Saturday, July 15, 2006

Last night past what used to be the munitions warehouses, soft red brick in the gloaming, I took I and her mother to dinner at a new café. We eat together once a week, but only once went out – or tried to go out – it was in the Химия, I’s mother taking an hour to get ready, not having had an evening out in a very long time, and just as we reached the restaurant Amber, a woman suicided, leaping from the fifth floor of a khruschovka. She was young, well-dressed. Silently, everyone surrounded her at a slight distance and stared. We watched as different authorities – the militsiya only recently renamed the police, paramedics, etc. – drove up and gazed at the dead woman. Did she jump while at a party, or dress up for death? They don’t want to get their Black Berta dirty. Inspected her and drove off. Finally someone removed the body.

I looked at me, sneered, and said write a poem about this. Yes, I answered, I will. The Body in the Chemistry. It was nothing, just another dead girl in a dismal district. A departure, a thud. What I really meant to write about was I – her growing there, where, my often wondering in the tramway what it would have been to be brought up here, blue men in fur hats lined up outside the liquor store or returning bottles to the tarnik – and I, now and then with her mother buying a carp and releasing it in the Chemistry Pond. Ķermenis Ķīmijā, the Body in the Chemistry. Ķermenis, body, is from the Old Prussian kermens – likely IE *ker- , “to grow, to feed,” – create, then – but the word may also relate to the Prussian sermen, sirmen – funeral feast. Līķis, corpse.

And the word is kore. The Kore. They don’t want to get their Black Berta dirty, hardly a need to mess with a corpse. Write a poem about this. Everyone stood silently, staring at the fallen object. Not far, in another khruschovka (buildings, identical from here to Vladivostok, are known by whose rule they were built under – the dark, massive structures Stalin made, the shoddy, blank brezhnevkas of the stagnatsiya) there is an apartment where everyone hangs themselves, tenant after tenant. The cavalry which rode up Cavalry Street from the Fortress took criminals to “the desert” and secretly hung them, and it is now rumored that the accursed apartment is where they did this. I’s mother, last night, delighted by the café though they spoke only Russian, with heavy Belarusian accents, not even having bothered to learn a single word of Latvian (the menu bilingual, but the calf’s tongue for some reason left in Latvian on the Russian side of the menu, but without its diacritic, so that the appetizer tongue became little female liar)… I’s mother was in another world, coming back: imagine, she said as we crossed Cavalry Street, imagine men, young men, on horses.

In Allée Park there is a shooting gallery, a place where wealthy men (tinted windows, leather jackets, wives barely able to walk, the tight dresses and impossible heels) can try out pistols before deciding which to buy. When it opened, men who were not wealthy went there and shot themselves. Two newspaper photographers in a single month. “What are we supposed to do, ask them what mood they’re in before we hand them the gun?”

The photograph is of Smilšu iela -- Sand Street -- which leads to the Chemistry. It was renamed after the cosmonaut Titov during the occupation, as Jātnieku (Cavalry) Street was renamed after Gagarin. The earlier names have been restored.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Bread Street is really only a pair of dull streetcar tracks that form a loop leading up the hill to the huge dark train station built by Stalin, fond of architectural intimidation. Bread Street curves and drops down into the oldest part of the city, the tramway running past the market, which has moved slowly westward since the Medieval square developed, where the War Commandery is, pink (“the middle ages ended very late here”), shifted to what is now Unity Square, where bitter babushkas put red tulips on the pedestal where Lenin stood (a granite Lenin dressed for Siberia and intended for some god-forsaken city there but rejected on account of its ugliness – the last Lenin in Latvia, removed stealthily, at night, to avoid protests), and finally finding its current location, rinok, bazar, tirgus, Slavic rhythms pumped from phlegm-choked speakers, urgent advertisements we can even hear in the house, large strong women standing before barrels of sauerkraut with huge spoons (discreetly selling glasses of sauerkraut juice; to buy it identifies you as an alcoholic, since it is the best cure for a hangover, that and kefir, sold in the other part of the pavilion). Kiosks, each selling the same products – Dutch tomatoes, Italian grapes, bananas (more bananas here than anywhere, it having been the forbidden fruit), coffee, matches, oil, cat food, sweets… The meat pavilion, resounding with the sounds of heavy axes, stinking of dead animals, no refrigeration. Booths selling clothes, gaudy, cheap clothes. The flower section – quiet women from the country, Ls 1,50 a rose, only a lats on Sundays, when competition is stiff. The single row of actual farmers, garlic and pickles, last year’s potatoes (not good to eat towards spring, toxins), cottage cheese and sour cream, there must be a hundred people selling sour cream, skābais krējumiņš, smetana, some so thick you can smear it on bread, slightly yellow, even. Milk, evening milk or morning milk, from cows with names.

Behind one window in Bread Street, bread is still made, the smell of it at dawn as I trudge back to Novastroika, leaving the gracious central district, ducking into the gloomy station for smokes (Mistral, Sobranie, Shakhterskiye), perhaps into the Blue Danube for a thimble of Black Balsam, cross the footbridge into the wide streets – wooden houses require wide streets, enforced after a serious fire. The Old Believers’ houses are surrounded by high walls, also wooden. The houses are still shuttered at dawn, and the district has an almost menacing emptiness to it, even as the fruit trees blossom within – hidden gardens, even a tiny abandoned orchard in the ulitse Gagarina again Cavalry Street, which leads to what used to be the Daugavpils Desert, dunes, now the Химия, “the Chemists’ Microregion,” shoddy khruschovkas meant for workers at the synthetics plant, cold now, silent, on the verge of closing. High tension wires cross a large pond surrounded by these ugly five-storey buildings of pale brick, a pond where a tiny Venice was once planned for the Workers’ Paradise. On the other side, the graves begin – a few Latvian Legionnaires, their section repeatedly vandalized… Germans and even a few Turks from the First World War, Latvians from the War of Liberation… then the astonishingly vast, hilly cemeteries running as far as the next railroad line, divided by faiths – though there are only recent Jewish graves; under the Soviets, the old Jewish cemetery was bulldozed. Rumor has it that the granite along the edges of ulitse Lenina, again Riga Street, is from those headstones. Hard by the tracks, below the prisoners’ graves and between the Orthodox and the Old Believers, are the paupers and the unknown. Date of death only, scrawled on a piece of wood. A large bulldozer waits there, erasing even that after a time.

A lengthier extract from this section was previously published as a broadside by the Oasis Press, ed. Stephen Ellis. Other sections appeared in Shearsman, and two earlier parts are available online at Archipelago.

Saturday, February 11, 2006