Short Outlines of Books by Estonian Authors
Doris Kareva. Cut (Lõige). Tallinn: Verb, 2007, 56 pp. ISBN 978-9985-9840-0-0.
Describing good poetry using ordinary language is always a thankless task, leading inevitably to oversimplification. In Doris Kareva`s poetry the intellectual and the sensual create resonant harmony. Abstract words that express the primoridial values that hold humanity together are juxtaposed with incisive, concrete images: it is no exaggeration to characterize this as a poetry in which the cosmos encounters the grain of sand, one fullness meets another.
Kareva is concrete, aphoristically laconic, and extremely sensitive to language. According to the poet herself, her primary addressee is naked language and the pulsating nerve: it is impossible to get more precise than that. Her fragmentary free verse is bound into a whole by internal tension, the source of which is the perception of an existential threshold or simply the recognition of the brevity of human life; the sources are a masterful use of rhyme and sound instrumentation. The image of the cut, shared by the first and the last poem, confers unity on the collection. The cut is both an incision and a cut-out, pointing both to the moment and to continuity; the single human life and human life as a whole; the pain through which a person can come to an understanding of being alive, and hold onto that being through the word. The poet also uses the word to admonish the reader to come to comprehend and taste the world little by little. She includes herself in that admonition while maintaining a child-like ability to be surprised. Nevertheless, she never becomes a moralist. She speaks of listening to the inner voice, and tries to catch hold of the moment in the continuous chain of moments, in order to guarantee the wholeness of the picture and prevent it from scattering. At times she plays on the paradoxes hidden in language, but never purely for the sake of the game. This takes place only when what lies veiled in language demands and permits its revelation. The poet is exacting and uncompromising in all respects, and makes no distinctions of social status between the loser and the politician. Kareva`s is a passionate lyric, thirsty for feeling, which can only achieve the ultimate through evoking the ideal, what the poet herself names ‘the integral of beauty’ and ‘ecstasy’s examination’.
Tõnu Õnnepalu, Flanders Diary (Flandria päevik). Tallinn. Varrak, 2007. 339 pp. ISBN 978-9985-3-1570-5
In the middle of the 1990s, Tõnu Õnnepalu/Emil Tode became one of the most translated Estonian writers with the publication of his novels Border State and Price. In his most recent prose works he has practiced the genre of the essayistic diary. His new book, Flanders Diary, published at the new year, was written over a period of only 40 days in fall 2007 at the Villa Hellebosch writers’ residence near Brussels. It is a book about being away from home, about exile, albeit not in a political sense, as it is for a Kurdish writer living in the same residence. Rather, Õnnepalu uses the term exile in the sense of being estranged from the everyday, progress-oriented world. In another respect Flanders Diary is a book about time, where being apart provides space and time for deepened concentration on history through reading and meditation. As the author himself has stated in an interview, what mattered most to the writing of the book was a quest for understanding and reflection on the world; genre and the author’s self-presentation are of secondary importance. „Being a writer is a modern form of vanity that is already going out of style,“ says Õnnepalu, at the same time admitting that though he tries to escape the coils of the ‘aesthetic word’, he does not prove successful. For this very reason, the outcome of his attempt, Flanders Diary is personal, sincere, and refreshing. The book may be self-centred, as the genre of the diary inescapably is, but it is not limited to the scrutiny of the author’s self, opening rather onto the surrounding world, giving it a historical depth dimension. The author emphasizes his own need to peek into the past to gain perspective.
Doubtless Flanders Diary is an instance of automatic writing, of stream-of-consciousness; in another respect, it records a motivated process of making disciplined connections between eras and phenomena of civilization, a process the author calls ‘metaphorism’. Even automatic writing fails to emancipate, but instead deepens one’s ability to see and create connections. Thus, besides documenting everyday life, the diary reaches toward a broader thematic repertoire, spanning contemporary politics and ecological problems and extending to the foundations of Western civilization, where the ‘good life’ is built on growing wastefulness, spending, and consuming. This is a book about the ways life and civilization self-destruct, about memory and forgetting, information and noise, about the changing relationship of the local and the global in changing times. Õnnepalu sets an utopian way of life based on cyclical and traditional models and oral memory over against the contemporary explosion of information and its accompanying noise pollution: „Internet, etc, and the new media may in fact turn out to be the paper shredder that grinds up our overly heavy intellectual baggage, and packs it together into simple raw material to be recycled in the next round. What gets written on this old, recycled paper will no longer depend on what was written on it before. The huge growth in mass of written memory might take us back to the world of oral memory, since all of those ‘archives’ need archivists and order. When people can no longer find anything there, it will all become meaningless and what will again matter is what some old man or woman remembers.“
As he discusses reducing expenditure to a minimum and slavery to material things, Õnnepalu comes around to the theme of exile, the need for a refuge allowing a human being living in a society submitted to nomadism, modern competition, and progress to slow down and reflect on life in a global perspective. His authorial image resembles that of a sun- worshipper in a culture closer to nature, or a monk in a medieval cloister. The second level of meaning that the diary weaves works to intensify this image. Õnnepalu imagines himself a companion or double in the form of a monk from the same region of Estonia where Õnnepalu is actually from?, as the son of an elder of the ancient Estonians; there were many such taken as hostages to the monasteries in Europe by the 13th century crusaders in the Baltic region. In the diary, this imaginary aged monk’s biography is rendered through impressionistic memory images. This level of the text is separable from that of the diary, though the landscapes and impressions melt together. This is a ‘time capsule’, a place outside time and history, where the author meets his creation. It is not an attempt to reconstruct what once was, but a thinking game, the goal of which is to perceive and represent the same way of being.
Õnnepalu’s diary is characterized by distantiation, renunciation of the world and participation in it in the manner approaching Stoic apatheia or Buddhist detachment. Though the author stands at the centre of the world, watching it with close concentration, he nevertheless allows everything to flow past or through him. This immediacy of mode of representation, the maturity of the reflections and their intellectual charge make Flanders Diary a consummate achievement of Estonian literature in the year 2007.
Ene Mihkelson: Plague Grave (Katku haud). Tallinn: Varrak 2007. 320 pp
In Ene Mihkelson’s poetry and prose, the central place is held by the knots of history and memory deriving from World War II and its occupations: traumas resulting from deportations, betrayals and deaths, and the possibilities and impossibilities of being freed from them. In some respects her new novel, Plague Grave is a mirror image of her previous one, The Sleep of Ahasuerus (2001), though it is, of course, a free-standing work. The first-person narrator of The Sleep of Ahasuerus, who stands in close relationship to the author, reconstructed the story of her father’s death as a Forest Brother through interviews and archival documents; the novel had an exciting plot and even included spy games. In Plague Grave the protagonist’s father is also a murdered Forest Brother; to piece together the story of his death the protagonist hunts down the memories of her 80-year-old aunt Kaata and her mother. The result is a depth-psychological novel, utterly focused on its subject of inquiry, and presenting the empathic reader with a formidable ordeal. The narrator as ‘memory hunter’ is not prepared for her ‘prey’, for the hearing of the confessions that await her. The truth that unfolds—betrayals in the distant past that lead up to murders—are clearly too hard to bear. The memory hunter’s ‘imagination of truth’— a paradoxical compound noun of Mihkelson’s own invention – is shot to pieces in the end. However, the writer cannot pronounce unambiguous judgment on what has happened: what hinders her is the justification given for the betrayals: at a time when making ethical choices was impossible, people needed to provide the next generation safety and security. Trivial, self-justifying sentences such as, „Everyone wanted to live. Let whoever has no sin throw the first stone“ are thus given specific, painfully personal content.
The story told in the novel is not in itself that complicated: what makes the novel difficult is the impossibility of giving simple, one-dimensional explanations. Mihkelson`s purpose is to question trivializing interpretations of history, clichés, and class differences. To accomplish this, the novel calls upon analogies and digressions, which evoke the Baltic Germans, Jews, and identity issues both in earlier periods in Estonian history as well as the contemporary world. In general, the novel studies the ways different eras are interwoven, and ways in which archetypes are formed in human consciousness. Unravelling these resembles a process of excavation, „finding out what has been buried under carefully chosen limestone tablets...in this land of multiple exhumations and reburials.“ Though there are specific references to the Bronze Soldier that provoked unrest in Tallinn in 2007, these incidents in turn evoke generalizations and archetypes that resist interpreting history in black-and-white terms and literal correspondences. Using a specific case from Estonia’s recent past, Mihkelson asks how we should treat and how we should help a person who has lost his sense of origin and his language, and whose longing for his lost home is expressed in the language of those who destroyed it.
The author’s point of view, her handling of time, and her metaphorical manner of speaking are unfamiliar, even hard to formulate in words; using one of the images from the novel, they resemble „a sky full of halted flights to the interior.“ However, the novel’s content and its linguistic logic both lead to the same ethical message: „The present can only be expressed by means of grammar; the past is the site where the future takes place. If I had not recorded my conversations with Kaata later the same evening, to this day I would be teaching history to be silent.“ In order for the future not to submit to oblivion or amnesia, the past must be clarified, down to the last detail of the truth. This is the platform from which Mihkelson`s protagonist engages in polemic over the kind of art that requires life to be replaced by literature, an art that covers up the realities of life, that relegates fear, unpleasantness, and the roads to aesthetic torture to a place backstage.
The writing and the existence of Plague Grave have been provoked by history; it might best be designated a novel of historical philosophy, through which ‘excavations’ are performed in the psyche of individuals and peoples using precise linguistic means. From beneath superficial layers new ones emerge, the unconscious, subterranean existence of which influences our everyday life. As context for what happens in the human psyche, Plague Grave draws a contour map of references to the contemporary world: the allusion to the naked Muslim wearing a collar and being walked by a pregnant American prison guard at the Abu Ghraibi prison thus has its place alongside other examples. After all, torture and betrayal, occupations and collaborationism are not only to be found in Estonian history: they are more universal phenomena, as the following quotation indicates: „If we bothered to notice the sufferings of other peoples in the same way as our own, we would also understand that people without a homeland, held together only by their common faith and their commandments.”
The tale of Plague Grave is told in a precise, resonant Biblical language, in which the unearthing of specific events and their interconnections alternates with paradoxical generalizations in an aphoristic style. Everything is connected to everything else, and everything has its place. The author’s skill in clinging to language renders Plague Grave a unique, essential work of Estonian literature, addressing all those readers who have experienced pivotal, tumultuous historical events.
Toomas Vint, Woman With a Memory Gap (Mäluauguga naine). Tallinn: EKSA, 2007. 195 lk. ISBN 978-9985-79-199-8
Toomas Vint is an artist and writer, whose paintings of green, rather sterile, and carefully tended park landscapes stand in strong contrast with the deliberate robustness and variegated naturalism of his literary works. In his writings Vint is a gambler who likes to place ordinary characters living ordinary lives in unexpected situations, and while manipulating his marionettes, to bring to light bizarre or miserable aspects of the human condition.
Vint has located his latest book, Woman with a Memory Gap as the third work in a trilogy, though this need not deter the reader: the novel can be read entirely on its own, independent of its two predecessors. The only thing that unites the works is the era they represent, and Vint`s characteristic thematics, which focuses on routinised marital relations and the base instincts of human nature. For Vint, the time of narration is almost always the present, which is permeated by memories, and by the counterfeit morality of the nomenklatura of the Soviet era. This double morality lasts a lifetime, and persists throughout all subsequent social arrangements.
The action of Woman with a Memory Gap transpires over barely 24 hours, and thus to call it a novel it may seem to be saying too much. The novel begins in the subjunctive, and is written in the second person from beginning to end. These devices intensify the author’s opportunities for playfulness, distancing and alienating the protagonist both from its creator and the reader. For ethical reasons this is entirely justified. Vint is a moralist, but he does not moralize directly, rather leaving judgment up to the reader. And when in the recurring, surprising turns of the plot, the full truth does not emerge, the characters have still stood up for judgment, and the finale does not lack catharsis. Nothing horrible happens, and even though a revolver is involved, death turns out to be just pretend. At least in this sense, Vint has mercy both on his characters and on empathic readers.
The basic plot is simple, even to the point of banality. The protagonist’s wife, living in a routine marriage, suddenly announces that she is travelling abroad to visit a woman friend whom her husband has never heard of. The husband ponders over this, and decides to drive to their summer cottage to do some housekeeping and maintenance work, heat the sauna and drink vodka. On the village road, a woman is shoved out of the car in front of him, and the man picks her up and takes her to the cottage. The woman has suffered a loss of memory, and from the name she reads on the man’s wedding ring, begins to regard herself as his wife. The situation is especially delicate and embarrassing when another man drops in by surprise, who might be, but need not be, the same man who pushed the woman out of the car. The game acquires additional twists when the men start playing cards, and place bets on the car and on the woman—who is and who does not belong to either of them.
Vint`s story, which contains both tenderness and excitement, and an inexplicable sense of mystery, is well constructed and witty; it evokes laughter and pity by turns, seeming comic, then tragic, and even turning into an erotic thriller in which three characters in a solitary country house settle their accounts. Sometimes it seems that Vint is leading his reader by the nose, and at other times that he is very serious, even anticipating the reader’s reactions. The strength of the novel is the precision of its details and its film-like quality; in this respect, critics have noticed a proximity to Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon. It is significant that while the sexual games are going on, David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet is playing on TV. Yet in Vint`s novel, play remains play, and none is harmed, while the novel elicits thought and compassion both from those playing the game, and from the readers.
Aino Pervik, Suleline, Puhuja ja must munk (The Feathered One, Blower and the Black Monk)
Tallinn, Tänapäev, 2007. 352 pp
This book with an unusual title, the characters of which are, besides ordinary children, and quite often even instead of children, very strange beings, is naturally meant for children and written by a classic of Estonian children’s literature, Aino Pervik (1932). Pervik has written both poetry and prose and translated Hungarian literature, but children’s books still form the main body of her work.
Her first children’s book, Kunksmoor, published in 1973, was followed by a sequel. The main character of the book, Kunksmoor, is a cheerful and slightly peevish witch who lives on a small sea island and is worried about protecting nature. In the sequel, Kunksmoor and Captain Trumm, she finds a partner with whom she helps sea birds struggling with oil pollution and does many other things. Arabella, or the Pirate’s Daughter (1982) teaches children how to choose between good and evil and is, again, concerned with ecological problems. This thrilling book is written in the tradition of pirate stories and a successful children’s film has been adapted from it.
Without listing the numerous titles of Pervik’s other books for children and young adults, we can say that the success of her books is based on skilfully created characters, fantasy and humour. She has masterfully linked eternal subjects and modern problems and presents the morals of her stories in a new and fresh way.
Her latest book, The Feathered One, Blower and the Black Monk, is aimed at pre-teens, but her absurd jokes can be enjoyed by adults as well. The illustrator of the book has drawn the Feathered One as a half-bird and half-girl. Blower is a very skinny man, and many other fantastic beings can be found among the characters of the book. These strange and lovely beings live cosy peaceful lives until different omens start to warn them of a danger – a black hole. The book contains numerous absurd situations, many of which are spun out of word play. The adult reader can find joy in the inter-textuality of the book. Pervik uses different themes from folklore (for instance, the werewolf); she weaves into the text numerous verses of more than a century-old children’s poems, and playfully explains them to the modern young reader. Such an idyll would soon become boring if all the good were not balanced by some dangerous powers and wonderful thrills. The frightening character, the Black Monk, embodies maliciousness and evil temptation, and wickedly threatens to push everybody into the black hole. The fantasy beings are somewhat similar to the gnome-like characters created by Pervik’s late husband Eno Raud (died in 1996) in his book Naksitrallid and its sequels, which have become absolute classics of Estonian children’s literature, well known and loved by many generations of children. I believe that the characters of Pervik’s book are also well on their way to finding a place in the hearts of young readers.
Mihkel Mutt. Siseemigrant. Novellid Rui taevalike kommentaaridega (Internal Emigrant. Short Stories, with Rui’s Heavenly Comments)
Tallinn, Fabian, 2007. 190 pp
Mihkel Mutt (1953) started his literary career as a literary critic and a journalist writing on literary and cultural subjects. He is still a newspaper columnist, airing his ideas on politics and social life. The angry young man has become a critic of morals and has somewhat conservative leanings. He does not call for improvement and changing of ways, but keeps his distance, remaining an observer and dealing with marginal characters and private spheres.
In 1980, Mutt published his first work of fiction, the collection of short stories Fabian’s Pupil (Fabiani õpilane), featuring Fabian as the main character who connects these stories. The same Fabian, an arrogant art historian of the Soviet time who strove to be larger than the vulgar reality of the time, appears in Mutt’s later works as well. Fabian is Mutt’s trademark. The author's attitude towards him is ironical, but still understanding.
Over the course of time, Mutt’s arrogant characters have been replaced by ‘small people’. Unlike his earlier period, when he ironically examined intellectuals, he now mainly analyses marginal characters, people of bygone times, and often depicts them in comical situations. He observes them like a naturalist who, rejoicing in finding an interesting specimen, enjoys describing its specific characteristics. His texts are strongly positioned in the space and time of the action, depending to such an extent on the reality of the era that, in the future, they will even need special commentaries.
The first story opens with the words, “I am an internal emigrant. I am a foreign body in this society. /---/ I do not like this society; I do not take it as mine. Yes, I even cannot stand it. Only, I do not talk about it.” This inner monologue ends with a complacent statement, “You will never learn who I am.” Do all the ten stories present a collective internal emigrant? I do not think so, and the notion may be rather vague for Mutt. His book features old bohemians, people who try hard to adapt to changing situations, ambitious upstarts, stupid petite bourgeoisie and different people who cannot find their place in life or who have had bad luck. Mutt reminds us of Chekhov, tolerant of small people and especially ironical towards the assiduous petite bourgeoisie. For example, in one of the stories, a family always buys a certain brand of cat food, because each package contains a chance to win a trip to Finland and to stuff oneself with free food on the ship. Mutt walks on the edge, his hero is in opposition and lacks a positive ideal and his criticism is non-constructive, but his attitude is still socially conscious. Mutt admires the art of living and different and peculiar ways of living. Rui, whose heavenly comments close most of the stories, is a regular at the bar called Peldik. The comments are presented as a voice from the crowd, not from the street, where life exists, but from a bar, from a marginal area. Perhaps Rui is the most consistent internal emigrant? Anyway, there is something positive in him; he is satisfied with the Peldik bar and is happy to say something important in order to feel his own importance.
Mutt is a wonderful narrator, especially good with characters and descriptions; he is too restless to express himself in longer genres, but his feuilleton-like short pieces are enjoyable and he analyses society with an attentive glance and a sharp pen.
Valentine Nõlvak Ellujääja mälestused (The Survivor’s Memoirs)
Tallinn, Varrak, 2007. 689 pp
This voluminous book about its author’s life has already had huge success with readers and it is not an exaggeration to say that, in the genre of memoir, the memories of an unknown village woman can well compete with a wonderful book well-known and loved by the media pianist Käbi Laretei. A life is a story in its own right. People write down their stories and, each year, a couple of dozen memoirs are published in Estonia. Some of them are read only by a few, but others can boast great popularity.
The author of this 700-page book of memoirs, Valentine Nõlvak, was born somewhere in Russia, in a village of Estonian emigrants, in 1914. Her story begins as a chain of sparse and rapidly alternating memory images, fixing the moods and sensations a child can comprehend: war brings hunger, her sisters die one by one, the family repatriates to Estonia, her mother dies, a wicked stepmother appears, and her father dies. Valentine and her only remaining sister are sent to an orphanage. After that, her life is filled with numerous credible and incredible events and happenings; she lacks only a major love story. Nõlvak’s memories form a story of one woman’s ‘small’ history, linking it to the ‘great’ history. The narrator constantly refers to the passing of time, noting the years 1917, 1933, 1949, 1953, etc. Valentine’s (Valli’s) life seems to contain only twists and turns. From the orphanage she is sent to a foster home, where she is made to work like a slave; after a short course of study at a home economics school, she continues her endless toil as a farm hand with very poor wages. This was a period of economic crisis and all jobs were scarce. Nõlvak’s memoirs offer a much more colourful image of the life of the 1930s than the social critical novels of some writers, undermining the myth of the Estonia of that time as a fairy tale country, where everybody was happy, and adding a colourful page to Estonian literary history. Valli was a tireless worker, but she was unable to get rich by working. She hadn’t a penny to her name, but she did have her children, her sister and skilful hands.
True love remained only a dream for her, but there were several men in her life and she had children. She kept her chin up, no matter what happened. An episode of swimming in the Narva River illustrates her attitude. This river, a border river between Estonia and Russia, is full of difficult rapids. Valli overestimated her strength and went swimming; she fought on and barely reached the bank a few kilometres downriver, but she survived. Similarly, she survived deportation to Siberia. The years of the Soviet regime brought hunger to Valli and her children, the ordinary village life was turned upside down, and forest brethren hid in the forest and attacked Soviet officials. Valli was accused of helping them and, for a time, her book describes her life as a prisoner in the Patarei prison and her life as a deportee in Siberia. All kinds of things happened to Valli, and the only thing she could not do was travel: as was true for almost all Estonians of the time, for her, too, the only foreign travel was her deportation to Siberia.
This book is not a novel, but a memoir. The Survivor’s Memoirs is dynamic, its style is fluent and its dialogues are rich and plentiful. The author seems to have had a literary model and she has striven to stay true to it; at the same time, the identity of the author and the first person narrator indicates autobiographical writing. Valli’s narrative is full of detail and, in a way, consciously constructed: when writing about her private life, she always weaves in some general indicators of time. She narrates rather than interpreting. The more dramatic the life episode, the more colourful the text, but the author can make, as if by chance, even daily routine memorable.
Each text is governed by its author’s viewpoints. Nõlvak’s memoirs cannot be used as a history textbook, and a historian could find much to dispute or to specify here. But for the reader, this is a good and fluent book reminiscent of books in older times. Valli herself is a proper and respectable character; men in her life are usually lazy and indecent drunkards or simply not fit for a hard life. The Survivor’s Memoirs is a unique book, fluent and credible, although with a few spells of melodrama. It can be read as a novel and believed as a documentary work.
Leelo Tungal. Täisminevik (The Past Perfect)
Tallinn, Tänapäev, 2007. 380 pp
Leelo Tungal (1947) is best known as an author of children’s and young adults’ books, and as the chief editor of the younger children’s magazine Hea Laps. In addition, she has always been true to poetry – the genre that brought her to the Estonian literary scene. Her work first appeared in a youth magazine in 1958 and her first poetry collection was published in 1966. The present collection of poems was preceded by about a dozen poetry books for adults, and even more poetry books for children. Tungal has authored humorous books for young adults and written many texts for school primers and textbooks. She has translated poetry from several languages, and her own poems have been translated into Russian, Finnish, English and Lithuanian.
In her youth, her poetry world was inhabited by romantic moods. She later found subjects in women’s lives, but also reacted to topical problems of everyday life.
The title of Tungal’s collection has a deep meaning – The Past Perfect can be interpreted in different ways, including a reference to the human life cycle. The poems are divided into five cycles, in chronological order, reflecting different chapters of the author’s life. The cycles bear metonymic titles: Who passed Through a Living Tree – youth; Garden of the Night; Happiness Arrives at Half Past Eleven – love, marriage, children; We Went over the Mountain – middle age and the bitterness of loss; and Today’s Clouds. Tungal’s softly lyrical and feminine work, which has, to a certain extent, been overshadowed by the work of her more powerful contemporaries, reveals, in this book, her world of poetry in the form of a woman’s life cycle. A young girl, her senses open to the world, writes about nature, family (her mother, father and grandmother), about her moods and state of mind, and about the surrounding world. Her simple love poems are in pastel shades or are delicately allegorical. She also finds poetry in everyday life and her experiences in rearing her children, her language becomes more rational, and she states her points of view more strongly and precisely. She writes on everyday topics and expresses her contempt for the stupidity and indifference that can be found in the world. The loss of a loved one brings pain and seriousness into Tungal’s poetry; she reflects on the meaning and value of many things in her life.
Her earlier verses are mostly rhymed and sometimes slightly mannerist; she has even written a few sonnet sequences. In the 1980s, she started experimenting with free verse and her later work is mostly in free verse. Tungal loves humour and often finds funny moments in everyday life that can be rendered in verse; she is a popular author of song lyrics and has even written a few plays. She finds her voice by combining her deep emotionality and rationality, which she has acquired from practical life. In spite of losses, her world is warm and pure. She is not ambitious – she works, writes about working and finds support in her children and children’s children. Her poetry is much appreciated, especially by women readers, and the only reason she cannot be called the grand old lady of children’s literature is because she is not all that old.
Maarja Kangro. Tule mu koopasse, mateeria (Come into My Cave, Matter)
Tallinn, Eesti Keele Sihtasutus, 2007. 95 pp
Come into My Cave, Matter, is Maarja Kangro’s (1973) second collection of poetry. Having begun her literary work as a translator (of poetry, opera librettos, plays and prose texts), Maarja Kangro (Leelo Tungal’s daughter) quite naturally started writing poetry as well. Her first collection, Kurat õrnal lumel (The Devil on Delicate Snow) (2006), was well received and, in comparison, the second shows even greater maturity.
Kangro is an intellectual poet, who loves paradoxes and detailed observations. Her poetry is headstrong and even contradictory. She writes about spaces and things, events and phenomena, living and lifeless things, and about people’s attitudes toward them. She almost never writes about the feelings of a poet and she never presents herself as a sensitive and suffering poet. She looks around, with a smile, and sees wonderful and funny things. She notices tracks left by somebody and interpreted by somebody else, but she reads an entirely different message into these tracks, not intended by those who left them. Her poetry is full of surprises and requires an ironical, or at least a humorous, reader. “Startled by its own deeds/ an animal peers from under the blanket, with rounded eyes/ and it does not come out”.
An intellectual poet is often a poet concerned with social problems. Maarja Kangro does, indeed, have her own point of view, “If I have to make a choice/ between two governments/ one being economically inept/ but politically correct and sadly liberal/ and the other economically wildly efficient/ but conservative, bearing an ugly shield/ I would choose the politically correct one”, or, “This is my dream: a bright emptiness, a white board, where now and then somebody appears whom I can help”. But who, or how, should she help? “I look at my sleeping love: its face is cleaner/ than your images of pets or primeval beasts/ --- / Should I take it, like an innocent and shining sword and go out to wield it/ to frighten all whiners?”
Kangro loves to ‘pester the arrow of time’, to play with words and shift meanings. She has said that many of her poems have been inspired by actual events, or things or details she has seen. She assembles her findings into images, sets them into unexpected contexts, and tries hard to keep from laughing out loud. She is strong enough to make her texts powerful and intense: “Come to me, graphic image of the letter/ and acoustics of the sound! Come to me, let us embrace and sleep! Come into my cave to hide, matter!”