It was his name, Henrik Visnapuu that came up in those first Google searches at the late-night, kitchen table, linking Silvia to a larger world unknown to me; a world of Estonian poetry and literature to which Silvia gave her considerable life energy for many years. I puzzled at the time over the reference, and even still, while sitting at a proper desk many months later, Silvia and Henrik’s photos, files and books spread out around me, I continue to learn and question.
I do not know how or where or even when they met with certainty. As a young girl, Silvia surely would have known of the influential poet, Visnapuu, and the symbolist poets of Siuru of which he was a part. A voracious reader, with an early interest in poetry and nature, Silvia would have grown up reading his work, imbued with the beauty of the natural world and his deep love for Hilda, his wife. Silvia, like many a young woman of the time, would have been captivated with his dashing bonhomie, and signature chrysanthemum.
But how did Silvia come to share a tiny apartment with Henrik in East Harlem at mid-century? Why was Silvia at his bedside, when he died on the third of April, 1951, sixty-seven years ago today?
Perhaps they were introduced in Tallinn, the awkward adolescent Silvia and the revered and admired poet. Silvia’s father, Juhan may have introduced them while Visnapuu was the head of the cultural department of “Varumu”, the avant garde Sunday magazine of the newspaper Uus Eesti, while Juhan was the paper’s managing director? Or, maybe they met in Tartu, as Henrik stepped off a barge on the Emajögi River to teach a class at Tartu University. Did Silvia, walk with him to the campus, arms loaded with books from her studies? Or perhaps it was later, not in Estonia at all, but in a displaced person’s camp in the American zone of a defeated Germany, or later yet in New York itself, new arrivals both – “an aging poet and a girl dancing with the joy of being alive.”
I don’t know yet, for all my searching, how they met exactly, but what I do know, is that they made a home together in a “frighteningly filthy” apartment on a dirty little street in “one of the slums of the biggest city of the world”. Together, without enough resources for heat that winter, they scrubbed and plastered and painted, transforming two tiny rooms into a solitary home they found comfortable.
“…warm rugs and drapes in deep colors and polished desks… several bookshelves have grown out of pear boxes and ivy hangs down over the books. There are always fresh flowers on a small table, and in the garden on the abandoned fire escape, blossoming vines grow up to the next floor. On summer mornings the sun takes a short glimpse into one of the rooms; on winter days a glowing stove in the kitchen spreads pleasant warmth into both rooms on either side. It has become a home.”
It is here that they work to publish Visnapuu’s last book, a memoir, “The Sun and the River”, and Silvia types Henrik’s poems and manuscripts on the blank back of scrap paper from a publisher for want of funds to purchase a fresh ream. It is from these two rooms that they helped establish the Estonian Writer’s Cooperative (Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv) to keep Estonian literature alive and vibrant in the face of Stalin’s bans and purges back home.
But the “girl… soon forgot how to dance”.
Unexpectedly, Henrik, at the age of 61, suffers a heart attack while moving stones for a friend on Long Island. Weak and ill he lingers for a few days, Silvia at his bedside, one of the happiest times in her life, coming to an end. Estonians around the world mourn.
Later, in the cooling days of September, Silvia improves her English with a composition class, her assignment, “The Place Where I Live”. She writes about Henrik without writing his name. She writes of the “sacred” home they made together; how she has not changed a single item in her house since he left. Her grief so new, it’s a tentative writing, and so poignant my own heart is heavy, as I retype her words on my laptop over a half century later. In the unwanted solitude, she writes in the third person, foretelling a vision of herself in the coming months of autumn, an attempt at bravery.
“I can see her sitting up late, bent over the books he wrote during his lifetime, musing and listening to the rain. She might feel then a familiar shadow emerge from the stormy night in the the warmth of his home. I do not think she asks for more.”
Until Silvia left New York four years later, she honored Henrik, paying for his urn in installment from her small monthly salary. This year, in celebration of the 100th year of the Republic of Estonia, Henrik Visnapuu’s remains will be returned to his country, with great occasion and ceremony, to be laid to rest next to his beloved wife Hilja. I do not think Silvia would ask for more.
More will be written about Henrik Visnapuu, and his work in future posts. Although he is referenced many places online and in many books, an overview of his life and literary accomplishments in English is most easily found on Wikipedia. I continue to search for English translations of his work.
All italicized quotes are from the Silvia Narma papers.
The framed image of Visnapuu with Silvia’s photograph tucked into the frame is as it was found with her papers. It now rests on my desk.
Henrik Visnapuu image with his signature crysanthemum is from the Estonian National Archives.
Henrik Dancing, Silvia (back left) with J Kaiv and P. Krusten (on the right). The only image I have found of Silvia and Henrik together.