Longing for the bosom of the rowan-tree: Viivi Luik

by Arne Merilai

Viivi Luik is one of the most treasured writers of contemporary Estonian literature. With her poetry, she addresses readers of her own mother-tongue from the depths of their history, language and culture, while her novels Seitsmes rahukevad (The Seventh Spring of Peace) and Ajaloo ilu (The Beauty of History) were published in a number of foreign countries. Considering her growing intellectual presence and emerging poetics, Viivi’s work constitutes a representative model, for a whole generation, of ‘Soviet’ Estonian literature.

    Viivi Luik’s Pilvede püha (Holiday of Clouds) was published on the poetry cassette Noored autorid 1964 (Young Authors 1964) together with debut collections of Jaan Kaplinski, Hando Runnel and Ly Seppel. The gentle lyricism of the young poet clearly stood out: “This girl is a natural talent, extraordinary and bright,” said the witty poet-cum-KGB officer Uno Laht, in admiration. The thin volume shows the influence of Juhan Liiv, who perhaps best captured nature in Estonian poetry: minimalist and musical expression, skilful repetitions, airy light metaphors, a sense of contrast. Composer Olav Ehala turned the poem Võta mind lehtede varju (Take Me Under the Shelter of Your Leaves, 1962) into a popular song: I long for the bosom of the rowan-tree, / to bury my head in its branches. / I long for the bosom of the rowan-tree; / to rest there would be good.   On the other hand, we perceive the impact of the introspective religious symbolism of Ernst Enno and the poet and theologian in internal exile Uku Masing, whose spiritual guidance the young schoolgirl, was fortunate enough to experience. This was something completely alien to the sham optimism of socialist realism: making the Estonian reader happy.

    The poet with a distinctive handwriting, as the experienced critic Nigol Andresen assessed the newcomer, published a new collection, Taevaste tuul (Wind of the Skies, 1966) the next year. Among the prevailing idyllic nature poems emerged a certain opposition to technical towns and the complexity of human relations. The poet kept polishing her style; alongside aspirations towards Oriental intuition, the eschatological danger motif of the ‘burning world’ and ‘cool night’, occasionally surfaces, and was augmented later.
The 1968 crisis of the Eastern bloc, with Brezhnev’s tanks in Prague, signified a drastic change in the consciousness of many, although the crisis of the Western bloc had its impact, too. All that was reflected in her third collection, Lauludemüüja (Song Vendor, 1968), and especially in the fourth booklet, Hääl (Voice), published the same year. In the first, the principle of contrast, Weltschmerz, deepened: a split appeared between nature and town, dreams and reality, self-confidence and self-irony, freedom and duty. Joy and optimism are driven off by a sense of emptiness, the fear of a dead end: I imagine leafless mornings coming / and my fingers get scared (Tardumus / Torpor). After this mostly free-verse collection, urban topics tended to dominate, blending with emerging despondency: One day / there is no longer anywhere to go. / Houses lurk through murky glass (Päev raudses raamis / A Day in an Iron Frame).

The years 1967–1971 forced Luik to face serious choices: she realised what Estonia meant to her, and had to experience the entanglements of human relations. The collections Voice and Ole kus oled (Stay Where You Are, 1971) are perceptually close, although their imagistic language differs from that in previous books of poetry.

In the collection Tänan ja palun (Thanks and You're Welcome, 1983) the poet Juhan Viiding wrote: There’s a woman, an Estonian poet / what she writes is elevating. / I really need her songs. // Does her voice come from above? (Esimene leebe päev / First Mild Day). Viivi Luik admits: “The collection Voice was very important to me. I remember that the book was seen as a bit weird back then, but I personally was pleased for the first time, as I managed to express what I had wished to express.” The poems are not sharply distinguished: they move smoothly together, and tense spiritual states are muted; the expression is seemingly cool, often in brief free verse: the dying  / forests / wrapped / cafes / in newspaper / thus / cellophane-love / crumples [---] I had myself / walled / into / this / century (“hävivad laaned…” / “forests dying…”) What prevails here is the grey urban atmosphere, suppressed anxiety and fear opposed to the thirst for life and curiosity. The lucid picturesque description of the outer world is replaced by connotative intuition and fragmentary composition; a personal and occasionally mysterious set of symbols is formed: Once I talked about fields. [---] but now I am here. / Against wind, / against sharp glass / all alone...” (Rääkisin väljadest ükskord / Once I Talked about Fields). The key words wind, glass, ice, snow, empty, death, blood, spirit, tree, spring emerge as semantic dominants in order to remain. The poem Väljas on veebruar täna (It’s February Outdoors Today) became one of the most melancholy pop songs in Estonia.

Ideological literary criticism was in for a shock: a public letter written by Richard Alekõrs attacked the young poet, warning her that the smiling beat-generation mini-skirt poetry, the egocentric illogical impressions, which resembled lunar landscape (an allusion to the dissident example of Masing’s collection Neemed Vihmade lahte (Forelands Into the Gulf of Rains, 1935)), could easily have led to her being declared a Soviet pariah. Literary apparatchiks panicked: “the prophet of whose ‘Voice’ are we talking about, anyway (reference to the Voice of America)? Flee, free child!”

Her public, however, kept expanding (incidentally, the print run of Song Vendor was 6000, of Voice 18 000) to exile Estonians beyond the Iron Curtain: the translation anthology Poeti Estoni (1973, 1975), published in the Vatican by Vello Salo, included eight poems by Luik in Italian, introduced by Salo and writer Karl Ristikivi. Years later, Luik recalled the stagnant reception before an audience in Zurich: “My first collection of poetry was called Holiday of Clouds. I was eighteen when it came out, and before that I had been in the unpleasant role of a Wunderkind for a few years, which meant that critics were betting on how soon I would flop. I was only saved by changing, through experience of life that altered and expanded me, and thanks to myself, towards whom I have been travelling all my life as towards the horizon.” In 1970 she joined the Writers’ Union and admitted: “I became more secure, seemed to find my country, my people and my own place in that country. [---] At eleven or twelve I wanted to be a writer, at fourteen I had to, at any cost, and at twenty-four I realised that I was an Estonian writer. It took that long.”

In the next three collections, free verse retreated, giving way to tonic and syllabo-tonic short verse, only to mix again in the fourth book. The collection Pildi sisse minek (Going into a Picture, 1973) moves from phrased self-observation towards outwardly indifferent, but internally painful, social analysis: Live or live not, / what difference does it make // when the trees have grown leaves // and shadows of sky / lie on the ground (Ela või ära ela /Live or Live Not). Endel Nirk writes: “Her perception of life has become more prosaic; in pursuing her new poetic line she reveals a certain ruthlessness.....” The fragility of objects, landscapes and moments of time became more thematic; fine hidden nuances of mood against the background of the world’s dangers, the unknown beyond fate; verses consist of short sentences, they are final, convincing, and texts have poignant final points: Somewhere a window jingles / Vietnam eats our souls. / Each has his own life. / We all have five litres of blood (“1971”). Unfortunately there were always discouraging reviewers who claimed that Viivi Luik “could do better”, and tried to show her searching as regression. In truth, the only thing regressing was the jealousy in the criticism.

A sensitive reader, on the other hand, saw clear development in the ten-year journey. Põliskevad (Perpetual Spring, 1975), awarded the annual poetry prize, continued in the vein of social and existential affliction. With increasing self-confidence, boldness and enterprise, it carried on even more harshly and with keener contrasts: Who knows life better, / is more ashamed. / Go, with clenched teeth, / and you’ll get through! (Pajud on urvas juba / Catkins on Willows Already). Earlier Luik was monological, whereas face-to-face with society she became more dialogue-focused. Mentor Ain Kaalep applauded the usage of everyday objects, which in the romantic atmosphere of poetry had a strange effect, although it simply marked the concealing of the romantic attitude on the level of subtext.
In the collection Maapäälsed asjad (Earthly Matters, 1978), the share of everyday realities grew further, and details of the urban milieu acquired an increasingly lucid symbolic value, which appealed to the nation’s resistance and sense of cohesion: If you never see war during your lifetime, / you do not know the taste of peace. / A white sheet fluttering on the balcony. / The poet is filled with dark foreboding (Uued suured majad / New Big Houses). The projection of an oppressive sense of danger into the everyday environment, affording it the value of symbols, became poetical mission. A child’s sincere but eternal point of view increasingly prevailed: The rooms where a child lives are often strange, / however new the house. / Warm shadows move around there – / black holes, openings in time (Vaade / Sight). Reaching the “simple” poeticising of simple things was the greatest achievement of Luik’s poetry in the 1970s: she joined the tradition of symbolist poets.

The apotheosis of Viivi Luik’s resistance poetry, the collection Rängast rõõmust (Of Hard Joy, 1982) was, ironically, one of the top works of “Soviet” Estonian poetry: The hand writes. One day the dark ache / rises from paper and becomes a force of life (Inimese käsi liigub valgel lehel / A Hand Moves upon the White Paper). According to Nirk, the collection shows that “Viivi Luik has continued to compose poetry which observes reality in depth, without any illusions and with open eyes, and which speaks, with her characteristic seriousness and concreteness, of the present day of her native land, of a longing for human warmth, of oppressive anxiety and undying hope. Up in the sky a star is lit, / Oh see the growing light of it!”. Kaplinski reflects: “This is one of the most powerful (in many ways) Estonian poetry books of all time. The poet achieves a synthesis between picture and sound, the abstract and the concrete, symbolic and real, big and small, heavenly and earthly. Of Hard Joy is resistance poetry.... against the pressure of the abstraction, ideology and stupidity that prevailed in the suffering of the stagnation era.”  
The superlative review emphasised cultural allusiveness, relying on the dark expressionism of the cycles of Gustav Suits’s Rängast ringist (From Hard Circle) and Heiti Talvik’s Dies irae, as well as on the ethical imperativeness of Betti Alver. With her aching spiritual wound, Viivi Luik stood beside Lydia Koidula and Liiv, being at the same time in polylogue with Paul-Eerik Rummo’s Saatja aadress (Sender’s Address), Runnel’s Mõru ning mööduja (Bitter and Passer-by) and Punaste õhtute purpur (The Purple of the Red Evenings), Viiding’s Elulootus (Hope of Life / Without a Biography), and the works of Kaplinski and many other poets concerned about their homeland. Rein Veidemann: “There is no longer a single line not in the service of a message that would be a mere description or word play. Repetitions and pure rhymes are used to increase the power of persuasion because, even in constant pain, hope must not be abandoned, and destiny has to be tolerated with the head held high.” The significance of binary oppositions was noticeable: pain/joy, evil/good, darkness/light, cold/warm, fight/continuity, weakness/strength, cruelty/mercy, and death/song of life. The sensuous somatic synesthesia catches the eye, even the unnerving impression of vivisection: A map of Estonia was pierced into my skull; wring words from the mouth with pliers, / talk of the hour of death, of the traitor's collarbone; painfully through the ears / cut the winds of the world; A DARK CENTURY STRAIGHTENS THE WIRES IN CERVICAL VERTEBRAE; etc.

Stylistically innovative, Rängast rõõmust is not characterised by over-, but rather understatement. Not too much is staked on the symbolic layer, which usually wipes out the primary meaning of the text. Rather, both layers are contrapuntally equal, producing a stereophonic ambivalence. For example: A LIFT RUNS IN THE HOUSE AT MIDNIGHT / Through the peephole / a human eye looks / into the harsh glare of the staircase (“A Lift Runs in the House at Midnight”). Although extremely sensitive and precise in language, she does not regard herself as a linguistic poet. Luik: “All kinds of word play and books that rely solely on the word are alien to me. I would say this: the word must first of all serve a message. A word must of course be precisely chosen, and it must express more than the word itself.” It was suddenly possible to freely and calmly talk, in the refined language of images, about everything forbidden but therapeutic to people, such as communist terror, Stalinist deportations in June 1941 and March 1949, the Russification of society, persecution of dissidents, and the pain of loss in culture. Just to mention some characteristic titles: Suur moejuht/ Big Fashion Guide (literally, Leader), “Sa igavene, hele märtsipäev” / “You Everlasting, Bright Day of March”, and “Täie jõuga ma rusikas hoidma pean käe” / “I Clench My Fist with All My Might”): The heart startles and finally wears out / of hard joy just as of / hard pain, / but in June the serious white sparkle of apple-trees / is seen through many generations / from every farm (Rängast rõõmust / Of Hard Joy). Although the censors were not blind, they could not pinpoint  anything in particular. Political reference, however, is not the only dominant in the book; like any good poetry, it expresses general human sorrows and joys in the bleak grasp of times past: THE CARETAKER / IN THE YARD / SPLITTING ICE / with a heavy crowbar / cutting a narrow / winter path [---] From history / not all events / are remembered, / probably alas / there is / much suffering. / The old sun / stretches / through the head / its tough / forked / roots. Through the will of people and history, the ideological pressure finally vanished and the poem On aastasaja lõpp. On öö (It’s the End of the Century. It’s Night, 1987) at last earned Viivi Luik the prestigious Juhan Liiv Poetry Award in 1988.

   Viivi Luik’s first prose books appeared in 1974: Salamaja piir (The Boundaries of the Secret House), Leopold, and Vaatame, mis Leopold veel räägib (What else Leopold Has to Say). The third of the children’s trilogy, Leopold aitab linnameest (Leopold Helps A Townsman) was published in 1975; the first collection of poetry for children Tubased lapsed (Indoor Children) in 1979, and the second collection, Kolmed tähed (Letters, Stars, and Bank Notes), in 1987. Her children’s poetry resembles the poetics of Maapealsed asjad: polished short verse and simple resonant rhythms, providing daily things with a wider background, early adulthood. The author trusts children and demolishes the myth of a happy Soviet childhood, offering the truths of life instead. She talks about loneliness, defiance, desperation, nocturnal fears, sorrows and envy, stupidity and breaking, illness and blood, encouraging the timid and the helpless. The teenage, but mature, Leopold in the stories seems to be the author’s alter ego, prone to pondering. In 1992 the writer, together with artist Epp Maria Kokamägi, compiled a child-friendly ABC book, Meie aabits ja lugemik (Our Primer and Textbook), which has been reprinted several times.

The narrative Salamaja piir describes the unsteady sensations of a lonely young man who deeply perceives close human relations, urban space and time. Sirje Kiin provides this analysis: “The style of the story displays aspirations of density; it is not easy to read. You need to remember and connect details in quite another context in various parts of the story.... the reflections of the protagonist, named Mark, nevertheless contain pubertal simple-mindedness, an inability to decide and analyse.... The sentences are brief, the wording clipped, the infrequent dialogues fragmentary.... an attempt to find new means of expression for the issues of the temporal and self-analysis that do not fit into lyrical forms.... the book remains somewhat mysterious....” Indeed, Viivi Luik’s prose is that of a poet, a poetically structured, intertwined text.

During the rule of censorship, the publication of Seitsmes rahukevad (The Seventh Spring of Peace, 1985) seemed nothing short of a miracle, as did its publication in Finnish the next year. This was but the beginning of the remarkable success of Luik’s novels in Europe. Joel Sang compares the novel to the paradigmatic childhood novel of Estonian literature, Friedebert Tuglas’s Väike Illimar (Little Illimar, 1937). Another tempting parallel would be Christa Wolf’s Kindheitsmuster, 1977. Both are autobiographical and observe the world through the eyes of a lonely 5-6-year-old country child, conveyed by an adult narrator, but the milieu could not be more different. Unlike Illimar’s manor house idyll, the world of Luik’s child is encompassed by a parochial village during the Stalinist collective farm hysteria, empty farms of those deported and guerrillas hiding in the forests: life in the midst of poverty, irrational evil and fear, as a contrast to the appealing and dashing Soviet utopias. Tuglas wrote, “I would like to be little Illimar again”, whereas a “Soviet” writer claims to be “wholeheartedly happy that my childhood is behind me …” Luik says: “I chose this child, not because I wanted to describe myself and my childhood, but because she was most suitable in depicting that era..... The pathos, naivety and optimism of the time – I think the child has all that in her.”

Seitsmes rahukevad is a highly poetic, figuratively supported text, with dozens of budding poems inside, a kind of prose poem. The style is confessional, and reflections of the past, present and future intermingle. The profusion of associations hides a simple story line, provided with a palette of semi-animistic intuitions of an imaginative young girl. She wishes to act like a radio battery that captures all the voices fluttering in the air. The girl makes no distinction between friends and foes, victims and aggressors; she sees everything around her as a fascinating bustle, which she eagerly tries to communicate with. The linguistic universe of text is polyphonic and magical: the standard language of internal speech of the fictional narrator alternates with the dialogical colloquial and dialectal speech, the communist newspeak with national style layers from folksy ballads and church songs or from bourgeois reading material to allusions of high poetry, the fragments, composed by the child – Nuns and monks! Pharaoh! – and tantalising swear words with foreign phrases or other quotations. Maire Jaanus gives this analysis: what prevails is, therefore, more a psychoanalytic impulsive genotype than a phenotype sublimated by culture; primary aggression and self-aggression rather than the late socialised persona – a naive-comic reflection of the primitive and violent era with which the child, indeed, intuitively and potently identifies, albeit with a growing sense of guilt. “The work contains a peculiarly humorous sadistic pleasure, a special irony towards its character,” says Mati Unt. The environment, often not understood by her at all, becomes perceptible in the consciousness of an adult reader – the fading tang of history comes alive again.

The poet’s “second literary spring”, as the German Estophile Cornelius Hasselblatt put it, continued to flourish with her next novel, Ajaloo ilu (The Beauty of History, 1991). It plays on the danger-tinged parallelism of the dramatic era of 1968-1991, the Prague Spring and the Singing Revolution in Estonia. The themes of various symbolic biblical motifs, such as Jonah escaping from God’s task, the cutting of Samson’s hair or the fish motif, guide the reader through the densely composed text. Again, the plot is simple: a 21-year-old aspiring writer Tema (the Estonian personal pronoun does not distinguish gender!) meets a young Latvian Jewish sculptor in Riga. She remains alone in his empty flat, rummages through other people’s things, and reflects eagerly, but indifferently, on them. The Finnish critic Juhani Salokannel calls the novel a laboratory that examines human relations, where the main attitudes are doggedness and distance: it rejects topics that seemed “national” and significant at the time. A clash of identities causes communication problems, and mutual empathy is tested. Anna Verschik: “Viivi Luik has amazingly captured the essence of Jews in the post-war Soviet empire: most of them cannot remember who they are and where they belong.... Instead, they have fear – one of the most important keywords in the novel.” Are love, freedom and salvation possible in the grasp of history as a bloodthirsty Vampire? Distance and misunderstanding on the one hand, and approaching and understanding on the other – the imagination moves to and fro between the two opposite sides. The constant fluctuation between the main character and the narrator also creates a fickle mood in the text, ranging from tenderness to spite. In Salokannel’s opinion, the novel breathes: the narrator is surprisingly mobile, one turn follows another, and free association is ‘anarchically savage’.

“Viivi’s sense of humour is grim,” her style is “tormenting and infectious”, says Kalev Kesküla in admiration. He calls the book a ‘gravedigger of old belles-lettres’ and a “chronometer of new times” which invented the language later used by the Republic of Estonia (by President Lennart Meri) in communicating with the world. The oral force of Viivi Luik’s style was, later, employed by Emil Tode’s Piiririik (Border State, 1993), as well as Ene Mihkelson’s Nime vaev (The Torment of the Name, 1994). As for écriture féminine, Luik prefers, as does Tode/Õnnepalu and Mihkelson, a universal point of view: “Writers insist on talking to us about men and women.... while we long to be androgynous.”

In 1994, Estonian Radio broadcast Luik’s radio play Koera sünnipäev (Puppy’s Birthday), commissioned by Swiss Radio, but presented in Germany in 1995. The play is written in a hidden language of symbols; the characters, like those of Chekhov, talk nonchalantly past one another. Nothing seems to happen, although a shadow of cynical irony lies in the formal dialogue. The heart is being utterly cut, and blood seeps into topics of conversation. The leading poet and novelist became interested in the genre of drama, evidenced by her opera libretto Pilli hääl (The Sound of a Lyre, 2000). The music for the short opera was written by Ralf Gothón, a Finnish-Swedish pianist; however, it was never staged. Recitative drama intensifies the poetics of the contradictory unity between cruelty and beauty: a surgeon mother, in conspiracy with a drug dealer, kills her own disobedient son for an illicit organ donor business – Everything's on the knife’s edge / and is thus so beautiful. The play lifts several blending pairs of oxymora to the level of symbolism in the manner of Maurice Maeterlinck’s L’Oiseau Bleu. Another suitable companion would be Jean Cocteau’s allegorical-psychedelic Orphée, where the parallels of Orpheus and Eurydice are the young men Johannes and Toomas: androgyny, light/shadow, hate/love, violence/art, murder/life-giving, demonism/Faustianism, kitsch/the eternal – the ironic choral song ‘grave on the neck’, mouth ‘smeared with warm blood.

The slim volumes of essays, Inimese kapike (A Locker of One’s Own, 1998) and Kõne koolimaja haual (A Sermon at the Grave of the Schoolhouse, 2006), contain reflections and speeches published or delivered in Estonia or abroad. As Janika Kronberg puts it, Luik believes that the forthcoming new century will be accompanied by the birth of new men and new art, which she, like Milan Kundera, envisions as rising on the basis of kitsch. She does not analyse or theorise, and her texts are characterised by bold expression and radiant images. Her essays reveal childlike frankness, prophecy and a challenge to obsolete modes of thinking.

In conclusion, three quotes from the writer herself: “I have written in order to capture time.... To become different myself. To say: everything is possible, you just have to wish, persevere and suffer. You have no right to give up, no right to succumb.”
“But – why should I explain what I had in mind with a poem; you either understand or you don’t, and I believe that nothing is lost in any case.”

“I should also add that the language I use is Estonian. To everybody who asks me what it feels like to write in such a small and obscure language, I’d like to reply in the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer: 'I love to write stories about ghosts, and nothing conveys the essence of ghosts better than a language on the brink of extinction… I am sure that one day all the dead will wake up and their first question will be: can I read a new book in an extinct language…?'”