By Bitite Vinklers
I first met Imants Ziedonis in New York, in 1978, at a reading he gave at Columbia University during his first visit to the United States. The room was packed, and there was excitement and anticipation in the air. Not only was Ziedonis one of Latvia’s most prominent poets, but Latvia was still under Soviet occupation, and visits by artists to the West were rare; cultural connections between some in the Latvian exile community and Latvia itself were fraught with suspicions and anxiety about political repercussions.
Ziedonis was introduced by a young poet from Boston, who recalled her first meeting with him in Latvia. He had told her, tongue in cheek, “Don’t read books, read stones.” This was quintessential Ziedonis––a provocateur, simultaneously playful and serious. He was an avid reader of books, as well as of stones––and doubly so, since the Latvian word for “read” also means “gather.” Indeed, his poems are full of stones––sturdy fieldstones, stones cast through windows, calm and dependable doorstones.
For some fifty years, Imants Ziedonis (1933–2013) was one of Latvia’s most important poets and cultural leaders, especially in the Post-War Soviet Era. He was an influential voice for the preservation of Latvian culture, such as the Latvian folk songs, which played a role in the “Singing Revolution,” leading to renewed independence. People, downcast, hungered for poetry, and Ziedonis was read widely; print runs of 30,000 for poetry books were common, and books sold out in days.
Central to Ziedonis’ life and writing was his love for, and efforts for the environmental protection of, the Latvian countryside. Like a wayfarer, he crisscrossed the countryside, often on foot, and nature––frequently animistic––permeates his poetry, as it does much of Latvian literature.
Although his work has been translated across Europe, it is little known here. My recent translation collection, Each Day Catches Fire, is the first extensive one in English.
Last November, I received a letter from a friend, a poet living in London, that poignantly expressed how relevant Ziedonis can still be. She wrote: “I have been enjoying your book immensely. The work of Imants Ziedonis is so rich, delicate, meaningful and prescient. I have brought the book with me on this trip [to New York], having turned to it again after the recent U.S. presidential election—the result of which has left the world reeling. I find wisdom, comfort, and ultimately hope in so many of his poems.”
In “The Diplomat,” for instance, he writes: “In this world of barbed wire, of border ditches, one sign testifies to a different time: a different language.”
In “Listen”: “Maybe there is simply no target that is near. Maybe [the quest] is called aimless because the target is very, very far.”
And ultimately, in “I Followed Her Footsteps”:
“… At the edge of a field
I felt the wholeness of a rock:
large and strong, it stood there humming
as only stones can—
in dew, a field of rye, and hope.”
Bitite Vinklers is a translator of Latvian folklore and contemporary literature. Her translations have appeared in anthologies and numerous literary journals. Her translation collections include Imants Ziedonis, Each Day Catches Fire: Poems (Red Dragonfly Press, 2015), and Knuts Skujenieks, Seed in Snow: Poems (BOA Editions, 2016). Both books are available from the publishers, Amazon, or through your local bookstore.
Spring this year arrived as clean
as if in its Sunday best, and we were embarrassed
it found us in our work clothes,
our hands unwashed, the dog in the farmyard
still mangy and shedding.
And we didn’t know whom to blame, spring
or ourselves, for being out of step.
Beauty, says the old schoolteacher,
should arrive unexpected,
and cause a little discomfort.
—By Imants Ziedonis & Translated by Bitite Vinklers