Friday, 7 August 2009

Marie Under: Two Poems

Marie Under was born on March 27, 1883, in Tallinn, Estonia, where she spent her childhood. She attended a German-language school. The poetry of Goethe and Schiller was among the earliest things she read. As a member of the "Young Estonia" aesthetic movement in the years before the First World War, she developed a modernistic style, influenced by French literary models, and translated the poetry of Rimbaud, among others. Her first collection was published in 1917, and was followed over the years by many more. She and her husband, the poet Artur Adson, left Estonia before the Soviet occupation of 1944, and settled in Sweden. Marie Under died in 1980.


We saw those berries, overripe and glowing,
in weak and tepid light of the October sun
persisting red as blood, in right full-growing,
without much inkling of the winter clouds to come.

And then a wind-gust brushed those heavy bunches:
and some of them burst, falling to the ground
on wilted grass, soon after, under branches
gold leaves with purple berries lay around.

And hand in hand we walked uphill together
and pushed by the capricious wind's bad weather,
eye to eye, as in anxiety, we asked:

our love's moist, joyful red in present flowering,
will life's breeze carry it away, devouring,
or will it fall to the grave's soil, and last?


I walk the silent, Christmas-snowy path
that goes across the homeland in its suffering.
At each doorstep I would like to bend my knee:
there is no house that doesn't know mourning's sting.

The spark of anger flickers in sorrow's ashes,
the mind is hard with anger, soft with pain:
there is no way of being pure as Christmas
on this white, pure-as-Christmas lane.

Alas, to have to live such stony instants,
to carry on one's heart a coffin lid!
Not even tears will come now any more -
that gift of mercy also died and hid.

I'm like someone rowing backwards:
eyes permanently set on past -
backwards, yes - yet reaching home at last ...
my kinsmen, though, are left without a home...

I always think of those who were torn from here...
The heavens echo with the cries of their distress.
I think that we are all to blame
for what they lack - for we have food and bed!

Shyly, almost as in figurative language,
I ask without believing it can come to pass:
Can we, I wonder, ever use our minds again
for sake of joy and happiness?

Now light and darkness join each other,
towards the stars the parting day ascends.
The sunset holds the first sign of the daybreak -
It is as if, abruptly, night expands.

All things are ardent, serious and sacred,
snow's silver leaf melts on my lashes' flame,
I feel as though I'm rising ever further:
that star there, is it calling me by name?

And then I sense that on this day they also
are raising eyes to stars, from where I hear
a greeting from my kinsfolk, sisters, brothers,
in pain and yearning from their prison's fear.

This is our talk and dialogue, this only,
a shining signal - oh, read, and read! -
with thousand mouths - as if within their glitter
the stars still held some warmth of breath inside.

The field of snow dividing us grows smaller:
of stars our common language is composed....
It is as if we d started out for one another,
were walking, and would soon meet on the road.

For an instant it will die away, that 'When? When?'
forever pulsing in you in your penal plight,
and we shall meet there on that bridge in heaven,
face to face we'll meet, this Christmas night.

translated from Estonian by Leopoldo Niilus and David McDuff


Eric Dickens said...

That's a good rendering of the Christmas 1941 poem. Rhyme is the trickiest thing a translator faces. Doggerel lurks. Rhythm is more adaptable.

Now that the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is approaching, the idea of torn homelands, suffering and exile will again be brought to the fore. But Under accentuates the lyrical.

Like so many Estonian authors, Under lived for decades in Sweden. Sweden has yet to acknowledge, on a large scale, the rôle that Estonian authors-in-exile played.

I think that many translators of Estonian literature, especially the ones not ethnically tied to the country, have yet to get an in-depth look at what was written abroad by those authors unfortunate enough to have to spend half their lives in exile, with no hope of ever seeing Estonia again.

I'm doing my bit, reading at present a novel by an exile Estonian. When I've finished, I'll present it here. The author, one of the younger generation of those who fled in 1944, is 75 this September. More later.

My recent reticence was occasioned by the stress of moving house. But I'm back on board now.

David McDuff said...

Welcome back, Eric. Thanks for your comment, and congratulations on having made the move successfully - I know stressful moving house can be. I hope your new quarters are okay, and will look forward to reading more of your posts on Nordic Voices when you're ready.