Monday, April 21, 2014

Book 148, Latvia: "Selected Poems" by Aleksandrs Čaks

So the copy of this book I found at the UEA Library is pint-size. Small as the palm of my hand, and published back in 1979, when Latvia was still part of the Soviet Union! Still, it's got a decent number of poems in it, along with a helpful intro, so it should serve our purposes for discussion.

Some background: Aleksandrs Čaks (how do you pronounce that last name?) was born in 1901 and was active mostly in the 1920s and '30s, influenced by revolutionary Russian poets like Mayakovsky. Prior to him, pretty much all Latvian poetry had centred on the countryside: he diverted attention instead to the capital city of Riga instead, its income divide, its beauty and its squalor, and its later recovery from the ravages of World War Two.

The Soviets investigated him in 1949, which was ironic, because he'd always thought socialism was cool. He died in 1950. :(

But the poems themselves!



Oddly enough, most of these are horny-boy love poems - they're pieces written to beautiful bourgeois women, complaining that they won't look at him since he's a penniless poet, and are instead gonna go shag handsome aristos in tail coats instead. 

There's some wonderful leaps of the imagination in these love-songs, as in "My Ensemble of Cockroaches", in which he promises to "go to Tibet as an ass" for his love, and says he's bought her twelve cockroaches to give her a thrill, while she just smiles and keeps filing her nails. But there's a certain kind of romantic earnestness in all of them that doesn't chime well with my cynical sensibilities.

Ah, but it's not all affairs of the heart. There's descriptions of the city - as in "City Night", where he tells of "old tyres and perished rubber lie about lie firewood in the yard/and send their smell aloft on every breeze...At times the watchman, loudly sighing, unlocks/with jangling keys/for people late at night returning here,/and now and then/a car goes rushing by, a tea-rose shining either side in front,/and with a red carnation at its rear." He's got a lovely human sketch in "The Sailor With Patent Leather Shoes", and a hymn to the revival of the city after the war in "Riga". Loads and loads of things about trams.

A few poems about nature, too, oddly enough. He describes in "Nature", one of the last poems in this collection, how "There came a summer/When my heart felt prodigiously strange,/And I left for the country... For days on end/I wandered through meadows and forests/Drinking from puddles/Feeding on bilberries,/And the soles of my feet grew coarse like the bark of an oak..."

But perhaps it's just a metaphor? A number of the pieces here are just ways of speaking about the creative process. Will leave you with one such piece.


View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:


THREE BOOKS

I published a beautiful book
on eternity
    art
        and the sol,
I published it, but
all the bookshops
in unison
sternly
rejected
my book.

Did I plunge into grief?
No!

I published another,
written with frvour -
a book
on brotherhood,
    helping one's neighbour,
        the grandeur of cutlure,
            and the future of man.

In vain
did I look for it, though,
in the bookshop's windows,
among novels sumptuously bound,
modernistic inkstands
and lean-limbed stars of the screen,
in vain.
And then,
When I entered the shop
and asked for my book
which I wrote with such fervour,
the salesgirl, fragrant
like a noble cigar
and with gentle madonna-liek featured,
smiled:
"Mister, this isn't a charity
nor a society for the protection of animals."

And then,
on that foggy autumnal evening
when under the lime-trees on boulevards
no longer the flowers
but streetwalkers
scented the air,
when cars rushed out of the dark,
two shimmering suns on their fronts,
I,
coming home,
pulled off my boots and threw them out of the window,
and sold my coat to the landlady
in lieu of rent for my room,
and sat down
and
started to write:
    "Practical hints
        for men who rob the exchequer,
            murders,
                couples living in sin,
                    inexperienced writers,
                        students who fail their exams,
                            drivers of cars,
                                and people awkward at dancing."

Twenty tycoons
fought as bitterly over my book
as over a government grant.

And when it was published
thousands
of bright
lights
proclaimed its title
to all the nation.

Side by side
with world-famous Dunlop tyres,
excitign Houbigant powder
and Chlorodont toothpaste,
n every corner and hoarding,
in every showcae,
there loomed before you
my face
shrunken and lean
from sleepless nights
and meals only eaten in dreams.

The publisher's agents
promoting my book
shouted:
"Three cheers!"

Seeing my picture,
idlers and schoolboys
wondered: "Is he a yogi,
has he broken all hunger-strike records,
is he wanted for murder,
or is he a boxer, a Japanese
who'll be fighting Jack Dempsey?"
While all the girls sighed:
"He is the saviour, ah, of our souls!"

But
a progressive
tobacco firm
put on the market
a high-grade cigar
made of their poorest tobacco
and gave it my name.

Next book: Czesław Miłosz's Beginning with My Streets: Essays and Recollections, from Lithuania.

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