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Poems by Ivars Šteinbergs

Ivars Šteinbergs is a poet, critic, and translator from Riga, Latvia. His second collection of poems Jaunība (Youth, 2022), published by Neputns, received the Annual Latvian Literature Award in 2023. His first book Strops (Hive), also published by Neputns in 2020, received The Poetry Days Award in 2021, as well as the Ojārs Vācietis Literary Prize in Poetry. Šteinbergs has been publishing poems, translations, and literary criticism in various outlets since 2012. He is a researcher at the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art of the University of Latvia (ILFA) and a lecturer at the Latvian Academy of Culture. He has translated the poetry of various foreign poets into Latvian – such as Louise Glück, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Franz Wright, Sharon Olds, Jan Wagner.

Credits Ivars Šteinbergs Translation: Ieva Lešinska November 02 2023


One time, Grandpa took me by the hand to the sweet clover field;

when I noticed that there was a bee in every flower, it was too late,

I was in deep, flowers above my head, sinking in a buzzing meadow:

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, “you can even pet them if you want,”

and I slowly touched a bee’s fuzzy back with my finger,

as if pressing a button on a touchscreen

to remove anxiety; the grasshoppers’ bike bells were whirring,

flowers’ sex organs were turned inside out, and the bees –

these creators of sweetness, hot peppers in a summery sauce,

an epic sowing machine – were stitching the green together with invisible threads.

“They sting only when they feel threatened,” Grandpa said,

“So it’s best to compromise with them, you see?”

And that’s what he did when removing the combs from the hive:

“I’ll take some of your honey, but will leave some, okay?”

As if it were a business meeting, a deal made in a café

between two partners who have decided on a joint venture.

One morning, I woke as if from a quiet dentist’s drill – a bee

knocking against the window like a coffee bean falling against

glass yet never coming to rest on it.

“I’ll just let you go back outside,” I whispered,

fearing that I may be too small for the task or, rather,

that I am Goliath whereas the bee’s a pebble in David’s sling.

As a boy, Grandpa had tried to gather up a swarm single-handedly,

to make his parents proud; he’d climbed the apple tree with a container,

but then a clumsy maneuver and the heavy ball of insects

fell on top of him; I always thought: that was how he became a superhero;

and now I know that he did in fact possess superpowers – to speak

and understand the language spelled out in the miles-wide dance

by these busy creatures, these jewels with wings,

alchemists of liquid gold, the source of pollen, wax, and royal jelly –

of health and youth. What did they say to you,

Grandpa, before the last drop was extracted from your comb cells?

Did they explain that the subtle mechanics of pollination

keep the flora in place; that if it’s yanked out of the ecosystem,

we die, just as they die when losing their stingers?

Rather, I think, they greeted you like an old friend:

“Go, dear, it’s a sweet clover field over there. Please don’t be afraid.”


"Wild Hog"

Human, human,

pyramid’s pointed end, thinking, creating –

ruler and crown,

a human takes up so much more space than their body,

they can cross the Daugava with a whistle,

from Jēkabpils, they can call family in Brazil,

or shoot a grouse with mere pellets.

Grandpa was such a human, a 20th century man,

a great man, meaning – he had thick bones,

so he used to say: “I can’t stay above water, I keep sinking,

my bones are too heavy.” One time he took me along for a hunt,

after five hours in the blind, I could take it no longer and took a piss,

but at that very moment, an elk appeared, smelled my urine a mile away,

and vanished into the thicket.

A human spreads also in time,

as if taking up the entire bed, pushing others aside,

those dear ones, close ones, dead ones. Look, hanging

on the wall in the attic, is the severed head of a wild hog,

past evidence of success when he was at his prime.

Grandpa apparently scored with the rifle,

then opened up the hog’s soft belly with a knife,

spilling out the steaming guts,

the way a washer spills out damp pant legs and sleeves.

(The taste is said to have been smoky, whatever it means).

Yet Grandpa was a good man,

a 20th century man, a man subject to alien hierarchies,

who nevertheless never forced anything on me,

and I loved him for it, and I respected my quarry.

But now that he is no more,

I look at an internet ad of an animal husbandry magazine.

The text is presented from a cow’s viewpoint: “I provide milk and meat

for your eating pleasure…”

In my insides, some trigger is pulled,

and I comment on Facebook:

“To speak in this way for a cow

is not only to normalize cruelty to animals,

it’s simply disgusting,” I click out, proud

to defend environmental activists, criticize cattle farms,

and know all about the greenhouse effect.

Afterwards, with a sense of work well done,

I pick up my two-year-old son in the kitchen,

and together we peel a soft-boiled egg;

he presses to me,

like a chick in a stork’s nest,

and I ask if he wants butter, salt,

or perhaps some paté.

Sometimes I cook,

mixing spices like putting together a puzzle,

the bloody meat changing color from pink to beige on the skillet,

and my wife mentioning the need for a healthier diet,

so I attempt to change the theme’s color –

I sprinkle the conversation with jokes.

Human, me human,

ruler against knuckles, crown made of knives,

it guards my gaze like eyeglasses.

The wild hog’s head in the country stares into the darkness

with its eyes of painted wood,

the mouth covered in rough bristle is

almost laughing.

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