Ene Mihkelson. Naming the things of the world

by Janika Kronberg







  The tragic Estonian poet, Juhan Liiv, who lived on the knife-edge between genius and insanity, lived at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and went into history as a prophet, foretelling the coming of the Estonian state in his works. The Estonians' belief in poetry and the power of words originates partly with him: the word that has been uttered by a poet, a thing that has once been given a name, has been destined to become the reality. The Juhan Liiv Poetry Prize, established about thirty years ago, is unique among Estonian literary prizes. It honours the word and is not a monetary prize, but the winner is awarded a shepherd's bag made of leather, or some other leather artefact; it is presented to the author of the most outstanding poem published in any given year, the chairman of the awarding committee being the winner of the previous year's prize.


  In 1999, Ene Mihkelson was awarded this prize for the second time,  and this was not a chance occurrence. The selection was made by

  the committee, chaired by the Grand Old Man of Estonian poetry,

  Kalju Lepik, who passed away on May 30th, that same year. The

  decision of the committee conveys acknowledgement for the work,

  in the best traditions of Estonian poetry: a master recognising

  another master as equal.


  Ene Mihkelson (born 1944) studied Estonian literature at university,

  worked for a short time as a teacher, then as a researcher at the

  Estonian Literary Museum, but for the greater part of her life she

  has been a free-lance writer in Tartu. Although she published her

  first work as early as 1967, her first collection of poetry "Selle talve

  laused" (The Sentences of This Winter) could not appear until

  1978. Being the child of a Forest Brother, she was not approved by

  the Soviet powers-that-be; the subject of fighting for freedom, which

  fills her work, later gave reason for the analysis of tragic events in

  Estonian history. By now, her voice has been heard in Estonian

  poetry for a quarter of a century, and she has published ten

  collections of poetry; two of them - "Võimalus õunast loobuda" (A

  Chance to Refuse the Apple) (1990) and "Hüüdja hääl" (A Calling

  Voice) (1993)  - being recognised as the best books of those

  particular years. Her latest collection of poetry to date, "Pidevus

  neelab üht nuga" (Continuity Swallows a Knife) was published in

  1997, and a large volume of her selected poetry will appear in

  2000. Mihkelson's poems have been translated into German, most

  recently in a representative selection of Estonian poetry Die Freiheit

  der Kartoffelkeime (Cologne, 1999). Apart from poetry, Mihkelson

  has published four novels, a collection of short stories "Surma

  sünnipäev" (The Birthday of Death), and a selection of critical

  essays entitled "Kirjanduse seletusi" (Explanations of Literature).

  From among her novels the polyphonic "Nime vaev" (The Torment

  of the Name) (1994) was best received. This book dug hauntingly

  deep into the key strata of historical problems at the dawn of the

  new independence.


  With regard to form, Mihkelson's poetry is far from traditional: her

  poems cannot be divided into verses or stanzas, they lack metre,

  phonological instrumentation and rhythm. Potential pauses are only

  marked by capital letters, accentuating the beginnings of

  sentences, and by enjambements, breaking lines and interrupting

  the text at rather unexpected places. Characteristic of Mihkelson's

  poetry is its intense, concise and strained language, unexpected

  inversions and paradox. On the one hand, her poems are unified

  and complete, on the other, they are fragmentary and resemble

  fragments torn from some magical-realist saga, the hazy beginning

  of which drawing its subject-matter from the collective mythological

  past. Then her poetry moves to her childhood, spent in a Forest

  Brethren bunker, in a collective prison of the 1950s, and finally, it

  reaches the present by depicting the pains of the rebirth of society,

  and by the uncompromising manifestation of freedom. Mihkelson's

  words are full of pain, she says that "Writing is a wound on the

  white body of paper that is torn by touches", and a sentence written

  by Hermann Hesse that she quotes in one of her poems, showing

  the sufferings of people who live on the border of two epochs as a

  real hell, could well be the motto of the whole of her poetry. The

  style of her poetry is allegorical, it discusses metaphysical subjects

  and rises above its own epoch.


  Earlier, it has been said that Mihkelson's poetry is difficult to

  understand, but this accusation mostly originated with the Soviet

  tendency at levelling. Factors shaping the fate of a small nation,

  relations between people, history, and the world  are, indeed,

  intricately and paradoxically mixed in her work, but I always recall

  some verses from her first collection "Selle talve laused": "I have

  been asked, whether I can make it more complicated, and I have

  told people that I cannot make it more complicated as it already is,

  ditto making it easier." This sounds like a maxim, written in another

  poem: "If to write poetry at all, then only in an impossible way".

  Such is the credo of the poet Mihkelson: writing poetry always

  means seeking one's own  truth instead of being content with

  everyday truths, it is an adventure of language in search of an ever

  more exact expression of this truth.


  Through intertextual relationships, Mihkelson's poetry relates

  intensely to our past, and our earlier poetic tradition, with our

  present, (but does not become ephemeral), and also with our

  future. Never leaving the national plane, her poetry has evolved

  towards greater universality, it has developed with global time,

  stepping into the new millennium, and with the Estonian time,

  counting the tenth anniversary of the new independence. This

  poetry points out the chance of being totally modern in a superb

  way, of being contemporary, a phenomenon which can also be

  seen in the prize poem. The soul bird in the poem, who loses its

  feathers one by one, is directly related with the fate of Juhan Liiv

  and the motif of the wounded bird which can be found in Liiv's

  poetry, but also reaches further out towards global culture: from the

  beginning, birds have been depicted in Christian art as the symbols

  of "winged souls", in the mythology of ancient Egypt birds

  symbolised the spiritual, as opposed to the material.


  The main aim of Mihkelson's poetry is to give names to things.

  Memory and naming are her dominating motifs. Mihkelson names

  things and phenomena, as only things possessing names are able

  to persist. As regards the past, naming denotes saving something

  essential from oblivion, and as regards the present, it is an

  invitation for something essential to come into being. Mihkelson

  firmly believes that all things come into being when they are born in

  language, she believes that the Word creates time. She herself

  thus becomes the creator of poetry and time.


Janika Kronberg