LITUANUS – LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES; Volume 26, No. 3 – Fall 1980; Editor of this issue: Birutė Cipliauskaitė

Intervention of Art in the Poetry of Gunars Saliņš

Astrīde Ivask, who wrote the following article, passed away in Riga, Latvia, in March of 2015. Her luminous spirit will be missed by many. Here is a tribute to her:

II. Gunars Saliņš: Poet of the Two Suns

(published in World Literature Today, Vol. 43, No. 1, Winter, 1969)

The poetic world of Gunars Saliņš is a mythical world ruled by the two suns of the summer and winter solstice. As in the far north, for him the sun never sets at midsummer and never rises at midwinter. This world is inhabited by giants — the poet who empties the midsummer sun like a tankard of mead, and the painter who paints a black sun as high as a castle mound. The sweep of Salinš ‘imagination ranges in time from ancient Baltic ritual to “happenings” in Greenwich Village, and in space from deep cellars with murals dripping wine, to the tops of Manhattan skyscrapers where cherubs with neon wings sit inert before sunrise. The whole of the poet’s experience is made visible in a mythical landscape that extends underground to the realm of the black sun. The visible has its mirrored image in the invisible: they are united by the wheel of life that turns through the realms of both suns, uniting zenith and nadir.

Saliņš has been called a poet of the city, specifically New York. It is true that his poetry is urban. The shifting views, multi-exposure, and swift movement of the city support the well-defined spatial relationships of his poetry. He is fascinated by the powerful upward pull of the skyscraper which merges for him with the tree of life in a synthesis of the organic and inorganic, his own inner reality and that of the city. His view of New York is visionary and kaleidoscopic; he sees it either as restored to nature or turned into fireworks of refracted light. It is for him as much a city of his imagination as the “city of love” and the “cites of the moon, built on waves.”

History has hardly any bearing on Saliņš’ poetry. He is a maker of poetic myth. Yet he does not consciously explore a national mythology in the manner of W.B. Yeats. Nor does he dissemble his dependence on a world view (in both the linguistic and geographic meaning) as a frame for his poetic thinking. The points of intersection of personal and collective experience remain exposed, as do cross-beams in modern (or very old) architecture.

The two suns of Saliņš are mirrored in his first two collections of verse: Miglas krogs (Tavern of mists, 1957) and Melnā saule (Black sun, 1967). The title of the first collection is somewhat misleading, as the midsummer sun is the true center of this early poetry. It is the world of the summer solstice, its few hours of darkness lit up by bonfires celebrating the sun and filled with ancient ritual assuring fertility and a good harvest. As light brings everything closer and shapes the world into an ordered unity, thus the early poetry of Saliņš seeks and celebrates the organic oneness of all things under the sun. And the sun is itself the most powerful catalyst of this oneness; by its heat and light it fuses man and nature:

I do not distinguish my limbs any more
from the warm and languid sands —
yet I do not recall having died.

This feeling of oneness with the inorganic and organic world is one of the basic strands in the texture of Saliņš’ poetry. Often it is sought actively and accompanied by violent upheaval. It is thus in a group of poems about a flower-lover who burrows deep into the flower bed, mingling with the colors, fragrances, coolness, allure, roughness, sharpness, juiciness, sweetness, and darkness of the blossoms, taking on their characteristics and their nature. Or he is gripped by the desire to make everything one, while he is watering his gardens, and he aims the water jet toward the sky, propelling blossoms, bees, butterflies, and birds to the clouds, turning them into sailing flower beds. He himself then rises from the desolate gardens of earth to become a gardener in the sky. The garden — a poetic image, ancient and replete with meaning — returns often in Saliņš’ poetry. It stands (quite in the sense of Northrop Frye) for completeness and has paradoxical overtones: “those gardens where we ere born.” To return to a garden is to return to the moment of creation:

It seems that with closed eyes
I perceive for a moment
the nebulae of birth
of all the summer’s fruit.

In the poem “Meditation on Wine,” he retraces wine to the birth of the grape from “floating clouds of pollen.” Fruits, as well as stars, are born of nebulae of luminous dust. The poet’s imagination traces the helix of the starry whorls, and retains it as one of its favorite shapes. And indeed, stars and fruit belong together in the organic wholeness of the poet’s vision of the world. He gathers both indiscriminately into his “Basket of Stars and Fruit,” climbing at midnight in the sky as in an apple tree. He neither asks, nor does he fully grasp, what fruit he is gathering, but “in the morning he wanted to sing.” The poet is here much like the shaman of primitive Finno-Ugric religions, climbing the tree of life (or knowledge) in a trance, bringing back magic incantations. In “Tree by the Greenhouse,” the sun is a bird picking red berries. At night, the poet climbs the same tree by the light of the moon and picks the berries himself, although he is superstitiously afraid (of breaking a taboo?) He presses out their juice and makes wine so he may have a strange and untasted drink for an unknown feast. The poet is seen as mediator between the known daylight world of man and the moonlit realm of secret knowledge. He steals this knowledge for the use of man, not as fire, but as ritual incantations and magic (hallucinogenic?) potion. The image of the tree of life – sometimes replaced by the thrust of a skyscraper — and of climbing, disappearing into the skies, is another of the recurring configurations of Saliņš’ poetic vision.

The poet is irresistibly attracted by the mysterious life force that he finds embodied in Woman. Woman is to him fruit, star, even a whole cosmogony, as in the poem “Nude with a Portfolio of Van Gogh’s Painting in her Lap” (from a cycle of poems about a art calendar). There is a touch of irony in the complex image of the poet looking at a nude looking at a Van Gogh painting in reproduction, but what the poet sees is Woman spinning the wheel of life in a mad whirl, so that it shall not stop in the realm of the black sun, winter, and death:

In the sky of your lap, the sun circles and the moon,
and circling they bring summers ever renewed —
sun summer, and frequent moon summers,
so frequent that there is no winter any more.

Among these summers, there are some when both
shine together, the sun and the moon,
all day and all night. Soon into your lap
other suns will whirl from unknown worlds.

For the poet, the sun and the moon never set oin Woman; she is the embodiment of the summer solstice. Her body is the golden flesh of fruit, and with stars and fruit in her lap, she is the immaculate conception, the self-renewing life force, part of the tree of life. To love her is to be one with this force, but to the pursuing poet she is unfathomable and mysteriously elusive.

As I awoke with blue dove’s wings in the shadow,
she had arisen and was sitting naked on the vine
against the silhouette of the city.
I called out, she looked back, but her eyes,
her eyes were golden and with memory
like fruit —
without memory, inscrutable,
eyes of the sun and the world.
(from “Black Sun”)

The “Gretchenfrage” of poetry — Nun sag: wie hast du’s mit dem Tod? or: “What is your attitude to death?” — is also the question that separates like a watershed the “Tavern of Mists” from the “Black Sun.” In an organic view of the world, death is part of life: the grain dies and gives birth to a new shoot. This was reflected in ancient Baltic funeral customs which included a feast and a dance with the deceased — the Dance of Death of medieval fantasy made real, yet with humble and loving acceptance of the inevitable, rather than horror. In the earlier poetry of Saliņš, death was seen as a state of dreaming which could be shared by living and dead alike: at high noon “even the dead have sunny dreams,” while at night they are united in their dreaming. The earth itself is perhaps but a dreaming skull, and the forms of organic life its passing dreams. In the poem “At a Performance” (unless stated otherwise, quotations are now from “Black Sun”), the poet sees a grandiose demonstration by these dead dreams — the extinct animal species and peoples of this earth — dinosaurs, American Indian tribes, the Baltic tribes of Galindians, Yatvegians, Old Prussians. Yet the past and present dreams of the earth are not really separated, the dead are present in the silence of fertility: “You are silent with the mouths of all the fruit in the garden.” As in ancient Latvian belief, the benevolent dead sustained and guided the living, so for the poet Saliņš they remain an inspiration and the secret of his songs.

Yet there is a feeling of deep and unrelieved tragedy in many poems in “Black Sun,” an attitude toward death quite different from that of the first collection. The ten-year span separating them holds several events in the poet’s life that may be the cause of this change. Saliņš is a poet writing under the adverse conditions of exile. Exile often means alienation, but he lives his life in polarity with a group of friends, writers and artists living within reach of his New Jersey home. Several of the most gifted poets of the “exile generation” in Latvian literature (those born after 1920) belong to this group. Saliņš (b. 1924) was the first of them to collect his poetry into a volume (1957). He was followed by Linards Tauns (1922-63) with the book Mūžīgais mākonis (“Eternal Cloud,” 1958). Both collections showed that Latvian poetry in exile had joined the mainstream of poetic developments in the West, and that its masters were the Latvian modernist Aleksandrs Čaks (1902-50) and T.S. Eliot. There were other poets around Saliņš and Tauns — Baiba Bičolel, Rita Gāle, Aina Kraiujiete, Jānis Krēsliņš, Roberts Mūks — and the group soon came to be called the “Hell’s Kitchen” school of poetry (after a neighborhood of New York). They felt deeply the tragic and untimely death of Linards Tauns in 1963, followed by deaths of several Latvian writers in New York, of both the older and the exile generation. This atmosphere of tragic loss colors Saliņš’ second collection.

In “Black Sun” the wheel o life has turned from sunlight to the darkness underground, to await the beginning of a new life cycle: the sun has turned black. But will the wheel of life turn upward again? There i a feeling of literally waiting in the dark in this collection. The poet speaks of descending ever deeper underground into cellars without windows or light. He is not alone there, but with a group of friends who are gathered for a macabre feast. He calls them “funeral musicians who cannot stop playing.” They blow into their empty palms, as into trumpets, proclaiming eternal joy, but, instead of grace, plaster sifts from the ceiling, making their faces white like clowns. There is sarcasm in these poems, and a feeling of tragedy that cannot be solaced by the knowledge that man is part of the cyclic life of nature It is a purely human tragedy, while nature is a tragic and works toward restored balance. If man refuses to accept his natural fate, he falls out of this balance:

I fall into this night
through the wine and singing
of these kisses, these mandolins,
these red-haired angels —
unredeemed I fall toward —

After this fall from the natural order, the poet stands in need of acceptance into another, spiritual order. He has passed from being part of the cyclic life of nature to being an individual in need of a new system of o-ordinates. This is, summarily, the road traveled by modern man during the past century, and by the East European during the past half century. It is the road ahead for all peoples still living a natural way of life, barely touched by technology. What this new system of co-ordinates may be, we do not know, as not much of it has yet emerged. The natural order and religion, both shelters for the spirit of man, have been shaken by the events of the past century. It is indeed a time of waiting in the shadow of the black sun.

The poet Saliņš feels himself falling unredeemed toward an unknown something or someone (the Latvian original leaves it ambiguous). His need for redemption is equal to his need for love. The poem “Rejuvenation” is a frightening portrayal of the present state: the whole poem is built around the idea of halfness — in the forty-eight-line poem the world “half” appears 25 times in various combinations. By this tour de force the poet achieves a powerful expression of both his longing for completeness and his horror at the present halfway state between life and death, a state of living death: half dream, half fancy, half desire, half despair. Yet one there will be a great completeness — thus we halfway believe —

And then there will perhaps be
faith, hope, love,
by the barrel, by the tankard,
love —

Here the poem breaks off and culminates, with inexplicable rightness, in a quotation from a folk song. The Dionysian revels that exorcised all evil spirits under the midsummer sun become macabre under the black sun. They are a sorry halfway substitute for the most individualizing of human feelings – love. The poet must find a transition from being part of the wheel of life to being a finite individual, in his own words, “a half.” He must find a power to make him whole again, to integrate him as an individual into a new order. So far he feels this power only through its absence. The poem “In the Void of your Non-coming” speaks of such a power. It beings by asserting the poet’s belief in it:

And when no one believed any more
that we still believe in you,
then we moved
deeper down into the cellars.

There, “in the void of your non-coming,” they wait and feast until the last drop of wine is gone and darkness falls:

As if stricken by a plague, entwined we now wait,
we await you, not knowing who you are.
But if you should come,
we would turn over
our bedding already damp with the sweat of death —
perhaps it might become
a bed for love,
a bed for your love.

What Gunars Saliņš has achieved so far in his poetry is not the least that poetry can do: bring us into renewed contact with elemental things, show our dependence on the secret springs of our being, and point beyond all this to an unknown greater presence.