Liana Langa’s entering the field of Latvian poetry in 1997 with the collection Now the Sky, Now the Hour Hand almost reminded one of the unexpected blaze of a comet. In 1998 the collection was awarded the topmost Poetry Day Prize. Liana Langa’s second collection, Blow the Trumpet, Scorpion! (2001) was also highly regarded – it received the 2002 Annual Award for Literature and the 2002 Best Designed Book Award. The two highest awards for one collection underscored the banal but evident truth – a long-lasting presence in Latvian poetry would be forged by the original, brilliant, out of the ordinary writer. The judgment of critics pointed out the innovation with which Langa swiftly and justifiably became the brightest star in the millennium of Latvian poetry. They were fascinated by the rooting of Langa’s poems in a concrete time and place; as well, this grounding characterized the stability of the poet’s ethical position. She could not be included among the “young and angry” group; nor was the heart of her writing a mosaic of disharmonious fragments; nor did she deceive herself with romantic illusions. Langa was and is destructive toward and opposed to the present-day value placed on realism; she sifts out the finest sands and seeks scattered pearls, working as fishermen or miners do. Critic Inta Čaklā stated that in Langa’s poetry “an old photograph, a doll from childhood, a gnawed ruler, awaken memory and reveal the twists taken in life.” However Langa’s poetry draws one in not only by casting light on the essentials of everyday life, but by carrying forward these objects to a valued existential status. Langa’s poetry jars against previous post-war Latvian poetry in its absence of naivete and lack of use of the idyllic or a beautiful, lofty idealization of humanity; it is opposed to pathos overall. However this does not mean that Langa goes against the values of classical tradition. The magnetism of Langa’s poetry is created through her ability to balance grotesque, ugly, even disharmonious elements in a poem, while writing with a reserved yet palpable love and integrity that includes no sentimental neurasthenia. Langa loves life and the times, managing naturally to veer away from forced lyricism. Her poetry has an impetus reached through observations of everyday situations, or may be created through meditative observations; she encompasses various epochs and refers to the writings of diverse national poets. In an interview Langa made clear her relationship to poets of different generations as well as to the polyphonic techniques characteristic in poetry categorization: “I would not wish to define myself as belonging to any one generation . . . I don’t feel linked to any specific generation; rather to those who are my peers as such in poetic concepts – both those who have died and those who are still writing and are close to me . . .” According to Langa, “poetry transcends historical periods”, and therefore she sees as her compatriots 17th British century poet John Donne; 20th century British poet Wynstan Hugh Auden; the 19th century American “doomed poet” Edgar Allen Poe; contemporary Greek poet Constantine Cavafy who, living in Alexandria, outside his ethnic homeland, was little published; and Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Brodsky. Alongside these she considers the poets close to her in spirit to be the Latvian classics – Jānis Poruks, Fricis Bārdu, Kārlis Skalbe. Of course it would be possible to cite others, but this short list illustrates how Langa can write freely and autonomously in several parallel worlds. All the poets mentioned have one thing in common – they are on the plane of existential dimensions. And the eternal existential themes – life, death, love, a person’s destiny – are transcendent. Langa’s poetry too, being a reflection of her personal life in this age, is enduring. In her first collection of poetry Langa revealed the discrepancies in several dimensions: “perhaps I should give you/or you me/a doctor’s diagnosis of this time/which is simultaneously a time of butchery;//a time so deeply painful;/time that is a switchboard;/time – it is the child’s whimpers,/ it is time that darkens the eyes;//dial and voice/the young poet’s aim – /an announcement on thin silk,/the quarrel of two angels.” In Langa’s poetry the enduring and the vanishing are not opposites; they are the contrasts evident in a person’s lifetime. Thus there is almost never tragedy in Langa’s poems, or the overly dramatized feelings of paradox. She is protected against a narrowly tragic outlook through a strong background of many faceted experiences (having studied philosophy and modern American poetry for several years in the U.S., working as a restaurateur on the Crimean peninsula, etc.); a wide viewpoint of the world; plus a sharp and precise intellect. Of course, emotions cannot be discounted, therefore – also a deep wisdom of the heart, though it rarely works its way into the primary intonation. But then too wisdom of heart and love are hidden behind the accentuation of profoundly realistic details: Don’t get psychotic, mama, that’s grief chattering its teeth; that’s a cockroach scuttling, a moan creeping into the courtyard . . . Study in the gentle school of shallow evening movement how Chinese tea cools, the deep blue flowers of the wallpaper fade, how shadow lengthens and reaches after you, how prayer proceeds, and how fast, how slowly, clock hands slip along the sill . . . For Langa time dominates over the reality of space; time is the most valuable to her, for only in the stream of time do the things and feelings of the world acquire meaning. Langa views being within time as a reality which one need not measure nor hurry; within time Langa attempts to find the relationships between destructive, chaotic, oppositional events and things; to define imperceptible connections; but most of all – the threshold of change, moments of transition and transformation. These most adequately “feed” and give impetus to the credibility of Langa’s poetry – in a disorderly world she, the poet, must create balance, harmony, compatibility. Here Langa is close to Rainer Maria Rilke, who showed the poetically harmonizing world within the chaotic one. Although in Langa’s work seconds fall like a guillotine, though all we are given is a monologue with the self, the underlying feeling is of a fragile and yet stable clarity, as in “dust, roses/flies, ravens, bread,/a stream, clouds, sadness/the wind, a dream and clay” – everything in this list is composed from the variety of entities existing within earth, sky, and a person’s (Langa’s poetic “I”) senses combined. This is because Langa, living in a world of machinery and technology, attempts to close the distance between the high and the low, the sublime, sacred and profane. The opposites mentioned in the titles of her collected poems are significant: sky, the romantic ideal; the clock and dial reminding one of the passing of time; a trumpet call, inviting one spiritually to step outside an earthly existence; and the scorpion, a reminder of the actual and perpetually aggressive nature of reality. Langa, living in a world without illusions, created support for herself in this existence while a child. She writes: “I still see the glow of childhood in every rainbow,” and creates the autonomy of the human spirit. She sees as a turning point in her life the publication in Latvia in the seventies of the French modern poetry anthology I Continue You, especially the last lines of Paul Eliar’s poem Freedom in which he repeats the words “HUMANITY, ARTLESSNESS AND PERSONAL SOVEREIGNTY” three times. Freedom – this seemingly abstract word is in Langa’s value system an intoxicating poetic impulse to be utilized; she transforms the prosaic word into poetic license, using it to make distant figurative aspects into catalysts for poetic impact. One of the most essential axioms in Langa’s poetic value system is stated in a short sentence: “. . . it is always dark there, where there will be light.” Time is relative, this “. . . absurd winter, which has not ended, perhaps will end together with us.” Langa deems it natural and understandable that neither she nor anyone else has the power to “correct” time. One can only correct oneself in the name of some high, impersonal truth. And just there, in the name of a higher truth, Langa allows herself to be independent and writes beautifully, almost didactically, “. . . everything that vanishes is so substantial/and the slanted small slates, drawn on with chalk,/once having supported a small, sweaty palm/still remember your impression . . .” In Langa’s poetry, sensitive also to time as a sickness, postmodern smirking and jeering are not present, nor is shock value – her criterion of worth is her rich experience of culture through several centuries. She has an outstanding ability in free association, allowing her to move unhesitatingly, without interruption, among multiple allusions and reminiscences that ripple outward. The existence of humanity, and yet its precarious position at the edge of a precipice, Langa uses as a direct reminder of the paradoxes in our lives; and her opposition to the inevitable, that one must choose between the flatness of a society of consumers and the historical pace of humanity toward crystallized values. But just now, in the third millennium, Langa feels that she has been given an almost providential invitation to live within the dimensions of her time, in her Riga, her Latvia, her world, her humanity, and her earth. For Langa, as well as for all people, this is the only possibility.
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