Sunday, April 3, 2016

Marie Under—Estonia’s Poet Unveiled

Youthful Marie Under.

Yesterday we were proud to introduce the young Somali/British poet Warsan Shire.  Today we reach back in time and span geography to bring you the most acclaimed and widely published Estonian poet—Marie Under.  Not coincidently, she too became a refugee.  Despite her acclaim in her native country and throughout the neighboring Baltic nations and Eastern Europe, she is virtually unknown in most of the West, and nowhere is the profound ignorance of her work greater than in the U.S.  Let her be a reminder that all peoples have rich cultures and voices that should be heard.
Under was born on March 27, 1883 in Reval (modern Tallinn, the capital of Estonia), then part of the Tsarist Russian Empire.  Her father Fredrich was a school teacher and like her mother Leena considered themselves part of the intelegencia.  Marie was given the best education possible at a private German language school when studying at a German rather than Russian school was considered an act of defiance to the Empire.  She was an excellent student and mastered French and Russian as well.  She first drew public attention for translating Schiller and Goethe into Estonian.  Translations from several languages would be a large part of her work for the rest of her life.
A quite beautiful young woman, Under married accountant Carl Hacker in 1902.  The couple moved to Moscow for his career and they had two daughters.  Marie continued translating, but also wrote her own verse, at first mostly in German and in the Romantic style. 
But she grew restive in a boring marriage.  While in Moscow Under came met the first of several men who had deep impacts on her personal and creative life.  In 1904 she met and fell in love with Estonian artist Ants Laikmaa, a cultural nationalist who encouraged Under to begin writing seriously in her native language.  Estonian is a Finnic branch of the Uralic which do not belong to the Indo-European languages and is distantly related to Hungarian.  Laikmaa arranged for the first publication of her Estonian verse in radical newspapers and used her as a model in several paintings.  

The most famous of several portraits of Marie Under by her lover Ants Laikmaa.
In 1906 Under returned to Reval where she established a growing literary reputation.  She was greatly aided by Artur Adson, a young poet in his own right who became her private secretary and lover.  Adson helped Under get published and connected her to local literary movements.  He helped assemble her first book, Sonetid which was a collection of romantic sonnets, many of which were inspired by her passionate affair with Laikmaa. The book was published in 1917 and made Under a genuine celebrity for the first time.
Of course, 1917 was also the year of Revolution in Russia, events that would have a tumultuous impact on Under and Estonia.  In the wake of the Revolution and of the Soviet separate peace with Germany, Estonia asserted its independence in 1918.  It endured a German occupation, then a Russian invasion leading to the War of Independence.  The Russians were finally expelled but there was still spill-over from their Civil War and even an attempted take-over by former anti-Soviet ally the German Freikorps.  By 1920 Estonia was able to establish internationally recognized independence along with the other Baltic Nations, Latvia and Lithuania.  During this period Under was associated with the radical literary political movement Tarapita and contributed to its journal.
In 1920 Under published a second collection, Sinini Puri, with frank erotic verse and influenced a generation of Estonian Romantic poets.  She belonged to several literary clubs and societies promoting Estonian culture.  In 1922 she became a founding member of the Estonian Writers Union.

Second husband Artur Adson and Under.
Under finally obtained an official divorce from her first husband in 1922 and married her long-time collaborator Adson in 1927.  They lived together happily in the re-named Estonian capital of Tallinn.  Both pursed successful literary careers.  Under continued to write and publish her own poetry and was a very active translator.  Her own work became some of the first modern work in the isolated Estonian language to be translated and read beyond the country’s national borders.  Under’s personal friend, poet Igor Severyanin, an ethnic Russian exile living in Tallinn was the first to translate her into Russian.  Her work was also soon available in Finnish, German, French, and other translations.
In 1939 the Hitler-Stalin Pact shattered the relative tranquility of Unger’s life.  The Soviet Union occupied Estonia in June 1940 and formally annexed it as the Estonian SSR on August 6.  Soviet authorities immediately began a purge of Estonian nationalists and anti-communists.  In a brutal repression, thousands were rounded up and sent to Soviet labor camps.  Somehow under and her husband avoided being caught up in the sweep.
Like many Estonians, Under initially welcomed the Germans as a liberating force from the hated Russians when they turned on their erstwhile ally in July of 1941.  Estonian partisans known as the Forest Brothers collaborated with the Wehrmacht.  But when the Soviets were expelled the Nazis disarmed the Partisans and treated Estonia as a conquered nation.  They soon ramped up the Holocaust against Jews, Gypsies, Social Democrats, and other anti-Communists.  Once again Under and her husband escaped persecution, probably for her reputation as a translator of German culture.
But when the tide of war turned in 1944 and the Red Army once again invaded Estonia, Under knew that there would be no third chance.  She would be regarded as a collaborator and shot even though she had no part in government or in cultural relations under the Nazi puppet regime.  She and Adson narrowly escaped with their lives, fleeing by boat to neutral Sweden.
There they spent more than a year in refugee camps before being given Swedish asylum and allowed to make a home in Mälarhöjden, a suburb of Stockholm where the couple lived for the rest of their lives.  Both contributed to exile publications and their works were smuggled into the tightly controlled Estonian SSR and secretly passed from hand to hand.
Adson died on January 7, 1977 at the age of 87 and Under followed at age 97 on September 25, 1980.  They were buried together the Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm.  But last January, Under’s remains were repatriated to Estonia where she is regarded as a national heroine.  The family long-time home in Tallinn is now a literary museum.

A monument to Marie Under in Tallinn, Estonia.  


Ah, earthly life burns in a myriad splendours
Not even death’s dark hazard can destroy.
I yield, a willing prisoner, to joy;
I never sorted with discreet pretenders.
And as the shaken glaucous wave engenders
Spindrift, so my green falling silks deploy
A froth, and all is stripped to the last toy,
And, caught in ecstasy, my sense surrenders.

Why does the blossom wanton in the light,
The blue horizon lure me to its border?
My body too is of their bent and order:
My every nerve vibrates to rapt delight,
And I distrain my life of its last treasure
As if my mounting days had brimmed their measure.

—Marie Under


I cry aloud with all my people's mouths,
our land is smitten by a plague of fear and lead,
our land is shadowed by the gallows tree
our land   a common graveyard, huge with dead.

Who'll come to help? Right here, at present, now!
Because the patient's weak, has lost his hold.
But, like the call of birds, my shouting fades
in emptiness: the world is arrogant and cold.

The sighing of the old, the baby’s cry —
do they all run to sand, illusion, fail?
Men, women groan like wounded deer
to those in power all this is just a fairy-tale.

Dark is the world’s eye, its ear is deaf,
the powerful lost in madness or stupidity.
Compassion’s only felt by those whom suffering breaks,
and sufferers alone have hearts like you and me.

—Marie Under

Christmas Greetings, 1941

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 without mourning.

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

Alas, to have to live such stony instants,
to carry on one's heart a coffin lid!
Not even tears will come any more -
that gift of mercy has run out as well.

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.

—Marie Under


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