Memoriam: Latvia’s Peteris Cedrins, Last of the National Poets

Peteris the poet passed this week at the age of 59. Latvians are keen on gardening and mushroom picking to the point of kitsch. Thus, it is both fitting, and a bit amusing, that he was found in his country garden by mushroomers. Had this scene of the untimely early demise of a national poet played out in Latvia’s 1960’s cinema, boxes of tissues would be needed to soak up the ensuing torrent of tears. Peteris would have let out his cacophonous laugh at the irony, while also being touched by it…

The son of Latvian intellectuals escaping Stalin’s USSR, his family eventually landed in the US after World War II. Peteris was born to them in 1962. He grew up in suburban Chicago in the kind of then existing common working middle class households that are rarely found in today’s more socio-economically stratified US. His parents would not countenance having a television in the house, so he grew up with words. Impatient and precocious, he left high school before finishing and directly entered a master’s program in the Arts at Bard College, thus bypassing both high school and undergraduate degrees en route to a post-graduate education. Following this he led a predictably bohemian life in the 1980s of little professional distinction, but rich in friendships.

But, history turns and in so doing delivers new paths. The Soviet Union collapsed and he returned to the country of his family as Latvia regained its independence lost during World War II. He carried the pedigree of both a respected line of poets in Latvia, but also was a well-educated American. As a young man under the fluid conditions of Soviet Latvia’s dissolution he was made the Foreign Affairs Director of Latvia’s Writers’ Union, a post carrying some weight in the early 1990’s post-Soviet period. While Peteris’ life chiefly centered on the arts (and no shortage of hedonism) he also engaged politically. He became a speech writer for Latvia’s President, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, at the start of our current century.

It was in the 1990s that he met up with his then, what Latvians call a “life partner” (neither spouse nor common-law wife), a painter from Latvia’s sparsely populated eastern frontier regional capital, Daugavpils, the town from which noted American artist Mark Rothko hailed. Peteris spent a good part of nearly two decades in that remote outpost. He also dabbled in a bit of university teaching in Latvia.

I met Peteris nearly 2 decades back at the Teatra Bars (Theater Bar) on Lacplesa street in Riga located across the street from Latvia’s venue known for showcasing plays with the most culturally national themes. As we talked politics, he finally interrupted me and said, “you sound like a Jeff Sommers.” I replied, “I am Jeff Sommers,” and we both laughed. Myself, because nobody knew me by my writing then (not that any do today). I understood Latvia was a small world, but that small?

We met a few more times at the Teatra Bars and had experiences of the type only available then and there. The most memorable was a kind of West Side Story scene played out between different factions (young men) of a youth symphony over the honor and affections of a young woman. Attired in their black orchestral formal wear and bearing their instrument cases, punches were thrown, but mostly hitting air. Where else could one see such a scene enacted?

On another occasion a menacing aspiring thug of the type still observable in Riga two decades back took a dislike to Peteris’ signature laugh, which was anything but Baltic quiet. This too provided great entertainment to our minds. But, there were many such days and nights in the ensuing years over beers, wine, balsams, and in Peteris’ less healthy periods, absinthe.

Many worried about him. I was one of them. I tried helping, as many have. Sometimes it was just giving him a bit of cash to keep him going. At other points, connecting him to work, but this always went south….

Peteris was a distinctive mix of 19th century poet of which few places in the world have space for today, and student of the arts in 1980’s New York, which he was, before it gentrified. Latvia remains one of those preserves for national cultures that have since dissolved elsewhere under the acid of globalization. Unhappily, he left us. In doing so, he takes a bit of the past with him that he preserved beyond its expiration date in most the rest of the world…

We both had a talent for irritating people. In recent years, that skill seemed more directed at each other than in the past as we both thought the other hopelessly misguided on politics. At his best, he would brush it aside. And, when we personally met, it was always in good humor.

Enjoy Peteris. The bar is now open 24/. And, it’s free…

Jeffrey Sommers is Professor of Political Economy & Public Policy in the Department of African &African Diaspora Studies and a Senior Fellow, Institute of World Affairs, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His book on the Baltics (with Charles Woolfson), is The Contradictions of Austerity: The Socio-economic Costs of the Neoliberal Baltic Model.