Eva Saulitis: Literary Limbo/Recalcitrant Spring

The spring migrants are singing – sandhill cranes, robins,
varied thrushes, fox sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets – despite the limbo of
this cold May in Alaska.  The intrepid
are constructing their nests of moss, twigs, grass, lichen, the shed hairs of  moose, dogs, and humans.  The undaunted are defending territories.  Despite the fact that this morning, we all woke
to a skiff of white on the rooftop, and my friend up on the ridge reported a
completely white world a few hundred feet higher.  My toes are cold, and I’m thinking of
starting a fire in the woodstove.  Last
night to cheer up the rainy gloom, I plugged in the Christmas lights.  But hiking in the afternoon, up the bluff
through the forest, I heard hermit thrushes whirl-a-whisping high in the
trees.  Water gushed down through dirty,
cracked ice slabs still holding on in the shadowed gullies.  Not even a hint, a suggestion, a flush, a
mirage, of green in the canopy. 
Yesterday, we plucked a handful of wild cucumber and fireweed shoots for
our salad.  Sometimes, I want time to
hold still like this, in suspension. 
Sometimes suspended animation is just the thing my creative spirit
needs.  But sometimes the waiting is

Sitting on my desk, open to page 55-56, is an
English-Latvian dictionary my father gave to me me years ago.  The first entry on page 55 is “application” (iesniegums; lugums, in Latvian), which is what I filled out this morning, an
application to Ventpils Writers’ and Translators’ House in Latvia, for my third
residency there.  And while I can’t
escape this seasonal limbo, this recalcitrant spring, it is time to escape the
literary limbo I’ve been in since I finished my memoir Into Great Silence.  Literary
limbo: the No Fly Zone between the completion of one book and the full-on
commitment to another.  And of course
there are the mini-limbo, that can be just as excruciating, between one poem
and another, one essay or story or play and another.  My English-Latvian dictionary translates limbo
as cietums (prison) or ieslodzijums (place where one is locked
in, confined).  Ciets, in Latvian, means “hard.” 
Hard place.  No-man’s-land.  Borderland. 
Oblivion.  But also, according to
Merriam-Webster’s, “an intermediate or transitional place” or “a state of
uncertainty.”  Uncertainty, yes.  For my birthday, my sister sent me a Buddhist
book Comfortable with Uncertainty.  Which I’m not.   So I’ll round them all up, these words, to
describe this nebulous, gestating, tentative silence I’ve inhabited since
finishing the final edits on my last book.

Of course it’s not total silence.  This winter, I wrote poems obsessively, every
morning, in the darkness, watching the sky lighten from my friend’s window seat
high above Homer.  I called them
“anti-prayers.”  And then there’s the
distraction of the book tour, the all-out yes-to-everything one feels compelled
to live after the release of a book into the world.  But that excuse for not writing seriously,
like the Cancer Card I kept in my pocket for a year post-treatment, eventually
expires, and then, it’s what’s next? What are you working on now?   

After sending off my application, the dictionary remained
open on my desk, and I found myself drawn to those pages, intrigued with the
look of those bold, low-caps words, like apprenticeship (macekla stavoklis), apron (prieksauts),
April (Aprils), and apricot (aprikoze).  The Latvian alphabet has 33 letters.  Twenty-two match the familiar Latin alphabet you
and I learned in kindergarten.  Now I
know my A, B, C’s, except there are no Q’s, W’s, X’s or Y’s in Latvian.  Eleven extra letters are created by
modification, with a caron (a little triangular “hat” over a letter, changing
its pronunciation; for example, a “C” with a caron sounds like ch, and an “S” with a caron sounds like sh). 
A macron (a horizontal line over a vowel) elongates the sound.  My last name has a macron over the first “i.”  Sau-liii (ee)-tis.  And a cedilla, a little comma above or below
certain consonants, well, what that does is engages the tongue, mashing it
against teeth or palate to create consonant goo, or buzzy birdsong.  Take “L,” for example.  To form “L” with the cedilla, I shove my
tongue against the side of my upper left teeth, and pull the skin above my jaw
to the left, and expel a squished, gummy sound no one but a Latvian could
pronounce.  Sounds pretty, yes?  “L” is now a soft banana pressed through the
tines of a fork.  “K” with a cedilla
requires the tongue to squeeze inward so it fits between my upper teeth, then domes
up and kisses the roof of my mouth.  Kyeuh, kyeuh, kheuh I chuck, joining the
chorus of spring birds outside my window.   
In Latvian orthography, there is even a trill.  Rrrrrrrrrrrrr.  This is my mother tongue.  It’s sorely out of shape.

Perhaps switching over to another writing project, one gone
dormant, put aside to complete Into Great
, requires something similar to a language switch.  I have a best friend in Latvia who shares my
name.   To her, I am not Eva, but
Ieva.  That dipthong ie is another Latvian tongue-masher, the “i” and the “e” squished
and cooked into a new utterance, kind of like eeiyeh.  When I look up
“squish” in the English-Latvian dictionary, I laugh.  It’s listed only as a noun.  The Latvian word: marmalade.   My friend Ieva is first person in my life,
since my Oma was alive, with whom I have a relationship entirely in Latvian.
Once, when we were having coffee with a couple Slovenian writers, we had to
speak English, as that was the common language. 
A few minutes into the conversation, she leaned toward me and said, in
Latvian, “This is too weird.  You are
like a different person.  You are so much
more talkative and opinionated in English.”

“Yeah,” I replied, also in Latvian.   “I don’t like myself in English.”  That’s the power of language.  I am Ieva,
and I am Eva, and they are not the same people. 
And to write my next book, I will not be able to use the same voice as
the person who wrote Into Great Silence. 

In this literary limbo, I’ve wandered through leafless
woods, words falling on my shoulders. 
Latvian words.  American
words.  Trying to find purchase.  But the soil has been cold.  The soil ground has been waiting.

The presence of that dictionary on my desk, my unpracticed
mouth forming the difficult words of my first language is what tells me I am
pushing my way out of literary limbo. 
For a writer, literary limbo is not a comfortable place.  Some might confuse it for writer’s
block.  But I don’t think it is; I think
it is a necessary mulching, seeding, warming, quickening preparation.  We have to trust these dormant times, trust
that the language, the voice, will rise within us.  But it doesn’t just arise passively.  We’ve got to root around in the cold soil
with our hoes and shovels.  We’ve got to
get under the leaf litter with our bare hands. 
So I’ve been rereading old, unfinished essays started in Latvia.  I’ve pulled out graph paper and made maps and
diagrams, circles around words.  I’ve
read old letters from my mother, stared at photographs.  I’ve revised, sent out my Latvian essays to
magazines.  And now, today, it’s to the
seduction of the words themselves that I turn. 
They stare up at me from the pages of my open dictionary.  They speak to me from the bare branches of
trees, the voices of the industrious, the intrepid, the undaunted feathered
beings.  These nights, as winter
inevitably releases its hold on the earth, and on my mind, I’ll be sleeping
with the dictionary.  The time of waiting
gaidisana – is over. 

What is your waiting about? 
What are you waiting for? 

Eva Saulitis’ most recent book is Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, published this January by Beacon Press. A poetry collection, Many Ways to Say It, was published by Red Hen Press last fall. Her homeground is comprised of Latvian sand and birch forest, western New York State farmland and beech-maple woods, and Alaskan muskeg, old growth and islet. Visit her at her www.evasaulitis.com.

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