Māris Salējs // PORTRAIT
In the 1990s, the public had an image of a young contemporary poet as an asocial, mentally unbalanced being who uses drugs, or at least alcohol, writes incoherent poems filled with profanities and overindulgent erudition, treats his older colleagues with disgust or cynicism, and, hiding his unjustified ambitions, announces: I write for myself. Though there actually were very few young poets like this, Māris Salējs’s poetry of the late 1990s was an argument that new Latvian poetry is also capable of emotionally addressing and moving its readers (that is, fulfilling what readers and critics most expect from a Latvian poet) and, most importantly, creating a world full of secret and sudden revelations that is sufficiently open and unpretentious that readers wanted to spend time in it.
Salējs debuted with the self-illustrated poetry collection “Māmiņ, es redzēju dziesmu” (“Mommy, I Saw a Song”), where Salējs’s own poems were shyly hidden between his translations of early-twentieth-century Polish poetry. The work drew readers’ attention with its warm, heartfelt tone, which suited the sometimes childish, sometimes mournfully serious author, who doesn’t understand how it came to pass that childhood was replaced by the complex adult world, which frightens and entices with its colors and smells. The author gladly stresses his own remote, episodic role in this world, and considers the associations called forth by memory and observations of nature to be of supreme value. Sometimes these are arranged in drastic verses; at others, they burst out like a birdsong, or they imitate the noises heard around them.
Salējs truly came into his own in his second book, “Mana politika” (“My Politics”), where his position is conceptual – Latvian poetry’s traditional polarity between the land and the sky. This allows us to marvel at the diversity of life on earth, though it also encourages us to raise our eyes to the sky in order to find the real, great truth. On the ground, Salējs’s attention is mostly attracted by elements from nature, which are felt with such emotion that they express the very movements of the poet’s active, searching soul. Here, the forest, branches, roots, cherries, glowworms, and other simple but capacious figures are arranged in mysterious combinations, allowing us to see in them the presence of some higher, barely discernible existence.
Salējs’s poetry is strongly based in Latvian poetic traditions – in the discoveries of Knuts Skujenieks, Jānis Rokpelnis, and other late-twentieth-century poets as well as in older texts. The epigraph to the poet’s second volume is a verse from the once-popular but now obscure poet Edvards Treimanis-Zvārgulis, which helps express Salējs’s own understanding that the world didn’t begin yesterday and won’t end tomorrow, and to occupy your mind with ephemeral matters only means temporarily to refuse answers to true, eternal questions.
In his newest poems, which have only been published in the press, Salējs continues to study his own imagined, familiar world, gradually disclosing more and more of what the poet and translator Jānis Elsbergs has called “the physical and metaphysical heaviness of life and poetry.” Salējs is once again in quiet but convincing opposition to yet another generation of new poets, who now focus their attention on outplaying modern technology, grotesque pop-culture icons, and the modern emphasis on the outward features of daily life. Salējs is proof that you can get by just fine without these things, if you have courage to search for a world within yourself.