The Poetry Collection "Si Minor", 1982, by Poet Ojārs Vācietis (1933−1983)
The early 1980s were a bleakly pessimistic time in the Soviet Union, as Cold War tensions intensified the arms race and decades of mismanagement fed economic and social decline. One shining light in this darkness was the publication of “Si Minor” (Si minors) in 1982 by Latvian poet Ojārs Vācietis, a collection of humanistic yet profoundly spiritual poems deeply rooted in Latvia yet transcendingly universal. For both his literary talents and courage in speaking honestly, he is loved to this day by many Latvians.
Already with his first publications Vācietis gained great popularity for his youthful fire and directness. He then began engaging in polemical battles with the official ideology, for which he was punished by being banned from publication between 1960 and 1966.
In 1967, he returned to publication, issuing the collections “Their Address: the Taiga” (Viņu adrese – taiga) and “Breath” (Elpa). When the latter was awarded the Latvian SSR Award for Poetry, it was clear that the official attitude towards him had changed. He was showered with awards throughout the next two decades, but praise did not modify his message or style any more than repression had. He never gave up addressing social issues, but his works turned more to personal introspection and examinations of Latvia’s history.
“Si Minor”, a bold though minimalist work, is widely considered his peak. The downbeat tone and philosophical preoccupations of the collection reflects the general mood of the Latvian intelligentsia during the early 1980s, a time when previous ideals had collapsed and been discredited. The contemporary Latvian author Inga Ābele in an interview with the newspaper “Forums”, referred to “the weariness which breaks into the poems” after the intensity of his life in the decades that preceded them, concluding “it is a fire that has almost burnt out”. The poems show a particular preoccupation with time, and humanity’s relation to it – there is an existential flavour, which recalls the work of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Yet for its pessimism, it was also a formally brave and inventive work, which continued and built on previous modernist innovations, in a way that set it apart in the Latvian literary scene at the time. The poems make extensive use of word games, and irony, and Vācietis displays an imaginative approach to language, frequently finding unexpected compound words and derivations (I’m going to provide some examples here).
The untitled introductory verses of “Si Minor” embody a hard-won optimism in spite of experience:
“When the wind moans like a starving cow,
When outside the thaw is slippery underfoot,
When coldness starts to drift toward my heart.
[..] When there is just one life,
When you are only born and die once,
I choose not to be afraid.”
A stanza from “But that was your name” (Tas taču bija tavs vārds) seems to evoke the personal and global threat of a flight from awareness into defensive hostility:
“The trees don’t greet me.
Without being aware
I carry within me today
The birds don’t greet me.
Without being aware
I carry within me today
The world doesn’t greet me.
Without being aware
I carry within me today…
There is that great…
And I am not aware.”
Perhaps the key to Vācietis’ perception is the life-enhancing awareness of mortality revealed in “Put aside”:
“When I am urged:
to put aside that argument,
put aside that decision,
put aside those doubts,
put aside that doing,
put aside today
at least until tomorrow.
Once I did as I was told
that every put aside will turn out tomorrow,
to have been un-postsponable.”
Born in Valka in northern Vidzeme, Vācietis made his life’s home in Rīga’s Pārdaugava district, where he found his muse on long walks around its old working class streets. Vācietis’ warm smile under a typical blue beret epitomised a man who found a calm place in the midst of inner and outer tempests. Vācietis described how poems “came to him” while walking besides the river, and through the lanes and parks of Āgenskalns and Torņakalns. As he once put it: “I don’t invent poetry. Poetry has invented me.”
Ojārs Vācieties died in 1983, and “Si Minor” was the last collection of his work published in his lifetime. The apartment in Pārdaugava where he lived with his wife, poet and translator Ludmila Azarova (1935−2012), is today a museum. The year after his death, the Ojārs Vācietis Award was created – to be awarded at five-year intervals to Latvian poets who had achieved something significant (since 2003, it has been awarded annually).
Guntis Berelis on Ojārs Vācietis in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Fragments from Ojārs Vācietis poetry collection “Si Minor”, 1982. (in Latvian)
Programme of the Latvian SSR National Poet's Ojārs Vācietis author evening. (1983). Latvijas Padomju rakstnieku savienības Literatūras propagandas birojs. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Guntis Berelis on Ojārs Vācietis in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Avotiņa, Daina. (2015). Mani spēka pīlāri: vēstules un mazi atmiņu komentāri. Rīga: Zvaigzne ABC.
Cilvēka brīvība. Cilvēka balss: Ojāra Vācieša starptautiskā zinātniskā konference: rakstu krājums. (2005). Sast. Anda Kubuliņa. Rīga: Pils.
Dzīves dziesma sarkanā: Ojārs Vācietis un viņa laiks: zinātnisku rakstu krājums. (2013). Sast. Ausma Cimdiņa. Rīga: Zinātne.
Guntis, Berelis. (1999). Sešdesmito gadu dzejas renesanse: Ojārs Vācietis. „Es neizgudroju dzeju. Dzeja izgudroja mani”. No: Guntis Berelis. Latviešu literatūras vēsture: no pirmajiem rakstiem līdz 1999. gadam (149.-175. lpp.). Rīga: Zvaigzne ABC.
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Ojārs Vācietis, 1933–1983: dzejnieks. (2006). No: 100 Latvijas personību (168.-169. lpp.). [Rīga: Nacionālais apg.].
Ojārs Vācietis: bibliogrāfija. (2008). Sast. Māra Izvestnija. Rīga: Latvijas Nacionālā bibliotēka.
Plotnieks, Jāni. (1992). Pērkonu rātais–: [Ojārs Vācietis]: atmiņu un pārdomu mozaīka. Rīga: Autora izdevums.
Repše, Gundega. (2005). Brālis. Ojārs Vācietis. Rīga: Pētergailis. Latvijas laikazīmes.
Vācietis, Ojārs. (1989–2003). Kopoti raksti: 10 sēj. Rīga: Liesma; Karogs.
Visums, sirds un tāpat–: grāmata par Ojāru Vācieti. (1993). Rīga: Karogs.