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Imants Ziedonis opens clocks.

The poet Imants Ziedonis (b. 1933) is an unusual phenomenon - in poetry, of course, but also unusual are the place and significance of poetry in Latvian history and culture. It is said that in Nepal there are two and a half gods per inhabitant. With us quite surely - everything is collected, recorded, and classified - for every Latvian there is one folk song. Precisely when these folk songs, called dainas, were created and who created them has not been determined; that is one of civilization's secrets. We are talking about a million and a half high-quality verses which, like the Old Testament in its unique way, gather and document a people's way of life: its philosophy, its moral, ethical, and esthetic yardsticks, its religious views, et cetera. No doubt, this cultural uniqueness is connected to the historical uniqueness. Latvians belong to one of the ancient European ethnic groups, the Balts. In the thirteenth century, with the papal proclamation of a crusade, our ancestors, who had lived free in their territory for more than three thousand years, found themselves in the church's lap. From that moment on, for seven hundred years - until 1918 - the people developed and took shape without a state of their own, existing under the sway of either German, Swedish, Polish, or Russian might and culture.

If usually in Europe during the Middle Ages and later, culture received its main polish in the upper layers of society, in Latvian society spiritual fermentation took place in the deeper recesses of its people. Traditionally, the chief figure of Latvian culture is the poet: poet the tiller, poet the fisherman, poet the bearer of arms. The urge to create and to see in the poet a spiritual leader is inscribed in Latvians' genes. Thus, Imants Ziedonis is not simply a poet. He is always considered a spiritual leader.

Significant, of course, is the fact that Ziedonis's most active period coincides with the Soviet occupation (1940-91). The first collection of Ziedonis's poems, Zemes un sapnu smilts (Sand of Earth and Dreams), was published in 1961. People emerge before us just as new, undeciphered cosmic bodies emerge before astronomers. They sparkle like more or less brilliant points. Years lived permit one to observe the movements of these "points," and narrative trajectories can be traced. My first impressions of Ziedonis's personality come from a curious story which, some thirty years ago, was told by a senior colleague of mine whose wife, already a respectable lady, at that time enthusiastically took literary novices under her wing, like some Forsyte matron in a Galsworthy novel: "Just imagine, I unlock the apartment door, then enter the hall, when all of a sudden, coming from the bathroom, there appears a naked, dark young man, wrapped in a towel, who proceeds to the dining room. 'Hello!' I say. 'What are you doing here?"Ah . . . I will be staying here for a while."And who might you be?"Imants Ziedonis.'"

The impression of Ziedonis the bohemian, the flighty vagabond, possibly even a man who seeks respite in alcohol, was erroneous. In this respect Ziedonis is distinctly different from most of his literary brethren of the sixties, including Ojars Vacietis (1933-83), another prominent Latvian poet of that period, though they are often mentioned together. I do not exclude the possibility that in their youth the two might have been in similar situations, but it was for different reasons. Ojars passionately abandoned himself to free-floating; Imants was guided by his researcher's passion, a passion that is the main axis of his personality. If Vacietis is pronouncedly a doctrinaire who creates his own slogans and formulas so that he can pursue them like someone possessed, praising or questioning them, Ziedonis starts out playfully, totally convinced that the road will eventually find its destination. He relies on feelings, on his ability to judge. One can expect from him the most unimaginable conclusions, the most contradictory theses and antitheses. But they are not products of fantasy, as Vacietis would declare ("be a poet, create from nothing"). Unerring fundamental discoveries are based on careful research. Before Imants wrote a particularly influential and resonant essay about one of Latvia's provinces, Kurzeme, he crisscrossed it, like a fairy-tale king who walks through a forest of mushrooms, with a book under his arm and a magnifying glass to his eye. And here again we note a tremendous difference between Ziedonis and Vacietis. The latter liked to play with thoughts. In the silence of his room, at his desk, he played with his whistle, and thoughts rushed to him through the open window like naive nightingales. With people Vacietis was timid, angular. He especially shied away from strangers, hiding among his needles like a hedgehog full of suspicion.

People do not frighten Ziedonis. He knows how to open them like old-fashioned clocks: each one of them has a button which only needs to be lightly touched, and the lid will spring open by itself. It is my impression that conversation is one of Ziedonis's much-cherished and most pleasurable pursuits. Indeed, this is readily apparent when he is comfortably resting by a bonfire (or at the end of a row of sugarbeets, or on a stump in the woods), clasping his knees calmly but greedily, like a man who, within his clan, interrogates and listens to all kinds of people. His peace is deceptive. It is the peacefulness of the angler, full of greed and expectation, waiting for a catch never experienced before.

His catch is a philosophical model made up of fragments of observations and recognitions, of particular poetic insights born from a concrete environment and situation, when the present moment connects with centuries past, with the experience of previous generations. Ziedonis has no counterpart in Russian, German, English, or French literature. He is a man thoroughly unique. For him, literature is no mere diversion, no scholarly or scientific ism, no happenstance occasioned by financial anomalies. Called and chosen to the task, a keen gadfly, a restless inquirer, and a man who can rarely agree with anyone or anything, he is and remains the burning focus of the Latvian perception of life, enclosed within the prism of his talent. His human symbol is a boy who watches an anthill, or an inspector who can show up at any moment to draw his finger across the dusty lid of a hope chest.

When I am asked who is the greatest authority in Latvian literature during the last quarter of the twentieth century, I answer without hesitation: Imants Ziedonis. Recently, Imants stated:

To mention the word system to the new generation is not appropriate. Their first reply is, "We already live in a system, please leave us alone." But that was only one - political - system. The notion of a hierarchical system - respect for superior intellect, honor, dignity, feelings of deference - has been lost. These are all matters of system. If you do not grasp it, you have no deference for anything. . . . Fragmentation is an artist's very nature, but some sense of a system must be there. If you, sensing the system, can still be free - that, you see, is classy! It's important to sense that the notion of matter must be expanded, that the visible world is not our only world, that above us there are other hierarchical levels and that below us are still further levels. In order to sense a pyramid, you must live in a pyramid. You can descend from and return to the top, always carrying along information as you go - from top to bottom and vice versa.

Academic dignity is not Ziedonis's cup of tea. Slender in build, animated and defiant in expression, Imants wore for a long time the unpredictable and irreverent mask of an enfant terrible. However, for as long as I can remember, the surprising revelations of meaning and the unexpected conclusions which issued from him have been based on mature thought and an unquestionably close relationship with essential values. Once, on an authoritarian commission in occupied Latvia, there was talk of moving the exile (at that time the term was emigration) archives to Latvia. A vote was to be taken, and the goal of the meeting was to ascertain if the plan was worth all the trouble. The majority of the participants - and I was among them - thought that everything possible must be done to ensure that the manuscripts and documents of the best representatives of Latvian literature be kept in the National Library. I have not forgotten what Imants said: "We are not talking about space and shelves. The question is something else: are we today morally worthy to claim this heritage?" The moral grounds for our wishes are so often forgotten! Our wishes themselves are not to be doubted or condemned. Everything depends upon the moral level on which our wishes are fulfilled. I encountered that in my childhood: my mother had brought home a beautiful book, and, tense with desire, I jumped on it like a falcon on a chicken. Mother stopped me: not with these hands!

During his allotted time Imants dug deep and never flinched. His motto: one must be present where something is being decided. He occupied high positions - chairman of the Writers Union, leader of the Cultural Fund, representative - and experienced a swinging run through all layers of society. He never pretended to deny his own value, never indulged in any false humility. Around him, the world, for the most part, was favorable.

The artist's or writer's profession is a very human one, as is that of the physician or the nurse. To work under the threat of the plague, cholera, or AIDS is the latter's professional obligation. Ziedonis has never abandoned his principles and has always served them faithfully: "My only allegiance - psychological, emotional, intellectual - is to my people." ! can testify that Imants's confession is the absolute truth.

From the so-called dissidents, of course, Imants kept his distance. (This movement, as far as Latvian literature is concerned, bypassed us. The only possible exception is Maija Silmale.) Nevertheless, for many a year, he gathered society's most advanced valuable thoughts, balancing, during the occupation, on the brink of legitimacy and illegality, proclaiming the idea of freedom with a resonance that recalls the role played by Victor Hugo in France and Henrik Ibsen in Norway during the years of transformation in their countries. Here I mean first of all the movement to recognize and become acquainted with one's place of birth, a movement that to a great extent changed the thinking of several generations. In this dangerous critical situation society was wrenched out of its former apathy and indifference.

Imants Ziedonis has always wrestled in his own special way with authority. That fact has already vanished from the memories of many, and it will not be recorded in history books. But it is in this way that the demands for freedom, the efforts to negate the effects of imposed uniformity, and the affirmation of the right to basic liberty and to freedom of thought were realized. Never have I heard Ziedonis speak with pathos or with even a tinge of hatred in his voice. One can expect anything from him, but never stereotyped thoughts or shopworn conclusions. Of course, Ziedonis is in his own way ambitious, goaded by his desire to be in the center of things. It seems that the ability to gather people and ideas around himself was already evident during his childhood. At the same time his social, political, and cultural engagement is always significant - or, to put it banally, always serves noble purposes.

Ziedonis likes to provoke to action, to see how an idea can become a movement. He plays with people as if they were dwarfs, and he himself participates, goes along, observes, has fun. It was Ziedonis's provocation that created the brotherhood for the beautification of the land, a movement that, given Latvia's dimensions, was significant. Young artists, writers, scientists, and members of other diverse professions came together, crisscrossing the land with axes and saws to free noble trees from the invading shrubs. It was a symbolic movement, saving innumerable giant trees, the magnificent jewels of the landscape, like medals of merit accorded to men who have invested in culture. Many of these trees were in fact named after such individuals: for example, Neikens's oak (writer, 1826-68), the Krisjanis Barons ash (collector of folk songs, 1835-1923), et cetera.

Thumbing through my notes of many a year, I discovered a striking characteristic: in the pages concerning Imants Ziedonis, the central piece is always a conclusion; all the rest seems as if written en passant.

April 1979. Imants: a thinking gene of immense vision artificially weeded out during tens of generations. We have always been pushed and shoved by others. That is why we do not know how to think in terms of conjunctures, how to bargain, how to connect systems. The Latvian is the boss within the limits of his yard, his fields.

St. Martin's Eve (Halloween night) in Place. We are running in the woods. Imants is convinced young people must be sent outside Latvia for study. Lithuanians know how to take advantage of existing systems for their own good. We do not. We are like a bunch of shy adolescents crowding in the corners of a dance hall. In the middle of the floor others waltz. Imants thinks that personalities are formed in the countryside. I reject that. The Jews have little connection with the country-side. Imants: the Jews are remnants of a previous civilization. This period is behind them. They only know how to act globally.

Imants (commenting on the fact that on 17 May 1847, in Riga, at the concert given by the composer Hector Berlioz himself, there were 132 ladies and 7 gentlemen in the audience): the seeds of poetry are also transmitted mostly by women. In Chicago, likewise, my poetry reading had been attended mostly by women, but not in the same preponderance as in Riga.

Imants (having looked at the full moon through binoculars with a magnification of 20): I prefer the moon I can see with my naked eye. That's more believable. This one, magnified, makes me doubt a lot.

In the middle of the seventies, Imants Ziedonis was all fired up by the idea of building himself a house outside the city, in Murjani, not far from the River Gauja, on the shores of a little stream called Loja. There was something reminiscent here of the blue-flower ravines of Sigulda, of the primeval red rock of Ligatne. As if freed from all confines and narrowness, a wild forest adjoined the small property. To build a house at a time when private property was scorned almost like a vice appeared to Imants as merely a challenge. He plunged into the construction with enthusiasm. He himself drove to the woods for building materials, he himself hired carpenters for the logwork, he himself collected moss for caulking, and on a frozen lake he helped cut reeds for the roof. From the outside, his Murjani house looks like a half-opened book with its spine up. There are no big rooms, and it feels as though the architecture itself forces a certain inward gathering or concentration. The natural center of the house is the back of the hearth, the connecting area for the Latvian with the ancient sacral hearth of the crickets for the equilibrium not only of the flesh but also of the spirit. Hanging from the crossbeam are bunches of drying herbs, wild strawberries, wild asters, peppermint - the apothecary of nature's gifts and the bar.

The house was not finished yet when a lady enamored with poetry presented Imants with an ass. I think this was a gift from the heart, conferred with the best of intentions. After all, Jesus Christ himself entered Jerusalem on an ass. The animal was named Pantofilando, and at first it all appeared to be a fine joke. But a living creature is a living creature. Nothing in the world is created without its place or reason. Irresponsible meddling with the world can never lead to a good end. Pantofilando, proud like any ass in his ass's skin, could not and would not integrate himself in Murjani as a toy. He did not like anybody, would not obey anyone, kicked painfully, and blared frightfully. Unable to cope with the animal, Imants took him to his father in a fishing village on the seashore. I've forgotten what happened to Pantofilando, but I do remember what Imants's father said on the subject: "If somebody in Latvia keeps a stupid ass, then he is not a wise man either." Right up Ziedonis's alley: to derive from extravagances conclusions that deserve serious consideration.

Ziedonis's attitude toward his Murjani house is not to be measured with a single yardstick. After the construction of the house, the Murjani magnet no longer pulled the poet irresistibly. To be an owner - that is too heavy and too simple for Imants. Theoretically, he considered the countryside as the naturally designated living space for man. ("The city - the tragic invention of satanic forces.") In life, Imants's ruralism turned out to be hollowed with contradictions. One Sunday in May, as the sky was flooded with white radiant clouds and the air filled with something like the fragrance of wind-dried sheets, I met Ziedonis in Riga and was astonished that he was not in Murjani: "No, I will not go there now. I can't stand the spring madness. And pretty soon the nightingales will stan to sing. No, no!"

I see a different reason: Ziedonis cannot stand people superior to him, and there are not many of those; yet spring is superior to him, and they do not get along. He is not indifferent to Murjani, however. When in 1983 at the time of budding leaves Imants turned fifty, he marked the occasion among relatives and friends in the country not far from Murjani. Some consider Ziedonis's "provincialism" as the mere caprice of a poet, but things were not that simple. Ziedonis, much loved by the people, could have afforded to celebrate his birthday in the Riga opera house or in a theater. He did not want that. His argument: "I don't want to sit like a statue and listen to stereotyped speeches." A few speeches - stereotyped, of course - were also made in the countryside, just as coals in a stove are all stereotyped. Everything depends on energy, which can give off intense heat or produce cold, gray ashes. Here there were no ashes. Here, greeting Imants, were country folks with hands like gnarled stumps.

In surveying Ziedonis's poetry published during the preceding decades, I find in every line, in every letter, the thought that Michelangelo Buonarotti expressed so succinctly to his brother: "Sleep with your eyes open: we must be constantly alert for our flesh and soul." The lifelong task of Imants Ziedonis is to remain constantly awake, for our people, our land, our language, our culture. His poet's effort is the search for the most extensive connection in the unrestricted space of being, starting with the immediate environment and extending to the endless reaches of the cosmos. From this proceeds Ziedonis's recognition that luck is the order of all things. In not knowing this, we violate a law of development we all share; we disrupt order and initiate incompatibility and complications. Development takes place on three levels: in one's individual life, in people's community life, and on the level of ideas and principles. Harmony can only proceed via the attainment of some balance among all three levels.

Ziedonis did not singlehandedly initiate the renewal of the Latvian Cultural Fund. This fruit of perestroika came about in Moscow in 1986. In fact, we must note a wondrous coincidence, when fate, at just the right moment and the right place, brought together the need, the potential, and agents ready to implement the idea. First, the Latvian Cultural Fund had its beginnings in the years of Latvian independence (the twenties and the thirties of this century). Second, society was ready for a movement; a certain saturation was in the air. One of Ziedonis's collections of essays bears the title Garaini, kas veicina varisanos (Steam That Promotes Boiling). This time the steam was more intense, like gasoline fumes when the lighting of a single match creates an all-consuming flame. Third, there was Imants Ziedonis. The name Ziedonis acts like the incantation "Open, sesame" in the fairy tale, and the organization was thus guaranteed popularity, authority, and unencumbered trust. People were starved for action and founded cultural groups throughout the provinces. For the first time this generation had the opportunity to work together to lay popular foundations, to promote culture democratically, without orders "from above."

Poetry and poets have always had a special role in Latvia. One of our greatest poets, Janis Rainis, in 1905 called upon the people to shake off oppression with the verse collection Vetras seja (Seeding of the Storm). The rejuvenation and reactivation of the Cultural Fund was a seeding of the storm by Imants Ziedonis. Paradoxically, this was a calm storm, without shots, without bloodshed, a quiet force that swept across the country, awaking a new consciousness, new thinking, new action, But that is all history now.

For a long time, Imants Ziedonis has been only a poet. Soon the twelfth volume of his Complete Works will be published. His hands crossed on his back, he walks amid the evening shadows of Riga. So many ideas, so much poetry not yet written. With his gaunt face and peppery smile, he more and more resembles Voltaire, hunched a bit at the shoulders as if carrying an invisible load.

ZIGMUNDS SKUJINS (b. 1926 in Riga) is the author of eight short-story collections, seven novels, several works for the stage and screen, two volumes of memoirs, and numerous articles and reviews. More than seven million copies of his works have been published, in eleven languages.
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Title Annotation:The Baltic Literatures in the 1990s; Latvian poet
Author:Skujins, Zigmunds
Publication:World Literature Today
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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