The Coastal Meadows (Southwest Estonia)

The Coastal Meadows (Southwest Estonia), was 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.”

Click on the link above to read the full poem and to hear my reading of it.

A Girl’s Singing Nirvana, My Mother’s Voice

A Girl’s Singing Nirvana, My Mother’s Voice is a lyrical essay with themes of autism in the young and stroke in the elderly. It tells a story of how each was able to use singing when wordlessness compounded their lives and reveals my journey with them.

A Girl’s Singing Nirvana, My Mother’s Voice by Kaja Weeks was first published by The Potomac Review, A Literary Arts Quarterly in 2015. I am very pleased and proud that the journal nominated my essay for a Pushcart Prize.

A Girl’s Singing Nirvana, My Mother’s Voice_Excerpt

A Girl’s Singing Nirvana, My Mother’s Voice copyright © 2015 by Kaja Weeks

The Wedding of Salme

The Wedding of Salme*

By Kaja Weeks

* Adapted from Tähemõrsja (Starbride), an ancient Estonian runic song/verse
and composed in memory of my mother, Salme M.

On a field moist with morning fog,
by a craggy shepherd’s path it lay.
A little hen’s egg, left alone,
no nest, poor thing, just dew.

Walking there a widow spied it,
lifted it gently, clutched it closely
into her apron pocket she tucked
the tiny treasure, a chilly shell.

Then the egg she did warm,
three months, another and then a day.
The foundling was born, a child emerged,
a girl so sweet and full of grace.

Salme blossomed, into beauty
she grew. A maiden chaste who
many courted, wooed with gifts
and begged her to wed.

Not to the Sun with fifty horses,
Nor to the waxing-then-waning moon,
but to a celestial suitor, steady and bright,
son of the North Star, she did consent.

“Wed, Maid Salme, with Starry Youth,”
I did whisper, hidden in time.
“So airy and light and silver-voiced,
your daughter fine I can be.”

The tall wise oaks and dashing alders,
their trailing catkins, roots and branches,
all to your wedding who come, then
my uncles and aunties – my kin shall be.

So Salme, in silk, and Star, a-shimmering,
the Cross-Cane danced upon the green,
Thus betrothed, the chariot alit,
they ascended to dwell in the sky.

Now fearless and free, I may dance
across earth or foaming sea.
Mother, your shield casts from above,
so constant, so bright, ever on me.

Copyright © 2015 by Kaja Weeks

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.

The Silver Swan and Her Stroke: First Songs as Last Songs

My essay, The Silver Swan and Her Stroke: First Songs as Last Songs, is rooted in the profound effects of singing as entwined with mysteries of communication and love.

The poetic verse alluded to here, The Silver Swan, was first published in 1612 in the madrigal by Orlando Gibbons and illustrates the legend of “the swan song” – that silver swans sing only once, before their death. You can hear a beautiful performance of The Silver Swan round by British a cappella vocal ensemble, The King Singers.

The silver swan, who living had no note,
when death approached unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
thus sung her first and last, and sung no more.
Farewell, all joys; O Death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.

I am so pleased that this essay was published by Ars Medica: A Journal of Medicine, The Arts, and Humanities, Winter 2017. Ars Medica is the only medical literary journal in Canada, and one of a handful of such journals in the world. Click here to read the full piece at Ars Medica or The Silver Swan and Her Stroke_Kaja Weeks_Ars Medica_2017 to read in PDF format.


ABSTRACT

The Silver Swan and Her Stroke: First Songs as Last Songs

By Kaja Weeks

This is a view of a massive stroke followed by rare communications through singing and vocalization between an elegant lady born by the Baltic Sea almost 100 years ago and her daughter (the author). A reflective true account with story-like narration, it conveys the intersection of a musically rhythmic but “pitch deaf” mother and classically-trained singer daughter at their final crossroads. The stunning scene of hearing her mother, unable to speak, but singing “with full power and nuance, like a glorious Wagnerian soprano,” has the author first considering the extraordinary plasticity of the brain, and then, as a daughter, the poignant meaning of her mother’s sounds, who like the “Silver Swan,” sung her first and last, and sung no more.”


 The Silver Swan and Her Stroke: First Songs as Last Songs copyright © 2016 by Kaja Weeks

The Silver Brooch

SK Pärnu Sõlg
SK’s Silver Brooch, Pärnu Estonia – circa 1935

THE SILVER BROOCH
By Kaja Weeks

 When my mother was a young girl growing up during the late 1920s and early 1930s she lived in Eesti, a free land, dotted with islands, its northern coastline a curly ribbon on the Gulf of Finland. Western Estonia opens to the Baltic Sea. Her seaside hometown, Pärnu, on its own glittering inlet of the softest white sand beaches, murmurs with endless surf, coastal pinewoods-and- meadows. The harbor, a longtime merchant port, and famous restorative spas have always infused a cosmopolitan air, too. There is a saying, “If you let Pärnu, with its sun and sea breezes, into your system, your cloud of worries will waft away,” and certainly my mother’s forehead would always smooth out even as she sighed and spoke of her “good growing years” there.

There is a photo of my mother and her cousin, Helga, who visited from inland in the summers. They are both wearing stylish casual, fitted dresses, mother’s coiffure flapper-like wavy, a small white sailor hat perched on Helga’s head. They are sitting fountain-side at the famous Pärnu Mudbaths and Spa. It’s an elegant neo-classical building co-designed by the renowned architect Olav Siinmaa with whom Mother was soon to get her first job. She was sixteen, still innocent, unknowing of all the horrors that war, deadly occupations, fleeing and life’s turns would bring.

But this was around the time she acquired the silver brooch, which I now hold in my hand. The year is 2016, mother’s earthly life is past and I have so little, really, to connect to the person she once was. Though she raised me and lived well into her nineties, I felt as if I was continually seeking her core – so ephemeral. It’s as if her historic destiny endowed cloaks of spectacular resolve and stoic endurance (in a crisis she once declared, “I am the keeper of my own soul,” when I proposed help) and tactics worthy of an institution for preserving the dignity and culture of her lost world. But it snatched away the budding young girl who had once loved her life in a simple, seaside town in a free land; Even from inside, where we get to create and hold our woven selves, I sensed a lost space where it should be. I am haunted by and grieving of that loss for her, probably wishing to protect both of us from what followed, its inter-generational rubble. Sparsely told stories from her childhood and youth are well-guarded in my mind, enhanced over the years with scarce photos and then with world-wide-web image searches, scouring of maps, finally visiting myself and walking the ground she walked, breathing that highly oxygen-rich sea air – trying to re-create a world with a legacy that holds the pearls of mother.

Her brooch is not domed or smooth, but a special “Pärnu-style” flat cast with a jagged coastline shape and interior adorned by flower motifs – one for which the city was already a unique site of creation in the previous century. I only remember from her that it was a gift, possibly from her godmother for her “Kaubanduskooli” (Business Trade High School) graduation from which she landed the coveted city hall position with architect Siinmaa. It must have been a cherished item. Not that many years later, the autumn she fled, the second Soviet onslaught had breeched the border, while retreating Nazis blew up myriad buildings and bridges. Pärnu was burning, lit from above with pale columns of aerial bombings; flames raced along crowns of coastal trees. In the space where her high school had stood, ruins smoldered. Leaving her homeland forever, she carried that brooch with her few belongings. Decades later she quietly gave it to my then teenage daughter.

Now I hold this brooch that I’ve taken to the jeweler to be cleaned, polished, and the clasp repaired, secretly restoring it for my daughter’s approaching wedding. It was completely darkened when I brought it in, but when I retrieved it the jeweler was smiling with pride. He had worked hard to clean all the tiny crevices. “It’s silver,” he said with delight. Sitting on my bed, I turn the gleaming piece over in my hand. My mothers initials (as I have always known them) have always been visible in what I recognize as my father’s scratchy, invasive style, one that he enacted with all my things, as well – possessions possessed. But now I notice something that eluded my eye before, something revealed by removing the shades of time. Delicate lines form a year and shape letters. It takes me a moment to place them, and then I am flooded with sadness and joy: “SK” – my mother’s maiden monogram! Along this untarnished silver I rub my finger on such tiny lines, attach, and hold SK, born in a free land by the sea.

copyright © 2016 by Kaja Weeks

The Silver Brooch by Kaja Weeks was first published in The New Directions Journal, Fall 2016

A Stringed Wing

The celestial sounds of a zither make me think of a wing strung with vibrating strings. In myths of Estonia, Vanemuine — the God of Music and Poetry — played the kannel, a zither or lap-harp with magical effects that gave birds and tree-leaves their songs. I have sung these old tunes to the sound of the kannel, or sometimes, I’ve simply let the strings of my own vocal cords spill verse upon verse into air.

The naturalistic and historic motifs of Estonia have long inspired and chained me. Many of my poems and lyrical writings hold them.

As I write this now, I recall that my mother’s earliest memories hold the quiet sounds of her father, a furniture-maker, stroking the strings of his own-made kannel as she and her brother, Sass, drifted to sleep upstairs.