Eha Lättemäe at the edge of several cultures

by Lauri Sommer

I am going to tell about an extraordinary elderly woman who is almost like a grandmother to me. It is good to know that there are people around who are half a century older than me, and with whom I can talk face to face, or by letter, and the age difference does not matter one bit. To me, Eha Lättemäe is an example of quiet continuity. She survived the era of socialist realism, witnessed the poetry innovation of the 1960s, debuted at the end of the decade and followed closely the progress of those who arrived in the 1990s.

To the town of Viljandi after the suspension bridge

Eha was born in 1922 in Mõnnaste in the parish of Tarvastu. The house belonging to her family was the last in the village: when you stepped out through the gate you could stand with one foot in one village and the other foot in another village, Ülensi, where neighbour Tuul (Wind) lived. Just like the poet herself, standing at the border of several cultures. Eha grew up in the country, helped with farm work, and walked in the forest. As both of her parents were schoolteachers, there were many books at home and she read avidly. Her favourites were Edith Södergran, Anna Haava and Gustav Suits. She was eight when she wrote her first poem, in free verse.

When her father Andres learned about it, he guided his daughter on the ‘path of rhymes’. She did not stick to this, but father and daughter nevertheless published a book together, titled In Two Voices. The book has a fascinating dialogue in every page: the father’s poems on top and the daughter’s below.

And the language of her birthplace has naturally left its old-fashioned mark on Eha: the sing-song quality and simplicity of local Tarvastu dialect is probably something that no longer exists in that area. Eha has written a poem to the Paistu church rooster and her home sauna, and she is one of the few living people who remember the Viljandi suspension bridge when it still belonged to Baron von Mensenkampff, when it was still in Tarvastu and quite broken. The bridge was brought to Viljandi in 1931, and Eha followed – she attended Girls Gymnasium in the town.

In 1948, Eha graduated in history from the University of Tartu, but for political reasons— her father was declared an enemy of the people and was sacked from his teaching job — she did not get a job as a historian. She thus lived for years in cultural isolation in a small town of Mustla and kept dreaming of something else. The Soviet radio was of course dreadfully boring, and Eha managed to find Finnish news programmes on her little radio and learned the language through listening to it. She proceeded to write in Finnish.

Except for her poems in the local dialect and the above-mentioned childhood poem, all the rest of her work is actually translations from Finnish. This strange linguistic curve is evident in her latest collection of selected poems, Õhtune jalutuskäik / Iltakävelyllä (2003) (Evening Stroll): the Finnish original on one page and the Estonian translation on the opposite page, which occasionally seems a bit hesitant.

Eha once casually remarked that, in her opinion, Finnish is a dialect of Estonian, which makes her a dialect poet twice over. This might be a kind of quiet protest against the somewhat rigid and dominating North-Estonian language space.

No begging for honours

For decades, Eha managed to exist in the Estonian literary scene in amazing isolation. Her long period as a recluse came to an end in late 1950s. With the help of friends she managed to find accommodation and get a job in Tallinn as a librarian. She lived up on Toompea Hill in dismal conditions until the Writers’ Union provided her with a flat. In 1968, she published her first collection of poems, From the Shadow of My Footsteps.

Eha published her first poem in the Viljandi newspaper Road to Communism, and her next in the Karelian newspaper The Red Flag. Eha Lättemäe, whose work was not too tightly connected with Estonian poetry, found a true literary environment and reception in Karelia. It is often assumed that she actually lives there or comes from somewhere in Karelia. Indeed, it might be easier to examine her in the context of Finnish poetry.

Eha has translated many Karelian poets into Estonian, and the fate of some texts is rather peculiar. The young songwriter Urmas Alender, for example, once found a poem by someone else, changed it, added words and a Dadaist refrain and named Eha as the author. The result was the hard rock song called The Old Steam Engine (1972), which became very well known, but it certainly has nothing to do with Eha. With mild astonishment she heard the song for the first time in 2008. That’s a hermit for you!

Eha's life has been one of seeking and doubting. Her only aim is inner development, and she has never begged for any fame or honours. Her name is not well known, as she has never pushed herself forward in our cultural field. But her name is well worth knowing. And when she won Juhan Liiv prize in 2008, someone made a comment on the website of an Estonian Daily: “Eha Lättemäe is an unremembered genius.” She has now been publishing for 40 years without any real recognition or understanding. And that says something about Estonian critics.

Master of mysterious poetry

Although Eha likes the works of Viivi Luik and Kristiina Ehin, she has lived at a distance from the romantic and over-praised pantheon of Estonian female poetry, just like Ene Mihkelson in the 1980s, only her isolation has not been so commented upon. There are no emphasised images and sentiments in her texts. Her lyricism is tranquil, observing and questioning. Eha is a master of short and mysterious poetry. In my opinion, this kind of economic and simple style developed during her years in the country and during her travels. She has travelled in Estonia, Central Asia, and the Curilian Islands, in the Estonian language and within herself.

People in today’s pleasure-focused psychedelic Estonia, where cannabis is the most widely used drug, probably do not know that in the early 1970s Eha was amongst the few Estonian intellectuals, who discovered the creative and contemplative potential of this plant. The initiated can find traces of such experiences in the content and logic of some poems. Marijuana has not, however, determined her personality and work.

Seeking inner clarity was clearly a part of Eha long before she read Aldous Huxley´s Doors of Perception, rolled her first joint or did yoga exercises, and she still travels in her spirit as much as possible today, in her tiny flat in a nine-story building in Tallinn, tottering around familiar old things and cacti, listening to the radio and picking up a book from among many that cover her flat like a carpet and in towers. For a former traveller, being chained to one spot must be a great torment.

I visited her in that room and recorded a lot of poems. These provide information about an inner time that no-one else knows. She certainly is unique. For example, she managed to live through the Soviet era without learning any Russian, acquiring most of her information from Finnish radio and reading, observing the world and living in nun-like frugality. Her life might be summarised by her own phrase “I have left everywhere without a trace”. The impetus for this poem was a somewhat awkward school reunion in Viljandi, but as with all good texts, it expands in the minds of readers, becoming an example of the Buddhist middle road in Estonian poetry. And it is obvious, looking at her, that seeking lasts a lifetime.

Thank you, Eha.


Translated from the Viljandi newspaper Sakala