Friday, 15 May 2009

Mats Traat - poems, months and Tobias

What's in a month? In the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic around two decades ago the mere mention of February or March set off coded signals. February 24th is the Estonian National Day, whose celebration had been suppressed for half a century by the Soviet occupier. March 9th 1944 was the day when a squadron of Soviet bomber pilots, said to be women and led by a Canadian Communist, demolished several streets in the centre of Tallinn, the Estonian capital. So when Mats Traat published his collection Ajalaulud - luulet 1986-1989 (Songs of the Epoch - poems 1986-1989) in 1990, the casual mention of February or March was no doubt a deliberate act. When Traat was writing this collection, no one yet knew if the Baltic countries would be liberated, or whether there would be a repeat, Baltic style, of the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968.

Rudolf Tobias (1873-1918) was an Estonian composer who wrote an oratorio about Jonah escaping the belly of the whale. And there are, of course, parallels between the collapse of the Assyrian Empire and its capital Nineveh and that of the Soviet Union, with Estonia escaping from the maw of that latter empire.


Flowers for those who died on the long road,
in the steppe, the forest, the frost.
Flowers for those that died from hard labour,
hardship, sorrow, hunger,
whose graves have vanished, razed to the ground,
deemed not to exist.

Harsh LP music does not recognise mourning.
Tammsaare keeps silent along with his people.

If you feel humiliation, you are still alive.

We, a people used to hell,
why don’t you get used
to the vale of hell?

Low is the threshold of juniper bushes,
death mows down someone
who never became a socialist hero
far from home, in the deserts of Afghanistan.

Who will count your tears,
who will write down your wounds,



at the bleakness of the age,
the cracked record of memory.

Thinking vague
waves of incredulity
riding high.

Every question seems childish,
the answers predictable:
together, like one man, jointly.

State monopoly of belief, queue at the vodka shop:
fifty-one people,
six of them women.

A really bad tooth
won’t tolerate cold or heat,
flowers noses can only smell one.

You have been brought out of the earth,
you won’t be going
back in.



The state where I was born
was soon destroyed,
the house where I first saw the light of day,
burnt down in a battle.
Omnipresent, omnipotent cancer
divide et impere.
Beyond the shield of mist a black figure
loveless, merciless.
Death is freedom. Montaigne
thought that each moment of his life.
And there was light.



Daytime and nighttime flags
fly jumbled together
the stars go out but the sword remains
He wields it in pitch darkness
May God have mercy on those that get in the way
the stars fall the sword remains



Stay calm: the thought will not hold sway
whose traces are clotted with blood.
We go to a concert. A rainy evening
May the sounds uplift, the last night is a long way off.
Great is the hunger for light
and the thirst for freedom; raindrops
sparkle on your eyelashes. Stay calm:
Jonah is announcing
the destruction of Nineveh
in Estonia.


Translated from Estonian by Eric Dickens


David McDuff said...

These poems are different from the ones you posted earlier. They might take a little more getting used to - but they're also powerful.

I know the Tobias oratorio, and have the piano score somewhere. The work was restored and published by the Estonian pianist and musicologist Vardo Rumessen, whom I met and talked with in Tallinn during the 1990s.

Eric Dickens said...

I don't think this second batch is as effective as the first. I just wanted to demonstrate that Traat had different poetic strings to his bow. Maybe the national-political aspect makes the poems more occasional than lasting. The poems he wrote in the 1970s have more substance to them. That is why I sent off for a couple of his recent collections - to see in which direction he has now gone.

Nice to hear about the restoration and Rumessen. I've heard of him, but never met him.