In the beginning there was a myth.
And the myth was split into arts, sciences, philosophy and religion; into the common and the sublime; into everyday life and rituals. The unified cognition of the world broke into fragments, each of which hid a different answer to questions about this world. Folklore, embedded in the myth, became art, became belles lettres, a major component of which – poetry – has always striven to restore the primeval unity, even at periods of the revaluation of all standards and principles. All through time poetry has served to unite opposites and overcome antagonisms, to find solutions to seemingly unsolvable existential questions, and to suggest the existence of a better and more wholesome world somewhere around us and inside us.

Mari Vallisoo’s poetry provides a good example of such poetry. She blends myth and history, the sacred and the profane, play and real life, all to achieve a new whole. Maybe she tries to return to the old whole which has been lost? This is a relevant question, for the poet knows how to retain mystery: Her texts are full of turns, pauses, silences and unanswered questions, playfully intoned words refer to other, hidden realities. Vallisoo’s poetry often uses scenes of everyday life into which she mixes the plot of a fairy-tale or an ageless comparison, and makes the reader see the eternal in the temporal and the whole through the fragment.

Mari Vallisoo was born on November 12, 1950 into a farmer’s family in central Estonia. Unlike the majority of Estonian writers who have studied the humanities, she studied programming at the Tallinn School of Economics and worked in this field for a time. After being elected to the Estonian Writers’ Union she has worked as a freelance writer in Tartu. She began her literary career quite early, publishing works in a school almanac, but her first collection of poetry Kallid koerad (Dear Dogs) did not appear until 1979. Presently she has published six collections of poetry: Kõnelen sinuga kevadekuul (I talk To You In a Spring Month,1980), Rändlinnud kõrvaltoas (Migratory Birds In the Room Next Door,1983), Kõnelevad ja lendavad (They Talk and Fly,1986), Sünnisõnad ja surmasõnumid (Words Of Birth And Tidings Of Death, 1991), and Ainsuse olevik (The Present of the Singular, 2000). In addition to these, Vallisoo has recently published several cycles of poems in the dialect of her birthplace. Her work has found recognition – Words Of Birth and Tidings of Death was awarded the Annual Prize of the Estonian Writers’ Union in 1992; in 1995 she received the prestigious Juhan Liiv Poetry Award.

Cityscapes prevail in Vallisoo’s poetry and the city can be recognised as Tartu. As a part of everyday life, the city with its streets and apartment blocks feels strange, but the typical existential city dweller’s loneliness described by much of contemporary literature, is missing here. Here there is a centre, around which the author draws the roles she plays, the masks she wears, the characters of fairy-tales and the heroes of legends whom she seems to know well. This centre is home. The first person character of Vallisoo’s poetry is always busy, she sews and knits, washes and tidies, she is independent in her own world, does not care for the big world, and therefore, does not fit very well into the feminist paradigm of contemporary art. Unaffected by fashionable trends she busies herself with her own problems, undisturbed while writing her ‘letter to the world’. This allusion to Emily Dickinson is not incidental, critics noticed a certain spiritual affinity between Vallisoo and Dickinson some time ago. As a private person, Vallisoo prefers to let her poetry speak for itself. She refuses interviews and lives a mystifying life outside literary circles, confident that everything she wants to tell the world is conveyed in her poetry. Betty Alver, another great lady of Estonian poetry, behaved much the same way.  In one of her poems Vallisoo addresses Alver as her sister in poetry. But both these poets are united by their respect for the Word, by their belief in the power of the Word, and this has silenced the critics. In the end it is the silence between words that talks easily, flyingly, ”on the running”: ”The word remains non-existent in my mouth,/ my speech snaps in the middle of the line,/ come, let me kiss you on the running” (Rutuga; In a Hurry). In the poem titled Müüt (Myth) the audience anticipates something, but the actor on the stage does not say what is expected of her, ”because then the fairy-tale would end/ and the myth would become true”.

The dominant mood of Vallisoo’s poetry, present in all her books, is playfulness. In her debut collection she discovers the world and looks at everything through the eyes of a child. Later she looks into history, and history leads her to roots and traditions. The whole of I Talk To You In a Month Of Spring is, as indicated by the title, an address to somebody, who has as many roles as the poet herself, and who changes just as the poet does. Role playing, the changing of points of view becomes more and more prevalent in succeeding collections: the poet is a woman, a child, then a virgin, who gets entombed in a wall, an orphan, a witch, the mermaid familiar from fairy-tales. The immediate surroundings expand into the reality of the hometown. This in its turn, widens into a homeland, and in the end becomes a mythical generalisation of space-time. The poems from They Talk And Fly are, as a rule, written in the third person, and are replete with motifs of flying, movement and lightness. Thus even the ”tidings of death” of the next collection do not seem very deeply tragic, because these tidings too are full of the eternal power of myths. The poet presents herself as timeless and everlasting, her words and deeds fly over distances and last for decades.

In her last collection, this other world we can only guess at, is supported by direct references to the Bible, to ancient mythology and to myths of different peoples, e.g. the poems Kangelased omavahel (Heroes among Themselves) and Atlas. But myths are presented in an easy, carefree and independent way, touching, but not definitive and firm. In the poem Üks poiss (A Boy) a boy comes and sits under a potted palm and asks for the way to Mt. Golgotha. All roads go to Rome, is the answer, and the boy says: ”Here! Take this beginning of time/ I will go/ I have no time to waste here/ And went/ And now for two thousand years already/ We have wondered whether he was a real boy/ Or a myth.”

Vallisoo’s poetry is like an intimate touch, like an easy wave of a hand and an invitation to come along into the unknown, without any effort to reach a goal, looking for experiences full of fright and curiosity, horror and excitement. It is like getting closer while bouncing away, like serious devotion and total individualism. She has only one credo, one task she has been given by the ”preceding two hundred generations”. This task makes her wash, mend and sew with an easy mind – to care for the cleanliness and integrity of her home with the help of ancient myths in our time of Postmodernist nomadism and disintegration.

© ELM no 12, spring 2001