LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 26, No. 3 - Fall 1980
Editor of this issue: Birutë Cipliauskaitë
Copyright © 1980 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
THE INTERVENTION OF ART IN THE POETRY OF GUNARS SALINÐ
In his essay "On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense", Nietzsche sees metaphoric expression not only as a vivid and immediate rendering of our perceptions about the world but also as the only chance we have at any kind of direct contact with external reality.
. . . between two utterly different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no accuracy, no expression, but at the utmost an aesthetical relation, I mean a suggestive metamorphosis, a stammering translation into quite a distinct foreign language, for which purpose however there is needed at any rate an intermediate sphere, and intermediate force, freely composing and freely inventing.1
Art, though it may involve projection, as it strongly and frequently does in the poetry of Gunars Salinð, is still our best, perhaps our only, way to bridge the gap between subject and object, us and the world.
"One might affirm that throughout the three volumes of Salinð' poetry, there is a separation, a deep chasm between two realms which can be described variously as self and other, past and present, exile and homeland. These oppositions are more or less co-extensive with the juxtaposition of city-natural landscape which has been equated by Valda Dreimane with the exile-homeland tension.2 Usually, the separation is assumed, and the poetry is an effort at blending or healing. I believe that there is a movement — though not necessarily regular or steady, or coinciding neatly with the volume sequence — from a wishful blending of the two realms in a dreamlike or admittedly illusory situation, to an increasingly controlled use of art as mediator. This power to reconcile, albeit temporarily, the worlds of subject-object, homeland-exile, past-present, self-other is not limited to poetry — the poems abound with references to painting and music as well. Nor is the effect predictably consistent. We will see that misuse, bad faith, or falsity can enter, perhaps this is inherent in the "stammering" quality of any "translation" that misunderstanding and false connections are inevitable. Whether the poet appears as a conscious craftsman or as blind and passive, a ripening fruit, part of creation himself, absorbed into his own art, the singer becoming the song in Rilkean fashion there is always an exchange or an interpenetration between self and other. This crumbling of the boundaries between in and out, the reflection of inner reality, the prevalence of transparency and metamorphosis in Salinð' poetry has been noted by others.3 Within the striking recurrences of these themes and tactics, however, there is some development from juxtaposition or transparency of a scene to reveal another poignantly or ironically reminiscent one in the other realm, or illusory convergence on the one hand to a more fruitful earned interpenetration.
In Fog Tavern, past (homeland, countryside) exists independently of present (exile, city), though they are constantly juxtaposed, and the present becomes transparent to past places, people, and events. There is no interpenetration at this point. The two realms exist separately, and at privileged moments they can be set side by side. Usually, the yielding of the present to some past scene is based on an overt or subliminal analogy in the situation and is induced by a lessening of conscious perception or control. In the title poem of Fog Tavern the facilitating aspects are fog and memory. As the fog spreads, the narrator and his friends drink at the inn past scenes peep through the present situation, but they cannot be maintained without the help of the fog and the beer: ". . . faces drew themselves before our eyes / with green and rosy chalk /as in a dream. But the faces were alive, / and bodies surfaced too, / for which we'd have no use / if we were sober", (pp. 7-8) "The role of the poet and his friends in bringing about the meeting seems unclear, misty, controlled by the benevolent but mysterious agency of the visionary fog. Though there is an encounter between the two realms, verbs of seeming and dreaming predominate in the poem: the fog is like beer foam", the chalk faces appear "as in a dream", their drinking is "as in the old days", trying to touch the summoned faces the fingers lose their way "as in water" or in nets, "as if fishing". The two levels do not need to be separated out at the end because they have been maintained as separate throughout. The ABCB rhyme scheme confirms this structurally — at times the second and fourth line of the stanza rhyme perfectly, but at other times the rhyme is just off; the last verse poses the fundament! duality in its clashing rhyme words "senāk (long ago) / Menhetanā."
In Miglas Krogs, the metaphor of transparency governs the relationship between self and other as well. Thus, in one poem a dead man lying in the ruins of a church destroyed by the bomb that killed him addresses a child playing in the ruins. Lying there, he says, he is undergoing a transformation, and one day a miracle may happen: "I will appear to you / above the ruins, transparent and gently hued / as if painted on invisible glass. / You will look into me and through me — / then into heaven and paradise — / and then you will tell me about all that, — / for I myself will be merely like a window / gently hued, transparent, but blind." (8) The poet's wife is likened to a window pane — not only does she know how to take out storm windows, but she can meet the poet-husband's need for transcendence, becoming a mediator of the distant vision: "and nights and mornings / you are a window pane / through which fall colorful distant rays." (53) The late poet and friend Linards Tauns becomes a window as well: looking out the friend's window, spying his arrival, the visiting poet imagines that the arriving Tauns carries his eyes, swaying in the rhythm of his gait, and "my eyes look into each building / and into the sky through an unsuspected window." (82)
Art as subject matter appears in Fog Tavern in portraits and other paintings where the work of art comes alive, its movement breaking the frame. Thus, in a water color painting of the summer, the onlooker admires the young farm woman and her cow and expects that "the many-hued wind will turn and blow across me, / throwing into my face their salty sweat." A similar process occurs in many other poems, including "Muse of the Skyscrapers." In "The Gilded Bird of the Hope Chest," the painted bird escapes its confinement "for by singing one can become so light and small / that one is held aloft by that alone." (105) An egg is left behind which, after it is planted by a boy, starts the whole process again, though, to show that something palpable has happened, the painted bird has vanished from the chest for good. Here, indeed we have a demonstration how "truly / one can become song through singing."
Even though the self of these poems appears to have a free and full exchange with the world of nature, art, and other people, at the bottom of it there is the proclaimed self-sufficiency of Miglas Krogs. In a poem named "After the Explosion" the speaker finds himself "in all the corners of the world." He is faceless, transformed into microorganisms. There are no mirrors in this totally projected universe, and the motto "will have to make do with myself" becomes simple necessity. Nor is there any forgiveness of sins in this solipsistic situation, and hence, we are told, no death. "Perhaps I may chance to slip into eternal life through a stray atom of the soul without dying." (17) Though not as explicit, such a process of projection underlies many of the poems in the Fog Tavern volume. Thus, in spite of seeming union with the organic in fruit and stars, poems such as "Fruit and Star Basket" and "Gardens in the Sky" illustrate this fundamental self-sufficiency. In the former, the man eats, drinks, and fondles fruit, while throwing the unripe ones into the sky every evening. These, having ripened among the stars, he then picks and puts into his basket, with an occasional star thrown in. "What it was he ate, what it was he drank, / what he pressed to his breast, / he did not ask, nor understand, / but in the morning he felt like singing". (19) In "Gardens in the Sky", the gardener suddenly has a wish to make everything the same while watering his plants. He turns the hose around and projects all — garden, birds, butterflies, bees — and finally himself — into the sky. "Finally, when all the gardens were empty here, / but the skies were full of them, / he went up by spray as a gardener / to remain in the gardens in the sky." (20)
This self-reliance casts a different light on what seems to be the theme of Gelassenheit — a mystical passivity in tune with nature's rhythms that often makes the poet appear part of nature — oranges growing out of him, or grass, or the poet seeing himself as partaking with his creation in a universal organic creativity. The poet as bee, as in the "Flower Lover," where he absorbs the sweetness, bitterness, coolness of the flowers into himself. The poet as fruit: the sun warms him as if taking him for a fruit. Why not, he asks, "I lean back into the flower stems / to let their redness / seep into my senses / before the dark / and cease in the very center, / coalescing to seed." (30) There is also repeated mention of wine not only to suggest Dionysian intoxication but also, as with honey, the long process of ripening that displays the teleological structure of the world in spite of seeming randomness. In "Our Cherry Wine," the amusing tale of the child's mistaking a bottle of ink for wine results in the two becoming forever associated in the grown poet's mind. This implies a similarity between literary creativity and the fermentation of wine. In view of the process of projection we witnessed in the other poems, however, this apparently effortless connection between man and nature, in and out, can be seen as questionable. Perhaps once savored, the taste of ink can overpower the organic charms of wine.
Already in Fog Tavern, there are indications that art can mediate between inside and outside, self and other, and perhaps past and present. We saw the child explaining the stained glass windows to the dead man in the church. There is a desire for continuity, for the past and the present to meet. In "Notions", childhood memories of the small epiphanies of the homeland are pitted against its reality in the present. How do the two relate to each other — is one dream, the other wakefulness? To forge some sort of continuity is a necessary project, even though it may be painful to sort out the dreams from the actualities: "Full of our own dream we go to sleep, / but, looking for ourselves, / we meet them again, those who were left behind. / From every face as from a ghostly mirror / glow / the features / which we escaped. / Only by entwining with them / will the designs in the dreams and nightmares of our own faces / gain meaning, become part / of the all." (75-76)
As in Fog Tavern, the title poem of Melnā Saule (The Black Sun, 1967) sets the scene for many of the poems of the volume, establishing what I believe to be one of the main themes of this collection and providing us with a gauge to the differences between it and the preceding one. In this poem, a painting (by the painter Vidzirkste) of a black sun mediates the encounter between past and present. Here, it is not only the personal past in the homeland but the deep past that is retrieved — the archaeological finds of lost civilizations of the Baltic area with their artifacts and cult objects. The illusion of the art work ("As if one could dig to uncover lost civilizations . . .") has induced a state where a more direct vision is possible than that in Miglas Krogs. After seeing the painting, the viewers have internalized its effect, and as they wander the streets of New York, there appears a "fog" of sorts, but the verbs here are not of dreaming and seeming as they were in Fog Tavern but of seeing; "And suddenly / the cock crows above us / — and we see . . ." This time, the "as if" is suspended and, the transparency once achieved, the poet does not need to refer back to the surface, continually going back and forth between one level and the other.
The poems in Melnā Saule take up themes similar to those we saw in Miglas Krogs — nature takes over the city, as New York is reforested with the trees of the Baltic; it also takes over man, as the poet grows grass on his chin. Transparency too is important in this volume. Finding a piece of forgotten sky in the street, the poet wonders whether it is glass or mirror, then sees his own face, or "it might be another face / shining through mine." (43) There is the same process of internalization, signified frequently by the closing of eyes. And the mechanism of projection is still with us. Thus, in "Vanishing in the Summer," where it appears in the context of metamorphosis, so central to Salinð' poetry. In an amusing idyll of late summer abundance, the character in the poem transforms a pile of fruit into women who then kiss him with cherry mouths, plum mouths, . . .apple, currant, and grape mouths" (in Latvian "mutes" means both mouths and, in the language of the folk songs, kisses) until he himself is changed to fruit. The women carry armloads of him into the garden "till, becoming silent, they grew / with you into cherries, apple trees, and berry bushes. / Now you are all around us in the summer, / being silent with all the fruit mouths in the garden." (51) If this is a transcendent silence achieved in nature, we must remember that this nature was constituted of human elements to begin with.
Increasingly we move from mere projection to metamorphosis, and, where the transformation is not mediated by art, the question of the value of an unmediated vision or change is asked. In "Metamorphoses," the voice, speaking here in the first person, says that it is becoming more and more like the earth — it is being seeded and harvested, its melodies mooed by cows that eat it. Complete return to the earth is envisioned in the poem. "Variation" begins identically, except that a "thou" replaces the "I" of "Metamorphoses," and in the middle of the poem the focus is suddenly turned back on "us" and our attempt to become aware of this immanent presence in the world. The cow's mooing will not convey it. It is rather more likely to be perceived in the absence, in the rupturing of the expected, in the silence which increasingly becomes a theme in Salinð' poetry: ". . . if you cause a mute calf to be born, then the women are silent for a while in his silence, feeling your presence in his lack of song". (88) This demiurge whom we have witnessed becoming part of the earth is now everything that exists and more: "You are all / and yet more / from your dream, unredeemed by form, / our song is born," (88) It is in the silences, the absences, the potential that art finds its impulse to form. Thus, it is not surprising the major impetus for Salinð' own poetry comes from that gaping hole between past and present, home and exile, that unarticulated fissure which tortures but also inspires the poet.
In "Pentecost" (Vasarsvetki), a poet (or prophet) comes into the city with earth behind his fingernails from which grass and bushes grow; the maidens decorate the streets with the greenery and flowers growing under his arms. But the people clamor for utterance: "Let him say something, / let him say something, / let him sing or say something." All they can hear, however, is the sound of blossoms opening on his breast and the humming of a bee in the flowers or in his hair. The audience wants more, and the local trombonist tears a strip of bark from the prophet's hip, rolls it into a trumpet, and blows it. The effect is overwhelming — skyscraper windows shake, and so do the women listening, one of them begging him to stop before she collapses and gives birth, another form of direct utterance . . . The audience's insistence on unmediated expression and their impatience with the sound of blossoms opening and bees humming leads to this total experience, beyond words and almost unbearable. Forgotten feelings expressed thus become too tangible and relentless. Silence is needed at the center: "An unutterable song protects each of us and lets us live." (25)
An amusing statement of the power of art over life emerges in "Séance with Fridrichs Milts" where, in a dream, the eminent painter draws the poet in charcoal while the latter is transformed into the painter's basement atelier and has to watch the unflattering transformation. Each stroke alienates him not only from his own image of himself but removes hopelessly from any idealization: "I become not gentler and more handsome but more awful and twisted." Yet as the deformed poet holds a mirror up to the new self, he recognizes that the painter has not finished him off as he thought but has indeed completed him (beigts / pabeigts). Art has to deform and alienate to create its own reality and avoid naive realism. In Salinð' poetry, where art is to mediate between two realms, the estrangement is already given, and the artist's effort can be concentrated on a bringing together.
Already in the Black Sun volume, there are intimations of the similarity and possibly convergence of the mediation of love-art. The latest volume of Salinð' poetry — Satikðanas — pursues this theme of encounter. The title means meeting or encounter (in singular and plural). In reading the poems one realizes that the encounter of the title could refer to the confrontation with Latvia and the past in an actual revisitation which forms the subject matter of a large part of this volume, as well as contacts with other arts and artists which are frequent here, or with women (who are important mediators here as they were in the other two collections, beckoning from flowers and fruit or leaning out of skyscraper windows) or with nature. This sense of encounter is diffused all over the volume and epitomizes the movement of the poems. The verb "satikties" is a reflexive verb, and the reflexivity may indicate the continuation of the strategy of projection. But there is also increasing emphasis in a new mutuality. In this 1979 volume there is a meeting on many levels. As distinguished from Fog Tavern, the locus of an illusory blending of past and present represented by the fog of the title and the befogged state of the revellers, and from Black Sun which is characterized by the painting of the title poem mediating a more direct but short and still illusory union, the last title signals a change — at least the possibility that the various separations we saw documented in the earlier volumes can be healed. The encounter with the homeland, in reality and as it is presently (though memory is always ready to contrast and transform) is at the same time a meeting of past and present. And art meets life too — at times head on, as in the attempts at unmediated direct expression of the kind we saw in Melnā Saule. In "Hallelujah" the song that the observer hears coming from the altar painting of the thirteenth century does not come through the mouths of the singers who are not specifically identified in the poem in any case — the communication comes through the body: ". . . they sing with the flesh alone, / with the flesh they hear, / with the flesh they know all." (116) As in Rilke's torso, the introjection of impressions has come so far that the whole world is internalized and wordless communication is possible. The process has not been all projection, after all — the new unity contrasts sharply with poems such as "After the Explosion" where all that could be found in the world were fragments of the self. In this poem, however, as in the following one, entitled "The Angel", where the marvel is the angel's capacity to make music "without fingers or breath," the revelation is mediated through a painting. In the Encounters volume, there is a true meeting of realms, but, as in the title poem of Melnā Saule, where the meeting was illusory, it is often mediated by art. Even in the revisiting of the homeland, we will see, the experience is frequently reflected through art.
In "Singer on the Way to the Scaffold," the power of song is again strongly affirmed as the heroine (the poem identifies its own situation as a performance of Dialogs of the Carmelites at the Metropolitan Opera) sings a white cross into the surrounding darkness, then more crosses, to protect herself, and, as the crosses ascend to heaven, relies on the power of song alone, "pure and transparent," to overcome death as well as life. The mediation of art is seen here at its strongest, wholly function, force without content, like a wave which is visible only in motion. The reader is not allowed to remain in the transcendent realm of song, however — the last line takes us back to the reality of the falling guillotine. The attitude toward art's power and the confrontation of realms in this poem shows the high differentiation and complexity of the theme of duality and art's function in bridging it that characterizes this latest volume of Salinð' poetry. If the singer transcends death through the power of her song, we are left with the reality of the guillotine and have to rely on the secondary mediation of the poem to achieve our transcendence. And, to stress the openness of the process, this poem, like so many others in the volume, mixes the realms. Thus, the title is "Singer on the Way to the Scaffold," not "Soeur Blanche on the Way to the Scaffold." If he had written the latter, the poem would remain in the hermetic realm of art. Merging the performer with her performance leads to a process of salvation not only in semblance, but, as far as the reader is concerned, in reality. The song has direct impact on the world portrayed in the opera, and the observer listening to the aria witnesses it as a unity of which he is also part.
Even more tangible effects result from "Adventure in Riga," where the exile has an encounter with a woman poet of the homeland — a clear case of the conflation of the various encounters we have seen earlier in this volume. Here the various dualities mingle. Like many of the larger-than-life female figures who seem to occupy roofs, the higher stories of buildings, and airplanes (when they do not fly by themselves), the woman poet meets him on the rooftop. The moonlight seems to merge her with the city below, and her description as well as the conversation they share makes it clear that she is an incarnation of the spirit and suffering of the homeland. After the encounter, the exile awakens to see a statue and is tempted to consider the meeting a dream: "I looked for her in vain / that day and days following — and it started looking like / I had dreamed it all — there, on the rooftops / a tourist from America." (60) But the following poem "The Strange Happening with the Monument," leads the episode to an unexpected denouement, as the statue gives birth to a boy who, in the best redeemer tradition, escapes the authorities and is said (by rude yet intuitive fishwives) to have survived and be suckled by a young fisherwoman, or, maybe, poetess (zvejniece / dzejniece). We are asked to believe that a productive encounter has occurred between the exile and the native poet, past and present, yes even art and life, as the two poets mingle in an aura of symbolism, with the exile feeling the woman's scars, in a recapitulation of the country's past and present enslavements. This symbolic union results in an "actual" child. Or is it actual? The literary allusions and the humorous tone of the poem, moreover, mark it as a gently self-mocking though warm wish-fulfillment. Still, it is significant that the two lovers chosen to represent this union are poets.
In the last two poems of Encounters, the theme of art appears in the guise of song again. In them, the relationship between listener, singer, and song has become even closer, more fused. The music is identified merely as "Largo", and the singer is here simply an unidentified voice. The persona of the poem is not a member of a Metropolitan audience but alone by the light of a single candle, alone with the voice which is not singing to him or "approaching him by way of song", as in the Carmelites poem. Through the music, in this aesthetic holy communion, the transcendence is complete: "Sing / so that we are reborn — that we see ourselves / see through / our selves and death." (129)
In the last poem of the volume, the exhortative "Sing," (Dziedi), there is a reaffirmation of the power of song, this time actively. The direct magical power of song over life is invoked again in a recapitulation of a theme so frequently sounded here: "Sing, then — sing so that children are born to us — / and children are born to the children — and grandchildren". (129) Art leads to an encounter with the real self, with the soul. Again transparency takes its place in this complex of thought: "You sing — and our flesh turns transparent / till it vanishes entirely and we see / in your voice as a flowing mirror / our souls so long unseen . . ." Song, as indicated earlier, has power over death; song can become a rebirth, a vision of the self beyond death.
If we see the world in terms of the Nietzsche passage with which I started out, as "two utterly different spheres", we can conceive of the poetry we have looked at as Nietzsche's creative "intermediate force", with the "translation" becoming more precise with each successive attempt. Much of what we saw in the earlier volumes is still there in Encounters, but it has come out of the fog, been examined, confronted. A convergence can now be imagined, on this other shore, but there is nothing schematic about it. The diffuseness of the new unity is indicated by the absence of a sharp focus in the latest volume — unlike the two that came before, Encounters does not have a title poem. Instead, the theme of encounter pervades the whole collection. While the unity of subject-object, past-present has been approached in the progression from Fog Tavern through the Black Sun to Encounters, the dualities remain to stimulate the poet's imagination through their creative tension.*
1 The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Dr. Oscar Levy, vol. 2: Early Greek Philosophy (New York, 1911), p. 184.
2 Jaunā Gaita, 81.
3 Valda Dreimane in Jaunā Gaita, 81 and Nora Valtere, in Laiks, 12 December 1979, for instance.
*See Lituanus, XXIII, 4 (1977) 16-20 for some poems of Gunars Salinð.
Gunars Salinð. Miglas Krogs un citi dzejoli Grāmatu Draugs, 1957).
Gunars Salinð, Melnā Saule (Grāmatu Draugs, 1967).
Gunars Salinð. Satikðanās (Grāmatu Draugs, 1979).