John Taylor on 1001 Winters, poems by Kristiina Ehin, translated from the Estonian by Ilmar Lehrpere (Bitter Oleander)

A generous, representative, bilingual selection of Kristiina Ehin’s verse, rendered from the Estonian by Ilmar Lehrpere, has appeared from the Bitter Oleander Press. 1001 Winters gathers translations from volumes entitled The Drums of Silence (2007), New Moon Morning (2007), Burning the Darkness (2009), Scent of Your Shadow (2010), and The Final Going of Snow (2011). Ehin.jpegSo much work all at once shows the coherence and the dichotomous vision of this poet (born in 1977) who is as attentive to “this [side]” as to the “far side of seeing.”

As to her coherence, Ehin’s symbolic lyricism is often based on Baudelairean correspondences. Nature is omnipresent. Configurations of natural elements represent thoughts, feelings, behavior, significant events, or even the entire personality of the narrator. “I sleep as mud in the forest,” writes Ehin in an untitled poem, continuing:

at the bottom of lakes ditches
as mire in deep hollows
in marshes
on blind eyes

of decaying roots
deadnettle blossoms
and ivy
I am made

but a big thistleKristiina Ehlin

was my heart
a thistle was my heart.

In another poem, “Unrequited Loves,” the heart becomes “a big river mussel / slowly and painfully / a pearl is growing in it.” Somewhat similarly, the narrator metamorphoses herself into a wolf in another piece, though she fails to be accepted by her “grey kin” because her “gnarled human nature / still shows in [her] eyes.” This fairytale-like quality characterizes many poems. Other, more complex, pieces blend allusions to the contemporary world into a similar kind of fairytale or fabular ambience:

Fearfully fine snow falling
I am a red she-wolf
and all your candles are burning
here in this chamber between sheepskins only an hour
or two are left and . . .
with the snorting of black stallions
with the crackling of life’s most beautiful frost-flowers
darkness comes after us

along tram lines
along telephone lines
along the city
of restless joy . . .

EhinCover.jpgAs a general rule, Ehin intensifies or expands sensation into symbolism, all the while giving the appurtenances of the real world a mythic or cosmic setting.

Yet another way of looking employed by the poet must be taken into account. Despite the symbolism of many poems, Ehin occasionally focuses on a contemporary world from which Nature has been banished or is, at least, much less present and pristine. The simplest examples of this shift in vision can be spotted in telltale imagery recalling the post- or the pre-Russian period. Estonia became independent from the USSR in 1991, and sometimes Ehin underscores this:

The wind
in these eurorenovated ¬rooms
I hear too little of it
I only get an inkling when it strays
into the old oven flues
on the upper un-eurorenovated floor I hear it all the time
it blows in through every opening and over the cupboard sets
the loose edge of Russian-times wallpaper flapping
oh the wind
I tie a scarf round my head in the fashion of Parisians
and suddenly feel my fragility . . .

A still deeper evolution can be observed in poems about love or childbearing. In the following love poem, “old ears” are replaced by “new ones” that hearken no longer to the cosmos as a whole but rather to the sensations of the here and now. The “moist anemone” at the end is not symbolic in the way that some of the above-cited natural elements are:

Time devoured my old ears
with which I
listened to the cosmos

I’m already growing new ones
delicately sprouting
with which to climb
up along you
night after night
everything ever more sweet-pea
ever more here and now like moist anemone.

The same movement toward realism appears in poems about the poet’s child. In this piece, the apple tree and the “juice sloshing around” in the baby-bottle could not be more tangible, and the poet insists on “really”:

I don’t give you my breast anymore
the apple trees are in blossom for the second time in your life
I lull you to sleep beneath our garden’s
first and only Antonovka apple tree
and the juice sloshing around in your baby-bottle
is from that very same tree

juice from the autumn before last
when we were still one
when I wasn’t really a mother yet
and you weren’t really a child

here I want to be
your big sinewy
mother smelling of Antonvoka
really your mother
even though I don’t give you my breast anymore
really my child.

EhinB.jpegDo such lines convey a desire to break out of language, which even in its most realistic formulations is necessarily symbolic, and to attain the factuality of aliveness? This urge is even more explicitly expressed in another poem, which ends: “to breathe this moment in / to live seriously / without worrying / joyfully / without opening my mouth in song.” Is Ehin even quietly making a Rimbaud-like resolution to abandon poetry? Surely not, but it will be interesting to see where she goes from here. The dualities already underlying her writing seem to have created tensions that could prove to be fruitful. Some European poets and writers really came into their own when literature no longer seemed possible.

[Published January 15, 2013. 261 pages, $21.00, paperback]

John Taylor is the author of Into the Heart of European Poetry (Transaction). He has translated several French poets, including Philippe Jaccottet, Pierre-Albert Jourdan, Louis Calaferte, and Jacques Dupin. Among his seven books of personal writing is The Apocalypse Tapestries (Xenos), a collection of poems and short prose. He has just received the 2013 Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from AAP to translate selected work by Lorenzo Calogero.