Jüri Talvet: Estonian Elegy

Shortly after midnight on 28 September 1994, in an area of the Baltic Sea sailors call “the ship cemetery,” the passenger ferry Estonia, en route from the Estonian capital Tallinn to the Swedish capital Stockholm, sank, taking with it to the seafloor more than 900 human lives.  No other peacetime shipwreck on the Baltic has claimed so many victims.  Technical failure and human error are among the possible causes of the wreck, as is a criminal act.  The only certain conclusion of the investigating commission is that the huge ship was brought down by water.

No, it cannot be true.

Cramps of disbelief constricted throats that morning.

Legs turned to lead, as if earth were dragging us to its roots,

the way water tore them, naked children,

suddenly from their dreams to her iron-cold breasts.

No, it cannot be true.

Liberty should have meant warmth at last, and joy.

As always, among the first, Estonia pushed forward proudly.

The tether tied to us from twilit past times

could be forgotten finally, and the dark Middle Ages

with their foolish taboos could withdraw.

Had there not been enough bowing already

to German lords, scions of Vikings, Russian wags?

Enough hauling of stumps and stones at the marsh’s edge?

And now that the people had power in its hands,

why could not the feast of the body’s solace last forever?

(In this land the breath of prophets put pressure

on both ears. Hegel, Marx, Lenin, Bakhtin…

Who from the left hand, who from the right, depends

on which side of the map you adopt.  Poor little Jew Yuri Lotman,

on the sad, fragile middle way, had no hope of becoming a prophet,

his eyes no longer open to the sky, here at the cemetery in Tartu,

Europe’s dump, last year on a biting autumn day, homeless,

speechless, taken now for Russian, now for Latvian,

his only eulogy the violin’s nightingale song

by the nourishing river that indifferently, coolly flows past.)

No, it cannot be true.

What stupid sophistry about God, sin, the duty of fasting!

Where was Christ when the Knights of the Cross killed

the children of Mary’s Land and raped women and girls,

when, barely having roofed the first rooms of our own,

we found ourselves back on the snowy Siberian plains gnawing on permafrost,

at the waste land’s rocky dump, there from where they say we came.

No, it cannot be true.

For thousands of years already we have been Europeans:

early tillers, at a time when others, the stronger,

consumed their neighbors, like an insatiable swarm of grasshoppers

discovered and plundered new continents,

driven by hunger, by the darksweet womb of a foreign woman.

Then a precipice, bitterness, anyway the cool grin of death.

Is small size proof of nobility?  Have not we also desired

a midday under our mournful skies?

The king of Estonians rising from the field of Ümera,

his sword, bright with the blood of the foreign exploiters

pointed exultantly to the sun!

The ship’s lights went out suddenly;

in the water’s womb, amid seaweed, shoals of silent fish,

a school of children slept, dreaming

of a clear, bright summer morning.

No, it cannot be true.

We have waded in the mud of history,

calling for help from the bastards of our lords.

But who would recognize the puny name of Sittow

in the endless halls of Europe’s castles,

in the numberless flock of Low Country painters?

Who would notice Schmidt’s sweat and soul

in the lens, piercing into space, that illuminates regardless,

or Martens, among the faithful Russian civil servants,

in the rear of the regiment, without a necktie?

Then, Peterson, the Estonian Keats taken too young to the grave,

and the father of our song, Kreutzwald, who conducted the hero

of Mary’s Land to Tartarus, as Vergil did Dante, to find love there.

(By that time the German Faust already sat comfortably

on the knees of the Virgin in heaven — late, always late!)

Or the singer of sunrise, Koidula, whose streaming

ravenblack hair proved the descent of Estonians

from the Peruvian arch-Inca, just like

the brush of Viiralt, made of Berber women’s hair.

Who would learn to pronounce their names, or the even less

sonorous, clumsily compound Tammsaare?

Who would care about his earth-colored proofs

in a language the same as the tongue of Basques,

the nahuatl of Indians, the nonsense sounds of Celts.

No, it cannot be true.

Now Estonia sank again to a common grave,

so suddenly there was no time to divine

who in the mist of times had been master and who slave,

who until the death hour had fornicated in the bed of pleasure

and who had loved the homeland.

Oh, rage of the dance of death!  Just as the clothes

are torn to flesh and flesh to bones

of the ants who always made provision, so of those

who let today’s wind blow through their thin bodies!

Oh, alphabetic death, whose laughter does not mark

the darkness or brightness of our intellectual signs!

All words bore the zero-sign when

an Estonian stretched his hand to a drowning Russian,

when a dry Swede from his scraggy breast

withdrew warmth to tender it to a freezing Estonian.

Not in this century had the ironwet foot

so trampled, until blood flowed,

the mighty frame of the Scandinavian lion.

No, it cannot be true.

How could that other wave still comfort

that had reached from an even darker night,

evil behind our backs, threatening,

that Estonians in the joyful shouts of song festivals

wearily, dreamily, vainly invoke and erase?

I am not interested in your cemeteries, nor in your proofs

that in your graveyards is hidden another, bigger state.

I am interested only in life, the capacity

of our kaleidoscopic time to give a unique pattern to colors.

Just an ethereal turn, just a fourth of a degree

of skillful movement learned from the Greek artists,

opens the safe, blessed niche!

No, it cannot be true.

For thousands of years already we have been Europeans.

Thousands of years before Marx and Friedman

we knew that Penelope’s heart

would not stay cold to the Tyrian purple

and that Odysseus, cavorting with naiads,

really hopes the journey home will never end,

and that the poor orphan Telemachus is Oedipus,

persistently pestering his parents

who build their bed ever wider,

as the East-Slavonic sensible germ

pestered the French prime minister, who

in the early 1990s shocked his colleagues

by firing a bullet into his head.

Again you come out with your myths,

but we simply have no time for them.  Why

should the two of us, Señor González and Herr Kohl,

worry about the crumbling ozone over our heads

or have nightmares of drowning Estonia or sinking Europe

if our heads and stomachs ache each weekend

for worry over how our beloved countrymen

in their beloved cars can get to beaches to inhale more oxygen,

how it is possible that today Real could be beaten

by Bavaria so badly, or vice versa,

and how the fluctuation of sausage prices has been influenced

by the air wall, the spirit of Marx that, as before,

hovers sneering between Unter den Linden

and Tierpark — despite our mighty hammers,

despite our warm embraces!

No, it cannot be true.

For thousands of years already we have been Europeans.

At our rebirth, as midwife,

Plato nervously bustled.  From him we learned

that the idea of love is more important than love itself;

he illuminated the rose that blossomed in Eco’s mind

and guided Lotmans’ forceps,

which from the gelatinous well

drew to daylight struggling signs of life.

Had Plato ever loved?

We do not know, despite

his protestations that love

could not nestle in the beloved,

but only in the lover himself.

Well, there are the lovers themselves:

amid the rubbish drifting in the Singel Canal

in Amsterdam

they leave their sad saleable ingredient —

whether from green, black,

or white skulls, from wrinkled

or smooth brains.

(Look at muddy Rembrandt, ecstatic

spermatic Van Gogh

painting despair that floats

amid the chunks of flesh.)

How would you like to go home, to yourself,

to the green morning mist of Estonia, to the heart’s depth and breadth,

there where Europe shakes from herself

the omniscient sludge of evenings

and is a child again!

But you know nothing of yourself —

until the moment when from behind a wall

rising to the heavens (built of unnumbered cities,

mountains, rivers, deep

triangular wells, women’s breasts,

oblivions, graveyards with skeletons

and crosses, silver hair, crowns of veins,

and memories) breaks a longing,

a voice that does not begin only in myself.

(Many prophets have died without living that longing,

or lived without dying from it.

Look, Plato, that is why love in yourself alone is insufficient,

and even less the idea of love.

But the Green Knight tests the living

at least three times: are you faithful!

Be steadfast: one from whose scalp

the golden curl of vanity has not

by the third time fallen

will not raise his head!)

All this could be called a sign, a mist,

a dream, something that cannot be true,

that vanishes at once,

— as that night wise computer craniums

blinked out into the opaque mist of algae —

had you and I not been there

at that moment when God did not yet know

whom to name Europe, whom to name Estonia,

whom rose;

what to name us, who (having been born into the universe

unfadingly from whatever earth, water,

whatever odor, seed, fire,

whatever distances)

are true.  Just so, we ask

of ourselves, we who receive ourselves,

tenderness (more than a name), love (more

than blood), light (more than bones).

Just so, and only so, are we true.


October 1994


Jüri Talvet

Jüri Talvet, an Estonian poet, was born in Pänu, Estonia on December 17, 1945. He received his MA degree in English philology from the University of Tartu in 1972, and defended his PhD in Western European Literature at Leningrad (St. Petersburg) University in 1981.
Talvet has translated Spanish language works by authors as Francisco de Quevedo and Gabriel García Márquez into Estonian. He has travelled and lectured widely, speaking of Estonian literature in Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Spain, Finland, Norway, Belgium, Poland, Sweden, the US, Canada and the Netherlands.
Talvet is the author of numerousl books of poetry, prose and criticism and he has been awarded the Estonian Annual Prize of Literature (1986), the Juhan Liiv Prize of Poetry (1997) and the Ivar Ivask Memorial Prize for poetry and essay (2002).

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