I felt very grateful to have been invited to share poetry from my collection Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots—at VEMU, Museum of Estonians Abroad celebration of Estonian Mother Language Day (Emakeelepäev).
This day is a national holiday in Estonia, and a beautiful way to preserve and cherish the Estonian language.
The virtual event included wonderful presenters. Janika Oras, Senior Folklore Scholar of The Estonian Literary Museum gave a fascinating overview of regilaulud, Estonia’s ancient oral song and verse tradition, and talked about how their influence—especially maternal qualities and the presence of multiple realities—permeated poetry in the Mouth Quill collection.
Kaja Telmet and Inga Eichenbaum, of Toronto, each recited a poem from the collection and Kaja Telmet talked about her emotional connection and understanding of the collection from the perspective of one whose family, like mine, were World War II refugees from Estonia.
Triinu Villukas and Madli Oras, two young Estonians and singers currently living in Vienna, Austria, led everyone in regilaulu singing, including the song which inspired content in my poem, Mouth Quill. Piret Noorhani, VEMU’s chief archivist put together a wonderful, rich program and moderated throughout.
You can read an English translation of my remarks here.
The Poetry Box, publisher of my book, will host its monthly live Zoom Poetry Reading on Saturday, October 10, 2020, 4 PM Pacific, 7 PM Eastern. I look forward to joining readings of two other poets, Christopher Bogart and Joan Colby (read by Wendy Colby).
Please join me to hear Ancestral Journey—Beneath Ice Sheets, Old Tunes on Spruce, Seabrook Farms (1949), The Songstress and more.
The Poetry Box, a small independent publisher in Portland, Oregon, has done a beautiful job with my debut chapbook of poetry, ready now for pre-order here from my page on
their website. Please visit to see a description and early reviews.
. . . a haunting intertwining of world history and family history. ~ April Ossmann
The cover is a stunning photo of Estonian forest and sea by Michael Huang. I am so grateful for his gift to me for this collection.
The print edition is slated for September 30, 2020. At that point, you can also order the book from Amazon or from your favorite bookstores.
The term “mouth quill” (suude sulg) comes from ancient Estonian runic song and is seen as a singer’s magical tool. In a lovely verse known as The Village Tells Me, the singer says she has left home enchanting charms—her mouth quill and her tongue click—(keeleklõks). She bids her brothers to ride home with silver beaded horses to bring them to her so she can sing like birds.
When I was a young student, just starting college, I traveled to Finland to study and listen to rich Estonian field recordings of such music. In these last years, I feel so lucky to have been able to access notated music and even listen to oral history recordings on amazing online runic songs databases in Estonia. As I explored an arc of identity, many of these old songs inspired imagery and language in my poems, as did nature and historic events, both distant and more recent.
My chapbook of poetry is being published by The Poetry Box and is slated for release in September 2020! The lines below the photo are from the first poem, Ancestral Journey—Beneath Ice Sheets, which begins an imaginary exploration leading to the shores of Estonia. This poem is part of a trilogy, three poems that form the start, middle and end of the collection; the other two being Ancestral Journey—The Milky Way and Ancestral Journey—Helix.
I chose the satellite photo above to share this announcement as it so beautifully illustrates, by way of a (modern) snow line, the approximate glacier lines from 10,000 years ago! You can see Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia and even the small island of Saaremaa in this aerial image. Long ago, glacial ice covered all. When the melting began, I imagine the long journey of our Finnic ancestors, leaving the Urals:
Some will be left in river-bends, some follow the reindeer north.
Some will look heavenward at traces of bird-flight, some walk a milky star-path westward.
The term Mouth Quill (collection title and title of an individual poem) is found in runo verse (regilaul)—the word translates to suudesulg and refers to “a singer’s magical tool.” Some of the 21 poems are inspired by themes found in ancient runo verses (with the original runo verses listed in Notes), others by Estonian music, language and historic events. My writing weaves those world views into a life born and lived in America, with deep ancestral roots.
Poet Deirdre Callanan describes Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots as “a dark crystal studded with light.”
sounds of ancestors once slipped from tongue to air—
ribbon-like, still unfurling.
On the edge of the sea
a silver shell holds thousands, singers who face
thousands more on a grassy gentle rise. All inhale.
Though the hour nears midnight
sun skims waters of the Baltic Sea,
flames in the tower-torch leap high.
The singing will not stop, Lee— lee— lo, the sounds form Leelo! Each ancient syllable earned with sweat and love.
A conductor, peering from within a laurel wreath
clasps his chest, lowers his head,
bows to the choir who has honored song.
The watchers become the singers,
the standing levitate,
the air is alive.
Swirling round, melodies rustle, loosen hair,
saying: we are a living sound—sing us speak us hear us.
Song-Mother’s voices—Hääli imedänne!
* Hääli imedänne – Means “magical voices” in old Estonian * Leelo – The old Estonian word meaning “song,” and the title of an actual song
Author’s Note: Voices is a poem from a chapbook manuscript (in progress) in which writings reflect both the trauma and beauty of Estonian culture and history as it rooted in my personal journey and identity.
Songs from my ancestral heritage have been a central part of my life. As a young child I was mesmerized by very old runic songs, called regilaulud—including shepherd’s calls (helletused). These came to me by way of the songstress Ellen Parve Valdsaar, an Estonian refugee whose magical interpretations left a lasting impression upon me. I also heard and sang much choral music, mostly in the a cappella tradition that allows voices to meld within wonderful, enlivening resonance. The poem, Voices, celebrates the height of such a continued tradition, the Estonian Song Festival, first begun in 1869. It is now held in Tallinn every five years and is designated a UNESCO “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” Click here to hear a refrain from the song, “Leelo” (the old word for “song”) as sung at the 2014 Estonian Song Festival in Tallinn. (In “Leelo” composed by Mart Saar with text from traditional folkverse, the singers plead, “What are these reins, these ropes that bind us?” The antidote, they answer, is “Song! Song! Song!”)
Even as the child of Estonian refugees to America, I understood the transcendent qualities of this music rooted in antiquity. In the 1970’s, as a college music student, I created a small vocal ensemble named Kannel (Zither) which performed mostly traditional Estonian music. Today, I sing with the Baltimore-Washington Estonian Singers (BWES), including in our performance for the capital area’s 100th Anniversary of the Republic of Estonia.
At home my stroke-assaulted mother
you startle and confound me.
On my childhood bed
we eye each other.
Metallic ringing runs from your mouth.
Wailing not at gods
but from some crucible of the gods.
From those Northlands
winds blow low and rise, they ripen.
Your incantation pelts the room,
the color of blue sorrow.
One river, two rivers, three rivers, more.
My voice fails. I fear to go there
and utter nothing.
I offer recorded purity,
nuns singing 9th century Christian chant:
Gloria, laus, et honor tibi sit Rex Christe, Redemptor.
Isn’t this your God?
No! You smack the sounding device
and, though words have eluded you for months,
deep-throated, you decree,
“This is false death!”
and renew your endless spell.
We are so far from singing together.
I don’t know how to join you:
my mouth quill has stilled.
Oh, Mesi Marja-memmekene, Honey Mama-berry, Emakene hellekene, my Mother my dear. Äiu, äiu,äiu, once you charmed me to slumber
on silken nets in this space of braided hair.
* Mouth quill – “Suude sulg,” is a singer’s magic tool, and is found in Estonian mythic lore and runic verses
The poem Mouth Quill by Kaja Weeks was reviewed on New Pages as part of its coverage of The Sugar House Review issue in which it appeared. Mouth Quill was cited as succeeding in being “concentrated language striving to be music,” and with the description, “Carefully placed alliteration, assonance, and other literary devices create a fascinating and aurally pleasing poem.”
Author’s Note: Mouth Quill is a poem from a chapbook manuscript (in progress) in which writings reflect both the trauma and beauty of Estonian culture and history as it rooted in my personal journey and identity.
Sounds with the Young(Upton Street, NW, circa 2001) arose from my time at the Levine School in Music in Washington, DC., a large community music school that serves infants through adults.
The poem opens with the building’s architectural beauty, something that likely deserves a work of its own. An elegant Spanish style revival, it was built in 1906-07 to house the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory. Specific requirements – high, dry, apart from magnetic disturbances – helped launch its site on a steep hill upon a rocky foundation.
The low, Mission-style tile roof became a “hat” for the “Lady on the Hill” in the poem. The idea of a welcoming lady must have subconsciously resonated from the idea of a universal Mother Goose as I thought of the children in my poem.
My colleagues brought music to life for young children in infinitely imaginative ways. One was Mara Bershad, who taught in the Washington area for decades before her too early demise. A musician, harpsichordist, and dancer she spun experiences for children from classical music, traditional songs, movement and artful collaboration that left us speechless with delight.
Sounds with the Young by Kaja Weeks was first published in District Lines: An Anthology of Original Local Work, V. 4 (Politics and Prose) in 2017.
Sounds with the Young (Upton Street, NW, circa 2001)
The music school sits like a lady on a hill,
with a red tile roof for a hat and
light stucco dress,
Spanish revival style, por favor. Carved limestone surrounds her entry.
Splayed stairs, up this way or that,
invite the affair of the day.
Singing four-year olds peal inside,
festive as nothing else you could imagine.
Today she has chosen Respighi and
Mara, curved-back like a cat,
pulls scarves along the floor and
suddenly twirls them high in the air.
Max stares and then lifts his arm
with his blue chiffon rising before Agnes,
light-footed as Mara, swipes it away.
Her giggles pounce – staccato as celesta
in The Pines of Rome.
Corinne, born in Gabon and raised on drums,
rolls her fingers and slaps her hands. Ka-ha-ha-booom, ka-boooooom! Reese and Chloé sound thunder from their hides, Ka-ha-ha-booom, ka-boooooom! But no tremors could disturb this building,
reborn from the Carnegie Geophysical Laboratory, 1907!
Solid as the rock she stands on. Roll on sounds!
Close by, Ming leads babies to sway.
Cries and gurgles in soft laps,
lullaby waltzes hummed and sung — Buy some Coulter’s candy. Next door a glossy petite gamelan jingles
and Indonesian shadow puppets dance while
Monica’s kids cluster in the hallway –
they can’t wait to sing like rain, jump puddles,
freeze mid-air to her piano sounds
that seem to spin them and stop them
like magical notes –
Zeke, Liam and resting-tone Lee.
Upstairs the serious folks have begun
to practice and play.
The old Russian pianist with a black pipe
demands perfection from her charges,
and Charles’ deep baritone voice
falls from windows and floats down
the wide green lawn toward Rock Creek.
At noon Sally, reciting summer camp to-do,
and Vera and I walk the shaded path
to Howard Law School cafeteria
where round tables with bud vases,
warm southern cooking and cool lemonade await.
The ceiling is high, murmurs alive.
We release our sighs into them,
trade quips and tales and sometimes
laugh so hard our bellies hurt –
before we head back for more blooming music
with the lady on the hill.
TheCoastal Meadows (Southwest Estonia) was first published by Bluestem Literary Magazine. In it I write about the mysterious effect of “knowing” a place in which one steps foot for the first time — in this instance, the reedy, flowering coastal meadows of Pärnu, my mother’s hometown by the sea. The place settles on me, “like linen upon an infant sung and rocked to sleep,” and I wonder, “Who slipped this place in me? Was it my choosing, or has it crept unknown?” These, I ponder, are markings of being “a refugee’s child — daughter of a true daughter of southwestern Estonia — who grew with her mother’s hollow in her heart.”
Below is my translation of Coastal Meadows (Southwest Estonia) into Estonian. I am grateful to Estonian-born philologist, journalist and poet Sirje Kiin for her kind fine-tuning.
Rannaniidud helgivad kuldselt,
lahutavad sinise vee sinisest taevast.
Paadi pea tungib
läbi rohekaslilla pilliroo.
Olen kodus. Ei iial siin elanud.
Kuidas on see paik saanud minu omaks,
nagu linane katte pandud mu peale,
kui imikul kellele hällis lauldakse?
Kes pani selle paiga salamahti minusse?
Kas valisin selle ise või hiilis ta mulle teadmatult?
Millal pani ta mu kiiresti hingama
ja kinkis siis rahustava ohke?
Olen pagulase tütar,
ustava Pärnumaa tütre-tütar,
laps kes kasvas
oma ema südamevaluga.
Igatsen seda rahustavat ohet,
mere äärse pilliroo sulgede sahinat,
meeles peetud helisid, kuldseid sahvatusi ,
neid aja ja ruumi vigureid.
The Wedding of Salme was first published by Fickle Muses: Journal of Mythic Poetry and Fiction
About the Poem …
The Wedding of Salme is derived from one of the most ancient surviving Estonian myths, Starbride (Tähemõrsja) and recreated with my personal twist of longing by entering the imagined space –“I did whisper, hidden in time.” A characteristic of my writing often is that the past, even very distant past, fluidly interlaces the present or future.
There are many versions of this beautiful myth to be found in Estonian sources. While they all tell the same basic story, the verse expressions of the runic verses (regilaul) show rich regional variety and it was a thrill to research beyond my own basic knowledge when I began creating an interpretation in my own words. I loved knowing how ancient the origins were — over a thousand years or more — reciting the beautiful sounds aloud, and cherishing the early oral preservation that spoke of people’s hopes, wishes, and understanding of their world.
Estonian runic verses are highly stylized in meter and other literary qualities. Although it wasn’t possible to re-create all of that, I wanted to pay homage to some of the rhetorical characteristics, such as alliteration (the same sound at the beginning of words, e.g. “So Salme in silk and Star a-shimmering”); assonance (repeated vowel sounds, e.g. “moist with morning fog”); and parallelism (repeating ideas in a symmetrical way, e.g. “the tiny treasure, a chilly shell.”) all framed within a rhythmic, prosodic style.