iiii-iiii-iiiiiiiiii! Observable trends of Maarja Kangro' poetry and consciousness

by Jürgen Rooste

On the day I finally get around to writing this article, which I had been planning to do for over six months, I am stopped at a traffic light by a slightly pushy, friendly Mormon, wishing to know where I am heading. He, apparently, is on his way to church. I tell him I am going shopping, as the shop is today’s church anyway, where people worship goods. I leave the poor American standing there in quiet bewilderment and, hurrying towards the shops, I feel that this could be a situation from a Maarja Kangro poem, a poem I came across while reading her work again in the past few days. After all, there is no way I can convince anyone that I did not invent this incident or imagine or quote it, and then believed it myself, is there? 
In a sense, this kind of restlessness, a fear of making a mistake or of existing, could be the key to Kangro’s poetry: I often cannot understand who is talking there. Is it her alter ego or an invented character/fiction or a kind of mystical-magical voice coming from the tissues of the language itself, the incomprehensible metaphysics of the world consciousness? An opera choir of the mysterious creatures of the world? And – in the course of time, this play of voice(s) and its orchestral possibilities have considerably changed, expanded.

Maarja Kangro arrived in Estonian poetry at quite an opportune time. We could say that there was a gap, a hole shaped just like her, in the younger poetry, and it had to be filled. Considering the relative youth of the debuting poets of the last decade, she might be called a late starter. Kangro did not publish her first book immediately, heedlessly, at the age of 18 or even 16; she did not railroad the publication of her books, but waited for them to take shape (at least this is how it seems to this bystander). The results so far – two collections which, compared with the Estonian average (and not only including those who arrived in poetry in the 1990s or later) - are much more mature and compact: Kurat õrnal lumel (Devil on Tender Snow, 2006, hereafter KÕL) and Tule mu koopasse, mateeria (Come to My Cave, Matter, 2007, hereafter TMKM).
Kangro is perhaps better known as a translator (after all, who besides a few living classics would be known in Estonia as poets?). She has translated the poetry of, for example, Andrea Zanzotto, Valerio Magrelli, Bertolt Brecht, Hans Magnus Enzensberger et al, and also popular black humour stories by Lemony Snicket, and Umberto Eco’s History of Beauty. Kangro is, additionally, one of the few consciously and purposefully busy opera librettists, although she admits that “the librettist is never the main character of an opera” (Life after Death. Sketch of an Estonian opera libretto. Vikerkaar 10-11/2007, p 148). So, she is a multi-disciplinary literary heroine on several thankless fronts.

When Kangro’s first collection appeared, I was fascinated by her skill in creating images. She has constructed tiny compact worlds, dug near-perfect wellsprings of text, and established her own mythology with almost (micro)cosmic dimensions. And I was afraid, most of all, because she seemed to deliberately avoid everything personal, the pain that physically (not only psycho-physiologically) increases with the artist appearing on stage. Of course, it wasn’t quite like that: this picture was partly the result of my own often simplistic reading (or childishly: I want from the world what I see; I understand things as they appear to me at the moment). This error could well be revealed by a cry of freedom: iiii iiii iiiiiiiiiii / the wind carries my voice up / into the hills / where beautiful people live / and bring up boring ones (KÕL, p 26; in these few lines, I sense quite a number of inter-textual references, evoking the paranoia that I might be a paranoiac reader) – although speculating and causing unease (who is that ‘I’?): a handful of sweet irony is diffused, which marks the closeness of charisma.
With her second book, of course, the personal dimension and the trace of mundane matter on the text deepen, increasingly indicating their presence. The image of journeying (a bit like the beatniks), of being on the road (specific locations crop up in the first collection as well), becomes significant; for instance, the double poem Ice Road I-II (TMKM, pp 16-17; this could well be the author’s fantasy; I’m talking here of impact/credibility in the sense of poetry) has a totally realistic, personal-pictorial feel.
There are even moments when nothing remains of poetry or an attempt at poetry, except the most personal and painful (in my opinion, this is the best part of poetry, when it starts to touch people). For example, when the narrator has to admit, after useless attempts to save a little hedgehog badly mauled by a dog: A little hedgehog still living, at summer's / darkest hour, and I have / no right to burden him with writing // Or do I?  A person sits, drinks, / does sport, is sympathetic, philosophises. / What he still knows how to do. / Thinks about perpetuity.  Drinks again. // To mitigate the suffering / we don't kill a hedgehog / or an old vicious dog. / We drink, we don't know anything else. / In memory of us, animals! (TMKM, p 39). It is difficult to get any harsher than that, and this is also a mark of one of the more enchanting and essential aspects of Kangro’s work.

Only very briefly does Kangro reveal the origin of the often repeated image of animals/insects and, when she does, it happens in an environment producing alienation and conditionality, in the poem Zoo: Animal. Animal. / As a child, as soon as I smelled you / I understood that I would never find / the words persevering to your depth (TMKM, p 41).
Her pictures of creatures exceed all her other charming abstractions: Estonian poetry does not have much philosophising, surreally playful creepy-crawly and badger poetry, on Kangro’s level. And this is no chance affinity, flirting with the reader – Kangro’s world-view contains a special ecological awareness, constant concern, observation, and perception of the inevitable. The world is in secret movement, permanently alive even without us, “thicket Narcissus waiting for ticks”, she admits: I lie motionless in the weak sunlight / insects and ticks move / unhurriedly (KÕL, p 10). Writing, too, is a debt to nature; it could happen at the expense of tiny beetles who are squashed by a pencil on paper, and only because the writer, too, wants to spread out and bask in the only patch of sunshine in the garden (KÕL, p 13). A familiar-looking spider asks the human creature: “quo vadis, you rotten egg?” (KÕL, p 8). And what have we got to say to that? Where are we scurrying?
That ecological awareness personifies (but does not necessarily celebrate) even the simplest glacier water. Of the melting of glaciers, Kangro writes: Water sees that its younger brother / is so erotic / and even more erotically / in the world's downfall accuses / itself.  Old water simply does what it can, as always (TMKM, p 10). And the “pigeons, my uglies” in their carnality and fugacity and filth (TMKM, p 7) give cause to argue about sanctity and profanity and reply to Allen Ginsberg’s query about the sacred: “Everything is holy” apparently has to take into account / time as a whole.

Together with her younger artist sister Kirke, Maarja Kangro published the wonderful children’s book Fruit Dragon (Puuviljadraakon, 2006), which confirms my paranoiac search. In short: the activities of men cutting down a forest unleashes an unstoppable chain of events – an egg standing in the depths of the forest suddenly hatches a fruit dragon who systematically destroys the crop of the apple, plum, pear, banana etc republics. All the armies and evil rulers are powerless against the monster, who additionally refuses to eat princesses. Thanks to a clever little boy, it is finally established that the dragon is an extremely rare animal, practically extinct; he is lured to an island where he is lavishly fed and protected. And nobody tests a nuclear weapon on him (although the ruler of the Egg Country would like to try) or poison (that would please the ruler of the Mushroom Country). Come on, say I am paranoiac, say that in the light of this crazy and beautiful fairy-tale we should read Kangro’s eco-sensitive poems. Say it, and I believe you. I actually believe everything I am told. Really.

In her recent poems Kangro has seriously developed her main topics: here is imagery-focused pictorial poetry, social irony, ecological awareness and (seemingly?) revealed personal presence, including sperm-smeared sheets. Other topics have been added more lucidly, such as worry about language and people, although I tend to think that the anxiety for the Estonian language and people (and irony against them) in fact constitute the same desire for biological diversity, the same concern for the established insect paths and small hedgehogs. To my disappointment, however, there seem to be fewer animal images. I don’t know why, but I feel great sympathy for animals, even in poetry. And although all of Kangro’s intellectual-emotional poetry deserves attention, I am most drawn to her poems about creepy-crawlies. More beasts, Miss Kangro, and your poetry will have secured a place not only in the history of Estonian poetry, but in my heart as well!