Some Notes on Vizma Belševica
By ROLFS EKMANIS
World Literature Today, Spring 1998
See below: Eight Poems by Vizma Belševica
Most of her creative life, Vizma Belševica, the best-recognized Latvian poet of the second half of the twentieth century, belonged to a society where freedom of expression, among other freedoms, was withheld, where bannings and banishments were hazards a writer had to face.  But she made herself known as a poet-lyricist, not only in the remarkable volume and quality of her lyric poetry, but also because her lyrical voice remains markedly audible in her epic poems of historical and philosophical content, and in her prose works as well. Her oeuvre comprises seven original volumes of poetry, two short-story collections, two volumes of reminiscences, two children's books, and a substantial amount of translation into Latvian, both poetry and prose, from English, Ukrainian, Russian, German, and Italian. She has written several filmscripts, and her own works have been translated into some forty languages, most extensively into Russian, the Scandinavian languages, and German. Belševica has made recordings of her own poetry, and many of her poems have been set to music, thus widening her audience from a devoted readership to a broader listenership. The writer's creative career falls into three stages: the youthful period, her mature period-interrupted by eight years of enforced silence-and the final decade, which she has spent writing her remembrances of the 1930s and 1940s.
Vizma Belševica (her married name is Elsbergs) was born in Rīga on 30 May 1931, during Latvia's brief period of independence between the two world wars and in the midst of an economic crisis. Her parents lived in Grīziņkalns, one of the Latvian capital's poorest sections, where they were blue-collar workers with a small and uncertain income. Because at times it was difficult for them to make ends meet, Belševica spent a considerable part of her childhood with relatives in Ugāle, an enchanting forest-covered region in northern Courland (Kurzeme). Both the city's shabby proletarian surroundings and the simple, wholesome rural environment of her childhood before and during World War II left an indelible impression on the future writer. All her life she retained a pronounced love of nature, and a strong distaste for the hideous urban life, as well as a notable indifference to material possessions. 
When Belševica was nine years old, the Baltic States were occupied by the Russians and annexed to the Soviet Union. The first year of Soviet rule, known in Latvia as the Year of Horror, was followed by the years of equally dreadful Nazi occupation. Moscow then reestablished its rule in the Baltics at the end of World War II in 1945.
In 1946, the fifteen-year-old Vizma Belševica was scolded at a Komsomol (Young Communist League) meeting for penning verses on such trivial subjects as the beauty of nature and blond boys, moreover in the officially decried free verse, at a time when writers were requested to assist with their works in "the building of a communistic society." When in the following year at sixteen she made her literary debut with her poem "Zemes atmoda" (Awakening of the Land), printed in the 30 April 1947 issue of the newspaper Padomju Jaunatne (Soviet Youth), several overzealous critics detected in it traces of lewdness-some readers predictably associating the poetic image of her native land's rolling hills with the breasts of a Young woman. The aspiring poet's second published verse fared better. For one thing, it used end-rhymes, which at that time was stylistically "correct." But the poem also was thematically "correct": its title was "Vīrs darvo jumtu" (A Man Tarring the Roof ). It promptly earned official praise.
In 1955, Belševica's first book of poems, Visu ziemu šogad pavasaris (The Whole Year Nothing But Spring), was published. The profile of this slender volume was ideologically at least acceptable. Its tone is conventionally sunny, and it emanates the obligatory officious pathos about postwar reconstruction and the happy future. This notwithstanding, it gave the promise of more mature work. The syllables of a handful of the poems can be almost tasted on the tongue. The author herself, however, has disavowed this collection and considers it a schoolgirl's mediocre, standard, and concessive doggerel of the time. As a matter of fact, she has expressly requested that it be omitted from her poetic output. Nevertheless, a book of that kind was a necessary prerequisite for acceptance within the ranks of the Communist Party-guided Writers Union, the essential condition for a recognized literary existence. Belševica became a member in 1958, two years after Khrushchev's de-Stalinization speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party. This was during Belševica's Moscow years, when she was enrolled at the Gorky Institute of World Literature. Here this astonishingly attractive, young, and intellectual woman from "exotic" Latvia was admired and, on occasion, befriended by such emerging and future successful literary figures as the Ukrainian Lina Kostenko, the Abkhazian Fazil Iskander, the Russians Yuri Kazakov, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Bella Akhmadulina, and others. One of their group was the post-Stalinist "young poetry" representative Andrei Voznesensky, who at that time attended the Moscow Institute of Architecture.
Belševica graduated in 1961. A few years later, Voznesensky labeled her one of the best poets in the entire Soviet Union.  A similar view was expressed by one of the best Russian women poets, Yunna Moritz.  In Moscow, Voznesensky wrote a thirtyone-line dedicatory poem to Belševica, entitled "On the Metamorphoses Brought About by Emotion: The Rebellion of Eyes": "And people pass, like gloomy apartment blocks, / Above her, the eyes go on burning: great windows. / Hundreds of women they carried away, before you. / How much pain they have gathered, to await you! / But once in a century there is a rebellion of eyes." 
The publication in 1959 of her second book of poems, Zemes siltums (Warmth of the Earth), containing for the most part sincere lyrical verse and charming landscapes, gained Belševica a considerable measure of attention and established her as a talented and innovative poet, as a figure of consequence in her homeland as well as in Moscow. Originality of imagination and an abundance of unexpected associative references strongly characterize her short and clear verses, which convey the concept of a sensitive young woman awakening to life, love, and grief. Other emerging potent elements courage, compassion, a sense of isolation, and what some writers call mysticism emanated from the poetry of Belševica.
The graceful Russian translation of Zemes siltums (as Teplo zemnoe, 1960) by Belševica's friend Veronika Tushnova had served as her thesis and was defended with high honors at the Institute of World Literature. Before that, however, the overanxious local Rīga censors had refused to give permission for its publication in Latvian. Only after the revelation that the book's Russian translation had been accepted for publication by the Moscow state publishing house Sovetskii Pisatel' (Soviet Writer), did the Rīga affiliate of Glavlit (the USSR censorship office), in order to avoid embarrassment, arrange for its hasty printing in Latvian before the Russian edition came out. But it was not printed as submitted by the author-just as the case was with most of Belševica's poetry books published before Gorbachev's era of perestroika and glasnost'. Usually certain poems were left out altogether, and individual stanzas or lines were sometimes altered. 
Vizma Belševica with Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky
Stockholm, 24 September 1995
Photo: Rolfs Ekmanis
After the short-lived Thaw of 1956, the literary line in the Soviet Union again began to harden, and the cultural authorities began publicly to chastise a number of Latvian writers, among them Vizma Belševica, for works allegedly written in a revisionistic, unlawful, and anti-Soviet manner.  Although in the 1 960s the official Communist Party restrictions continued virtually to define the subject and the manner of writings, and the litanies of praise for the party and its leaders still permeated the work of a great many contemporary Latvian poets and prose writers, at least some found it possible to deal with subjects and themes that had been forbidden during the first ten or fifteen postwar years. The mid-1960s, a vibrant period for the "New Wave Writers" or the "Writers of the Sixties," when censorship temporarily became somewhat relaxed, saw an eruption of talent and vitality. One of the most brilliant pioneers of this group was Vizma Belševica, with her new and freely selected images and ideas.
Next to her poems, it is her short stories which constitute her best work.  Belševica's prolonged stay, in the autumn of 1960, in the medieval Baltic fishing hamlet of Salacgrīva (mentioned in chronicles as early as 1215) in northern Latvia, resulted in a small book. This was Ķikuraga stāsti (Stories from Ķikurags), published five years later (in 1965) and consisting of five highly compressed ministories. The author here is brilliant at describing the physical appearance of fishermen, at leisure as well as in action, and at finding the proper psychological and idiomatic rhythm with which to set the mood of each story so as to affect the senses in much the same way as epic poetry. Belševica has a fine ear for the local residents' speech and succeeds in making a confined, unsophisticated world interesting and diverse. Although she does not intend to solve any serious problems, behind her terse narrative always lies another greater story; the things that happen to her characters could happen to almost anybody, anywhere. Imbued with a jocular spirit, these five stories, just like her later prose pieces, embody respect and warmth toward what is human, fragile, and imperfect.
Belševica's next prose collection, Nelaime mājās (Misfortune at Home), published nine years later and offering six humorous tales that border on the tragic, is peopled by ingeniously molded colorful portraits of human types who perform within grotesquely warped human situations. Once again, an evident feature of these "laughter-through-tears" tales is the author's extraordinary talent with language. Belševica's creative, original expression transcends mere prose. She uses many poetic conventions-alliteration, internal rhyme, et cetera-and plays with the ambiguity of words and meanings.
The full range of Belševica's poetic talent developed quickly and made itself evident in 1966 with the release of Jūra deg (The Sea Is Burning). The rhythmic perspective of this impressive gathering of poems, their form, technique, texture, and atmosphere reveal a mastery of a remarkably wide range of poetic styles and subjects and demonstrate the poet's complete control of her material. Although it is hard to find a dominant note in Belševica's verse-it ranges across themes of love, alienation, childhood, war, art, the search for wisdom, and so on-it is particularly notable for the restrained, elegiac tone of her love poetry, where the power of love and the power of imagination work often in concert in the face of difficult odds to sustain the human heart and spirit.
Her nature poems always rise above the merely picturesque. In nature her flesh and soul are one; she is one with the earth. Belševica is especially enthralled by the magic of the Baltic Sea. She induces us to imagine its sights and its sounds not by the story or account. Our response is, instead, primarily the result of a series of poetic images.
A jewel of a poem is "Klusums" (Silence). Having identified a woman with the silence of "the boundless sea" and after presenting several examples of silence and serenity both in the heart of the poet and in nature, little by little she personifies the sea, engaging in a dialogue with it until an unexpected surprise at the poem's conclusion. The sea is revealed as a tired and sobbing woman hiding her head in the hands of the Poet, who tries to console her. Creating a magical, even hypnotic atmosphere by various sound devices (alliteration, assonance and the like), the poet masterfully manages the transition from objective observations to metaphorical imagery and, in the end, a transformation of this imagery into reversed reality: the huge sea has metamorphosed into a real woman, and the Poet has acquired cosmic dimensions.
As said earlier, Belševica does not convey emotions through invocation or direct expression. She does so through the precisely observed description of an "objective correlative," a gesture, a locale, a rich allusiveness and intertextuality that hint at greater depths. The dramatic and lyric are frequently merged in monologues and dialogues-for example, in her "Paraksti gleznām" (Painting Signatures), where the poet comments on three world-famous paintings: Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Goya's Saturn Devouring His Children, and Rossetti's Beatrice and Dante in Paradise. "Kalna vārdi tam, kas palika ielejā" (The Mountain Speaks to Him Who Has Remained in the Valley) is a dialogue in which the mountain sermonizes to man on heroism and cowardice, on self-denial, spiritual isolation, and so on. However, even when Belševica sermonizes, it is a dancing sermon, an ineffable, wonderful, everlasting dance of syllables.
In Jūra deg Belševica is very much seduced by the language, the imaginative association of words. Now, however, another most potent element begins to emerge: a new epic tone in her well-crafted verse, as evidenced by two series of poems devoted to social reality and containing much scorn for what was going on in the social world. In "Prometeja kliedziens" (The Cry of Prometheus) the myth of the challenger of the tyrant, the defender of people from the doom which threatens them, is interestingly reapplied to conditions of her day. For the poet, a loving human being is a carrier of Promethean fire-a spirit admitting no limitations, no arguments other than the power of feeling. The tragedy, as she sees it, however, lies in the fact that love is able not only to raise us far above our ordinary selves, but also to sear our souls.
As with most of Belševica's poetry books, Jūra deg did not escape omissions or alterations by the censors. "Prometeja kliedziens" was translated into almost all the major languages of the former USSR, addressing as it does reasonable humans the world over. In it she repeats several times the line "Prometheuses of all lands, unite!" But such an obvious paraphrase of the Bolshevik slogan "Proletarians of all lands, unite!" was inadmissible in the view of party officials, and they changed Belševica's line to "Prometheuses locked in chains, unite!" Belševica found this comical and did not object. It is of interest that in the Soviet Union, especially its non-Russian republics, this poem was perceived as a battle cry to the natives, in particular their creative intelligentsia, to join hands and resist Moscow's hegemony.  In the second series, "Klods Izerlijs" (Claude Eatherly), an American flier is desperately seeking for a way of redeeming his guilt before mankind for having been involved in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Although Belševica undoubtedly condemns the ruthless destruction of the Japanese city by the Americans at the end of World War II, the poem simultaneously contains veiled criticism of the Soviet Union. "When she was writing about Claude Eatherly," as Belševica's contemporary, the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky pointed out in 1995, "she was clearly referring to our country." 
From the late 1960s onward, Belševica was compelled by circumstances and her frail health to lead a relatively quiet and secluded life in the Latvian capital. But this made her inner life all the more intense. She seemed to treat the emotional life of her lyric personae with more depth than any other poet in Latvia, and without feeling obliged to involve them in topical industrial, agricultural, and political concerns. By the time her fourth collection of verse, Gadu gredzeni (Annual Rings), was published in Rīga in 1969, Belševica, at only thirty-eight, had achieved prominence not only in her native country but also beyond its borders. Two books of poetry had been published in Russian and one in Armenian,  and her works had been printed in literary publications in the Scandinavian languages, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Estonian, Azeri, Moldovan, Ukrainian, Belorusian, Finnish, and others.
Gadu gredzeni, which was somehow passed through the censors' sieve by negligent examiners, is generally acknowledged to be Belševica's most original work of literature. Imbued with tragic power and courage, it brought to full flowering her gift for condensing both emotion and thought to the point-but never beyond-of breaking the poetic form and a full engagement with the theme of the calling and responsibility of the poet, whom Belševica, to quote her fellow poet and critic Astrīde Ivaska, sees as "witness of his time, a sleepless sentinel with only the word as his weapon."  In several poems, but especially in "Vārdi par vārdiem" (words About words), we find the thought that the role of the poet in the twentieth century is self-vindicating, that the poet-lawmaker, guiltless on one level, bearing the guilt of others on another, is the creator or tool of the thing that can overcome death: namely, the Word: "Putni mirst un dzejnieki. Bet ne cirvja asmens / Nevar izcirst vārdu, kas pirms nāves pasacīts" (Birds die, and poets. But not even the ax's edge / can hack out the word that is said before death; 48). It is this responsibility that makes a poet's silence something shameful. If a poet can be said to have a philosophy, then "Vārdi par vārdiem" is Belševica's philosophy.
Another point stands out in this volume: it is as a poet that Belševica conquers space and time, understands her contemporaries, shares the world of the Greek myths, the Bible, and medieval chronicles as well as that of the major Ukrainian poet Shevchenko, the Latvian poet Rainis, the Polish film director Wajda, and so on. The creative act for Belševica is an act of mediation between animate and inanimate, past and present, nature and human society.
Exploring the theme of a quest for truth and dignity and for one's duty toward the world and toward one's fellow man, Belševica's version of the world is frequently haunted and horror-struck, and she seems to be saying that the world is evil and that man is a deaf-mute. The "bone-pilers" run the scene and neither sense nor tears nor blood weighs in this world of theirs. In vain her Don Quixotes struggle for justice against lies and subterfuge. The windmills keep on grinding falsehood and nourishing the soil with lies while the heaps of innumerable Don Quixotes' pale bones grow larger and larger all around. However, the injustices of the day cannot last forever, because these Don Quixotes never cease to fight, and their bones will push out new shoots against the sun, and their death will "build a bridge out of their bones, a bridge upon which truth shall stand." The day will come when wings of these evil mills will break upon hitting the white bone heaps, when "wisdom will be brought into being by insanity" (79).
Frequently Belševica employs the word mute to denote deep feeling, a tremendous strength of feeling. In her often-noted poem "Latvijas vēstures motīvs: Vecrīga" (Old Rīga: Variations on the Theme of Latvian History) - which in a way is a love poem to her city - Belševica describes how the medieval Old City of Rīga keeps silent as winds rage, howling and beating upon her mute, nude stone women, her mute heraldic beasts, the voiceless key to the city (with the conquerors' hands on it), and the invader's silent blood on the city's cobblestones. It is pointless to ask whether Rīga's quiet strength signifies indifference, obtuseness, or cowardice: "Nejautā. Tev neatbildēs. / Pārejošam vajag kliegt. / Taisnoties. Pierādīt. / Mūžigais var klusēt" (Ask not. You won't be answered. / That which passes must shout. / Must plead. Must prove. / What is eternal can keep silent; 55). The howling and raging winds, as well as those foreigners who enter by force in order to conquer, come and go. They are transitory. Rīga with her mum inhabitants and her mum roosters on the many mum church steeples, on the other hand, will stay and carry on, in spite of hardships and suffering. Founded in 1201 by the Crusaders, Rīga since the midnineteenth century has been the country's cultural capital and as such the nexus of Latvian national identity.
Contained in Gadu gredzeni is the astonishing lengthy poem "Indriķa Latvieša piezīmes uz Livonijas hronikas malām" (The Notations of Henricus de Lettis in the Margins of the Livonian Chronicle), which juxtaposes intense, accusatory poetic comment with the pious thirteenth-century chronicle and tells the story of pillaging, burning, rape, and murder inflicted on a small nation by a large and powerful one in the name of an ideology-here, Christianity. The formal structure as well as the contents of this masterful poem struck most readers as truly exceptional, even sensational in the best sense of the word. The Livonian Chronicle, known in the original Latin as Heinrici Chronicon Livoniae, is judged to have been written between 1 225 and 1227 and describes mainly the progress of the German conquest of Livonia between 1180 and 1227.  Although the events occur some eight hundred years ago, Belševica's poeticized "notations" are conspicuously timely. To quote the Latvian poet and critic Gunars Saliņš, among the elements that lend Belševica's story its remarkable contemporaneousness is "the conspirational urgency with which her Henricus engages the reader. In this, Belševica's conception differs strikingly from the ways in which similar historical material has been treated by most other Latvian poets. Whereas the traditional heroic epic ballade, no matter how splendidly written, tends to present the past as something memorable and yet remote and unredeemable, Belševica's poem renders history with the immediacy of a news broadcast on a current political-and personal---crisis." 
"The Notations of Henricus de Lettis," a skillfully and solidly constructed verbal artifact, embodies the cri de coeur of an angry, suffering, and disenfranchised people.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Long since, the water in truth's wells is bitter,
Mixed with lies, it does not quench the thirst.
Fruit plucked unripened from the tree of knowledge
Has stripped the teeth. The mouth will go on hurting.
Full brims the cup of disillusion and belated doubt.
Rome like a jealous wife demands
That love be sworn to her in public
At every step ... With spying eyes she reads
Between my lines, that she owns not
This heart, once so naive and yielding.
The translator falls mute. And thoughtful grows the jester.
And in dreams Courish boats sail down to Rīga.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I write, and from the words blood does not drip,
And the barbed bitterness of letters does not gash the page.
You, Jesus Christ, over my shoulder read
How Godfearingly for your fame I lie.
0 Christ, your kingdom shall come over us,
One god and tongue. And nation also one.
I see the Latvian land with crossnails hammered
To the surface of your holy meekness.
Now what, you gentle one, our mournful songs,
What harm do midsummer's wild blossoms do you?
But not of flowers - of thorns the bloody crown
About the head should be ... With pikepoints must be ploughed
The wineyard of the Lord across our bones
And brains. Not a trace left, or thought.
And our destruction - one more sunset
That in unerring concept Rome may dawn
Over the earth . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Oh, let your faithful servant
Still endure it. I greatly fear
That I shall rise against you, Christ.
From the dissembling cross ripped, naked,
Beneath your slave's feet into dust you'll crumble. 
Here, as well as in quite a few other poems, Belševica refers repeatedly to fire and burning, images that are most revealing when used in connection with writing. "The strength of poetry lies in burning," she writes. The scribe of the chronicle reporting on the war wishes that his words would burn the paper, and he himself wants to burn, to climb up in the sky as a column of flame, to shout out the injustices seen; in other words, not only the words but the poet herself are seen as being afire, burning. In one poem Belševica prophetically fears that the one who sets fires does not always escape the encircling flames.
This theme of inner freedom and sincerity was impermissible in official Soviet literary circles. Although never expelled from the Soviet Latvian Writers Union, Belševica was totally ousted from Latvian literature, which also meant, of course, exclusion from the entire "multinational" Soviet literature. She found herself pushed into a position where her very existence was threatened by the fact that she wrote poetry, an experience much like that of one of the foremost Russian women poets, Anna Akhmatova. Belševica spent close to eight years as a "banned person," suffering constant material hardship. Even her very name disappeared from the official media as well as from the roster of officially recognized Latvian writers. 
At the June 1969 Communist Party Plenum in Riga, several impetuous zealots displayed their crass incomprehension of literature by drawing all sorts of rash political conclusions from her poems. One high party official (Roberts Ķīsis) was especially angry at Belševica for her alleged attempts to lead Soviet readers astray-"from socially pure thoughts into the fog of conjectures and remote allusi0ns"---by using Aesopian language and double-level symbolism. He branded this an extremely dangerous act, "liable to create utter ideological chaos among politically inexperienced readers." 
Valija Labrence, a pro-regime literary critic, bitterly recalled that Belševica on several earlier occasions, having been admonished for a "lack of social lucidity" in her works, showed no desire to respond to the critics' demand for clarity or to draw practical conclusions from the criticism. Labrence beseeched the poet to treat in her verse the "new Soviet man" who, "imbued with Communist morality," advances "along the road toward a new society."  Also, some of the more docile Latvian poets tried to make Belševica the Saint Sebastian of their slings and arrows for departing from the one and only true path, largely because hacks who built their careers on writing agitprop odes to the Leader in Moscow felt threatened when printings of Belševica's books sold out in a single day, while their own books moldered away unsold in bookstores. 
Proscribed or semiproscribed writers in the Soviet Union sometimes were permitted to publish children's stories or translations of foreign literature, which were less likely to arouse controversy. Belševica, however, was told that there would be a strict ban on any further publication of her works, including translations. But when the popular poet indicated to the authorities that in such a case she would try to support herself by selling ice cream out of a little pushcart either in front of the Latvian Communist Party Central Committee building or at the entrance to the Hotel Rīga, frequented by foreigners, the state publishing house (Latvijas Valsts Izdevniecība) promptly contacted Belševica and offered her a commission to translate certain foreign authors. This meant that she had at least semiofficial standing as a translator if not as a writer. Although the situation was far from pleasant, it had become in some ways more bearable. The eight or so "dead years" she devoted almost exclusively to translating, mainly from English, thus earning her livelihood and, at the same time, greatly enriching Latvian literature with her many masterful renditions. 
For Vizma Belševica, no work to be translated was too difficult. When she set out to work on Paustovsky's Zolotaia roza (The Golden Rose), the editors at the state publishing house had decided to leave out as untranslatable two chapters dealing with all sorts of linguistic intricacies, because, in their view, for many Russian words and expressions no Latvian equivalents were to be found. Belševica felt insulted, both personally and nationally. After devoting much time to strenuous researching in old dictionaries and other sources, she produced beautiful translations of the entire work, including the "untranslatable" chapters.
From the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, Belševica was closely watched by the Soviet secret police. Her apartment was searched twice. At the very beginning of the 1 960s, she was presented the appropriate warrant, and the KGB agents expressed a polite interest as to whether there were any books or manuscripts in her possession prohibited by Soviet law. The search lasted eight hours. This was a time when the poet, critic, and translator Knuts Skujenieks (b. 1936) was arrested and sentenced to seven years in the forced-labor camp at Pot'ma for allegedly "anti-Soviet activities"-together with several other intellectuals whom the authorities suspected of being connected with some kind of a Latvian oppositionist movement. Belševica, who knew well Skujenieks and his recently wedded wife, was also under suspicion.
In the early 1970s, Belševica's apartment was searched by a team of Ukrainian and Latvian KGB agents who suspected that the poet had in her possession the "dangerously anti-Soviet" manuscript of Ivan Dziuba's book Internatsionalizm chi rusifikatsia? (Internationalization or Russification?). Although the agents discovered it rather swiftly, they continued to search for sixteen hours. Later, at Dziuba's trial in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv (Kiev), Belševica was asked to testify against the Ukrainian writer and his work. As recompense, she was promised, the official prohibition on her own works would be lifted. Instead, Belševica astonished the court by defending Dziuba and stating publicly that "if it is evident to a writer that his people and his native language are imperiled, then it is his moral obligation to write about it regardless of the consequences." 
During both Soviet security force visits, Belševica was obliged to part with several sackfuls of both published and unpublished materials, including her notes, diaries, and a large number of books. It has been suggested that health problems saved Belševica from the imprisonment to which many other persecuted writers and intellectuals in the former Soviet Union were sentenced. As usually happens, the regime's efforts to transmute the poet into a "nonperson" in the eyes of potential readers backfired. For many, indeed, she was quite simply the true voice of Latvia. Enthusiasm for the poet surged especially among the younger generation. Her poetry collections became established and revered items on people's bookshelves. A great many of her compatriots tied themselves to the poet in the field not only of culture but also of destiny, of mutual progress toward the fulfillment of liberty and identity. Belševica's enforced silence only served to heighten her moral authority, but at the same time placed a terrible burden not only on the conscience of those who contacted the poet, but also on the poet's conscience as well.
Vizma Belševica with Latvian poet Juris Kronbergs,
who has translated her poetry and prose into Swedish.
Stockholm, 26 September 1995
Although in the mid-1970s a couple of Belševica's earlier poems were reprinted on the literary pages of several periodicals, there was much uncertainty as to her exact official position in the literary world. By the second half of the 1 970s, her towering literary reputation and moral steadfastness had led to at least a selective rehabilitation and also the resumption of book publication. Madarās (Among the Madder), a subdued yet richly evocative collection of poems, appeared in 1976 in an edition of 16,000 copies. 
Madarās is an exceptional and vividly powerful book of poems on largely botanical and nature themes and elemental midlife concerns. A number of "ecological" works reflect the poet's determination to awaken concern for the preservation of the environment. In "Pegasiņš" (Pegasus) her "dear little Pegasus" treads lightly with his horseshoeless feet so as not to harm cranberry shrubs and patches of bear moss. She sings about lovely experiences, such as the affection of her two sons, the magnificence of the Baltic Sea, the pussywillows in the spring, the sweet fragrance of cut grass, the fields basking in the sun or enjoying the rains, the delights of the countryside, the hum of the bees, the song of the skylark. The poet expresses these experiences in beautiful similes and metaphors. However, the primary emphasis in her brief, superbly crafted pieces is upon woman's inner life, the feelings of love and the ensuing chagrin, the loneliness of the poet. Several poems are devoted to the arts, particularly those arts in which mind and imagination are chiefly concerned: e.g., "Bartoka kvartets" (Bartok Quartet) and "Mākslinieka acis" (The Artist's Eyes), about the legendary Latvian painter Jānis Pauļuks (1906-84). "Ugunsziedi" (Blossoms of Fire) is dedicated to the poet Jūlijs Dievkociņš (1879-190b), who was executed by the czarist security forces for his involvement in the 1905 revolution. When Belševica spoke of the boots of Cossack Black Hundreds, many a reader saw Soviet tank tracks across the broken Baltic landscape.
Even after Belševica's partial rehabilitation in the late 1970s, the party watchdogs did not stop trying by various means to drive her into obscurity. When the state publishing house "Liesma" printed the traditional fifty-year anniversary collection Kamola tinēja (The Clew Winder) in 1981, it was almost impossible to find it in Latvian bookstores, although, according to the book's "passport," it had a large print run for a small country: 16,000 copies. At the same time, the KGB-affiliated Soviet Latvian propaganda organization for relations with Latvian exiles abroad would distribute the book generously and free of charge to various Latvian addresses in Western Europe, Australia, and North America. In Latvia, a rumor-never verified and apparently fabricated by the security forces--was spread that unknown thieves had stolen from a state warehouse very nearly all the copies of Belševica's book of poems.
Dzeltu laiks (Signs of Time) was published in 1987, at the outset of Gorbachev's perestroika, when he showed the desire to set things right in a society where they were mostly very wrong. The times coincided with Belševica's first book to be free of Glavlit interference. Approximately one-half of the collection contains poems devoted to turning points in Latvian history, from 5 October 1199, when Pope Innocent III proclaimed the Crusade against Livonia, and the year 1906, when Russian punitive expeditions executed or deported hundreds of Latvian revolutionaries. Here we have a unique blend of poetry with occasional prose passages, of the wild and free with the domestic, of wisdom with childlike wonderment, of irony with intensity, of realism with romance and dreams.
On 5 February 1987, Belševica's oldest son, twenty-eight-year-old Klāvs Elsbergs, a gifted poet himself and a graceful translator of Apollinaire and other French poets as well as the editor of a newly established avant-garde cultural monthly, died under circumstances that were never clarified. As the result of an argument, the story went, with several minor Russian literati concerning Moscow's treatment of the non-Russian peoples within the Soviet Union, he was beaten and pushed to his death through a ninth-floor window of the Soviet Writers Union's residential hotel in Dubulti on the Bay of Rīga. In spite of appeals, the local Soviet authorities, allegedly obeying Moscow's orders, refused to investigate Elsbergs's tragic death. A promising poet's life had ended just as the nation was on the verge of starting anew.
There was little doubt not only in the mind of Belševica and those close to her, but also in the minds of a great many Latvians, that Elsbergs did not die accidentally or of his own free will, and that it was the same kind of refined punishment of Belševica that had been applied to other inconvenient writers in the Soviet Union: for example, Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, who were persecuted indirectly when their closest family members were killed or imprisoned, and Boris Pasternak, whom the KGB did not arrest when his novel Doctor Zhivago gained sensational world attention and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (1958), but whose mistress and her daughter were instead taken into custody. For almost two years after her son's death, Belševica was unable to write anything, and she has written no poetry at all since the tragic year 1987.
Tragedy, however, did not wither Vizma Belševica. As a matter of fact, she soon went on to a different kind of literary accomplishment. In the latter part of 1988, she started working on the thinly fictionalized reminiscences of her childhood. The title of the first volume, Bille, is the nickname of the narrator-protagonist Sibilla. Somewhat embittered that local Latvian publishing houses did not express enough interest in her completed manuscript, she submitted it to an exile publisher in Ithaca, New York, who issued the work in two printings (1992 and 1993). The book also contained a lengthy interview she had given in February 1989 in Paris, and a selection of those poems which were referred to in the interview. In 1995, Bille was published in Latvia. Constructed of thirty-five episodes, it takes the reader from Belševica's early childhood in prewar independent Latvia up to the Soviet takeover of the Baltics in June 1940.
The moods and events, the pleasures and disappointments (including some plebeian discontent), the adjustments and maladjustments of a child are convincingly conveyed in this lovely and humane book. And the splendidly drawn figures of the adults are in true relationships to the horizon of a child's impressions and observations. The harmony and dissonance of childhood are made real with such faithfulness that frequently one forgets the occasion of the experience in the uncanny magic of the author's expression. In 1996, Bille was published in Swedish translation.
The second volume, Bille dzīvo tālāk (Bille Lives On), appeared in 1996. It consists of thirty episodes that cover the period from 1940 to the end of 1944, through two occupations: first the Russian, then the German. In both volumes, the structure is fragmented and strict chronology is abandoned. As to the present situation in her homeland, the writer disparages the depressing insensitivity to esthetic life there and the sad fact that so many values have been destroyed in the country's material poverty.
Literary interest in Belševica has been especially high in the Scandinavian countries, thanks largely to excellent translations into Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish. According to the well-known Swedish writer and essayist Birgitta Trotzig, Belševica's four books of poetry in Swedish translation (1980, 1987, 1992, 1995) have enriched the Swedish language and have become an organic part of Swedish literature,  thanks to her excellent translator, the poet Juris Kronbergs, who truly succeeds in his craft when the reader identifies the translation with the original work of art, since it conveys so well the author's esthetic values and her emotional posture. 
At a literary conference in September 1995, in Durban, the South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer spoke these memorable words: "You can burn the books, but the integrity of creative artists is not incarnate on paper any more than on canvas-it survives so long as the artist himself cannot be persuaded, cajoled or frightened into betraying it."  Vizma Belševica's creative output since the late 1950s clearly reflects such unwavering integrity. She believes that the only responsibility of a writer is to present what he or she has to say about the world in a way that is complete and artistically pure. Honesty is said to be the faculté maītresse of poetry, and Belševica's poems reveal her adherence to that concept; that is, they are intellectually and emotionally honest, perfectly sincere in their gleams of hope and in the darkness of agony. The greatness of her work lies in the fact that she attains perfection by means of an honest, uncompromising expression. One discovers this absolute identification between experience and expression in John Donne and William Blake.
The Irish poet, essayist, and translator Desmond Egan, at a literary conference at the University of Stockholm on 25 September 1995, argued that Vizma Belševica "could definitely be Irish," because of her "poetic sense of musicality, terseness, sly humor and her idea of a strong woman." In nominating Belševica for the 1997 Neustadt International Prize, Egan stated: "Her range is impressive: political poems that transcend mere party politics and become universal in their quest for truth and dignity and for man's duty toward the world and toward his fellow man. In this sense she is a poet for our time. But Belševica is much more than the voice of conscience, crying in a political wilderness; she is a genius, with the intensity and piercing insight of a great artist. Her love poems are among the finest I have read anywhere; her feeling for nature is, to someone coming from a tradition where this is centrally important, astonishing. She has written long poems and short lyrics; can range from passionate to satirical; from the introspective and personal to the public--so that at times she can speak with authority as the very spirit of her beloved country." 
Andrei Voznesensky, probably the leading Russian poet during the last four decades of the twentieth century, and also present at the Stockholm conference, referred to Belševica as "the greatest of us all, a genius," and labeled her the "Latvian Yeats." And it is true, indeed, that both writers can be characterized by a high respect for craftsmanship and for the high calling of literature, an aristocratic image of the poet. In the literary output of both one finds an extremely and consciously "literary" kind of poetry as well as poetry immersed in and emerging from their personal lives and the political strivings of their homelands in their time. The poems of both are hermetic; their highly condensed, wavering rhythms create an incantatory tone of mystery; and in both there is a very strong sense of spiritual unity with the writer's own nation. It is a well-known fact that the national mission of poetry in small countries is very important. This was aptly expressed by the Hungarian poet Emma Nagy: "I cannot be exclusively a poet because I am a Hungarian." 
Arizona State University
ROLFS EKMANIS, a native of Rīga, is a professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he teaches courses in Russian and non-Russian literatures of the former USSR, including the Baltic literatures and cultures. He has edited several Latvian cultural and sociopolitical journals and is the author of Latvian Literature under the Soviets, 1940-1975 (1978) and other monographs. A reviewer for WLT since 1970, he has also published articles in such other periodicals as the East European Quarterly, Acta Baltica, Lituanus, the Slavic and East European Journal, Karogs, and Jaunā Gaita. He is the recipient of several Latvian cultural awards.
1 Parts of this paper were presented at an international conference on Vizma Belševica, held on 25 September 1995 at the University of Stockholm.
2 A number of biographical passages, here paraphrased, come from my interview with Vizma Belševica in Paris, 12 February 1989, excerpts of which were first published in Brīvība (Liberty), no. 6/7 (1989), a monthly publication of the Latvian Social Democratic Labor Party in exile (Stockholm). The entire interview appeared in the annual Latvija Šodien (Latvia Today), no. 17/18 (1990), published in Rockville, Md.
3 "The Essential Word Is Concise," Transatlantic Review, 33/34 (Winter 1969), pp. 205-6.
4 Andrei Voznesensky, in his presentation at the University of Stockholm (see note 1).
5 Selected Poems of Andrei Voznesensky, New York, Grove, 1966, p. 631.
6 One of the poems found objectionable, for example, was "Tālu..." (Faraway), which expresses the poet's deep nostalgic emotion for her homeland during the time she was studying in Moscow. It was excluded, because, as explained by the editors, some readers might view it as a poem conveying the feelings of Latvians in Siberian labor camps. Another poem, in which the author muses over a dissipating cloud above a lake, as observed from an airplane, was crossed out because, in the eyes of the censors, one could read into it criticism of the current party line.
7 It was the weekly organ of the Writers Union of the USSR, Literaturnaia Gazeta (Literary Gazette), which on 14 November 1959 censured several Latvian literary works allegedly written in a revisionistic, unlawful, and anti-Soviet manner and specifically charged Belševica, as well as another woman poet, Ārija Elksne (1928-84), with treating "narrowly intimate themes" in their works. A major attack against the more liberal-minded Latvian writers, critics, and artists followed a few days later, at the Ninth Plenum of the Latvian Communist Party Central Committee.
8 Belševica's first story, "Meistars Īlis" (Master Īlis), based on her trade-school experiences, was published in the September 1956 issue of Karogs (The Banner), the monthly organ of the Soviet Latvian Writers Union and the only Latvian literary journal at that time.
9 According to official commentators, however, the poem calls for solidarity of the world's working people in their "struggle for human happiness and against the menace of nuclear war."
10 See note 4.
11 A very fine Russian translation by Veronika Tushnova of Belševica's second book of poems, Zemes siltums, had appeared as Teplo zemnoe (1960), and, some years later, selected poems by several translators were collected under the title Stikhi o solov'inom infarkte (Verses on a Nightingale's Heart Attack; 1969). Later other Russisn translations followed, the most notable being Aprel'skiī dozhd' (April Rain) in 1978. In 1970, Belševica's poetry collection Babyblue Summer came out in Armenian, translated by the poet Vardkes Babaian.
12 See the profile on Belševica (as a candidate for the 1996 Neustadt International Prize for Literature) in WLT 70:2 (Spring 1996), pp. 336-37.
13 The oldest manuscript of the chronicle is in the fourteenth-century Codex Zamoiski in Warsaw. Translated into English by J. A. Brundage, it bears the title The Chronicle of Henry of Livonia (1961).
14 "On Allegory: Vizma Belševica's Poem 'The Notations of Henricus de Lettis in the Margins of the Livonian Chronicle'," Lituanus, 16:1 (1970), p. 31.
15 Ibid., pp. 15-21, translated by Baiba Kaugara. Although Bishop Albert (birthdate unknown, d. 1229), the overseer of Livonia, has been described as one of the shrewdest German colonizers and diplomats of his day, no one in the Baltic at that time had ever attempted to impose a universal tongue. True, Latin became the official language in all public decrees, treaties, and state correspondence, but it was not proposed as a conversational language even to the Crusaders themselves, let alone the native inhabitants. Only some later "Romes" have tried to force Latvians and the other Baltic peoples to learn and accommodate the native tongue of the conquerors.
16 See, for example, Milda Kalve's Jaunākās latviešu padomju dzejas apcirkņos (In the Treasure Coves of Contemporary Latvian Poetry, a reference volume, published in Rīga in 1975.
17 Cīņa (The Struggle), Rīga, 7 June 1969.
18 Ibid., 28 August 1969.
19 Imants Lasmanis, a second-rate poet, reproached Belševica in a poem entitled "Nolādējums zaimotājam" (May the Blasphemer Be Damned), and Mirdza Ķempe, a recipient of the honorific title "The People's Poet" and of the Lenin Prize (1967), penned the bombastic poem "Rīga neklusē" (Rīga Is Not Mute) condemning her fellow poet for trying to please the "philistines" and the "petits bourgeois" by planting "double meanings into medieval history" (see Cīņa 20 June 1969).
20 Already before the ban she had translated Dante's Vita Nuova, Shakespeare's sonnets and the comedy Measure for Measure, stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling, Jerome K. Jerome, and Alexander Milne, poetry collections by the Ukrainians Mikola Vihranovski and Ivan Drach, and extensive prose works by the Russian writers Aleksandr Grin, Daniil Granin and Konstantin Paustovsky. During the ban, Belševica's renderings of Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth and of poems by T. S. Eliot show her unequaled mastery in the field of verse translation. Also, her prose translations are among the finest - including Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Axel Munthe's Story of San Michele, Hemingway's novel The Torrents of Spring, his play The Fifth Column, and his novella The Old Man and the Sea, P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins, and others.
21 Latvija Šodien (Latvia Today),18 November 1990, p. 57.
22 A number of poems, of course, had to be excluded: e.g., "Melnais laiks" (Black Days), in Latvia usually a period in the spring right after the first melting of the snow and before the budding of leaves. According to the censors, this could be misread as a poetic meditation about the poet's homeland under Soviet rule.
23 Birgitta Trotzig, in her presentation at the University of Stockholm (see note 1).
24 As for English translations, the fifteen poems included in Contemporary Latvian Poetry, published by the University of Iowa Press (1984), stand on their own as attractive and provocative works, representing Belševica. Other selections, some new in English, follow below in this special issue of WLT.
25 "A Writer's Freedom," in They Shoot Writers, Don't They?, ed. George Theiner, London, Faber & Faber, 1984, p. 135.
26 See WLT 70:2 (Spring 1996), p. 337. Belševica finished as runner-up to the 1996 Neustadt laureate, the Algerian-French novelist and film director Assia Djebar.
27 Joseph Remenyi, Hungarian Writers and Literature, New Brunswick (N.J.), Rutgers University Press, 1964, p. 201.
Photo: Vilhelms Mihailovskis
By VIZMA BELŠEVICA
|THE BLACK TIME|
Hardly a green, just a faint airbome premonition That soon a green-tinged mist will envelop supple birches
The timorous northern love of the slow greening of birch trees.
The waiting. The breathlessness. The almost choking tendemess.
Unseen. Unheard. The buds of birch unfurl. There's still
A lull between the owl's moan and the lark's trill. It's still
A black time - a pulsing streak between the white and the green.
Hardly a green, just a faint airbome premonition.
Translated by Māra Rozītis
Ne jau zaļums, tikai attāla nojausma gaisā,
Ka ar laiku būs iezaļa migla ap bērza lokaniem zariem.
Ziemeļu mīlas kautrums bērzu lēnajiem pavasariem.
Gaidīt. Aizturēt elpu. Sirdij no maiguma aizslāpt.
Ne to redzēt, ne dzirdēt, kā bērza pumpuri raisās.
Vēl ir mēmums starp pūces vaidu un cīruļa vīteri skaļo.
Vēl ir melnais laiks - dobja svītra starp balto un zaļo.
Vēl ne zaļums, tikai attāla nojausma gaisā.
And then, I awake one moming, as empty
Don't look at me with your eyes and mouths
Where are the sprays that splash and fall
Just the dry scrape of a bucket on gravel.
Don't be surprised. The well is going to find water.
The gaping hole in the yard will overgrow.
Translated by Māra Rozītis
WORDS ABOUT WORDS
The words came in a dream. The words stood around me like boys whose mother is told to report to the police station because of something they've done. The round mouth of the smallest little word, my favorite, turned angular and trembled. I had the feeling that any minute now it would scream, "I won't do it again!" But in vain. It wasn't the kind of word that screams. And then I said:
Words, oh my words - when they haul us in front of a judge again,
Don't hang your heads! The dock of the accused
Is only a worn threshold our feet must step across
For a world without walls to begin. The earth, not a room.
There comes a time when each of us must hatch.
It's something all birds know. All. Even a hen.
A bird knows it. So does a poet, and a word.
A verdict, even the ultimate verdict - is freedom.
No one can take it away. Touched by a breath of open air
We must not look back at the walls that enclosed us - life.
Birds die, and poets. But not even the blade of an ax
Can chop out a word said before death.
A word, once it has spilled, cannot be scooped back up.
Just like a swallow in the sky - never to be recaptured.
Words, oh my words, do not spare me!
A grain must not spare the field from which wheat is to grow.
Without new shoots, without plowshares, the land soon goes to the bad.
Cleave deeper, more painfully, let new ideas spring up.
Praise or censure? - that isn't your concern.
As I conclude the poem, a gate closes between us.
Walk the rest of the way on your own. Having given you life
I'll answer for everything,
Words, oh my words ... 
Translated by Ilze Kļaviņa Mueller
I KNOW IT WELL
I know where I can find you, know it well,
I know where I can find you, know it well,
GOYA'S SATURN DEVOURING His CHILDREN
My wretched father, your sons' blood on your lips
For a moment there is no bit, no whip, no wagon,
until the whip of dawn lashes a bloody streak
I'M REALLY NOT ASKING FOR MUCH
I'm really not asking for much.