Springs and summers full of song and revolution.
The Popular Front, demonstrations and confrontations,
time that takes you away from yourself and your poetry,
so that you could see them as if from cosmic space,
a way of looking that changes everything into stars,
our Earth, you and me, Estonia and Eritrea,
blue anemones and the Pacific Ocean.
Even the belief that you will write more poems. Something
that was breathing into you,
as May wind blows into a house
bringing smells of mown grass and dogs' barks, -
this something has dissipated, become invisible
like stars in daylight. For quite a time I haven't
permitted myself to hope it would come back.
I know I am not free, I am nothing without
this breathing, inspiration, wind that comes
through the window. Let God be free,
whether he exist or no. And then, it comes
once again. At dusk in the countryside
when I go to an outhouse, a little
white moth flies out of the door.
That's it, now. And the dusk around me
begins little by little to breathe in words and syllables.
In the morning, I was presented to President Mitterrand,
in the evening, I was weeding nettles from under the currant bushes.
A lot happened inbetween, the ride from Tallinn to Tartu and to our country home
through the spring that we had waited for so long,
and that came, as always, unexpectedly,
changing serious greyish Estonia at once
into a primary school child's drawing in pale green,
into a play-landscape where mayflies, mayors and cars
are all somewhat tiny and ridiculous ... In the evening
I saw the full moon rising above the alder grove. Two bats
circled over the courtyard. The President's hand
was soft and warm. As were his eyes,
where fatigue was, in a curious way,
mingled with force, and depth with banality.
He had bottomless night eyes
with something mysterious in them
like the paths of moles underground
or the places where bats hibernate and sleep.
The radio talks about the Tiananmen bloodbath.
It was three years ago. Just before that
I was there too: the square was empty, the sun shining.
At night it was freezing, but the city air
was full of dust - I don't know whether it came
from the Gobi desert or from building sites
in the city itself. At the other end of the square
huge cauldrons were boiling: a bowl of rice
with sauce and salad for less than a dollar.
I still remember its taste
as I remember young men whispering
in all the cities at the doors of all the hotels:
exchange money exchange money exchange change. . .
The sea doesn't want to make waves.
The wind doesn't want to blow.
Everything wants balance, peace,
and seeking peace has no peace.
If you understand this, does it
change something? Can you be peaceful
even where there is no peace?
Is it a different kind of peace?
Questions all over again. Answers
are few, as always.
The wave goes up and down.
A flock of birds flies low to NNE.
This, too, is a wave. Thought is waves, too.
God has left us - I felt it clearly
digging the earth around a rhubarb plant.
It was black and moist. I don't know where he is,
only a shelf full of sacred books remains of him,
a couple of wax candles, a prayer wheel and a little bell.
Coming back to the house I thought
there might still be something - the smell of lilac and honeysuckle.
Then suddenly I imagined a child's face
there, on the other side, in eternity
looking here into time, regarding wide-eyed
our comings, goings and doings in this time-aquarium
under the light of the sun going down
and falling asleep under a water-lily leaf
somewhere far away in the west.
The possibility on rain ... If rain is possible,
everything is possible - spinach, lettuce, radish and dill,
even carrots and potatoes, even black
and red currants, even swallows
above the pond where you can see
the reflection of the full moon and some bats flying.
The children finish playing badminton and go in.
There is a haze to the west. Little by little
The fatigue in my limbs changes to optimism. I dream
I borrow a plane to fly to Cologne.
I must go in too. The sky's nearly dark,
a half-moon shining through birch branches.
Suddenly I feel myself like an alchemist's retort
where all this - heat, boredom,
hope and new thoughts -
is melting into something strange, colourful and new.
A fit body doesn't exist. There is only space,
extension, endless possibilities,
the fact that you can touch that birch tree there,
fetch the big white stone from the ditch.
The sick body is everywhere - the room, courtyard,
path to the well, the house and the pale-blue sky
are all full of it. The sick body
is so big, that everything touches,
hurts and injures it. A spruce branch swaying
at the fence comes in and bruises your face.
The wind swinging the witches' broom
blows through your breast.
The cries of the swallows hit you like hammer blows.
Night falls like an old wet blanket on your eyes and mouth.
The age-old dream of mankind: to fly like a bird. A fairy tale come true not as a fairy tale but as a machine, an airline company that puts in motion lots of other machines, wheels, axes, levers and drives that sell you a ticket, ask SMOKING - NON-SMOKING, put you in a pigeonhole: BUSINESS CLASS, TOURIST CLASS, EUROCLASS, ECONOMY CLASS, and pack you into a huge cigar box on place A, B, D, E or F, give you a dinner, offer you cigarettes, earrings, watches, perfume and sweets. In business class drinks are free, elsewhere only the smiles and air are free, but during the flight the air becomes denser and denser and you feel more and more of an urge to jump out, to break out of this cigar box, in order to really fly, or at least fall into these white shining clouds through which you can't see if there is sea or land under you and on whose far edge another plane is creeping toward Frankfurt as a cockroach on a white wool blanket.
The city is humming, rumbling and buzzing,
turning around and hustling like a anthill on wheels:
a concrete mixer, the barrel slowly rotating,
French, Africans, Khmers and Chinese,
one Estonian smoking at the window,
and on the other side of the street a clochard, also smoking,
already sitting for an hour on the doorstep
outside the stream, alone
with his mongrel and three spotted pigeons
who always find something to peck at on the pavement.
I'd go to the Jardin de Luxembourg, but haven't the energy
to push my way through this spinning microcosm,
people, chairs and cars,
words, thoughts and sights
that will not vanish, but remain
like cobwebs floating in the thundery air,
crumbling slowly on windowsills,
and on the street, into somebody's bag,
into somebody's hair or a bouquet
that withers quickly in the heat.
The ship glides north. It's the only
sign, mark on the boundary between sea and sky,
that's vanishing into darkness and fog. Lighthouses, beacons,
each of them speaking with its own voiceless voice. The sea's breathing
in the rhythm of night waves. We breathe
in the same rhythm as the sea, we
fleas, bugs, parasites of the ancient sea,
fungi grown out of soil, who've now
spread our filaments into earth, wood and air.
I don't want to shut the window. I lie
with eyes open, thinking about the prints of birds
on wet sand and about Death, who once upon a time
rode here in an old peasant carriage. I don't know
whether he or his carriage left prints
anywhere other than in dreams and legends.
If there were any, could we recognize them?
Could he recognize us?
The ebb is low, and the sea has left behind lots of things - sea bottles, sea bags, sea boxes, seashells, jellyfish. Jellyfish remind you of bowls of jelly turned upside down on the sand. Empty open seashells are also silent, maybe even in Breton. They're old symbols, old vulvas which have lost their mystery, softness and darkness here in the cruel midday sun that demands you put on sunglasses and burns as intensely as if it wanted to leave of you, a Northener, only a shadow on sand. You retreat, go back to the hotel with sore eyes. Your hands are salty when you taste them: maybe it's sweat, maybe the sea.
One day you will do everything for the last time: breathe, make love, drink, sleep and wake up. Maybe even think. One day you will visit Paris for the last time. If you knew when, you'd go somewhere you felt suited you. No, not to the Louvre, not to the Panthéon, not to a street café, not to a library, but to the botanical gardens, to the Jardin des Plantes where you have a chance to meet the dandelion, wood sorrel and mallow who will acknowledge you. As you will be acknowledged by the silence in the Church of St. Louis on the Ile St. Louis. It is the same silence that took you by the hand, helping you to overcome fear in your home on University Street in Tartu late one afternoon when everyone else was away. You were sitting on the sofa with a book in your hand. Darkness was falling. Distant voices changed their tone and the shadows crept out from under the wardrobes and beds. It's the same silence that was waiting for you in an old outhouse full of old wooden vessels and dust that nobody had cleaned up for years. The silence that took hold of you like a voiceless dark vortex dragging you into depths whose bottom you haven't yet reached. If there is any bottom at all; maybe there is only an echo, a rumble that has come nearer with every year, the deafening, dizzying TE DEUM or OM MANI PADME HUM or SHEMA ISRAEL of free fall, of freedom.
I was rinsing laundry at the pond when I noticed a small brownish butterfly that had fallen into the dark water and was struggling there. The wind was pushing it little by little towards the bank. I followed the butterfly as people follow a competition: will it reach the bank before it becomes the prey of a Hydrometra or a diving beetle surfaces and catches it? I was rooting for the butterfly, but didn't want to interfere with the course of Nature by helping it ashore. The wind was pushing it towards land, tiny insects were bustling around it. Then the butterfly reached a little hummock standing out of the water. But the breeze didn't bring it onto the hummock: it turned helplessly around it. Even getting to the grass would scarcely have saved it: the piece of turf was only millimetres above the water and ripples often went over it. Then I lost patience. I took a long horsetail and extended it to the butterfly: it clung on. I lifted it ashore and put it down on the grass.
Evening is coming. The land and the forest meet
the big cool silence that is disturbed
only by the buzz of gnats and the warning cry of a nightingale
from the bushes near our sauna. I come back from the garden
through chill alternating with warm: it's reminding me
of summers in childhood when I cycled
through similar waves of cold and warmth,
through the smell of pine trees and strawberries. Childhood.
No, I'd never like to get it back.
There was a shadow lying on my childhood. I have always
fled this shadow, I am fleeing it even now,
although I feel that when I'm finally out of its reach
there will be only a void, a cool voiceless void
with fluffs of pine bark, feathers and ourselves
caught in a dizzying vortex, a free fall
from night to morning, from morning to night.
It's raining again, and Estonia is cooling like a sauna, like a fireplace. The rain is cold. Big drops fall from the balcony above on the window box that stayed empty this summer. Grandmother was too weak to grow flowers in the box as she had done every year, and she complained more and more. This summer she spent a couple of weeks in the countryside at her cousin's, she even wrote us a letter from there, but then we got a message that she had fallen very ill. She was taken to the hospital in town, and they had found she had a large intestinal cancer. She never recovered from surgery but lived some days in a high fever, in a mental twilight speaking in a loud voice to her dead relatives, as if they had come to take her. Maybe they really had, maybe she saw something we couldn't see. But we could never ask her about that.
The centre of the world is here, in Manchester.
I carry it with me
as we all do. The centre of the world
pierces me, the way a pin
pierces the body of an insect.
The centre of the world
is the pain.
The clay god wants to come back to the scene of history.
He never smiles. Nobody must see that his teeth too are made of clay, thus even his smile is a clay smile. And his tears would be tears of clay, but he can't weep, the tears would melt furrows into his face and breast. He feels safer at the time of drought and bitter cold when the air is dry. When it's raining or thaws he doesn't go out. He is afraid of water but not fire. In fire he can become harder and more ruthless, more god-like.
I prefer the wooden god. He is born of air, sun and water. He is afraid of fire: in fire he burns, dissolves into air and water, maybe even into sun: we cannot be sure of that.
A cloudy afternoon in late autumn. We're driving over a viaduct, the car shakes a couple of times when is goes over the joins. It's sultry and misty. Soon it'll be getting dark. Suddenly I see snowflakes, one after another, falling on the windscreen. I'm as happy as if I'd seen a miracle. In a sense, it is a miracle, although we'll have no real snowfall either here nor in the countryside, where we'll arrive in half an hour to fetch carrots and apples. The feeling of a miracle having taken place will be with me on my way to our country home and back to town, and it won't vanish even in the petty doings of tomorrow; maybe only in the Parliament, though perhaps something of it will remain. Maybe it's a vision, as if a little god were pricking a pin through a grey condom put on reality by another, old and sulky god. Now there's a hole in the condom, and through the hole we can see something that could be a distant star or a spermatozoid glowing in distant light.
My poems often aren't poems; they're parts of a long declaration of love to the world, a long poetic list of people and things I love. When I was young I was fond of my thoughts, my feelings, my despair, my longing and joy. I came to this world like a hot air balloon, a big and multi-coloured balloon that covered everything up. With the years the balloon has cooled down, shrunk, and I see more and more of other things, I see simply what is. This SIMPLY WHAT IS has always seemed odd to me. Sometimes I feel this oddity as elevated, sometimes it's simply funny. This feeling of oddity has never disappeared. It's probably deeper and more self-conscious than ever.
The wall clock was made in Valga in 1902, and it's still going quite well. It could even strike, if I had a chain for the other weight. But I don't believe I could get accustomed to a wall clock that struck hours. Now its showing 11. It's December 31st, 1992. As often before, I am writing something in the last hour of the year. I'm not sure I would like to call it a poem. It's not taking much time, and the emotional atmosphere of the last hour of the year suits writing well.The ticktock of the old clock suits this atmosphere well too. I think that maybe the dead clockmaker from Valga is sending his greetings to me and my family this way. I can't do the same to him.
Less and less space for flying. I don't know whether my wings have grown longer or the walls and ceiling of this room have shrunk, so that my left wing nearly touches the wall to my left and my right wing the wall to my right. And when I rise a little my head touches the ceiling and my hair get chalky. It's good that I have grey hair, otherwise a glance at my head would show how little spaceI have left. At the moment you can probably only see it only from my eyes, but it's not our custom to look into the eyes of other people, especially on New Year's Eve when all the cats and all eyes are grey in the same way.
There are animals who mark their tracks and territories with urine - mice, dogs and cats. Probably the smell of urine is'nt disgusting to them. As it probably is to us humans: we are a different kind of animal. We are animals who don't want to step on the tracks marked by others or to recognize frontiers marked by others. Maybe our need to discover and to create something new is simply a result of our revulsion at the smells of urine and sweat and an urge to change our shelters all the time. We're nomads by blood: our real home would be a hut woven of leaves with a fire burning in front of it. We spend the night in such a shade in order to go on next morning, to go on to places where no foot has yet stepped, no thought yet reached, to places where there's still no smell of man, only the smell of flowing water, flowers, birds and moist earth. Maybe it really has been like that, maybe what I am writing here comes from an ancient tropical memory living in our genes, in the depths of our brain, something that has happened so many times that it cannot simply disappear. A hut woven of leaves under a huge tree, the chirping and shrieking of night birds and insects, night wind in the tree tops high above us, a bunch of half-naked people, some sleeping children. Somebody humming a wordless song. Somewhere in the North far from us the glaciers are advancing, but we don't know it. We don't know what the ice looks like and we don't know much about the sea either - we've heard of the big bitter water where some fish are as big as several elephants, and some are small, but they can fly. Now and then we tell our children stories of these strange fish and this bitter water as our parents and grandparents told us.
More and more empty words, the tricolour under grey clouds, some music, new ways of saying and doing things. You bow, smile, thank, ask questions, vote. But deep inside you a little child's voice is shouting louder and louder: "How did I get here?"
Is it your home or a place of punishment, an alien bleak piece of land set against an alien bleak sea, an alien language and alien people to whom you must return again and again from dreams where you could be on these islands, in China, in Greece, in the West Coast cedar forests? We bow, we smile, we thank, we ask questions. The phone rings, you are caught by the phone line like a fish by a hook. Was it you somebody wanted to catch or are you just a bait for somebody bigger and more important who lives here on this bleak land, in this bleak sea and who is lured out of the depths by your story, your poem or simply by your despair.
The year's half over. In the room downstairs
the radio is playing rock music.
The vacation has arrived. For half a year
I thought: in summer I'll write poems. Now
I'm sitting here and once again
the white moth comes into my mind.
The moth flew around the birch tree last night
and I felt I could write a poem about it; I felt
that what I would write about this evening,
this birch and this moth,
would be a poem. Maybe the moth
was just a sign, a sign of something
far away, higher and deeper,
as a couple of times before. A signal:
somebody has escaped, takes wing,
Branches swaying in night wind. A poem.
I saw something white far away at the roadside. At first I took it for a bike, then I realized that it was just a bunch of white umbelliferae . For the whole morning I had tried to read a poem by Ruan Ji, but with little success. There were too many words there meaning sadness, sorrow, pain and trouble. It seems that there are dozens of such words in Chinese: it certainly means that the Chinese had a sophisticated culture of mourning and grieving. Early in the day the sun was shining, then grey clouds began rising from the North, and it got chilly, with drizzle trom time to time. I felt nearly as sad as the Chinese poet who lived 1700 years ago. But I know from my own experience that a certain kind of sadness is connected with the birth or rebirth of your poetic gift. It is painful: the poems are not born easily, they always break something in you, rip you apart, take away a piece of your flesh, leaving a scar like those you have from falling from the bike on stony road or cutting your finger with a knife.
The weather changed overnight. The clouds that were like grey wolves have changed into white sheep, creeping innocently up from behind the spruce hedge that leads to the neighbour's oat field. The granary roof that had turned nearly black with rain is drying up and becoming light grey again. I wanted to do nothing but simply to be and walk around in the midst of this summer which had finally come. We always feel it's too short, we have too little of it. Everything is suddenly clearer, is open, turned outside, towards others, towards the clouds, towards light. I stood on the jetty, closed my eyes and listened to the voices of summer - the forest was murmuring , the aspen leaves were rustling, and a late finch was singing in the alder grove. A school of tiny carp swam in the pond and a frog was quacking on the bank. I thought that I would like to be like these frogs: I would lie half the day in water and croak now and then. But one thought wouldn't let me go. A summer thought, a summer poem was striving, was climbing higher and higher, believing that it would soon reach a surface, a wall. A thought that summer is like a huge glass bell around us and above us, catching all our voices and giving them a clearer sound.
Summer is a piece of our phylogenetic childhood that we are carrying with us as a deep dim memory. We don't go back to Africa where we come from, as swallows and storks do. But once a year Africa comes here, meets us here. The summer comes to us like the great Psychoanalyst, a phylogenetic Freud. It is like a great wizard, it makes wonderful things - teaches fledgelings to fly, transforms newts into real frogs and the meadow into a huge flowerbed. On some still, warm mornings it can even transform us into somebody more human, I dare not say whether it means we become more ourselves. But in a mild summer evening it doesn't mean much.
My eyesight's weakening. I don't see the plants in the lawn my feet as sharply as before. And always I have the feeling that I haven't seen them enough. I would like to look, to see them with more reality, more in-depth; to look this patch of lawn, this knotgrass, this clover, these Alchemillas, these Plantagos, these dandelions into myself. Or to look myself into them, to be for a while a stem of grass, a winding stem of vetch, a blossom of white clover bending under the weight of a black bumblebee.
I think I am simply afraid. I am afraid that still I don't see all this with enough reality, so that I could take a patch of the lawn with me into the time when my eyes will see no more. In fact, I would like to take something of all this Over There, to the other side. I am afraid that, once there, I will have little left other than words, sentences and thoughts, but no leaves of grass, no patch of lawn with dead oak leaves from last summer, no bumblebee in flight and no chirping of the grasshoppers announcing midsummer.
I have went through this world like a tourist through a museum. I have tried to glean something from these thousands of displays, to keep something essential in mind. But after the visiting time is over and the warden says that the museum is closing, there will be hopelessly little I can remember. And lying there in an empty hotel room I'll think that during my whole life I have been unhappily in love with this wonderful world we have to hurry through. It's because of this unhappy love I want to get something of my own, to buy something really belonging to myself. As a man unable to win the love of a woman tries to turn her into his possession. But he too will finally have only an empty hotel room and a memory where the words, sentences and thoughts have eaten up, forced out all the clover blossoms, Althaea leaves and the chirping of the first grasshoppers, where his eyes cannot recall the flowering of white clover or the curve of female hips, he hoped was a gateway to another, more real world.
The world is a single event.
The events have no beginning and no end.
The wind moves the oak leaves.
The oak leaves move in the wind.
In fact, there's no border
between the oak leaves and the wind,
no difference between the wind and the leaves and twigs
it moves, between the wind and this windy day
when the weather's changing and for an instant
you understand the oneness of the leaves and the wind
and a little green beetle
tumbles from the oak into you hair.
Through the morning dreams, morning haze
the raindrops drumming on the shutters
and the cock-a-doodle doo of a rooster in the next street
touch the very bottom of your memory,
recalling the warm mornings of your childhood.
Eternity has many shapes and voices.
From time to time, it reminds you of itself
in a raindrop, a cock-a-doodle-doo or the lilac aroma
between dreaming and waking, between two dreams:
and what we call space and time
suddenly lose their meaning, turn into a rooster's crow
or a stream glimmering in morning sun
and vanishes as the haze vanishes in daylight
and the night dreams in daydreams.
I opened the Russian-Chinese dictionary -
there, between two pages was a tiny insect.
It spread its wings and flew away .
I lost sight of it, maybe
it's still struggling on the window pane
or has died there as so many insects or succeeded
in getting out into the open. Like some of us.
For a while I wondered if it couldn't have been
a word, a sign from the dictionary
which had had enough and wanted to become
something else, something more than a sign,
a hieroglyph under the cold glass covers
of this world, of this life.
It could have been thus. Yesterday
a million and a half years ago
far in the south an ancestor
halted on a dry slope
and suddenly heard in the chirping of the grasshoppers
a little voice that burst the closed space
both inside and outside him.
The animal fell apart, and the naked ape
who didn't yet know it was a human being
looked around, and understood that something
had changed. It understood
that it had understood something,
although for a million and a half years
it has been unable to explain it to others.
Suddenly, everything silent. No leaves stirring,
Not ven flies buzzing around you.
A lonely swallow high overhead.
The clouds have dispersed, fled behind the horizon.
I read old Chinese songs half the day,
then we gathered the dry hay into stacks. I'm standing on the stairs
looking and hearing how colours
begin to change in the silence: the blue
gets darker and deeper,
the yellow gets brighter, lights up, as it were afraid
that it cannot survive the approaching night.
I am looking at this all with the eyes of long-dead poets,
and speaking with their words.
Tallinn is cold as the whole of Estonia.
I put on warm underwear, woollen socks
and a heavy Irish sweater.
With a numb hand I try to write,
giving myself consolation: the heart's still warm
and abroad they say warm words
about Estonian economy and its future.
When do these warm words reach
the people who are too poor to buy meat,
to buy an electric heater and pay for hot water?
The thought is moving sluggishly
as a lizard in a frosty morning
or an autumn fly on the north window.
We go shivering towards the rosy future
together with late lizards and flies,
with new Kurdish refugees,
their unborn babies and their poems
somewhere in a past or future prison.
I don't have a land or a sky of my own.
I only have a little white cloud,
which I met once as a schoolboy
lying in the courtyard on a pile of twigs
looking into the sky - there were martins
and clouds: this one, my only one too.
I would recognize it today too,
through all the transformations,
if I only had time just to lie there
idly on a pile of twigs in the courtyard.
The whole town is covered with ice: streets, trees, cars, stairway handrails, lanterns. The footprints too that people left on the paths a couple of days ago, when it was still warm, are covered with ice too. If there's no big thaw the footprints will stay there for a long time, maybe even until Spring. Maybe they will outlive some people who left them there in wet snow or mud. When it thaws the footprints will spread, get less distinct, but won't vanish completely. Now they aren't footprints of concrete persons, but footprints of mankind telling us of liberty, fraternity and equality. Free, fraternal and equal they will remain under the snow and melt and vanish only in spring. The water flowing in a gutter or evaporating in sunshine knows and remembers nothing of them.
Estonian original published in 1995
Translated by the author with Fiona Sampson