Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Fairy Bog Mothers: Aase Berg, Remainland & Kristiina Ehin, The Scent of Your Shadow

I saw Kriistina Ehin read last night at Poetry International in London, as part of an event of Eastern European poets.Not only did Ehin's work sound linguistically completely different from Czech poet Sylva Fischerova and Slovenian poet Tomas Salamun, but it felt -- even smelt -- different (Ehin is very keen on the scent of feelings and sights: hence the title of her most recent collection, The Scent of Your Shadow).

In a dress she had embroidered with the names of her foremothers (going back ten generations), Ehin read poems about the daughters of the sea mother and their green cows; bird-brides; and purple skies. Rather than metaphors, her poems delve into the myth-kitty -- there's no referential pomo fun and games, but an inhabiting. As Sujata Bhatt suggests in her introduction to The Scent..., this full-bodied entry into Estonian mythology and language is political, after a period in which "all those who were writing and even speaking the language of the people had to experience severe clashes and struggles with the oppressor's tongue." Bhatt quotes from the charter for a poetry festival that Ehin organised in Estonia:
Creating poetry was not just some private, personal matter for Estonians but a communal activity and shared joy of creation full of collective power.
Drawing on the tradition of oral poetry to speak to an audience made of humans and the world -- and to remake that world continuously and collaboratively -- Ehin's poetry contains and continues stories passed from mother to daughter and the moss and icewater of the Estonian landscape, as well as the larger political history that has been inscribed upon it. In Ehin's poems, these things are not separate from one another, but contiguous and deeply implicated:
Together with the dusk I become
more like the white lilac
forget-me-not blue
lupin purple
ever more summer-night nocturnal
more noctural that this rainless Seven Brothers' Day night
I fall ever deeper into the lap of night
between the back garden's nettle bushes

I don't need your fire today
today I embrace
the big pure moon
to warm myself
I become more and more evening
ever more boat-like
more girlish and young-mannish
(Translated by Ilmar Lehtpere)

In her writing about motherhood and female sexuality, there is a feminism at once pragmatic and fairy tale, in which "the life of human women / … puts fetters on the heart / … and feelings only give rise to grief." The mood is close to Björk's "Human Behaviour" and to Moominvalley (which lies not far from Finland's Estonian border): Ehin, like Björk, seems to step from the cold, clear water of otherworlds with a solidity and practicality -- and a strangeness –- that our more southerly fey folk have lost.

Although "Aase Berg's poetry is nothing short of cutting-edge," as Lisa Jarnot notes, its language play fully immersed in the challenges posed by modernism and postmodernism to the stability of meaning, the poems in Remainland come from, and with, a similar otherworldliness: one that has been turned swampy and even cyborgic in and by cosmopolitan globalisation. The continuities of ritual and rural life that Ehin draws on -- and of whose disintegration she is keenly aware -- are echoic fragments in Berg's work, which could be called science fiction to Ehin's fantasy. But I hear a resonance between the poem quoted above and Berg's "The Dark Dovre":
Now I have waited here close by in the deep nights of Dovre. I have dropped cold stones into the blue chasm. I have tried to handle metal. I have moved through the graininess of the face. With fingers I have sought you through the ashes of the facial shape. Bloody wing quills have shot out of my hand, and I have dragged dark fins through water.
(Translated by Johannes Göransson)
Daniel Sjölin writes in the introduction to the book that Berg's poetry is "an unstable, risky and asocial research process" and contrasts it to "formal completion, purity and refinement" -- but Berg's poetry, with its fingers getting dirty in the matter of matter and myth, suggests a way out of this dichotomy through what it shares with Ehin's (undoubtedly lyrical) work. Both poets have written viscerally about motherhood (the mater of materia), and they elide and elude ideas of realism and the 'voice' for a more complex, archaic form of story-singing: new Mother Geese with new lullabies to scent the dark with their shadows.

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