Shortening the Candle’s Wick, by Andres Ehin and Ly Seppel (translated by Ilmar Lehtpere), is a collection of poems written over a fifty year period. The authors married in 1975 and have published many books individually in their home country of Estonia, books that have been translated into numerous languages. This selection is arranged in the form of a poetic dialogue between the couple, offering a view of life in the Baltic state during the decades following the Second World War, alongside the lasting effects of occupation. The tone is often melancholy but includes an appreciation of nature – the flora, fauna and weather reflecting mood.
In Geese and Swans there is an invocation to the younger generations who leave their parents and homeland seeking a better way of life. They have taken flight, their hearts pounding with the joy of being alive, leaving those behind to suffer now empty spaces. Parents implore their children to return but are denied.
Long-Ago suggests that the land remembers those who leave, deep down, not just in the crumbling remnants of past endeavours. Perhaps this is what those who choose to return are seeking.
Odra Street Led To The Flea Market is one of the longer works, offering a polemic against war. A child slips away from their carer and encounters soldiers, captives, grey and hungry veterans with limbs missing. One urine stinking beggar, leg stumps festering, is trying to sell an Order of Glory medal for vodka. Pushed towards the child on the trolley that offers mobility he leaves a lasting, horrific impression.
Other poems describe moments of freedom – the sound of a cricket, flowers, moonlight, a chance to look upwards from the grey of the everyday. As well as beauty and hope, nature is presented with an intensity verging on violence. Pre-Autumnal Draught describes a dawn:
Drops of colour drip
straight into the mouths
of seagulls and lapwings.
They scorch the birds
and in their throats turn
into a painful screech.
In Over, the wind is described as raging above trees while below an old women quietly goes about her business gathering berries. It is a reminder that even in times of crisis food must be found – domestic life portrayed alongside national concerns. Day to day actions form the basis of many of the poems included, although the presentation is never mundane.
There is a palpable respect for the elderly, as portrayed in Old where the fragile men are still ‘full of boyish zeal’ within failing shells:
above all gentlemen
who have seen times of hunger
who have won and given in
come through elation and humiliation
Many of the poems deal with men, survivors of conflict, but Here describes a woman’s role, always waiting:
for your husband back from the sea
your family for dinner
your children to come home
Here all at once
all yearning and wonder
hope and acquiescence
Animals Sense What Is Coming offers an interesting hypothesis to consider, although I disagree with the assertion that ‘war is a natural phenomenon too’.
My favourite in the collection was the title poem. The last to be read it creates a tranquil, more accepting echo than many of the previous works.
Don’t be daunted, believe
in your own understanding,
even if there is no hope
of ever meeting again.
Shortening the candle’s wick
I am only now learning
in the language of the sleep faerie,
how in a spirit of joyful gratitude
I can let go of you.
The differing styles of the authors’ writing makes this a fascinating collection to read. Their perspectives on similar subjects are evocative and add depth. As a dialogue between husband and wife one wonders at the colour of their private conversations. The poems are, as good poetry should be, thought-provoking, and allowing for layered interpretation.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Island Press.