I’d been talking – what about, I don’t remember. I was still speaking but it was as if I could not hear myself – as if my voice was being drowned out by… what? The room was quiet. No one interrupted, but… Silence, that was it – a particular silence of which I was, momentarily, afraid.
This was a quarter of a century ago, in Tallinn, not long after Estonia had slipped out of the bloc that we’d known as the East. Their exit was un-trumpeted, almost unspoken. If flags were waved, it was done rather quietly. Typically… I am tempted to say. For all my life that far, I had known Estonia as something present by its absence in my father’s life – the story of his childhood, his wartime flight, what happened to his family: that history of which he never spoke. It was, in fact, a silence.
Now I was there, in the country to which he had never returned. I was in a room of writers, editors and friends – most of them, it must be said, with shamingly good English, so my efforts at a few words of Estonian were a waste of time. I was being made welcome, wasn’t I? I thought I was. What I was hearing, though, was silence: nobody was filling and easing the spaces between sentences with nods, smiles and mutters of uh-huh, mmm, yes, aha. They were, I realised suddenly, just truly listening. I might not recall what I had just been saying, but I’d bet they did.
In that moment half my life fell into new perspective. All those years when my father had seemed distant, cool, maybe hiding anger or depression… what if he had been listening, speaking silence in a language that I did not understand?
Consider this limpid and yet strangely shifting lyric by Juhan Viiding, from 1978
in the cage of your heart there is silence
and a thousand-year-old bird
it can speak however it loves you
so it never says a word
I had grown up into the post-Sixties Britain, sure in the conviction that the age of free expression had come. We had encounter groups, new political movements, the end of censorship and old taboos: on all levels, silences were being broken. That had to be good. It was easy to see how countries like Estonia had been locked in silence, forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union – a fact that was only allowed to be spoken of in terms like ‘friendship’ and ‘brotherhood’. I could understand that Estonian poets might have needed that smoke-like subtlety by which the quiet mention of a tree, a flower, might code a meaning the official language did not permit.
This, though, was something deeper. Let’s not slip into ethnic type-casting by calling it the Estonian soul; rather, say that the non-verbal language of a culture, the language of the unspoken, might be as particular and as deeply ingrained as the spoken – and the cloudy swirlings of verbal Estonian, a language of with fourteen case-endings and up-for-grabs word order, are already quite difficult enough.
The silence Viiding speaks of is expansive, not constricting; profound but not heavy; above all, it is a gift. A gift of love. Ponder that.
The first Estonian poetry I really knew and grasped – partly because it was widely translated, deservedly so – was that of a Jaan Kaplinski. It lends itself to translation, with its open prose-like textures, its clear and specific speech.
I COULD HAVE SAID: I stepped from the bus.
I stood on the dusty roadside where
a young maple and dog-roses grew.
But really, I leaped into the silence,
and there was no land, no surface to step on.
The silence closed over my head:
I saw how the bus had just departed,
and sinking deeper and deeper
I heard only my own heart beating,
and in the rhythm of it, I saw my own street
passing with all its well-known signs:
lilies-of-the-valley and Equiseti Silvestres,
Oxalis nearly in flower,
an anthill covered by a brownish ripple –
the ants themselves. The Big Pine. The Big Spruce.
Stackpoles. The Sandhole. The fireplace.
The white trunks of birch trees. The Big Stone.
And many memories. Silence, the inland sea, –
what else could I name for you?
This is Kaplinski speaking as a Buddhist – not a dabbler in the Oriental but a scholar with deep learning in a range of languages. His words step lightly, over the thin ice of silence. But the world of the contingent, of the spoken, are not dismissed. The careful naming of the small close-up specifics is loving, childlike – either a child’s voice or, more like, the voice of the parent taking that walk with a child to whom all this is new, to whom it is a whole world, empathising with a viewpoint physically closer to the ground.
That kind of transaction between words and the ineffable is accessible and sympathetic to the (no, I won’t say ‘Anglo Saxon’) Western sensibility that is still grateful to the likes of William Carlos Williams for bringing poetry back to its senses from the world of high abstractions, and for whose young writers ‘show, don’t tell’ is still the safe default advice.
The dealing with underlying silence in Kaplinski is still a challenge, a good one — but it is well within reach. Through the medium of the concrete details, it translates.
At the other end of an expressive spectrum, and no less existentially ambitious, is Doris Kareva, also widely translated and appreciated, and most recently available in Britain through Bloodaxe’s new selected poems, Days of Grace. She would willingly describe herself as a mystic, and to counterpose this to the word ‘materialist’. Many of the experiences – ecstatic, sometimes – that inform her poems are beyond words, defiantly so. But this is poetry; it is (partly) made of words, and some of the language in translation sounds perilously close to the abstractions Ezra Pound told us to go in fear of – ones which would draw a sharp intake of breath from many a writing workshop: ‘you spin, speechless, | in cosmic solitude, in eternal inquiry | amid hollowness and wholeness, boundless being.’
I read this cautiously, and wonder first about translation. Even my small grasp of the language is enough to see that in the original Estonian there’s an elegant economy, a balancing of sound qualities, that even the best translation (and these poems are well served by a sensitive translator) has to try deliberately to get across. Part of the ‘silence’ that accompanies words is their heft, their intonation, their dynamics, their tone.
I wonder, too, about English itself. Our healthy distrust of a word like ‘soul’ or ‘dream’ is as culturally and historically specific as any accent, idiom or turn of phrase. The long binge of Romanticism left us with a hangover from which we are not quite recovered. Or rather, some words still feel twinges, with a combination of long overuse and of gradual detachment from specific meanings grounded in a common system of belief. That too is a sort – not a good one – of silence: to be too easily spoken yet to reach the reader without the cargo of meaning you set out with. A language like Estonian, ancient but only grown into a literary language in relatively recent times, might actually, and enviably, hold such words as tools not yet grown blunt with overuse.
Still, the poems in Days of Grace that get straight to me (there are many) use the medium of things to hint at a translation of the silence at their heart.
The scalpel and the metronome
on my father’s piano
kept silence between them
when I was a child.
Only now, given time,
have I started to hear
and to heed
their strange tales.
They trim time to a sliver.
Doris Kareva is well at home with the ineffable, but a poem like this touches the membrane between words and silence from the other side, at points as precise as fingertips. It makes me want to reach, materialist that I am, to touch those fingertips against the membrane from the other side.
A forest, a real one –
I could give you day, time,
map location, the coordinates between
the chance of a clearing and a cloud
that, passing, sets a shape of light
A Standing Form
of silence. Centuries
of rusty spruce-mulch underfoot
and a catch in the wind’s
as a heart beat
missed. A stillness in which if
a single thing falls, one dry needle
or this phenomenal
it would be
(in a way that in this
life we never are) entirely heard.
NOTES ON THIS ESSAY
Philip Gross’ recent collection, A Bright Acoustic (Bloodaxe, 2017) contained a sequence of some thirty poems called ‘Specific Instances of Silence’. The poem above is new, part of a conversation with Doris Kareva and with Estonian poetry.
The Juhan Viiding poem – English version attributed to several translators – appears in Tuulelaeval Valgusest On Aerud (Windship With Oars of Light), Huma, 2001
The Jaan Kaplinski comes from The Same Sea In Us All, and is available in his Selected Poems, trans. Sam Hamill, Fiona Sampson, Hilda Hawkins and Jaan Kaplinski, Bloodaxe, 2011.
Days of Grace: Selected Poems by Doris Kareva, trans Miriam McIlfatrick, is published by Bloodaxe, 2018.