Perhaps for some readers and writers, modernist literary sensibilities haunt. It can haunt in the way it reemerges from the supposed crypt of history. It can haunt in the way it feels, so often, as if it never really left. A third kind of haunting, though difficult to imagine, occurs as a lacuna—of feeling that which never quite materialized, but sensing that it should have, and maybe even will.
In his third collection, Gestures [Žesti], Latvian poet Artis Ostups channels the modernist cityscape and populates its town square with such ghosts as Arthur Rimbaud, Franz Kafka, and Walter Benjamin. Ostups himself acts in the classic role of the flâneur, the impassioned wanderer strolling about the city. Throughout the book, comprised exclusively of prose poems, he signals to us that we are free to join him, if we wish, but only in the most passing of invitations. We can picture ourselves as his accompaniment, sitting within the poems, for instance, as it happens in his “Bratislava”:
We thought about a poet, who is blown away by the
indifferent winds of history, as easily as paper. In a bar
near the Mladost cinema we drank beer and talked
about Europe, which at that time was tumbling slowly
but surely like the Tower of Pisa.
This setting feels utterly familiar and yet impossibly distant. We might remember it as if we lived it, though we know it secondhand, from accounts and retellings of modernism’s cultural hubs that feel very much of another time. It’s a common move in Gestures: Ostups collapses Europe to fit within the little boxes of his poems so that he invokes Poland, Brussels, Ghent, and Prague, for example, between poems and occasionally within them.
Jayde Will’s deft translation of Ostups’ writing at once preserves the stark architecture of his walking tour while also exhuming the bodies within it. In a composed, matter-of-fact style which typifies Gestures, the entry “Post-Factum,” yes, gestures for us to see how, “Look, our loving remains have been unearthed: a / finger secured in a finger just for the sake of a beautiful image” before diagnosing such a scene as “a proud / entourage of decay, though it’s just a reflection of lost / splendor.” Ostups’ poems take us on detours of what looks as if it were that lost splendor, but, crucially, they remain rooted in the unreal and distant “reflection” of a splendor, never quite getting to its base.
It’s here that Gestures is an unassuming yet remarkably ambitious work. A concise and incisive introduction by Kārlis Vērdiņš, a fellow Latvian poet, establishes Ostups within a younger group of Latvian poets, contextualizing Gestures modernist influences not as a return but as an impossible nostalgia for a Latvian modernism that never quite appeared. As Vērdiņšargues, the Soviet occupation of the country was quick to stifle such literary moves, doing so to the extent that Latvian public discourse still endures a stereotype of lacking something. Gestures, then, rather than lament this lack, boldly and assertively reimagines an access point to the ideas and techniques of literary modernism, conjuring its wider European styles, locations, and “heroes.” What’s more, that Gestures comes to us now in translation from Will’s and Ugly Duckling Presse’s efforts add another concentric circle to Ostups’ vision for a more expansive literary scene for Latvian writers and, more broadly, for other writers (with or without translators) who risk taking stock of their local communities and the larger writing scenes in which they find themselves.
Abandonment oozes through the Gestures, not only through geopolitical circumstances but through cosmic displacements as well. The leadoff poem, “After Regaining Independence,” opens with what might be a quintessential diagnosis of modernism: “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.” Here, Ostups’ doubled connection toward personal and communal dissolution and Gestures’ expansive literary targets make clear that leaving such stability as the church provides little respite for the ever-crumbling scene that ostensibly still observes the world. So goes Ostups’ language, where—as in “Monstrosities,” that “Cruel is the carousel that throws me from / the landscape” or, as in “The Seventh Zone,” that “What an absent star by the sooty stained glass windows...in God’s image the trashcans burn.” That Gestures suggests that its readers observe this disrepair through “greasy glasses” is already a damnable oversight: humanity leaves its assumed position of safety and steadfastness only to be met with similar disregard and risk from the universe itself.
For Ostups’s work, however, the prevailing sense is not of lament, but of prevailing itself. The closing section of Gestures, an essay titled “Three Photographs,” serves as a meditation on the gazes of Kafka, Benjamin, and Ostups which have been captured and preserved in childhood photographs. The view from here, from this vantage point, offers,
A gaze, as it is known, is the simplest of gestures. Surfacing from the depths of silence – from a word, which sprouts inside itself like a solitary plant – it strives to illuminate its origin, which it abandoned, as a lamp might abandon a ceiling vault as it’s dimming.
Seen from this here-and-now, with no transcendent overview revealed, there is silence. Yet breaking through that silence is language itself. To be sure, there are things being lost, abandoned, dimming from moment to moment. For all this, though, a glimmer shines. Upon gazing at the gaze of himself as a child, Ostups muses, “would I discover some uninterrupted ‘I’ that would speak to me like a close friend, or should everything be left scattered like that string of islands in a recent dream?” This question of certainty—or, rather, of the lack thereof—is, the most pressing and pervasive gesture of them all. It is, above all, the question of communities, of tethers. Are these Gestures unified or disparate? Steadfast or sporadic? Localized or more outward reaching?
Sussing out an answer here, of deciphering Gestures’ lasting impression, is complicated. And it should be; perhaps it even mustbe. How does one navigate a map to a literary history that exists in an imagination rich with touchstones while lacking a homegrown hometown hero? For Ostups, the gambit exists in vouching for the history that otherwise would have been there. Gestures, when all is said and done, emphatically opts not to return to literary modernism, not even to play catch-up to it, but rather to invent a relationship to something it had been denied. What that something is, as Ostups splays out the stakes both personally and communally, is no less than a watchword announcing an arrival striving to shake things up.
Jacob Schepers is the author of A Bundle of Careful Compromises (Outriders Poetry Project 2014). His poems and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Verse, The Common, The Destroyer, Entropy, and Fanzine, among others. He lives in South Bend, IN, where he is a PhD and MFA candidate at the University of Notre Dame.