Literature Review: The Enchantment of Love

Līga Horgana is back with another literature review, this time an English language anthology of translated poetry by the legendary Aleksandrs Čaks just in time for Latvia's yearly "poetry week!"

Aleksandrs Čaks (1901-1950) is a poet that every Latvian knows — not just because one of the major streets in Riga is named after him, but hopefully also because of the great contributions he has made to our literature. His work is also valued outside of Latvia, as it has been translated into 28 different languages.  Čaks was the first urbanist in Latvian literature and his poetry expresses great affection for the city and its life. The literary editor of The Enchantment of Love Antra Medne (who is also the head of the museum of Aleksandrs Čaks) describes it this way: 

“Čaks affirmed in his poetry his love of women, and his love for the city of Riga, writing poems in praise of a drayman, a tailor’s apprentice, a barrel-organ player, and market women. At the centre of his work were figures representative of various social classes, who formed an overall image of the city, each with his daily joys and problems.”[1]

The Enchantment of Love (Uzburt mīlestību in Latvian) is a bilingual Latvian English collection of poetry by Aleksandrs Čaks. Published in 2018, this is not the first time his poetry has been translated to English. There are several other translations (in 1979 by Ruta Spīrsa, 2013 by Inara Cedrins, 2019 by Ieva Lešinska), but this book is unique with its goal being to give wider insight into Čaks’ life and personality by providing the reader with a lot of visual material that supplements and illustrates the poetry.[2] Those include photos of the poet in various moments of his life as well as places he has lived, drawings from his books, postcards Čaks received from fans, pictures of manuscripts and a lot of other little things that help the reader imagine the Riga where the poet lived and wrote in the 1930s. There are also nice background photos with sights of Riga on every page. My personal observation after reading this book was that the visual material dominated the text, which is not a bad thing for the book that aims to tell about a bit more than just the poetry.

Speaking of the poetry in this book, it includes 24 poems translated by Latvian American translator Bitīte Vinklers who was also involved into picking and arranging the literary material.[3] The poems included are romantic and sentimental, and make observations of city life and how it changed throughout the years. They express thirst for love, romance, and intimacy, and talk about futile waiting and broken promises. I chose to quote a few lines from a poem called “A Soldier’s Song to a Latvian Girl” that tells about a young lover.

If you are sad, my friend,
don't go –
don’t go uphill to that round café:
the women there
wear expensive lip colors,
Eastern perfumes,
and the aroma of their lovers’ cigars;
the dark-haired violinist is too handsome,
and over one cup of coffee
youths linger for hours,
surreptitiously watching the lonely young girls.
…Don’t go.

If you are sad, my friend,
come with me.[4]

This is also poetry about longing for some greater ideals and dreams. “Tonight I want to dream of all the things higher than spires,”[5] yearning to hide from the reality and poverty all around and find peace.

I would describe The Enchantment of Love as a small book that tells a story about a great poet and the time he lived and worked in. If you are looking for an English language introduction to Čaks’ work, or to Latvian poetry in general, then the book would be a good place to start.

[1] The Enchantment of Love : poems by Aleksandrs Čaks, Uzburt mīlestību : Aleksandra Čaka dzeja, editor Liene Soboļeva, Jumava, 2018, 9.
[4] The Enchantment of Love : poems by Aleksandrs Čaks, Uzburt mīlestību : Aleksandra Čaka dzeja, editor Liene Soboļeva, Jumava, 2018, 39.
[5] The Enchantment of Love : poems by Aleksandrs Čaks, Uzburt mīlestību : Aleksandra Čaka dzeja, editor Liene Soboļeva, Jumava, 2018, , 29.

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