Uldis Bērziņš (1944) has been writing an impressive epos his entire life; its subject is his relationship to language and the relationship of language to itself. Language and time are the central motifs in Bērziņš’s poetry, yet they are never separated. Bērziņš does not express thoughts so much as he creates them, sending the reader off on an expedition to a labyrinth of meaning.  Although Bērziņš’s poetry is published in collections, one gets the impression that he is constantly working on one gigantic text, with each new poem adding another fragment. An encyclopedic or analytical approach to Bērziņš’s poetry can hardly be imagined: first of all because it is impossible to define the tradition to which he belongs. To be more precise, Bērziņš’s ancestors are found everywhere: from the Sumerian cuneiform scribes and authors of the Old Testament to many modern writers, from poetic geniuses to anonymous authors of popular songs: everyone who has an intimate connection to words or, as Bērziņš puts it, "have exhaled the word". Because to Bērziņš language is not an instrument with which to describe the world or express a thought; to him, language is a live organism that finds its way out into the world through man and vice versa: man is fully alive in language. From here the reverential attitude toward the word: Bērziņš does not divide language into the vernacular and the poetic: everything "exhaled" can become poetic.

Bērziņš’s poetry resembles a fabric tightly woven with meanings and associations. He has practically no "clear", precisely formulated thoughts or poetic aphorisms: a fragment cut out from the body of poetry not only changes meaning, it loses everything. Any text begins suddenly, as if from nowhere and for no reason: the text does not explain whence it has sprung and makes no attempt at explaining its existence in this world: it simply is; perhaps an accident but in all likelihood a necessity. There are some very important reasons why this or that particular text has arisen here and now. Language arises and flows, on occasion becoming rhythmical prose, and its flow suggests that it was meant for chanting during some shamanic rituals and its recording of paper is an accident or a result of the writer’s exaggerated diligence. As suddenly as the text has begun it stops suggesting that it has barely escaped the clutches of silence and much remains unsaid.  There appear to be empty spaces between phrases and even words: they are not connected in terms of meaning, often, not even by association, maybe just by sound and rhythm. And yet there turns out to be a point where these phrases tend to come together – it maybe a mythological, biblical, or literary allusion, a little known historic fact, or a linguistic nuance. Somewhere in the undercurrent of his poetry, the rules and regulations are ironclad: no wonder Bērziņš’s poems are recognizable as his from the first glance. That which is not said is also poetry: sometimes Bērziņš does not say what another poet would have considered most important and put in the foreground frozen in a cliché.

Any word has grown layers and layers of meaning and nuances of meaning, which in the vernacular tend to be ignored or gradually forgotten; yet the word can also release these dormant meanings, and Bērziņš is a poet who lets us know the real tension inherent in language.

In the course of writing his epos, Bērziņš has not only changed our understanding of what a text is and what it should be, which is what poets do: he has changed our understanding of the potential of language. After Bērziņš, it will be impossible to write or talk as before. The post-Bērziņš Latvian will be another language.

Guntis Berelis

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