Soovinirs

by Harvey Hix

Rather than narrating my encounters with Estonia according to some contrived plot, or explicating them in subordination to a thesis to be proven, I have tried here to grow a form organically from the experiences themselves. Thus for a title I have coined a word, taken half from Estonian and half from English. The Estonian verb soovima means to wish, and among its other uses may function in greetings, as when wishing someone safe travel or good health. The English noun souvenir names a keepsake from a place one has visited. To make the following list of soovinirs I have paired a dozen scenes from Estonia’s land and people with a dozen fragments of Estonian culture. These are some of the keepsakes I treasure from those Estonia has given me, and I intend the recording itself as a well-wishing toward Estonia.
·    In the bay that looks out from Hiiumaa toward the smaller nearby island of Kassari, swans. Bathers diving off of rocks and off of one another’s shoulders.
Spoken Estonian: the richness and subtlety of its vowels; the rhythm created by the varied length of its phonemes; the mysterious, musical sound it has to American ears.
·    Narrow, steep stone stairways curving between buildings toward the square in old Tallinn. Wooden doors to restaurants and shops, three feet below ground level. Gutter spouts on the city hall building painted like dragons’ heads.
The joy of engaging a language first through collaborating on the translation of poetry. Having started with the skeleton in learning Latin and Greek, where I was taught declensions and conjugations first, so that I can say hic haec hoc all the way through to this day but can no longer read Horace, and having started with the clothing in learning German and French, so that I can still greet the conductor at the Hauptbahnhof with Guten Morgen! or Guten Abend! according to the time of day, but not ask directions to the youth hostel, it was a delight to start Estonian with the heart, learning as my first words armastus (love) and surm (death).
·    An elderly woman in Tallinn, resting on a bench at a small park near a statue whose inscription has been sandblasted, her feet out of her sandals, flexing her toes and watching one foot rub the other, then brushing lint from her dress.
Juhan Viiding’s Song to Edgar Allan Poe, which, calling to mind Socrates’ expectation that he would meet and converse with the great intellects and heroes and citizens of the past, confirms that regardless of what separates them – centuries, prison walls, an ocean, a language – one soul can still speak, always, to another.
·    In the Kadriorg Palace during its renovation, small squares scraped to reveal the various layers of paint, and grooves dug in the plaster for new wiring.
The filmmaker whose second job was to tend the museum at the Kadriorg Palace, interrupted by my companions and me during his reading of the Sunday newspaper, who invited us in and gave us a tour of the portion being renovated.
·    Street signs in Estonian. Manhole covers that still carry their Cyrillic characters.
The ironies that pervade Hando Runnel’s poem In Defense of the Sad: that a happiness free of sadness is no happiness at all; that the only city one could found would enforce happiness; that enforcing happiness causes sadness; that defending the sad causes happiness; and so on. The way Runnel’s poem reminds me of a poem, After Bach, by the recently deceased American poet William Bronk, that begins, “In the cello suites we learn the way despair,/ deepest sadness, can and must be phrased/ as praise, thanksgiving.”
·    On Hiiumaa, swatting mosquitoes on the walk through the forest to the Kukka kivi, then giving up and running to avoid the mosquitoes on the way out of the woods. Seeing from the top of the Tahkuna lighthouse what I initially mistook for small whales feeding near the shore, but soon recognized as rocks near enough the surface that the waves splashing over them looked from that vantage like whales spouting.
The kindness and dignity within the literary community in Estonia that led, though I had nothing of value to offer in return for the time and energy of the poets I queried in my research, to cordial and helpful replies from some of the most important figures in Estonia’s literary and cultural life, including Doris Kareva, Jaan Kaplinski, and Jüri Talvet.
·    The neatly trimmed gravesites in the churchyard at Pihla on Hiiumaa, many planted with beautiful annuals. The grave of Willem and Aliine Jõeleht, with its single headstone, and its plot bordered by large rocks, covered with sand and planted with hostas. At the corner opposite the headstone, a large pot planted with purple marigolds. Beside the headstone, a small fir, no doubt planted at Aliine’s death in 1990.
Honor to the memory of a loved one in Ene Mihkelson’s poem Our old good grandmother has died, depicting a person’s life continuing past death not as itself, but in other forms. “In spring it rises,” Mihkelson says, “as grass a flower the sun.” The poem’s stark and haunting imperative: “If you have a memory write it down / If you have a memory of a memory / write it too."
·    A German artillery bunker on Hiiumaa with its cannons gone but its long cannonball chutes, like old-fashioned bowling-ball ramps, still in place.
The internationalism of Estonian poetry, which prevented my meeting Jüri Talvet, the poet with whom I have collaborated on translating Estonian poetry into English, on my first trip because he was in Barcelona while I was in Tartu.
•   The eyes of the young attendant in charge of bread at the toidupood under the hotel in Tallinn, and her slender fingers tallying the total on an abacus. The smile of the older attendant weighing out butter, and her thick fingers wrapping the slabs in butcher paper.
    The amphitheater in Tallinn, still echoing after the song festival I arrived one week too late to hear. The stone shell of the Pirita convent, open to heaven like the prayer of a mystic.
•    On the road between Tallinn and Tartu, countless trucks loaded with logs.
    Jaan Kaplinski’s I Saw Yunichiro to Tallinn, which mentions the Japanese word satori (understanding), but which embodies a Japanese word it does not mention: yugen, a hidden quality of graceful beauty or mystery. The poem itself almost becomes a Noh play, paying homage in its very form and manner to the speaker’s guest.
•    A sparrow-sized yellow-bellied bird, visiting my bench as I sat facing the Emajõgi in Tartu. Silver-green leaves on the willows.
    Encountering Estonia on professional terms, which means through research support that connects Estonia in my mind inseparably to its poetry, but which also means visits in the summer that let me pretend Estonia is a land of perpetual mild weather, bright sunshine, and flowers.
•    An old man, out for a walk along the river in Tartu, pausing to rest for ten minutes a few meters away, leaning his cane against the bench, his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped, resting on his journey as I was resting on mine, staring in the same direction I was staring, then rising and walking slowly on, passing me without a gesture or eye contact, not from rudeness but from solidarity, sharing silence.
    Jüri Talvet’s poem, Estonian Elegy, which commemorates the tragic wreck in September 1994 of a ferry carrying 900 passengers on the Baltic Sea, the poem’s refrain, “No, it cannot be true,” summarizing the profound grief of a nation whose hopes in its still nascent freedom were injured by so incomprehensible a tragedy. More than a requiem for the dreams of a newly reborn people, Estonian Elegy also reminds its readers that (as Camus puts it in The Plague) “there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” In the middle of the death of hundreds of individual humans occurred the one thing that can forestall the death of the whole human race: “an Estonian stretched his hand to a drowning Russian,/... a dry Swede from his scraggy breast/withdrew warmth to tender it to a freezing Estonian.”


    Such rich, unforgettable gifts has Estonia given me. Accept this token in return.
   


Professor Hix teaches philosophy at the Kansas City Art Institute