Flowers of Ice


127 pages
Contains Photos
ISBN 0-920428-95-9





Translated by Barry Callaghan
Reviewed by John Charles

John Charles was Rare Books Librarian at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.


Quick — name a Latvian poet. Any Latvian poet.

Latvian literature draws a total blank in the West because of the language’s isolation. It doesn’t help to know any other European language because Latvian (which stems from Sanskrit) is unique. Translations have been few, which makes this volume welcome.

Aleksandrs Caks (1901-1950) was the first modern poet of Latvia, and Ziedonis (b. 1933) is one of the most interesting and popular contemporaries. His first volume appeared in 1961. Ziedonis writes in the classic Latvian poetic tradition of dainas (folksongs), in which all things in this animistic world are alive with significance. “No stone is static or perpetual.... / Why should pilgrim stones / in the sky dazzle your eye?” (from “Pilgrim Stone”).

From the first of 118 poems in this generous selection the poet himself is a direct presence, advising, warning, evoking details of daily life, memories, and sensuous responses. His short lyrics make the strongest immediate impact: “We’re like barn doors eyeing each other. And a breeze sidles through the door” (from “Epiphany III). Other hauntingly lovely poems include “Enfold Me, Ink Fish,” “On Lush Summer Sundays,” “Epiphany v” (“Walking at night I feel the way darkness loves me”), and “I Love a Floating Apple.”

The poems of family and one’s roots with people and land are also excellent, as are the poems which evoke women as muse and nurturer in a natural, immediate way that refreshingly avoids myth-making, as in “When I Was Still Small.”

Some of the prose “Epiphanies” are a bit too easy in tone, like a folksy smalltown newspaper column — or maybe it’s Callaghan’s translations which occasionally make Ziedonis’s playful, friendly idiom turn coy and arch, as in “I Could Stay Out” and “The Green Fairy Tale.”

Callaghan, who doesn’t read Latvian, has written his versions from bare-bones literal translations which he studied, “trying to feel the meaning and think the music…. This is an act of faith, and hope,” he admits. His sharp ear for verbal sounds and shapes makes this a lively book to read aloud — something translators seldom achieve. At the same time his tendency for clever, literary phrases often contrasts with the rural directness of the poems’ contents. Ruth Speirs’s version of three Ziedonis poems, in Windows (Reading, 1972) are markedly plainer, and she has translated straight from the original. As well, Callaghan’s notes provide a useful historical and cultural framework for approaching these poems from an authentic perspective. But sometimes such information becomes a strait-jacket, as when he explains: “The lyrical I of the songs is not an individual’s voice but the voice of the people, singing in an eternal present of different lives all following the same archetypal pattern.” That sounds more like interpretation than solid fact.

This non-Latvian reader admires Callaghan’s robust volume because it offers new, vital English poems. But the degree to which we’re experiencing Ziedonis’s voice is not clear — which may be of concern to scholars rather than lovers of poetry, who will be amply rewarded. Lou Luciani has designed a handsome volume for Exile.



Ziedonis, Imants, “Flowers of Ice,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,