Artis Ostups is a Latvian poet, critic and researcher. He works for the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art of the University of Latvia, and has been editor-in-chief of the online magazine Punctum since 2014. He is currently studying comparative literature at Tartu University, having previously studied philosophy at the University of Latvia. His first poetry collection, Biedrs Sniegs (Comrade Snow, 2010), received immediate acclaim from readers on publication, and went on to be nominated for the Annual Literary Award in the best debut category. His second book of poems, Fotogrāfija un šķēres (Photography and Scissors, 2013), has been widely reviewed by literary critics and attentive readers. Ostups’ writing has been characterised as clear and precise, powerful and distilled. He uses words to create sharp images that connect history to the present, imagination and awareness of present experience. He produces poetry which is unshowy and highly sensitive, framing exquisitely meaningful moments as photographs, pregnant with underlying contexts. Ostups’ third collection, Žesti (Gestures, 2016), consists entirely of prose poems, combining echoes of high modernism with contemporary expression in highly original ways. This collection was published in English by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2018. His poems have appeared in various anthologies across Europe and are available in languages including Croatian, Czech, Estonian, German, Lithuanian, Russian and Slovenian. He is currently working on his fourth poetry collection, which will feature both lyrical verse and prose poems.
Artis Ostups made his debut with Comrade Snow (Biedrs Sniegs, 2010), a collection which featured a variety of poetic forms and moods. Some poems embodied modernistic reflections on memory and the past, while others addressed embarrassing relationships with girls or playfully followed the turbulent process of a child turning into an adolescent turning into a young man. In Ostups’ second collection, Photograph and Scissors (Fotogrāfija un šķēres, 2013), direct playfulness and childishness gave way to a more dense and fragmented mode of expression, drawing on sensual and intellectual experiences. Love and intimacy are still present in these poems, but they are addressed fleetingly, avoiding sentimentality and cliches. These poems suggest that our most precious things should be kept to ourselves, and not given up for public consumption. Writing such poems required an incredibly precise use of language, and Ostups gradually sharpened his poetic skill, growing in maturity with each collection.
Another feature of his work is the implicit and explicit use of literary influences, from Western modernist literature to contemporary poetry. Arvis Viguls, a fellow poet and critic from Ostups’ generation, observed in 2013:
It seems that this is not just a feature of Ostups, but of the whole young generation of Latvian poets: the awareness that, at the moment of writing, you are looked at by the several meters of bookbacks lined up on your bookshelves. However, it does not seem to paralyze the authors' creativity and taste for experiments.
Ostups himself argued in an essay in 2015 that the gaze of predecessors was not necessarily a paralyzing force. On the contrary, he experiences it as a presence of the Deleuzian ghosts that helps his own subjectivity to crystallize and mature:
Perhaps the writer's task is to offer a narrative steeped with ghosts of the past and thus shed light on the only truth: a human being is thrown into an infinite network of relationships that constantly swings their identity, which – in the artistic sense – means operating in a "transmission zone”, where the “creator” is only the “recipient” and where the clouds separate, revealing the riches of history.
Such an approach to poetry means Ostups is much more than just a contemporary guy in his thirties, living in the Baltics and documenting his daily experience. He embodies the kind of poet who is simultaneously one of us and a stranger. Though born and bred on the Latvian poetic scene, he is constantly looking beyond its comfort zones and learning from the outside what he cannot learn from the Latvian tradition of poetry, which could be described as a series of belated reactions to international modernism. Ostups acknowledges Rimbaud’s Illuminations as one of his sources of inspiration, but it is impossible to miss his many other influences.
Every new generation of Latvian poets tries to avoid the claustrophobic existence of “small literature”. This is what happens in a rather small and predictable poetic scene where everybody knows everybody else and where everybody always feels slightly frustrated by the vague feeling of things happening too slowly, too narrowly, too repetitively. Whenever you attempt to be a flâneur, losing yourself in an evening crowd, you inevitably meet an acquaintance and end up sitting in a bar and talking about your other acquaintances.
The spirit of the poems in Gestures (Žesti, 2016) seems to dwell somewhere in the period of La Belle Époque, drawing its energy from the capitals of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Empires, giving us imagined glimpses of their material culture, everyday habits, and the mood on the streets as well as the particular etiquette of human relations. Alongside that runs the first half of the 20th century, with its modernist and avant-garde art practices and social reforms. What unites both of these eras in Ostups’ poems is their suppressed emotionality and fragmentary nature: we see a world we are somehow longing for, which nonetheless always remains alien. The principle of defamiliarization, formulated by Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky in 1917, is both a poetic strategy here and a gesture itself that speaks to the circumstance of its necessity.
Ostups belongs to the new generation of Latvian poets who are passionately interested in modernist poetry. Their utopian project might be described as creating modernist Latvian poetry of the 21st century that is both contemporary and steeped in the past – as if they were nostalgic about some trends in Latvian literary modernism that never came to be a hundred years ago. As if there would be something deeply wrong with Latvian poetry if they didn’t act on these trends. As if there was a painful necessity to overcome both the contemporary nationalist stereotypes of Latvian public discourse and the limitations of Soviet occupation, when modernism was wildly combated by the authorities. Gestures makes me certain that Ostups’ vision is not impossible. I believe in the world created in the long poem “Three Photographs,” one of his most striking works. I see Franz Kafka, Walter Benjamin and Artis Ostups all meeting as children. Artis would let Walter hug his little monkey while Franz would put his big Spanish hat on Artis’ head. I see these gestures transcending time and space, if only for a moment.
As Ostups’ new poems show, he is interested in different forms besides prose poetry, and his openness to the ghosts of others is even more present than before, in poems which echoo the voices of other poets from the past. I can’t wait to see his new collection published and to let these voices, arranged by Ostups into an angelic choir, sound in my head.
Summer by the ravine / Vasara pie aizas
“Even more light,” you say, standing in the window’s green rectangle. Soundlessly, the wind blows into the birds’ sails, the fog sinks into the ravine like a leaky boat. When I hide my head under the pillow I seem to hear all the alarm clocks in the village: my morning is also the morning of the butcher and the Chairman, our sun rises with an anxious squealing, the world is born on the clock face, streets roll out from the seconds, each like a nut from a shell cracked with a shoe against hot tarmac. – I wish there were simpler words for this – to reach a point zero or the limit, to write: “It was so hard without you,” and then, “Thank God, you came,” instead of: “You are standing in the window’s green rectangle; apples look like crystals,” or, “You’ll go away again, your scent will leave this room slowly and agonizingly like a headache after a long day.” A black dog comes into the house from the garden, the road vibrates in its emptiness and the heat opens tiny cafés on the verandas. “Even more.” The tip of the birch touches the moon, which, having sucked the night dry, recedes into the blue. Grasshoppers are ticking in the grass like lost watches. Birds call from the ravine. – ”Our happiness is accidental.”
Translated by Ieva Lešinska and Tom Pow
“Arvien vairāk gaismas,” tu saki, stāvēdama loga zaļajā četrstūrī. Bez skaņas vējš piepūš putnu buras, migla grimst aizā kā caura laiva. Kad paslēpju galvu spilvenā, šķiet, dzirdu visus ciemata modinātājus – mans rīts ir arī miesnieka un priekšsēdētaja rīts, mūsu saule aust satrauktā pīkstoņā, pasaule dzimst ciparnīcā, ielas izripo no sekundes kā rieksts no čaumalas, ko pāršķeļ ar kurpi pret karsto asfaltu. – Kaut visu varētu teikt vienkāršāk – nokļūt nulles punktā vai uz robežas, rakstīt: “Bija grūti bez tevis,” tālāk: “Cik labi, ka atbrauci,” bet tā vietā: “Tu stāvi loga zaļajā četrstūrī; āboli atgādina kristālus,” vai: “Tu atkal aizbrauksi, tava smarža pametīs šo istabu lēni un mokoši kā galvassāpes pēc garas dienas.” Melns suns ienāk mājā no dārza, ceļš virmo savā tukšumā un tveice atver verandās mazas kafejnīcas. “Arvien vairāk.” Bērza rādāmkociņš pieskaras mēnesim, kas, izsūcis nakti, atkāpjas zilgmē. Sienāži tikšķ zālē kā pazaudēti pulksteņi. No aizas nāk putnu saucieni. – “Mūsu laime ir nejauša.”
After regaining independence / Pēc neatkarības atgūšanas
When we left the church, stars gathered around the moon’s crumbled horn above the red cornice of the post office, seen through greasy glasses. My mother wore a black felt coat – winter pulled chalk across it like a schoolboy on a blackboard. Later I drew gates on my bedroom wall, while the plaster bust of a woman observed me from the top of the closet. Did the faroff clicks – from the railway and the highway – give hope for a different, more vast landscape? The gardens burned with a cawing, raven-black flame.Translated by Jayde Will
Kad iznācām no baznīcas, virs pasta sarkanās dzegas ap mēness apdrupušo ragu pulcējās zvaigznes, skatītas caur nospeķotām brillēm. Mana māte ģērbās melnā filca mētelī – ziema vilka tam šķērsām krītu kā skolēns pār tāfeli. Vēlāk uz guļamistabas sienas es uzzīmēju vārtus, kamēr no skapjaugšas mani vēroja ģipša sievietes biste. Vai tāli skaņas pārsitieni – no dzelzceļa un šosejas – viesa cerības uz citu, plašāku ainavu? Dārzi dega ar kraukļu tumšo, ķērcošo liesmu.
Gestures / Žesti
A fallen glove points to narrow tables abandoned in the sudden rain – they stand in a semi-circle around the small Italian restaurant, waiters darting about in the windows. As far as the gray glass allows one to surmise, their shirts are white as snow, though they have lost their envelope stiffness. One could only guess how the art of a glove, this orphan who has lost the tender hand of a woman, will be influenced by the blind and hurried footsteps of the evening. Not far away, swinging up to the roof, bare branches become fingers trembling in hatred, as if preparing to strangle someone. This, it seems, is jealousy for the tower's crown – a nest for long shadows, which on sunny days describe a buzzing street and attract the glance of a flaneur. Like a pleasant change – the bird’s coat of arms on the reverse of the branch bundle with wings stretched out in a drenched greeting.Translated by Jayde Will
Zemē nokritis cimds rāda uz šauriem, pēkšņajā lietū pamestiem galdiem – tie stāv puslokā ap mazu itāļu restorānu, kura logos šaudās viesmīļi. Cik dod nojaust pelēkais stikls, viņu krekli joprojām ir sniegbalti, tomēr zaudējuši aploksnes stīvumu. Var tikai minēt, kā cimda mākslu – šī bāreņa, kas zaudējis maigu sievietes roku, – ietekmēs novakares aklie un steidzīgie soļi. Tikmēr tepat netālu, šūpodamies jumta augstumā, kailie zari uzsver savu līdzību ar naidā trīcošiem pirkstiem, it kā grasītos žņaugt. Tā, šķiet, ir greizsirdība uz torņu vainagu – perēkli garām ēnām, kas saulainās dienās apraksta sanošo ielu un piesaista dīkdieņa skatienu. Kā patīkama pārmaiņa – putna ģerbonis zarotnes reversā ar izmirkušam sveicienam pastieptiem spārniem.
After Rilke / Rilkes motīvs
– everything will remain partially unsaid, but once someone wrote – my chest is like a lamp, lit up by a look, and it truly did shine for the pleasure of cicadas, as I inhaled the nightly scents of the mountains. Now the cracked screen, snowy like after a heavy blow, shows a raven stuck in oil and a lyre with frayed nerves – a marked-up sheet of paper, tossed in the grass, and me myself like paper as well – burned halfway, but my eyes will stay silent. What once was music and light, tones and cascades, is now a faint whisper and the lighter flame – look, it’s going out in the last muse’s face – before she comes and cuts –Translated by Jayde Will
– viss pusvārdā paliks, bet reiz kāds rakstīja – manas krūtis ir kā lampa, ko aizdedz skatiens, un tās nudien spīdēja cikādēm par prieku, kad es elpoju kalnu naksnīgās smaržas. Tagad ieplīsis ekrāns, piesnidzis kā pēc smaga belziena, rāda naftā ieķepušu kraukli un liru pārrautiem nerviem, sašvīkātu lapeli, nomestu zālē, un es pats arī kā papīrs – līdz pusei sadedzis, bet acis klusēs kā skābē iemīti augļi. Kas bija mūzika un gaisma, toņi un kaskādes, tagad vārgs čuksts un šķiltavu liesma, lūk, nodziest pēdējās mūzas sejā, pirms viņa nāk un pārgriež –
Smoke cisterns / Dūmu cisternas
A hydra of exhaust pipes billow out gray, choking clouds, in the puffs of which a blizzard swells – that veil for the houses’ inflamed eyes, which look back at me, as I lose course, searching for the address. The lightbulb is too weak, like a mysterious fish swimming in the corridor’s depths and illuminating numbers above the door. In a bar a young man sits next to me, in whose hand a petard once burst, and which is why indoors – in the smoke cisterns – he is wearing a black glove. Missing a thumb, it reminds one of a small rake, which scoops up money from a sticky counter. Oh, the season of ashes and boredom!Translated by Jayde Will
Izpūtēju hidra veļ pelēkus, smacīgus mākoņus, kuru mutuļos virmo sniegputenis, – tas plīvurs namu iekaisušajām acīm, kas raugās man pakaļ, kad noklīstu, adresi meklējot. Pārāk vāja ir spuldze, kas kā noslēpumaina zivs peld gaiteņa dzelmē un apspīd skaitļus virs durvīm. Kādā bārā man blakus sēž puisis, kura pirkstos reiz sprāgusi petarde, un tāpēc arī telpās – dūmu cisternās – viņš nēsā melnu cimdu. Iztrūkstot īkšķim, tas atgādina mazu grābekli, ar ko savākt naudu no lipīgās letes. Ai, pelnu un garlaicības sezona!
In a port town / Kādā ostas pilsētā
The anchor is raised, every day it is heavier, and the night ship continues on its way, passing through granite squares. In the park birds flutter – old, crumpled newspapers, until they get stuck in the branches with a quiet tear. The cobblestones live like strangers beneath cargo trucks, which, as the coal dust blows about, search for the harbor; but occasionally the side street thunders in memory of the black horses and white linen in top boots. In a room gnats swarm above a breast carefully undressed, like an envelope cut with a knife. The bulb is dimmed, and in the window’s arc a bird waves, as the lovers leave the granite coast.Translated by Jayde Will
Tiek pacelts enkurs, ik dienu arvien smagāks, un nakts kuģis turpina ceļu, peldēdams caur granīta skvēriem. Parkā lidinās putni – vecas, saburzītas avīzes, līdz ieķeras zaros ar klusu stirkšķi. Bruģakmeņi dzīvo kā svešinieki zem kravas mašīnām, kas, ogļu putekļiem putojot, meklē ostu; bet reizēm gatve nodun atmiņās par melniem zirgiem un baltu audeklu stulma zābakos. Kādā istabā knišļi spieto virs rūpīgi – kā ar nazi atgriežot aploksni – izģērbtas meitenes krūtīm. Nodziest spuldze, un putns māj loga arkā, kad mīlētāji atstāj granīta krastu.
The morning before the revolution / Rīts pirms revolūcijas
The queen’s head, shrouded with rumor and piercing glances, is lifted from the birds’ feathers – there is not a sentence deeper than a child’s shoe, just slight resemblances, dangerously approaching sadness. Just the snow-white bonnet of the servant floats in the morning light. “Just the sun’s merciless gong, against which, arriving from the west, thunder’s clubs strike.” Laying under the canopy they bolt upright, the lovers irked, they seem like toys, which must live with springs in their backs.Translated by Jayde Will
Karalienes galvu, apvītu baumām un degošiem skatieniem, izceļ no putnu spalvām – nav ne teikuma dziļāka par bērna kurpīti, tikai trauslas līdzības, bīstami pietuvojušās skumjām. Tikai sniegbalta kalpones aube iepeld rīta gaismā. „Tikai saules nežēlīgais gongs, pret kuru, nākdamas no rietumiem, sitas pērkona vāles,” zem baldahīna uzšauti sēdus, piktojas mīlētāji, tie šķiet kā rotaļlietas, kam jādzīvo ar atsperi mugurā.
Voices between the screams / Balsis starp kliedzieniem
They believed in ___, but time___ or water covers one’s hand, then colors ___ and muddles ___, although it was fine to begin with, ___ in anger they mocked everyone, who ___, fall’s torn paths ___ like rain unfurls on one’s shoulders, while the eyes ___ hands tried to catch the reddest one from ___, in the bag there’s a photo and scissors, ___ to allot to another, however at times it still seemed ___, if only quieter ___ in a place without its own face ___, look, the clouds have opened up, ___, until they disintegrate like ___.Translated by Jayde Will
Viņi ticēja ____, bet laiks ____ vai ūdens apņem roku, tad iekrāsojas ____ un aizmiglo ____, lai gan sākumā nekas, ____ viņi dusmās izsmēja visu, kam ____, rudens plosīti ceļi ____ kā lietus atris pār pleciem, kamēr acis ____ rokas tvarstīja sarkanāko no ____, somā fotogrāfija un šķēres, ____ atvēlēt citai, lai gan brīžiem vēl šķita ____, ja vien klusāk ____ vietā bez savas sejas ____, rau, mākoņi pusvirus, ____, līdz izira kā ____.
Hanza street / Hanzas iela
Standing on the balcony at night – to the left the moon ducks between the chimneys, to the right a couple disappears through Alexander’s Gate – and out of lonely pretense you roll the cork of a carafe made of clear Bohemian glass between your fingers. Standing like a landowner in his dressing gown with a landscape before him and not realizing that this moment, seemingly yours alone, belongs to an entirely different life, which unexepectedly has curled like a ribbon picked up by a gust of wind, so that a moment later it can return to the darkness. What shards does this perfect sphere hold within itself?Translated by Jayde Will
Stāvēt naktī uz balkona – pa kreisi starp skursteņiem bēguļo mēness, pa labi kāds pāris nozūd Aleksandra vārtos – un vientuļas ārišķības dēļ grozīt pirkstos karafes korķi no dzidra Bohēmijas stikla. Stāvēt kā muižniekam rītasvārkos ainavas priekšā un pat nenojaust, ka šis brīdis, it kā vienīgi tavs, pieder pavisam citai dzīvei, kas negaidīti kā brāzmā ierauta lente te ievijusies, lai jau pēc mirkļa atgrieztos tumsā. – Kādas šķembas sevī glabā šī pilnīgā forma?
Letters to Susette / Vēstules Zuzetei
A northeasterly blows, Holderlin’s favorite wind, since 1803 at least, when he composed the hymn “Andenken” in Tubingen, and until this very moment under totally different poplars. They could be buds in a gradual explosion or September shadows, filled with blossoms (if you have to wander in time), but I fail to vanish there with you who forever remains in a foreignland. That’s how Holderlin lived, thinks Susette, the wife of a Frankfurt banker – Diotima in later texts – to whom he wrote regularly, until he lost his mind and Zimmer the carpenter, an educated man, gave him a room in a tower with a view to the river and meadows. No trace of brown-tanned flesh exists anymore, just an eclipse of images.Translated by Jayde Will
Pūš austrenis, Helderlīna mīļākais vējš, – vismaz kopš 1803. gada, kad viņš Tībingenē sacer himnu „Andenken”, un līdz pat šim brīdim zem pavisam citām papelēm. Tie var būt pumpuri lēnā sprādzienā vai septembra ēnas, piebirušas ziediem (ja reiz maldīties laikā), bet es nespēju tur pazust kopā ar tevi, kas vienmēr paliec svešumā. Līdzīgi Helderlīns dzīvoja Zuzetei, Frankfurtes baņķiera sievai, Diotīmai vēlīnajos tekstos – kurai daudz rakstīja, līdz zaudēja prātu un galdnieks Cimmers, izglītots vīrs, atvēlēja viņam istabu tornī ar skatu uz upi un pļavām. Vairs ne miņas no brūni iedegušas miesas, tikai tēlu aptumsums.
Windows overlooking the janaček Embankment / Janāčeka krastmalas logi
Prague before Christmas. An enthusiastic guide, dressed like an angel, shows the brightly-lit facades of the buildings, nude gods and armored saints. Tourists whisper underneath tattered wings. I find refuge in an alleyway with a snow-covered catafalque and a church’s stained glass window. The Star of Bethlehem swings between red and blue; faith loses any seriousness it had. In Janaček’s riverfront windows a family gathers under a chandelier... all that’s missing is soft music, as I stand on the sidewalk below, blinded by the snowstorm. And even on the night tram, which takes me, slightly tipsy, back up the hill, there’s no place for unhindered sadness. Because in the depths of the car someone is peeling a tangerine.Translated by Jayde Will
Prāga pirms Ziemassvētkiem. Aizrautīgs gids, par eņģeli pārģērbies, demonstrē spilgti gaismotas namu fasādes, kailus dievus un bruņotus svētos. Tūristi sačukstas zem izplesto spārnu stērbelēm. Es patveros šķērsielā ar apsnigušu katafalku un baznīcas vitrāžu. Betlēmes zvaigzne šūpojas starp sarkanu un zilu; ticība zaudē jebkādu nopietnību. Janāčeka krastmalas logos ģimene pulcējas zem lustras – trūkst tikai liegas mūzikas, kamēr es stāvu lejā uz ietves, akls no sniegputeņa. Un pat nakts tramvajā, kas mani, viegli iereibušu, nes atpakaļ kalnā, nav vietas netraucētām skumjām. Jo vagona dziļumā kāds mizo mandarīnu.