Inta' s Poems
Great was my surprise when, two years ago, a package containing Inta's Poems I arrived in my mailbox. Inta's poems? Was Inta Ezergailis also a poet? I wondered as I proceeded to leaf through the volume's hundred and seventeen pages.
I became acquainted with Professor Inta by degrees, as it were, through the literature sessions at the bi-annual conferences of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies (AABS), where she presented papers on comparative prose and poetry. Each time her paper was deeply insightful and well delivered. Of great interest to the audience were her analyses of post-war Latvian literature as it evolved among the exiles and inside the Soviet system, from the 1960s on, during the "thaw" when the Iron Curtain began to rust. The Soviet Latvian literature was not easily accessible to us. The mainstream "exile" community either ignored it altogether or discussed it only for political reasons. Inta intermittently read papers on poets of exile like Velta Toma and Gunārs Saliņš and those who had evolved under the watchful eyes of Soviet censors like Ojārs Vācietis, Vizma Belševica, and Regīna Ezera. Inta's lectures were void of national sentimentality, pity, apologies, and accusations, such as seemed normal in our exile media — opened the-windows and doors to our split, closed countries, letting the air of free discourse and the exchange of ideas penetrate the hearts and minds of our war-separated people. Since English and German were the official languages at AABS conferences, to produce her papers Inta had had to translate a substantial body of the work of contemporary Latvian poets. I believe that her efforts, and those of other scholarson both sides of the Iron Curtain, raised the lamps that guided the road that led to the liberation of Latvia from the USSR in 1991. I was happy to learn that Inta 's lectures and translations have been collected and will be published shortly.
Beginning in the 1970s I started to immerse myself in translating the plays of Aspazija, the poetry of Belševica, and Latvian folk tales. I had hoped that Inta and I might put together an anthology of Latvian literature, but that idea came to me late in the nineties, when, unbeknown to me, Inta had already begun her walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Word of her battle with cancer shocked many of us deeply, so deeply that we, who spread the sad news over telephone wires, could find no words for her whose time was running out. We, in Latvia and North America, knew what loss her death would be. And we fell silent.
But Inta did not fall silent. It is impossible to comprehend that, in that dark valley, she gave birth to an unimaginably large number of poems that still continue to surprise her family, friends, admirers, and — I hope — the world. That she wrote poetry during the last ten years of her life and during deep personal crisis, daily confronting her mortality, is truly awesome. How did she, how could she do it?
Inta's husband Professor Andrew invited me to write a critique of her poetry for this, the third volume of Inta's Poems. He sent me a kind of sneak preview, a long, eight-part poem, entitled "To be a poet." There the poet holds, as it were, an internal monologue about creating poetry. It would be trite to point out things, analyze, pile thought upon thought; rather, those who have ears may they hear, and those who have eyes may they see —and read, and in reading note Inta's extremely high standards for herself as a poet and her fear that she might abuse the names poet and poetry. "To be a poet" describes its author's fear of her own vanity and, perhaps, judgment of others, while wanting her poems to come to life — as, perhaps, some insurance of her immortality? We might be right when we assume that Inta wanted to be remembered and understood, as a woman, a scholar, and as a microcosm of her people. What we know for sure is that what she wanted to do as poet was to write modern American verse. And she did.
Inta developed her own style, controlled the form of her poems. As a modern poet, she wrote in free verse, and no capital letters start her lines. Precise,
unadorned sentences flow from top down, in lines broken, suggesting a new intake of breath, but continuing until a full stop. I pause and back up to marvel at the cadences, at her words, bulging with constrained emotions, and I feel their meanings expand, and then ripple on into other thoughts and associations. What if the words were aligned differently? I wonder, as did the poet herself. How might meaning then shift or be amplified? Could the poems have multiple variations? For example:
As I write near poetry
the mere breaking of lines
awkward, still breaks
some dam, some resistance,
some silence in me.
As I write
near poetry, the mere breaking of lines awkward,
still breaks some dam
some silence in me.
What is "near poetry"? Is near an adverb or an adjective? Did she write near other poets and poetry or did she view her poetry as only near (close) to the real poetry that she taught? And from "[Title of Poem"] this excerpt:
The worm of consciousness, even
in this new space eating away
without surcease ...
I pause at that last word, as the association with Edgar Allan Foe's poem, The Raven, comes to mind, where we read:
... vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow ...
and my thoughts echo: nevermore — Did Inta choose that word because of this association?
Words and Images
Inta was a Latvian, yet that fact she hardly mentions in her poetry. Instead it is conveyed through words and imagery. She would not annotate her poems, perhaps leaving the job to others who would know and understand (Savējie sapratīs — One's own will get it). Inta's references to Latvian traditions, culture, sensitivities arrest my attention; hence, I would like to set down some thoughts and reactions.
I identify myself with Inta. I am a Latvian, born three years later than she. I know her husband, have memories of their daughter Anna (even when she was a toddler, wiggling around at AABS conferences), and I knew her sister Gunta, at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. We walked and still are walking the same path, the path of our displaced people, carrying the same impressions and memories. We all (except the child) were refugees of World War II, and each of us, in our own way, is chosen or condemned, like the Ancient Mariner, to tell our story. It is a difficult task. We watched the years slip away, our parents die, our communities disintegrate — time runs out (see "Church in the back yard." 14-15, I) But Inta, being in a hurry, offers her last ten years and sets down at least a fragment of "all that she had met," even as she keeps on fighting her adversaries.
I linger and recall: Our early, happy childhoods were aborted by the onslaught of the Soviet occupation and war. Our acquired self-awareness through language and place were slapped down and, as the Latvian playwright and poet Aspazija put it, we "were forced to walk on other lands." We became foreign and homeless and, like Aspazija, sought our "strength in Spirit's lofty spheres" ["Dzimtene (Homeland)," my translation], and there, in those spheres, we grew and expanded so that, in time, we could lead and teach others. (It is remarkable how many Baltic refugees and their offspring chiseled out academic careers.)
Inta studied at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York, and was so valuable and brilliant that she was chosen for a professorship before the ink was dry on her doctoral diploma. She taught German and comparative literature at Cornell until her retirement. Yet the scars and pain inflicted by loss of homeland and by war, though buried, remained no matter what she achieved and no matter how good her life became. And so it is with all of us — this band of old refugees — who tell our story, yet are loath, even embarrassed, for it does not seem terrible enough in light of other people's tales of troubles. Or, perhaps our stories that we carry inside have worn us down and made us sick. Inta's therapist encouraged her to write, suggesting it might be healing.
And so, as I read Inta's Poems, aware of where we both come from and where we are now, a word or a phrase suddenly awakens all my encrusted Latvian senses: suddenly I see, touch, smell, listen, taste. "Bread Soup" (I, 45) has this effect. I read the poem and I feel as if I am sitting at a wooden table under a blooming linden tree somewhere and set before me there is a bowl of familiar brown bread soup and in the middle of it a peaked island of whipping cream.
In "Baltic Weather Report" (I, 95) I can see the iced-in ship. It is the escape vehicle that transported refugees fleeing Latvia in the autumn and winter of 1944. Torpedoes lurked in the darkness, threateningthe voyage. The poet does not say what happened to the Monte Rosa, only that a part of her childhood — "a pure white glacial child coffin" — sank down to be "preserved forever in a thick glass shell. "And, as I recall my family's escape from Latvia, I imagine her frightened family — the young parents with two little girls huddled together in a corner of a crowded ship. The winds rise up and the stars shine, and people sing "Dievs svētī Latviju [God, Bless Latvia]," the Latvian national anthem.
I think about "Ashes" (I, 46) and the associations that poem invokes in me. How many of us, in our "exile years" have not stared, teary-eyed at some bronze urn or alabaster box containing the ashes of a loved one? Father, mother, brother, sister. Have we not wondered, marveled with that incredulity prompted only by death and asked: how could any container justly hold a life past? How and where shall we, the still living, be condensed, and how will those who come to mourn look at us? Many old refugees chose cremation, for they would not rest in foreign graves. With the Iron Curtain gone and access open, the living have been taking home these ashes of their loved ones and burying them in Latvia's sandy graveyards, where perhaps they plant flowers, in the hopes that the graves will be tended, not by roaring lawnmowers but by loving hands.
In "Mother-dream" (I, 47) Inta tells of one lucid moment in her mother's silent confusion (Alzheimer's), fleeting like a dream. Poignant, painful. And I recall my mother rising from her confusion in one clear moment, her hand extended, lips in a faint smile, as I wake her up to say good-bye (for the last time). Fully aware, she commanded me: "Astrīda, tu dzīvo [... you live!]" My mother died less than a week later, on New Year's morning, 1971. After the funeral, I picked up my mother's black suede pumps, and I walked in them to where she could never go — back home. The soles ripped in Riga, after La Traviata.
"Mother's beads" (II, 29-31) is one of Inta's longer poems. Like a string of beads, a mother's life. Each line in the poem is like a bead, a photograph or fresco. There is hardly a Latvian woman who does not own an amber necklace. Amber sparkles at all our festivals, and the "sun rings" on our fingers shine. Amber is our mystic, magic gem — resin storm-tossed ashore from the depths of the Baltic Sea. The rough chunks hide secrets of ages past and reveal them and their beauty only after masterful hands have polished them, made the bugs inside transparent. Amber is our gem and, like us, generally unknown to others. In English, "Amber" can be a girl's name, but when asked if she knows its meaning, the girl quite likely does not. But Inta's mother, and all our mothers, knew. They knew about amber's static electricity, its preserving and healing qualities. Rub it and amber picks up bits of paper! Look into it and see life suspended, like memory, like deep secrets! Amber is a jewel of love. Once it was more precious than gold. It is what gets passed down from generation to generation.
The list of Latvian associations goes on. Interesting are the bits of biographical details and those of our collective history: "Progeny" (II, 40-41) is a commemoration of Inta's father's life, which began in Rīga in 1904. Inta describes her father as a boy, on a rocking horse. At that time the whole country, even the whole world, is rocking. Latvia is being rocked. Family evacuated to Moscow 1915. The Russian Revolution 1917, the Civil War - starvation, cold, and disease. Children scrounge for food, right through the Wars. But that too passes. People survive, rebuild, and Latvia declares itself free and independent. What joy, what jubilation! The boy grows up, builds his life and starts to raise hisfamily, but soon World War II thunders over the land and its people. Many nations, and Latvia among them, are rocked again. The man — clutching his family — is rocked across lands and seas, where he cannot find surcease of sorrow and lives in books, in the Kingdom of the Spirit. He lives out his days, sailing off on your old sofa from the dreariness.
The displaced person — the DP, the romantic gentleman, the "smart one," the smooth dancer — dies "when she fed you," unable even to lay down his own spoon. Such in outline was the fate of our parents' generation. (What does the word adjust mean to me? my mother once wondered aloud.)
Inta immortalizes also her sister, outlines their differences. In "Two Girls" (II, 42-44), a poem that describes two sets of sisters and two wars. Inta's mother and her sister during the bombardment of Riga in World War I and Inta and her sister in World War II, during carpet bombing in Berlin. I note the long, unbroken stream of words, as a run-on sentence, a stream of consciousness describing children, victims of war, swept along by the powers of the world, bereft of childhood fun and play. In "North Andover" (II, 45-46), they are women. Inta visits Gunta; they joke, work crossword puzzles, share memories. They laugh, for it is "better to get the tears / out that way." Gunta seems to have lucked out. She has kept alive Mother's sour bread dough starter, while Inta's has died. The yeast becomes a symbol of life that, we know, Inta will soon lose. Yet, cancer or no, we also know that Inta forgets to feed the starter because she has other things to do. She writes, makes poetry so that others might taste our dark, coarse, rye bread of life.
Inta, the Poet
How should I critique, place, evaluate Inta, the poet? How to compare her poetry? I think about Emily Dickinson (1830-86), whose poetry also came to life after her death. Like Dickinson, Inta drew the words and lines from her pain and daily life — her animals, birds of many feathers, trees, flowers, the seasons. Emily Dickinson is, of course, a major American poet, yet I prefer Inta's poems. Inta's clear vast voice. A single image from her poems could fill a large canvas of, say, a rural setting, a sailing ship, a garden walk. Both of these poets wrote from within their own houses, sometimes while looking out of their windows. Both sought spiritual transcendence. It seems that because Inta was tossed from continent to continent, upset by continued dislocation, bombs, and her deep feeling of being "an other," and because she was a professor, her poems have the depth a recluse could not fathom, no matter how unlimited the imagination.
In "To be a poet" (third part), Inta confesses her difficulty in "finding the voice" precisely because there is so much inside her — encased in self-doubt and blocked by her very high standards. She loathed mimicry, the "faux-naif," sentimentality, dishonesty. Any would-be poet should read this self-portrait.
In seeking more recent comparisons, I skimmed two books, both winners of the Walt Whitman Award for poetry. In size and format they match Inta 's book and are very nice, but neither, to me, matches the scope of intellect, experience, and sensitivity that is to be found in Inta's Poems. Both had their own poetic strategies but neither communicates such a deep scrutiny of human nature as does Inta. There are similarities in style — the broken lines, the sentence structure, and certain common images transcend the objects presented, but there the comparisons end.
Latvian poets? Yes, naturally. Vizma Belševica (1931-2005) comes immediately to mind. Inta and Vizma spoke the same language. They were contemporaries, with nearly matching birth dates.
They were both born in Rīga. Both had blitz-wrecked childhoods, but one escaped her homeland, while the other did not. And that made all the difference.
A vast gulf lay between Inta and Vizma. They lived and wrote in superpower-managed worlds engaged in a fifty-year-long Cold War. One was educated and developed her career under totalitarian occupation, the other in the free world. They may be viewed as counterparts, spokeswomen inside opposing systems of government, paying a high price, as both suffered and died from incurable diseases.
Vizma began writing and went public early in her life. She was well known in Latvia, as well as abroad, as a challenger and provocateur of the Soviet system. For some time she was censored, silenced and watched; her apartment was ransacked. As a result, in the exile community, Vizma was held up as a martyr and a saint. Inta gave lectures about Vizma and translated her poems. Vizma's system-challenging poetry is strong and harsh, laden with pain and bitterness (see, for example, "Madaras," "The Cry of Prometheus," "Fireflowers"), and rich with political and social undertones. Throughout her lifetime Belševica was physically ill, and at the end of her life she became a recluse and stopped writing. Though people have claimed to know her, and many have read all her volumes of poetry, Belševica remains enigmatic. When Inta and Vizma met each other in Stockholm at last, here is what happened ("Vizma," III) :
My poet made me coffee
smoked talked — of social justice
... I wanted to lay all
my life out for her on the little
coffee table. Could she use it, make sense
of it open it up for me.
by our balcony, that shared consciousness
I fled to my room, instead,
but kept the door open
to the balcony.
Vizma's "bitterness / distilled in poetry," pained Inta, as it did me, when I, too, had coffee with the eminent poet in her Riga apartment, and I also fled, helplessly frustrated, leaving some opening, some healing, something to bring both our sides together, but that did not happen. The walls and borders, though open now, were closed over our traumatized minds and bodies.
Inta in her poems reveals herself, it seems, as much as humanly possible, and had we met at a coffee table, she would have talked freely, I think. But I knew her only from brief meetings at conferences and, therefore, am surprised by the persona who has unveiled herself as she tells about her struggle with cancer with clinical precision (see "After Fire," I, 24.) She invites us to walk with her through the shadow of death and hope, with her, for some good news. At the doctor's office we agonize and wait with her for laboratory results.
"Recurrence" (I, 33-34) is a powerful and well-crafted poem. Here all the lines start with a capital letter, as if the poet is trying to ease the awful truth by returning to a more classical form. The poem spills over two pages and is one of her longer works. Starting out with four, seven-line, unrhymed verses, followed by one three-line verse, then again two seven-line verses, it approaches the end with one four-line verse and concludes with a three-liner. Was this deliberate? We don't know, but the shift is jarring. Throughout the first page of "Recurrence," the persona describes herself out for a lovely morning walk through the countryside; all nature is busy, full of life, reaching upward. It is a glorious day: the "Dickcissel sings, sunny breast / Offered up to the sun." But suddenly comes the shift. The I enters:
I drink this tea of life
... almost too rich for the blood.
From here all goes downhill. All the lines that follow point downward: Venus covers the sun; the dog cools in a creek. Then comes the awful pronouncement: "Incurable, it's back."
I stop reading this poem. I don't want to read more; I don't want to know. The persona has crossed the line to where we cannot follow. All solicitations and hugs seem trite, superficial, awkward, while for the persona the struggle to stay alive — is futile. The world turns black:
On the asphalt path, on the grass
Dozens of slow mourning cloaks
Moving their wings up and down.
The poem breaks one's heart. But how brilliant it is! What marvelous "moment's monument!" How could she do it? How could Professor Inta, sitting, writing with a cat in her lap, surprise us all so completely? Did we walk this earth with one of its greatest poets and not know it? Not sense it? I wish I could ask her forgiveness. I wish I could press her hand and say, thank you, my friend.
Astrida (Barbins) Stahnke, May 18, 2007
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