ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2006 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 52, No 4 - Winter 2006
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas


Vizma Belševica
Interpreted by Astrida Barbins-Stahnke

Vizma Belšēvica (1931-2005), writer and translator, was considered the leading Latvian poet of the post World War II generation. During the Soviet occupation she dared to write strong poems exposing themes of injustice and oppression of the powerful over the disenfranchised, which caused her great suffering. But her words inspired her nation to wait and work towards freedom and independence.

* * *
I carry my love
As a toddler carries a chestnut leaf:
So seriously holds the outstretched hand.
It is so difficult to balance the tiny steps
With giant autumn all around.—
From the trees
Fall and fall
Rustling golden secrets
And confuse the steps.
But the little one does not slip.
He holds on to his leaf
And solemnly wades into the blizzard of leaves.

* * *
Eye to Eye with a Cat
Such a slick banister—
Iron and air,
And all around sharp silence.
A white cat sits over an abyss.
I am very afraid for the cat,
But the cat is not at all.

Alone at the far window.
Abysmally alone.
Does anything still hold me?
The cat is very afraid for me.
I am not at all.

Mute suspense.
In a second
The earth’s axis could shake. . .
I am very afraid for the cat.
The cat is very afraid for me.
But for ourselves—
Not at all.

A Lullaby to an Adult Child

When you cannot sleep, little bat,
When you cannot, little bat,
When you have to toss in circles
With wings aching from restlessness,
Do you crash against his window?
Do you perch near his head?
Or do you also know that you must not—
You ugly, gray little bat?

When you cannot sleep, little leaf,
When you cannot, aspen leaf,
When you have to tremble and break from a fragile stem
And shivering run into the wind,
Do you fall on his lips?
Do you caress his cheek?
Or do you know that you must not—
You lonesome aspen leaf?

When we cannot sleep in the night,
When we cannot sleep at all,
We rummage through reeds,
We reach for drugs and herbs;
Trying to find him dreams.
We stick them through shutters;
We push them into the peace of his room.
We might even put them under his pillow...
Still, his dreams won’t be about us.

But when the last dream will vanish
Out of the silently sleepless flower,
He will rise and see a woman’s footprints
In the garden, wet with dew.
But the apple tree won’t tell him,
And the dahlia will not reveal
That a bat had perched on her shoulder
And her hand held an aspen leaf.

Requiem to the Yard

An elk-torn apple tree cross.
Some rotten eaves and posts.
Underneath lies my childhood
Along with a clearing’s bright sun,
With a shepherdess’ barefoot steps
There, under the ruins of a shed.
Don’t look.
Now only colts’ feet stomp
Through my old meadows and fields,
And yesterday’s path by the orchard
The cuckoos have cried shut.
Only a blue, split teardrop
Swings from a desperate stalk...

Neither look at that gnarled birch tree!
It was sticky from the start.
I wanted to give you my childhood,
Not a sickle-cut bird in my hand.
Turn away until the futile doors of memory close.—
Nothing has been here.
Here is nothing.
Only swamps for wild boars and elks.

A Pine Tree with Naked Roots

Is it the fault of the pine tree or dunes
That the foundations break and dissolve?
That the head climbed to the sky
Before the roots had not pushed deep enough?

    Drying and hurting
You feel the roots’ naked shame.
You cannot hold the earth anymore.
You cannot start over.
But more dreadfully—what if you cannot
Die from this emptiness?

    Reach for the sky,
High over the earth, while longing to grow
Into it deeply—all the way up
To the sticky trunk!

Only to sunsets briefly, mutely complaining,
You may expose your blushing nakedness.--
But why do I pick on you, ancient old pine?
Enough! You really are stately and high.

Requiem to the Brook

The tractor has crashed the brook,
Put the swamp on the grave,
Then roared on to plow
The skylark’s children.

Dammed blood festers
Under snowdrops’ white blooms,
And snow-crushed stalks,
Fragile like a skylark’s screams.

In the rising, sopping waters
Meadows come to the burial,
While willowing scrubs spread over the fields,
Pledging themselves to the swamp.

In morning and evening glowing,
Fog shrouds cover the sun.
And those dried things are not trees.
There bleach the bones of the brook.

Fire Flowers

        A memorial to Jūlijs Dievkociņš,1906
* * *
That is Zalve.1 And that was a salvo
And these here on the grave are red salvias.
The youth with a gentle name—Jūlijs Dievkociņš 2
was buried here after that salvo.
Dievkociņš: southernwood. Something like soft sage.
Crush it.

Your fingers are full of innocent cool fragrance.
Jūlijs. A clear, sweltering glimmer
And the closeness of fermenting taste of honey.
And that boy was a poet about flowers and eyes,
About the balm of sage on bright lips.
He was lost in Zalve’s water grasses and clouds’ reflections.

Dear boy, didn’t you know that you would be shot?

And there was the muteness of your mother’s cry,
So shrill that even the executioners trembled.
From that salvo for you – one.
The other bullets flew to your mother’s breast.
You died once.
Your mother – constantly. When she remembers the tiny mouth...
The first tooth. And the birch-leafed sky collapses
From the sharp crashing of bullets.
The first steps... In black gun barrels
The white ringlet head walks away – and is gone.
Into the mother’s outstretched arms run back – bullets.
And so her whole life long until nothingness took pity on her.

Sweet boy, didn’t you know how it would be with your mother?

Now children with red kerchiefs water red salvias on the grave.

He himself seemed a child.
In the Crown School he taught children
How beautiful their mothers’ language was.
He scattered words like acorns;
He brought them into the sun like seeds,
And from his words grew the thirst of freedom
Much bigger than his small nation.

Good boy, didn’t you know that by sowing words you would reap death?

And later it was written about the black trampled blossoms,
about daisies and poppies smashed by horses’ hoofs.
Oh, no! It wasn’t like that at all.
When the flowers saw those horrible horses with twisted muzzles
and sagging hind ends and those more beastly muzzles upon their backs,
with stretched-out fragile petals,
they threw themselves on the ground to defend their native meadow.

Didn’t they know they would be trampled?
Oh, even the tiniest, dullest, newly-sprung forget-me-not knew that!

It was, in truth, again a showdown of the eternal,
never-ending incompatibility of beauty and brutality.

Dearest boy, your mother has forgiven you her daily assassination.

Sleep in peace.
Sleep sweetly...

1. Zalve: a town in Latgale.
2. Jūlijs Dievkociņš, a poet, teacher, and publisher especially of literature for children. He supported the ideas of the National Awakening and was assassinated on February 3, 1906 by the reactionaries to the 1905 Revolution.

* * *
Inside a wounded cherry tree
Resin gently turns to amber.
So peacefully and slowly flowing,
My lines of poetry
Without the bitterness of injustice,
Collect themselves with silent smiles,
Even though in twilight hours
Death talks to me
And bends down ever closer
And puts her hand upon my chest
Practicing to choke me
So that when the real time comes
It will not be too difficult.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Should anyone on tiptoe walk
Throughout the busy farmyard
Just because grandmother
Keeps her casket in the attic?
There sheaves of flax send out fragrances,
And the hen lays her daily egg—
Right up until that very moment
When the casket’s lid
Will bloom with funeral wreaths.

In That Hour

The firs of Ērgļi 3 stand in the snow,
    and the snow is on the grave of Blaumanis
And of Jānis Grots, yes, Grots.4
    and the day is as pale as the face of the dying,
So ashen gray.
    Sunny hearts lie buried
There, in the grave mount,
    and all around it flows time
And the never-freezing Ogre,
    black over white rapids.

Graves are usually on a mount.
    What do those sand-filled eyes see?
Tremble in mute greeting,
    when a visitor bends over the graves
And, shielding the flame,
    lights a candle for each?
Straightens up and walks away.
    And is not afraid to leave his footprints,
The unbending--
                we are.
                We must stay.
                We must continue!

The sunny hearts climb with the flame
    so straight on the windless shore,
And the gray day
    begins to create glittering rime
In that hour.

3. Ērgļi is the name of a graveyard and also the name of the homestead of Rudolfs Blaumanis (1863-1908), who was a most popular Latvian poet, playwright, and journalist. He never dropped out of his people’s favor and ranks high among the classicists in Latvian literature.
4. Jānis Grots (1901-1969), a romantic poet of the thirties. After World War II, during the Soviet occupation, he, like many others, was forced to compromise or else.


When you set my death, Dēkla, 5
    set it on a frosty day, so that birches
Would peacefully stand around me.
    Up to the clouds’ floating isles
Let all be white.
    Also my life--lived blackly and crossways,
A besmirched thistle
    At the side of your highway,
Mud-covered and broken
    only to flare up in white lightning
Up to its most hidden prickle.
    And the sharp redness of ashberry
Gives way to a rosy glow
    Like a child’s cheek in repose.--
Peace be with you, thistle and ashberry.
    Wind-wound lightning for a blade of grass.
The stiff back eases,
    and the gray head bows down.
My soul like a magpie—
    winter’s indecisive bird--
Circling flaps away in the sky
    with a frosted star on its feather.
A glimpse--and no more.
    When you set my death, Dēkla, then set it
In that hour.

5. Dēkla: a mythological goddess of fate.

Few light words
    had your child of dark days:
The city’s gray lilacs,
    sunset’s gray slush,
Brought into life
    with a heart, bitter like wormwood,
Like a festering sliver
    that hurts like love,
Like love and like life.
    Hurts for forgiving nothing
To you, my breath and my life,--
    Only for a moment of hope
When in the frost we may reconcile
    and black heartache meets
White silence
    and pain turns to joy.
Those sunny hearts –
    there, on your eternity’s shore,
How should I join them,
    when merciful sand will cover me,
The non-white, non-sunny?
    But I shall leave you without complaint.—
Like a candle on a grave
    a tiny frosted star will burn
In that hour.