The following text by Esther Kinsky originally appeared in a portfolio devoted to the music of Ukranian composer Victoria Polevá in Music & Literature no. 6. We are pleased to present it here in honor of Kinsky having been recently awarded the 2018 Düsseldorf Literaturpreis for her novel Hain, which opens with a version of the piece.


In Romanian Orthodox churches there are two separate spaces for believers to light candles in: one space is for the candles lit for the living, the other one for the candles lit for the dead. The one for the living is always on the left, the one for the dead on the right. When a person dies for whom a candle is still burning in the section of the living, this candle has to be moved from the left to the right. From the vii to the morţi.

I have only ever observed and never practised the custom of candle lighting in Romanian churches. I have watched the candles flicker in their dedicated spaces. I have deciphered the letters above the compartments—plain recesses in a wall, ledges, stands made of filigree iron work—and read them as names marking one space for hope—vii—and one for remembrance—morţi. One set of lights shines for the future, the other one shines for the past.

Once, in a film, I saw a man remove the flickering candle lit for a woman from the vii section and place it in the one for the morţi. From hope to remembering. From the vision of a future to the claim on a past. It was a gesture that touched me in its simplicity and acceptance and at the same time repelled me in its adherence to a set order. In its obedience. Its sobriety.

A few months after watching this gesture in a film I lost the person closest to me. I became bereaved. Bereavement is a word I had always felt admiration for, even awe. No other language I know clothes the experience and the condition into an equally suitable word. The word draws a line around the bereaved. It creates a space between the bereaved and their beholders. The space created by the word is a cold shelter for the bereaved and their pain which as yet has no name except this one: Absence.

Before bereavement we may think “death” but we don’t think “absence.” Absence is unthinkable as long as there is presence. Then, in bereavement, the world becomes defined by absence. Everything there is crumbles under the weight of the not-being-there of the one we are bereft of. The absence of the light in the space of the vii eclipses its flicker in the space for the morţi.

There were no rituals to resort to. No common ground for giving and taking across this space defined by bereavement. By absence. Sorrow found no rules to direct it. To channel it into gesture, song, prayer. No voices lent themselves to dirges. No tongue cradled a lament. People stood and sat and came and went and whispered and spoke low. Their words fell to the ground like stray sparks and ceased to be.

I lit candles in every room. Every room contracted and expanded with the size and movement of the flames marking absence. Every room was a chamber of flickering light for a mort. No light for the vii. Every day in every room so many rasping sighs of a match pulled across the coarse side of a matchbox, so many hisses of flames springing up to light the wick of another candle, so many shapeless remains of spent candles discarded into a basket with a dull thud. So many restless tongues of flames spending their unvoiced language on a life that had slipped from being into having been.

Candle lighting became my ritual. A ritual I had created for myself in the cold shelter of the name of my condition. The lit candles shed light into the corners of the rooms to illuminate the degree of absence. The degree of bereavement. The candles spread light for my pain to cast shadows. I became the founder and sole observer of my own religious order. The hoarse voice of the heads of the matches before they went up in flames phrased my prayers. The silence of the burning candles after the wick’s initial tiny crackling whisper was my holy book. The slow folding of all expectation into memory was my offering.

There was silence. Silence, and candles, and shadows cast by my bereft self. The creaking of floor boards under my feet. The striking of matches, the wick whisper, the thud of chunks of cold wax into the basket. My voice belonged to another world. It vanished in the face of bereavement. My speechless body served the silence, the service was part of the ritual I had devised. I remembered holding M. during the last minutes of his life and singing to him. I remembered my voice losing the words of the song it had meant to sing and then trailing off to disappear with M.’s life. I had forgotten how to make myself sound.

My order created its own space and time. Revolving around the wordless lighting of candles for a mort, it broke with the rules of the vii. It was an order outwith. Outwith, a word from life with M., became the name of my breach with the order of the vii. It was a breach committed with the intention to spend myself in observance. I was monk and monastery keeping an unmoored world in balance with my matchstick prayers and my offerings of loss. I walked from room to room striking matches, lighting candles, discarding leftover wax, imagining myself spinning prayer wheels, keeping a lost life of words in spinning motion, steeped in silence.

One day I woke up from a brief sleep to a word nestling at the front of my mind: plainchant. I saw it written before me, on the inside of my lids, and lay half awake for a while wondering if it was connected with the word plaintive or with the French plainte. Distant relatives of sorrow, loss, lament. Tenuous threads between the word plainchant and bereavement. A plaintive chant perhaps, for the bereaved. Or to be sung in bereavement. I got up to find that one candle had burned down, a large candle lit the previous day. I had expected it to burn for many hours. Now it had consumed itself within the time of my sleep and collapsed, leaving an island of darkness. The black wick lay drowned in a large puddle of congealing wax, already cool to the touch.

I lit another candle and began to remove the wax that had spilled from the saucer onto the table top. It had seeped into the cracks and lines of the old table at M.’s place. This was where M.’s plate with food used to be, his cup, his glass, his knife and fork and spoon. Opposite my own place. I ran my fingertips across the patch and felt the unbidden smoothness of the surface, the rigid greasy coat of the cold wax where M.’s hands had moved his cutlery, his glass, and after dinner his book, his notepaper, pencil and pen. It was as if the wax had defiled his place in an attempt to claim the surface and obliterate the writing M.’s hands and their small slow measured movements had left behind on the table.

I opened the shutters and took the second volume of M.’s large tattered dictionary from his desk. It was the first time since M.’s absence that I shifted one of his things on the desk. The dictionary was full of notes and cuttings. I saw M. before me, bent over the book. Turning the pages. Studying words. Consulting another dictionary. I read the entry for plainchant, or plainsong. I discovered that it had nothing to do with plaintive. I remembered the Russian word for it. The Russian word would not have misled me into making a connection that wasn’t there.

Or was it, after all?

The word plainchant was the first crack in my shell of bereavement. It let in some grey winter light, a memory of voices, a voice. It was the name of the first day of living with absence and not for it. I started listening to plainchant, or plainsong. To the drifting shifting rhythms and the melodies that detached themselves from the words. They left the words behind and rose to the ceiling. I lit fewer candles. I acknowledged the patches of darkness where candles were no longer burning. Spaces were rededicated. Music now filled the space for the vii, and the light of the remaining candles the space for the morţi.

Through bitter winter weeks I listened to Victoria Polevá’s pieces of Prostopenie. Plainsinging, plain singing, singing a plain song. The plainness of song lying in its immediacy and intensity. They are short pieces. Messages, detached from a language of words, sung by voices I never imagined to belong to a body. The closest I could come to the brush of the wings of an angel. A messenger angel. The plainsong angels of the Cherubinic Hymn reiterated their message, day by day, in the way their voices lingered, lasted, flowing alongside each other, rising, falling, fading, echoing, returning, remaining. The message of plainsong wove lasting threads between the candle in my space of the morţi and darkness in the space of the vii. It straddled the unnamed between absence and presence, between absence of life where the light was and the absence of light where my life was. The message of plainsong went back and forth and became a bridge, a bridge of remembrance, a bridge of memory, the bond between morţi and vii.

—Olevano Romano, March 2015


Esther Kinsky is an award-winning poet and novelist who has translated many notable English (John Clare, Henry David Thoreau, Lewis Grassic Gibbon) and Polish (Miron Białoszewski, Zygmunt Haupt, Ida Fink, Olga Tokarczuk) authors into German.  Her novel River is published this month by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Banner: “Candles” by Flickr member Pimthida. Reproduced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.