In memory of Kati Saksniit Walters (1951-2022), the poem memorializes an event when she, my Estonian friend from childhood, and I, and our American friend Marie slipped off into Manhattan in the late 1960s. An innocent time in so many ways compared to much that was to come, catching that magic time that carries us from childhood to early adulthood.
I’ve enjoyed writing about how my first language came, integrated, faded, reappeared and keeps growing. This piece appeared on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog (Somewhat) Daily News from the World of Literary Nonfiction and can be read in full on their website (click link). It reflects upon how Estonian, which I spoke before English, beckoned me in midlife and eventually became central to my book of poetry, Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots.
I find the role of first languages and how they continue to unfold in our lives to be fascinating. “The milk language” (Ghita El Khayat) is a beautiful metaphor for the way earliest sounds, rhymes and lullabies are conveyed from mother to infant and continues its influence long after.
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 composer Brigitte Doss-Johnson has used the text from my poem The Rise (from the collection Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots) to create an cappella choral composition. The old runic song that was an inspiration for the poem is masterfully woven into an SATB setting. Fragments of the old runic song, Uni Tule Lapse Silma Peale (Sleep, Come on the Child’s Eye), survived as early memories of my mother’s lullaby singing, which she would have learned from her own mother, born on the coast of Estonia in the 19th century. The Rise, along with the song Midsummer (from the poem Midsummer Birches) will be performed by a virtual choir.
An exciting new creative project has grown from from my collection Mouthquill—Poems with Ancestral Roots. Brigitte Doss-Johnson, composer and choral conductor, has set two poems to music. The compositions will be performed by a virtual choir.
I am honored that Mouth Quill, the title poem from my chapbook, Mouth Quill—Poems with Ancestral Roots, has been nominated by The Poetry Box for a Pushcart Prize, an American literary prize.
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.
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 933 9288 2128
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.”
A version of the poem “Voices” was first published by the online journal Estonian World.
Voices (Song Festival, Tallinn, Estonia)
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.