volume, “Kājāmgājējs un mūžība”, Čaklais’s poetry stabilized itself. The title itself is sufficiently expressive, and begs the question, How can we align these dimensions, which seem hopelessly incommensurable – a pedestrian’s protracted moment, saturated with the mundane, and the concept of metaphysical eternity, with which the pedestrian surely can’t have anything in common? In turns out that we don’t have to look far for eternity, or, more precisely, for the eternity of a moment. It may be found right there in the depths of the pedestrian’s “I”: “And then we suddenly look at one another / Another pedestrian! / Walking along, leisurely / chatting with eternity. / … / How strange – walking along and chatting / with himself.” A similar conclusion arises from these lines: “I am rich. I own everything / that has happened to me.” This statement can be applied to all of Čaklais works. That is, the guiding motif for much of his poetry is the internal events of this lyrical “I” – the reflections prompted by events outside this “I.”
In a sense, Čaklais may be considered a “collector of moments.” In his poetry, the only thing that is entitled to be transformed is that “which has happened to me,” that which has been personally experienced. (As opposed to, say, the poet Ojārs Vācietis, Čaklais did not consider an abstract idea or a philosophical aphorism to be personal experience.) Back then, Vācietis and Ziedonis tried to use wise ideas to construct large-scale socio-ethical models of the world. But Čaklais did just the opposite: he began with miniature and, for the most part, glaringly subjective models.
The book “Lapas balss” (“The Voice of a Leaf,” 1969) begins with an epigraph by Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “In order to be, I must participate” – in other words, I have to feel my “I” as belonging to and participating in history, the present day, and nature. Čaklais usually relates this mutual connection between existence and “I” with motifs of joy, light, and an upward striving, like in this line: “All of pulsating creation, / which god once filled with warmth – / that is my joy”; or here: “You must sing. / You must sing from joy, from your juices, from the land / with swelling power. / So that tomorrow may live, you must / you must sing.”
Similar motifs weave through all of Čaklais’s works. In his poetry, an almost childishly naïve and cheerful optimist coexists perfectly with an intellectual and ironic skeptic. On the one hand, we see a movement toward absolute simplicity – the “atomic facts” of existence are sought out (“I don’t care what it’s called— / love, if you like”). But on the other hand, we find sullen lines like this: “...the longer you live, / the less it seems like paradise.”
Sometimes, complex and almost surreal metaphors appear in his poems. “Zāļu diena” (“A Day of Flowers,” 1972) accents another direction in Čaklais’s works – historical themes. Čaklais’s attitude toward history could be called a rejuvenation of the past. Rather that strive to generalize historical events, he tries to find facts, texts, or events that seem unimportant at first glance; he then tries to establish personal contact with these facts, texts, or events and attempts to turn them into metaphors. The combined result is a slightly romanticized, and also painful, sense of history. Almost every one of Čaklais’s books includes a group of these historical poems.
The meaning of “Sastrēgumstunda” (“The Peak Hour],” 1974) is clearly formulated in the titular poem of the volume: “Motor to motor, snout to snout, / rumor to rumor, hip to hip, / a radio wave eats another wave, / a water faucet drips you, drop by drop, / wall to wall, iceberg to iceberg, / the way back is filled in with sand; / …The traffic hour, like a bobcat prowling around a man, / its nails drawn in. / You are stuck in a tube, / are you ready for your hour.” This is, once again, a metaphor for existence. But the traffic concept also characterizes the poetics of the entire collection: the texts are so dense and saturated with metaphors that linear perception wanders astray. At times, Čaklais’s world strives to become hermetic, almost unapproachable; at others, it “opens up” in incredible simplicity.
Čaklais works feature an almost unbelievable stability: there are no sharp breaks, no “leaps” or “falls,” and no “periods” to help us easily model the development of his poetry. The author has his favorite motifs, which he returns to in almost every book, and his favorite metaphors, which are sometimes more-or-less rationally analyzed, varied, and rephrased, in an attempt to realize all of their possibilities. The composition of the books don’t stand out with any special extravagances, either.
Čaklais published a book once every two or three years: “Cilvēks, uzarta zeme” (“A Man, Ploughed Land”) in 1976, “Strautuguns” (“The Glitter of a Stream”) in 1978, “Pulksteņu ezers” (“A Lake of Clocks”) in 1979, “Kurzemes klade” (“A Notebook of Kurzeme”) in 1982, “Cilvēksauciena attālumā” (“At a Shouting Distance”) in 1984. But the homogeneity and, at times, uniformity in his work does not mean that Čaklais simply reproduced himself again and again. On the contrary, he marked his territory with his first books of poetry and, with his subsequent works, he strove to discover, on various levels, the tiniest nuances of this terrain.
Another unique feature of Čaklais’s poetry is the absence of static situations and metaphors. Without having the chance to fully form, his metaphors vanish, making way for others. In Čaklais poetry, everything is in a state of constant flux. But this mutability of the world is not like the astonishing fluctuations of Vācietis’s Universe or like Ziedonis’s “I venerate speed as holy.” Rather, the line from Čaklais’s debut volume about how everything flows and changes can be applied to all of his works. What’s more, his changes are flowing – there are no sharply defined boundaries between individual metaphors or texts, no sudden breaks or turns.
Čaklais’s metaphors don’t try to be monumental. Rather, the poet is interested in moments of transition, imperceptible at first glance, and prefers nuances to contrasts. This is the moment when the process of change takes place, the moment of transition from “think” to “invent” and “from minor to major,” when “that which has been built collapses and changes, and flows,” and “the world crumbles, and new ones are created,” and the current “spins, whirls, and flows.” The only problem is, how to immortalize this elusive movement in words?
Čaklais’s metaphors don’t strive to shock or to knock us off balance; on the contrary, they are gently perplexing. And his paradoxes are not as much logical constructions as they are metaphorical structures. Balance, harmony, and spiritual peace are the most essential elements in Čaklais’s world. But in the historical poems, harsher and more dissonant accents resound, for the lessons of history are always gloomy. In other words, Čaklais’s poetry creates a very unusual contrast – but not a dissonance – between refined intellectualism and a tendency toward absolute simplicity. This may be because Čaklais tries not to complicate what is simple. There are simple, very humane and humanly necessary feelings, like joy, affection, love, and pain, which are self-sufficient and for which overly ornamented metaphors are foreign. This is why Čaklais sometimes becomes almost naïve. Yet these simple and supposedly “naïve” emotions exist in a complex world overflowing with various metaphysical concepts, which have earned the appropriate respect.
The author considered his volumes “Mīlnieks atgriežas noziegumvietā” (“A Lover Returns to the Crime Scene,” 1989), “Slepeni ugunskuri” (“Secret Bonfires,” 1992), and “Izgāja bulvārī brīvība” (“The Freedom Went Out on the Boulevard,” 1994), which compile poems written between 1987 and 1993, to be a triptych. On the one hand, his poetics haven’t changed much in these works; but on the other hand, they are also unique: Čaklais was practically the only poet to document so meticulously in verse the reflections called forth by the Reawakening Period. And, no less importantly, he made these reflections one of the cornerstones of this triptych. Without a doubt, many texts suffer from the eternal problem of politicized poetry, namely, the language loses its manifold dimension. That’s why he’s not always able to connect current actualities with the issues of eternity, and the texts become flatly declarative. But perhaps this, too, is simply in accordance with the rules set by this “collector of moments.”

December, 2004.

Guntis Berelis