Published in Her Circle Ezine, April 8, 2008
by Zinta Aistars
As with most of us, and, I suspect, in most any language, my first introduction to Latvian poetry was metered and rhymed, tightly reined in, an orderly clomping and marching of verses that moved like soldiers across the page. In Latvian school, which we children of the émigré community attended on Saturdays while our enviable American peers watched cartoons on television, or played ball in the park, or simply slept in, we instead learned to recite classic Latvian poetry. Our teachers drilled the metered lines into our brains, ta-TUM-ta-tum, ta-TUM-ta-da-dum, and we would memorize sometimes pages of these lyrical poems. It was a practice not only in learning literary form, but in rote memorization, and not the least in self-discipline. Many of the poems were testament to the war experience, with lines about the blood spilled in war, the love of one’s country, and the sacrifice made for freedom which we had nonetheless lost.
In those dusky rooms of the school on Saturday mornings, none of us felt particularly free. Super heroes in animated form with capes sweeping the breeze behind them on a television screen seemed much more enticing. But we memorized, and we discussed, and we recited. Poem after poem after poem.
Years later, I had a delayed appreciation for that kind of literary discipline. It was, after all, a world of super heroes. Only the heroes in those poems that spoke of the experience of loving one’s home and losing it, or dying for it, did not bounce back up from the ground for the next cartoon installment. Theirs was the mortal blood that nourished the soil to grow new seed and new life for future generations.
Some of that life took hold outside of Soviet-occupied Latvia. While we children of refugees were learning the old classics, a new generation of poetry was taking shape. It, too, spoke of the love of country, of freedom, and the hunger to survive. Such was the poetry of Astride Hartmane Ivaska, born in the capital city of Riga in 1926, a young woman when the Soviet army marched across the Latvian border. She was of the same generation as my parents and her experience was similar. When I had reached the age that she had been during World War II, I discovered Ivaska’s poetry, and it was nothing like what I had learned in school … and yet it was.
I received a book of Ivaska’s poetry as a gift, and I paged through it with growing wonderment. This was no army of words. There was no orderly marching here. These words danced and swam across the page, they whispered, they sang, they hummed, they wept. A line might stand alone, like a lost muse, only to recover itself in a droplet of syllables further down the page. Sometimes they rhymed, but mostly these words echoed and played off each other. And while this poet, too, wrote of heroes, and blood that was shed, and the ache of losing one’s childhood home to wonder if one would ever be allowed to see it again… it was in a manner that spoke more directly to my own heart. This was the poetry of exile. It contained the longing of a life thrown upon an unknown shore, even as it spoke of new love found, and renewed joy in living.
Un tomer dziedot
pelnu garsamute neizzud
ne mums, ne tiem,
kas saklausa mus taluma.
From the ashes
and from the burnt debris
we have risen.
The taste of ashes
does not leave the mouth
not for us, nor for them
who listen to us from a distance.
(From “Memais laiks,” Gaisma Ievainoja by Astride Ivaska, Daugava, 1982)
I was struck, as one is, who falls in love at first read. In reading whatever I could find about Ivaska, I learned that she had lost her father during the war. He had been a general in the Latvian army during WWII, and no more had been heard from or about him after he had been captured by the Soviets. (In later years, I learned Ivaska had learned of her father’s fate only after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Latvia regained her freedom. He had been taken to Moscow in 1941, where he was executed.)
Ivaska wrote often about her father, and her connection with him, what she referred to as her “only mirror” in an essay of her memories, now a broken mirror. He had a kind of mythic form to her, as most fathers do to their daughters. She recalls his quiet strength, and he seems to take on the stance of all lost Latvian soldiers: a man who fights perhaps a hopeless battle, yet with utmost courage and devotion to the cause of what is right. He is a soldier in an army that is the David against the Goliath of the Red Army. Only this battle is not to be won.
As most Latvian refugees, Ivaska (then Hartmane) escaped to camps for “displaced persons” in Germany, where they awaited visas to whatever free land would take them. As did most of her peers, she continued her disrupted education in Germany, while she waited, studying languages. In 1949, she married Estonian poet, Ivar Ivask, and later that year immigrated to the United States, first to Minnesota, then taking up residence in Norman, Oklahoma in 1967, where she taught Russian, German and French at the University of Oklahoma. Ivaska remained there until the death of her husband, then answered an old call to cross the ocean once again to live in Europe—for a time in Ireland, then returning again to the place of her birth, Riga, Latvia, where she lives today.
And wherever this poet went, I followed her steps through her poetry and her poetic prose. That first book I had read of her work, Solis Silos (“A Step in the Woods,” 1973), was a step that had led me to try my own hand at Latvian poetry. Shortly after, I had the privilege of meeting Ivaska at a workshop for writing Latvian poetry, and when, by end of seminar, I shyly handed her some of my work, she astounded me by taking me, then the ripe age of 17, seriously. The workshop was over, but Ivaska took my manuscript home with her to Oklahoma, sending it back to me a few weeks later with careful and honest notes in the margins. Discard this, rework that, and the golden glimmer on a page here and there of praise. The note with the manuscript encouraged me to submit my manuscript to a Latvian publisher called Celinieks in Ann Arbor, Michigan—with her recommendation. My first book of Latvian poetry, Mala Kausa (“In an Earthen Mug”) was accepted for publication when I was 19 years old. My lifelong love affair with poetry, in any language, took root in those days, and I have Ivaska to thank.