Return to the Light: “Bright Dusky Bright” by Eeva Liisa Manner
Bright Dusky Bright by Eeva Liisa Manner
Translated by Emily Jeremiah – Waterloo Press 2009
a review by Paul Stubbs
When reading the poems of Eeva-Liisa Manner, and discovering the landscapes that gave birth to them, I am reminded of these lines by the great Finnish/Swedish poet Edith Sodergran, lines in fact inscribed upon her gravestone, ‘See, here is eternity’s shore, here the stream murmurs by, and death plays in the bushes his same monotonous melody’, for amid the surrounding cacophony of nothingness, the ice-empires and snow-creatures that dominate the psychological terrain of this poet’s imagination, we sense the always pervading presence of conscience and creation combined, in poems that seem to de-personalize and tether the ‘I’ of the poet to a frozen post in the mind of the reader for the poem’s duration. We are, like her, forced to watch as:
‘Snow moves like a low animal,
Nests in corners.
Scarce panes and eyes freeze.
If a bird strays in, it drops.
This freezing hand fails to warm it.’
Eeva-Liisa Manner was born in Helsinki on 5 Dec 1921. She began her ‘career’ as a poet in 1944 with ‘Black and Red’, but it was in her breakthrough collection ‘This journey’, published in 1956 , and from which this book begins, that she truly found her voice, and which led to her becoming one of the most influential modernists in postwar Finland. Time and dream combine in her poems, to pre-empt and then surpass mystery, a ruthless subjectivity that uses the pen as a chisel to carve free the inaudible, the unsaid, from the great white mountainous side of the page:
‘Night’s coldness moves slowly further
like the edge of a glacier
and covers small corpses.
The trees outside bear emptiness,
moves stone-like from tree to tree.’
(‘How loneliness emanates from me’)
Throughout her poems she attempts to sacrifice the ‘events’ of the world’ for the ‘events’ of poetry, in a vision that drags language on a word-halter into the furthest interior reaches of her experience. Her poems are ‘modern’ only in as much as they by-pass any pre-conceived formula to speak, relying instead upon a pure language ground out of the fine silt of silence, where everything seems about to defuse and disappear. One of the strongest and most pivotal poems in this important modernist collection is her poem ‘Descartes’ a poem in which she reverses the philosophers most famous dictum, ‘I think, therefore I am’, turning it instead into ‘I thought, but was not’ a seemingly irrevent notion but which plays dividends in the way that the poet reinterprets the duplicity of this truth for her own means:
‘I thought, but was not.
I said animals were machines.
I had lost everything apart from reason.
Give my regards to all those
Whose knowledge is secret…
Tell them that philosophy is loneliness and a dead body
Which copulates with reason,’
The beauty of the line beginning ‘give my regards…’ is remarkable and could only be considered anti-social if it were uttered towards those in Heaven. The philosophical interests of a poet are of course always more illusive, more indirect than the philosopher, in order to force a meaning out into the world; the responsibility lies only with the imagination and, in the case of this poet, the supernatural and the atomic particles that get scattered by every dislocated word, the way she loosens the senses, and opens the valves of seeing afresh:
‘Rain opens the sleeper’s ears
Rain opens the walker’s shadows
Rain opens hearing, walking, inwards.’
(‘Rain opens the sleeper’s ears’)
She creates of the natural world something akin to what Mallarmé termed as being a ‘brutal mirage’, an unreal but compelling rupture in the real world. The ‘ideas’ in her poems overcome quickly the poem’s conception, which creates for the reader the sensation that we are experiencing what the poet is experiencing at exactly the same time. Each poem like a thermal-secret, is squeezed free of ice-enclaves, and is coaxed out by the poet from the discreet syntactical hiding places of her imagination:
‘And the gates open, open-
Purple beaks open, are variations and flute,
Cast-off wings open, rise, are fugue,
Towers tremble, flowing grass
Weaves music from light and water’
Music to this poet is as important as silence, in fact they both at times share the same irrevocable pitch, a superabundant soundtrack played out on the musical scale of trees, grass, and seasons. Mozart and Bach are evoked throughout and appear to re-organize their orchestral arrangements in the tops of trees, beside a river, retuning their instruments in the larynx and throats of birds:
‘tuned birds flutter
laughter in their beaks
drops of Mozart
It is like watching nature search in vain for a suitable and transcendental conductor, to play out its successes and failures in language; And that ‘conductor’ is Eeva-Liisa Manner. One of the most important poetical props used over and over by this poet is the ‘mirror’, of which she peels back like tinfoil from the surface of stones, hoists up like a sheet of glass from the depths of water, as she locates always a co-object as image. It is a slide-show in which the inanimate and the living cannot be truly separated:
‘The bird ascends,
parts from its water-image;
the mirror flies;’
This poem from her 1964 collection ‘The seasons shifted’ is synonymous with how she develops the ‘image’ in the later collections. Her imagination, like a sundial, learns to activate and control the shadow-movements of her own words, thus revealing the minute shifts in space that occur beyond the natural eyesight of the human. Her poems mirror (literally) the dictum of the French poet Paul Valéry when he said, ‘I am born on all sides… I am the analogue of what is.’ This poet sees, like Blake, from the fixed-centre of her own crystal-ball, where the world, still splintering, still becoming, remains neutral, a place where science, anthropology, politics, and other renderings of humanity appear still barely organized particulars of a planet still reveling in the perfection of its creator’s draughtmanship:
‘Will you see how everything shifts
Slightly each moment
and becomes more modest and more primitive
(like children’s drawings
or protozoa: the ABC of the soul)’
There is no confusion of thought in her poems, no clunking or irregular philosophy, there is merely the need to uncover the poetical and imaginative motives of the mirror and the object in a reflective world. Reading this selection of her work I am drawn to the conclusion that she seems an unconscious proponent of what Ezra Pound meant when he wrote, ‘Relations between things are more important than the things themselves’ such as in her Rilkean image that concludes one of the finest poems in this book ‘Where is the end of endless days?’:
‘It’s as if an angel-yearning for death
had removed his wounded steps
from the magnet of dust and gone
brushing past so deftly that you do not forget it’
From the earliest collections to the later ones this poet chose to stay close to her original and most accustomed themes, water, echoes, snow, light, landscapes, trees and mortality, but in the later work there does seem (maybe inevitably so) a greater sense of finality, a hardening up of the once shifting syntactical terrain:
‘This heart too will tire, all clocks tire,
now its still throbbing in my wrist,
knocking at my ribs, a boat-shaped coffin’
Waterloo Press have done a fine job in producing this book and bringing it to a larger audience and it is certainly a book to celebrate, and to thank also the translator for producing poems that seem themselves as almost perfect co-objects/ mirrors to the original poems. The imagination of this excellent poet is brought full circle for the reader by this book, the return by ‘other boats’ to a final lone destination:
‘A weightless and easy departure, a return to the light’.
by Paul Stubbs