Marie Under, Siuru and the poetry of place

429px-Siuru_I (1)

I’ve just been in Estonia and Finland, two fascinating countries in distinctly different ways, and I’ve been trying to challenge my ignorance of literature from that part of the world (beyond a lifelong love of Tove Jansson). Kicking around ideas for future books, one of the themes I keep coming back to is the international aspect of Modernism; how fragmented but inter-connected it was across national boundaries, how many of the leading lights were from supposed backwaters on the edges of disintegrating empires and how it foretold the possibilities for communication and the spread of ideas that we know have with the internet. Beyond the epicentres of Paris, Zurich or Berlin, many of the groups and pockets of activity involved have been overlooked and their work under-represented and under-translated especially in the English-speaking world (a failing we’ve tried to rectify in 3:AM Magazine with Steven Fowler’s Maintenant series on contemporary European poetry). We all know something of the Italian Futurists or German Expressionism but what of the Russian Knave of Diamonds group, the Czech Devětsil or the Danish Linien? The past awaits rediscovery.

I was intrigued then to read of an Estonian Modernist group called Siuru (named after a magical blue-feathered bird of folklore), which had been formed just as the country declared independence from the Russian Empire. It was one of those groups of outsiders, deadbeats and egotists that can only exist briefly and brilliantly before collapsing in on itself or exploding. Some of the group were from the countryside and had come to Tallinn (then called Reval by outsiders) to reinvent themselves as bohemians, enthralled by the writings of Hamsun, Spengler and Marinetti. Some were geniuses who would die in exile, writing in the cause of liberation. Others became hacks who would compose anthems to Stalin under the Soviet Occupation or work in book-banning commissions or switch sides to serve as Central Committee members before redeeming themselves by blowing their brains out in palace halls. Others endured an inner exile, blacklisted and forbidden to write by the Communists.

Before this, and with little idea of what would follow, these disparate individuals had been a collective. They met in a salon and then a decaying pigeon-infested tower, where they planned to sell off the bird-shit for fertiliser to raise rent money. They wrote erotic poetry, Expressionist confessions and books about vagabonds. They took to the roads on adventures and incorporated snatches of ancient folk songs into collage. They made Futurist pronouncements to seize the day and let ‘the joy of creation be our only moving force.’ They railed against the stifling bourgeois Lutheran values of the time. They read in theatres and cafes, inciting disturbances with their more explicit writing. Like many architects of culture before them, they were regarded as savages by those in respectable circles. Given there is always an element of fiction in nationalism, they played a unique role in inventing their country. Yet they, like everyone to an extent, were doomed.


There’s one member of Siuru who particularly stands out. Her name was Marie Under. Though still much-celebrated in Estonia and once nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, her work is forgotten in Western Europe and beyond, if it was ever really known to begin with. I started reading what fragments of writing I could find of hers online and in anthologies and became intrigued, not so much with the joyful sensual poetry of her youth or the nostalgic yearning of her exile poetry but, by her surreal night-poetry. This was a poetry of spectres, frost, dogs and floods, all of it moonlit and taking place while the rest of the world sleeps. As a fellow night-owl/insomniac, there’s something both reassuring and otherworldly about this period of her writing for me. There are times when the analysis of poetry can be like performing an autopsy on a living person, rather than do so I’ll include a poem of hers Täiskuu — The Full Moon (translated by Ilse Lehiste) at the end of this text. It suggests something of her talent for the magical and menacing, being a little reminiscent of Lorca or Plath at times or even the paintings of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner with their sinister cats, nocturnal cityscapes and glowering well-dressed phantoms.

The place I stayed in the north of Tallinn was a dive but an interesting one, being right next to the Flora chemical factory where Tarkovsky shot Stalker and a stones throw from the bohemian area Kalamaja and the harbour. The trams shrieked past and one morning we were greeted by the sound of an Italian singer down the hall bursting out some kind of aria. From the window, you could see St. Olaf’s Church with blazing sunsets behind it. The first day the sun gave way to a thunderstorm and there was little to do but sit by the window, drink and watch the world wash away. When the rain had cleared and night had fallen, we walked into the medieval Old Town. The moon was low, the streets deserted and images from Under’s poems were still in my head. The only sound you could hear was that of accordion music, like a waltz, which got louder as we walked further into the centre. It was coming from a little cabaret, with people drinking, singing and dancing inside. None of them could see us as we watched them. Bar a microphone they were passing around, it could have been a hundred or five hundred years ago. It could have just temporarily appeared as in a fairytale or a book (like the Magic Theater in Hesse’s Steppenwolf). It was a scene that seemed only possible to cease by the smashing of glass, the sun coming up or the watching bystander waking to find it was a dream.

The next day, when we walked down the same street, there were no signs marking out where the venue had been; a not unusual trait in Eastern Europe where bars and clubs seem to exist via rumour, basement hatches and secret knocks. What I did chance upon, recognising the symbol on the wall from the cover of their first publication (the image at the top of this post), was the house where Siuru had been based and where Marie Under had lived. She must have walked that street a thousand times, perhaps she dreamt of it in the long years of exile. When you start to consider these matters you realise that what survives of Marie Under we can tap into through art, imagination and place. Even for a godless heathen such as myself, there’s something of her that survives, outliving her exile, the censorship of her work, her death and even the mighty Soviet Union which had swallowed her country for half a century. Moreover that night seemed to me like something Under would have written into existence, with the music a song that was only ever played once and the revellers haunted marionettes, the streets at once enchanting and a moment away from falling into malevolence.

The Full Moon by Marie Under.

Bursting full is the moon,
its weight bends the trees.
The waters desire to be turned
to wine,
they are so restless.

The streets are breathing;
the houses have wings on their
shoulders —
everything is festive:

have been spread out on the
Snowy flags flutter
from the roofs.
The traveller wears a halo in his hair,
the hat in his hand is full of moonrays.
He wears the checkered coat
of a harlequin.

A dog pushes his crooked shadow
with his milky muzzle;
what a strange smell —
stand up and fight!

The old sofa has golden patches,

The walls tremble
They are made of water, clear,
pure water —
everything is aflow.

Shoes made of glass —
I hear their ringing steps
coming right at me.

On the windowsill, ready to pounce,
a great white cat
with mint-green eyes:
I feel its sly paw
on my throat.

Who is embracing me in my sleep?
Incubus! Incubus!
I awaken.
The moon’s yellow beard on
my breast.

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5 Responses to Marie Under, Siuru and the poetry of place

  1. sfhopkins says:

    Thank you for this. Intelligent, research-based posts like this make blog-following worthwhile.

  2. I really like your idea of Modernism, its fragmentation by under represented groups, its migration by “outsiders” to “exiles,” and then, leading to writers such as Under. And, the location, dislocation of places still in Eastern Europe, seems no different than what life must have been like for the exiled and outsiders. Your last paragraph is so visual, I can see the door in present day, and Under, in her day. Very great topic and post. I love this, and hope you continue writing about it.

  3. dianajhale says:

    A real eye opener – thank you.

  4. Sirje Kiin says:

    Congratulations for your discovery of Marie Under`s genius. Greetings from her biographer, Sirje Kiin, PhD
    We are just starting a translation project of Under`s biography into English with lot of examples of her poetry, more info:

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