Poetry by Betti Alver

by Betti Alver

The Star-Bright Hour

The wind won’t ask: to what did life amount?
To yourself you’ll render your own account.

However long, however dark the night –
your forehead bears your name in plain sight.

Each leaf that sees the sunlight falls unknown
with all the rest. Yet each one falls alone.

No shining goal, no star to travel toward?
Go and see what is consumerism’s reward.

Do you know how kindness grows, unseen and gentle?
Why cruel deeds are never accidental?
Why helmets rust unless they bloom and flower?
Why life can never repeat its star-bright hour?
Why tiny flames withstood the snowstorm’s test
and flickered on within the human breast?

Go ask your betters, do their bidding.
Go ask the dead. And then go ask the living.

But never ask yesterday
for those who happened to stray
across the sandy marsh into pitch-black night.

It’s all the same to them – was it spite
that made the boatman take his chance
without a light, or was it happenstance?


Not a Dream


Not the dream of a disordered brain
or a victim’s soft tender shell –
but a colossally grand hotel
that’s my skeletal frame.

Stairways, lifts and doors leading in,
passageways, mirrors and halls.
I’m an intruder in my own skin,
and it all utterly appals.

The lights go out, the night revives.
Creeping like cats to their capers,
out come the guests with forged papers,
foreign tongues and razor-sharp knives.


Like chalk in my gullet, fear
shrivels up every cry of warning.
If only I could learn before morning
where, oh where, do we all go from here?



The Piper


When sober, Dad played music in a band.
He pressed a flute into my childish palm.
I learnt to read the music on his stand
and my soul bathed in wondrous soothing balm.
Soon my flute could weep or laugh or croon;
I was dragged off to play in some saloon
while Dad knocked back his shots of Scotch and water
and told his pals how much he loved his daughter.

His bar-room buddies buried dear old dad
and all his music books began to fade.
I went to school, the teachers said: too bad,
she’s plain and dull; I never made the grade.
When spring came round, I left the town.
Street kids robbed me, left me feeling down.
Bitterly I cried – no documents, no cash;
My hold on life had taken quite a crash.

I let them laugh, I bore each curse and blow
I lived on handouts and never had a job.
But when I made my flute sing sweet and low
in ecstasy my aching heart would throb.
The sun went down and in the fading light of day
they’d kick me out, but then they heard me play.
So once in a while God’s breath with gentle power
swept this earth and brought each note to flower.


Corals in an Ancient River

A shimmering rainbow’s high ridge
arched over the river that day.
We stood on the cast-iron bridge;
ahead lay your iron-paved way.

Time’s treasures have all lost their lustre,
God’s truth has a dull, lifeless glimmer;
but the river flows stronger and faster
where the beads of coral still shimmer.


From Tuulelaeval valgusest on aerud. Windship with Oars of Light. Estonian Modern Poetry, Huma, Tallinn 2001