- Thirteen Russophone Poems From Latvia
The three poets represented here in translation—Sergej Timofejev, Semyon Khanin, and Artur Punte—are among the founding members of the Orbita creative collective, based in Riga, Latvia. Since about the turn of the twenty-first century, they and their large group of collaborators have been self-consciously exploring the artistic potential of their own complex, contested, and precarious social position. As the name of their group suggests, Orbita’s creative practices are invested in a poetics of motion or, to be more precise, a poetics of border crossing.
The poets of Orbita write primarily in Russian, yet they are all fluent speakers of Latvian and engaged members of Latvian society. Their biographies are stories of crossing temporal borders: born in the Soviet Union, they now dwell in a European Union member state. They work across the borders of distinct media, often presenting their writing as video-poetry, live performance with music, multimedia museum installations, or collaborative multimedia performances in a rave-party atmosphere. The collective is dedicated to working across languages: many of their collaborators are Latvian-speaking artists, musicians, or poets; most of their works are published in bilingual Russian-Latvian editions; and the collective supports bilingual projects to translate Latvian poems into Russian. [End Page 318] Beyond the confines of Latvian society, the group is active on the European poetry scene but just as equally visible at festivals and in publications in the Russian Federation.
None of this intercultural maneuvering comes easily. Political relations between the Latvian majority and the very sizable minority of Russian speakers in Latvia are a tricky and often acrimonious business. Other examples of inter-ethnic collaboration at the level of Orbita are very rare. On an international scale, Orbita’s political, social, and poetic balancing act is no less of a challenge. Note, for instance, that Russian poetic culture is generally conservative in matters of form—to achieve success on the Russian cultural scene with free verse, the primary mode of the Orbita poets (and of a wide range of contemporary European poetry), is difficult.
Orbita’s unique creative and geocultural position is reflected in the poems translated here. Some are explorations of an urban landscape at the edge of the sea that seems recognizably Baltic—Punte’s poem “From the cycle ‘Colleagues’ ” or Khanin’s “monument to a palm tree,” for instance. Many focus on transience and displacement—as in Timofejev’s “Thieves” or Punte’s “Gastarbeiters.” Timofejev’s “Plan B” is a fantastic rendition of late Soviet history. Perhaps most important: although each of these three poets possesses an individual voice, all of them participate in a certain refined and cool style that is not generally typical of Russian poetry. Even metaphysical musings are delivered with a low background buzz (nothing too dramatic) of irony. [End Page 319]
I saw the old world’s birth, Whole streets of dilapidated houses Were erected, with rusty rain Downspouts, broken off a couple of meters From the ground, doorframes ripped out in entryways And other structures of neglect. Smoke-stained Opels And Volkswagons with dents in their hoods and Splotches of rust were driven into the country in caravan After caravan. And old folk came in droves from all over the World, from everywhere they brought these unwanted Old timers, joyfully coughing into their knit Gloves at the local tram stops. And life iced over. The whole world hit the brakes, water Flowed more slowly from faucets, the police Chased thieves more slowly, who went for their guns slower And pulled triggers that fell apart like rot, Letting out for one last time the burning flower of a shot. A bullet would fly forward for at least a century, finally freezing In the air, like a tablet dropped into thick, transparent syrup. Or like a yellow vitamin pellet, past its expiration date, That rolls behind the cabinet and lodges in dust, wrappers and nostalgia. [End Page 320]
Foolish young people In the Soviet period of stagnation Would go out in the snow with bottles of champagne And Bengal...