Debora Vaarandi’s fame is local. And much more controversial. The younger generation can be snitty about peons of praise for Stalin but Vaarandi’s life was close to that of the average Estonian of the last generation. Not many of us are s/heroes and most of us make compromises. Ten years had passed since the death of Stalin by the time Vaarandi wrote (in Maanteel, On the Highway) a sentiment that expressed the wish of many …
Kui elupuud raiuti, lendasid elavad laastud ja iga kild kisendas kirve all.
Seda peab unustama // iga päev uuesti
(When the tree of life is hacked
The living flakes fly
And every fragment screams
Under the axe.
This must be forgotten
Every day anew)
Maybe it was the zeitgeist. When I read these lines I thought immediately of a small verse by Betti Alver, another tremendous poetess, but one who, like Kross, was repressed. In Algav päev, The Beginning of the Day, (1965), Alver asks
Miks, algav päev, on argi-// päev su nimeks?// Ma kuulutan su sekundi// kõik imeks// täis iluehmatust ka täna hommikul
(Why, new day, are you called a workday?
all your moments are a miracle, I say,
full of startling beauty. Good morning!)
Debora Vaarandi was born in Võru where her father worked for the post office but the family had links with Saaremaa island where her parents acquired a smallholding, eked out a living and where Debora went to school. In 1936 she went to the University of Tartu to study language and literature. Like Jaan Kross, she began to publish at this time. Unlike Kross, however, Vaarandi worked for the left wing press. Although her family was not immune from the deportations (an uncle’s family was sent to ’the cold land’) she joined the Communist party in 1940 when the Germans invaded. She was evacuated to safety in the depths of Russia where she worked on propaganda with a group of other young Estonian writers.
In 1944 Vaarandi returned to Estonia via Leningrad (now St Petersburg). Whilst there she was one of a team that sought out the grave of Lydia Koidula (1843-1886), the much loved, enormously important poetess of the Estonian National Awakening. Vaarandi writes ‘This forlorn place [the cemetery was neglected and damaged by shelling] must not have seen such joy and enthusiasm as ours in a long time. The whites of Ants Lauter’s eyes flash behind his hair [later artistic director of the Estonia theatre] as he works away. We handle the earth as if it is a source of strength for our hands. Artists are sketching. Gustav Ernesaks [the conductor and composer, the major figure of the Song Festival in Soviet Estonia] has asked me to write a poem dedicated to Koidula. And then he takes a few steps back. I see him standing under a young willow, pacing to and fro. He nods to me with light, bright eyes. A melody for a new song has been born. At Koidula’s feet an oak tree is growing, spreading it’s leafy branches low over the grave, as it grows ever more beautiful. Someone is fetching turf and Adamson-Eric [painter and sculptor] is arranging flowers’.
Leading literary figure
Vaarandi was a leading literary figure after the war. Her first collection, Põleva laotuse all , ‘Under a Blazing Sky’, was published in 1946, with experiments with Soviet epic style and didactic content - the dying back of the war, reconstruction, the draining of the swamps, the setting up of the collective farms.
But it was with the poem Lihtsad asjad, ‘Simple Things’ (from the 1959 collection Unistaja aknal, ‘The Dreamer at the Window’) that Vaarandi enters into the realm of greatness and begins half a century of popularity in her native land. Written in the period of the Khrushchev ‘thaw’, ‘it has been considered,’ says Janika Kronberg, ‘a milestone in the renewal of Estonian poetry’. Lihtsad asjad is a turning away, a reaction to the exposures of Stalinist excess, from monumental rhetoric to the intimate and personal. Its tone is melancholic and reflective but the poetess remains true to her ideas and a hope of regeneration. What it is not possible to convey is the beautiful sound of the poems, what Kronberg calls ‘the musicality of her texts’. Vaarandi’s is both literally and figuratively a lyrical voice, a gift that makes the Estonian language sing. Many of her works have actually been set to music, not least of all the enormously popular 1946 Saaremaa valss, ‘Saaremaa Waltz’, with music by the jazz composer Raymond Valgre. It is irresistibly cheerful and written, ironically, when the poetess was recovering from TB and in the middle of one of her two divorces.
Since the end of the 1950s Debora Vaarandi's work was, without exception, centered on what she (and many others) perceived as common Estonian values – a love of nature, the value of family relationships, the beauty of the small (‘small is beautiful’). Vaarandi, as a member of the literary establishment, always wrote directly about the fate of her country and people, something that Kross, as a dissident and non-believer could not do. But Vaarandi was no toady. She distanced herself from Soviet Russian chauvinism during the 1960s; Estonian identity is explored in a scenario where the poet seeks and calls for kindred spirits - kes otsib ja eksib ja hõikab teist sarnast inimlast (Rannalageda leib , ‘The Bread of the Sea Shore’, 1965) . A new keyword ‘Nordic’ appears. Unlike many of the mainstream establishment Vaarandi encouraged and welcomed a new generation of poets - Paul-Eerik Rummo, Mats Traat and Enn Vetemaa included - and is remembered warmly by them.
The 1970s is marked by strong reactions to the growth of loss of sovereignty to Moscow, the erosion of ‘Estonian community’ during the Brezhnev ‘stagnation’ and a ‘green’ concern for the threat to delicate habitats, especially the islands. Stylistically, there is an ever-developing move away from the simple narrative verses of Saaremaa valss .
Complex approach to life
A more complex approach to life is expressed in suitably complex poetic form - a fascinating collage of rhyme and free verse. A very tricky combo for a translator – what is accident and what design? She took her farewell to poetry in Tuule valgel, In the Light of the Wind (1977), written when the poetess was 61, writing, in the last line of the last poem, ‘the linden in the garden still sways, but I have passed the gate’.
After 1977 Vaarandi concentrated on translation of the Russian Anna Amative and Finns Georg Traki, and Edith Södergran. She won the Finnish Order of the White Rose in recognition of the fact that she was, after WWII, the most consistent translator of Finnish poetry into Estonian. I have her tantalizing book of Edith Södergran poems awaiting attention. Vaarandi continued to be honoured by Estonia after the fall of the USSR. In 2005 she was given the Cultural Award of the Republic of Estonia for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement.
Reviewing, in 2000, the retrospective collection See kauge hääl, ‘This Far Off Voice ‘ critic Kronberg called Debora Vaarandi ‘the grand old lady of Estonian poetry.’ Her work and radiant personality … ‘ make her an important part of the tradition of great Estonian poetesses begun by Lydia Koidula. In her verses, manifesting “the roaring falls of my blood,” critics have found close parallels, foremost with Marie Under, the best-known and most translated Estonian poetess.’
Finally the best acknowledgment’ of Vaarandi’s work, according to Janika Kronberg and ‘B. Droppings’ is offered by Viivi Luik (b1946) ‘In Estonian poetry Debora Vaarandi personifies the rough open seas; banners, flames and fire in heavy biblical clouds. Vaarandi’s open spaces do not suggest daydreaming. They are rolling and tremendous, we can truly believe that over the horizon are great hosts, flags flying. Whole nations are on the move with their tents and camels, columns of soldiers are on the march, fires burst out, revolutions are kindled and new eras are born. …but the inescapable, wise and penetrating eyes of the poet always follow us between the lines’. Amen.
And here is Lihtsad asjad, Simple Things (1957)
I turn to simple things,
I incline to simple goodness ……………
From the far off light of eternal stars
flows a stream of tenderness
The sea soughs and engulfs the fire
of a crooked juniper stump.
Through the night, through the night, one and all
sense the rolling of the waves!
To lie in the dew of the grass and to feel
the land alive, fragile.
Listen my friend, to the song of childhood,
homely as a cowbell.
Look, how beautifully the pear tree grows,
The one that father planted,
in the ravaged green garden, in the derelict home…..
Nearby, a late flower
like a single tear of emotion
sways and wilts in the wind.
In Autumn I listen with pleasure
to the sad, mellow whispers of the fields …..
Often weak in the face of temptation
silent, thinking that my love is the love of home,
I think, that my brother’s hair grows gray,
And he has more need of his sister.
I know that the night has it’s own joys,
As simple as the water in a basin,
That mother uses to wash your scratched legs
Before putting you to bed ……………….
I turn to simple things,
I incline to simple goodness ……………
When the pressure of difficult thoughts
Weigh upon me with lead heaviness………………
I walked along with the bright thought of love
As if supported by a rail,
listening to the silent birth of spring,
in a time of bitter doubt.
Listening to the silent birth of spring,
feeding the great tits at the window,
travelling in the pages of books,
patient, thoughtful, quiet.
I am drawing new frontiers,
New boundaries and plains.
I know that it is not possible to turn away
from a cherished, difficult life.
Simple things give me the strength
To ask, to urge, to intercede,
to respond to the calls of unquiet days,
that command what I can do, and need!
I know, that to grow strong
I must hold my breath while the storm screeches.
And yet I love the storm and hold in contempt
The foam thrown back upon the beaches.
And yet I love the highway grit
Although it chafes my legs.
I love the song that grows and resounds
in all the corners of the world.
Requiescat In Pace, Jaan Kross (19.11.1920- 27.12.2007) and Debora Vaarandi(18.10.1916 – 28.4.2007).
Bird Droppings from Estonia: Debora Vaarandi (1916-2007) (3)