THE BALTIC QUINTET: Poems from Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden

edited by Edita Page
translated by Inara Cedrins, Eric Dickens, Herbert Lomas, and Edita Page
Wolsak and Wynn ($25)

by Amy Groshek

It's easy to describe the seasonal changes one experiences when living in a circumpolar climate, but difficult to convey the impact of such changes on the psyche. One can describe the maritime chill and palpable darkness of an Alaska winter; far more difficult to explain the platitude of 2:00 p.m. streetlights, the freedom of interpretation implicit in a red traffic light hung over an intersection which, for six months of the year, is rutted ice. In The Baltic Quintet: Poems from Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden, one finds this same intimate, self-conscious relationship with the natural world—and some sense of its elusive milieu.

“For twentieth-century Lithuanian poets,” writes the collection's editor, Edita Page, “nature has never been neutral, it has been their spiritual doppelgänger, their spiritual being, their conscience.” This seems to hold true not just for Lithuanians, but for every nationality in the anthology, though there are various applications for such content. In the hands of Finnish poet Saila Susiluoto, nature is a thing which overtakes, transforms, and alienates. In “Wolf Tale,” for example, a woman believes she has been transformed into a wolf, causing her husband to reject her:

I lay awake every night, she
whispers, and I pressed my hands on my ears to stop them
changing again.

A tongue-in-cheek conclusion, fortunately, is not lost on what might otherwise have become a mystical feminist treatise. “Have I got the ears,” the wife asks. “No,” replies the husband, “nor a head either.” Another such common-sense quip appears in Swede Lars Huldén's “Loving one's native soil.” His predominant whimsicality is reminiscent of Polish poets Wisława Szymborska and Tadeusz Różewicz:

Your native soil will kill you
without the slightest compunction.
Climb a tree and jump . . .

There is also the natural imagery of the esoteric or spiritual lyric, more familiar to North Americans, as exemplified by Estonian Doris Kareva: “Grazing land shades into dawn, / chill. Pulling my coat flaps across. / Will you come too?” Many such gestures appear in The Baltic Quintet, for the most part indistinguishable from their equivalents on this side of the ocean. If, in this anthology, depictions of nature know no national boundaries, neither do contemporary aesthetics.

But rather than dwell on images of nature, let's ask the set of questions which we hold, spoken or unspoken, for states which existed for five decades either under or in the shadow of Soviet occupation: what was it like to compose a poem, or a book of poems, as did Latvian Pēters Brūveris, only to see it censored and never published? What exactly has independence offered? How easy, or how difficult, has it been to move on? Three of the five nations featured in this anthology were part of the Soviet Union, and Finland was required, for decades, to maintain a precarious economic relationship with the USSR. So it seems strange that only two poets in twenty, both Estonian, are credited with poems which refer to a Soviet past.

The elder of these is Hasso Krull, and the sociological and political landscape he portrays in “A Trip to the Country of the Mari” is riveting. Mari is a Finnish language spoken by inhabitants of the Mari El Republic of the Russian Federation. Krull's journeys in post-Soviet Russia are recorded in spare lines, and politics holds a primary but unforced position:

war makes the people rich
said Andrei that evening


somewhere a pig was rooting
one star stopped above the narrow yard
I had tried to explain
that producing weapons makes you poor

Krull's sense of the land is innately politicized. Looking onto the banks of the Volga, the speaker's instinct is empathetic: “this land has so long / found it hard to be Russia.”

Near the end of the poem, Krull records an old woman leading two goats, perhaps alluding to Tadeusz Różewicz's “In the Midst of Life.” The speaker's companion yells “how much does a goat cost” to the woman, but the speaker has his own, very different, idea:

dear old woman
never sell one goat to anybody

teach them to eat
weapons and rockets

and bite painfully all
those that boss them and make them toil

If this poem is indeed a revision of Różewicz's, the revision is a somewhat ambivalent acquittal of anti-establishment violence, a dispassionate regression from the heroic effort of rehumanization Różewicz's poem depicts. Overall, Krull's appeal is an ethical one, his nature aestheticized only in the embodiment of humanity's oft-failed obligations. The rest of the collection is worth reading merely as a contextualization of his work.

Krull's “Trip” is soft-spoken and apolitical when compared with the fiery allusions of Elo Viiding. Born in 1974, she is the youngest poet in The Baltic Quintet, but her work features mass graves, bodies thrown into bogs, and a family home “now the property of the state.” In one poem, she evokes Soviet-enforced quietism, asking, “do you want to live or dying / be submissively witnessed against.” “The law,” Viiding writes in “The Snow-Woman,”

has to be binding—on the ground
snow must fall.
Snow must fall on the ground on your father and mother,
on your sisters and brothers, your home—your body

Does Viiding's work read to Estonians as painfully necessary or sensationalist? Can the North American reader trust his or her own fascination with post-Soviet references? Regardless, the fusion of natural and human interests utilized by Viiding and Krull is noteworthy because, as we have been learning, our world does come with an ethical balance sheet—however esoteric—which neither governments, nor economies, nor the natural world escapes.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2008/2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008/2009