Kristiina Ehun: Emapuhkus

by Tiina Kirss

Kristiina Ehin.  Emapuhkus. (Maternity Leave). Tallinn: Pandekt, 2009, 107 (5) pp. Ill. Cover illustration by the author; illustrations Lemmi Kuulberg, photographs Ingmar Muusikus.

The inexactitude of translating the title of Kristiina Ehin’s fifth poetry collection Maternity Leave is telling: in Estonian, the time period of two years after a child’s birth during which a mother receives a (small) state salary is designated emapuhkus— literally ‘mother-rest’ or ‘mother-vacation. Those who have known and lived together with young children nod knowingly at the oxymoron: The first two years of a child’s life are no vacation, and not necessarily restful, particularly for the mother. Furthermore, only in the ideal does this state-sanctioned interval provide her a break from the workplace and from earning her bread: too often, a ‘mother-salary’ is not enough. Kristiina Ehin`s boldly worded and defiant title resists the bureaucratic flatness of the concept of emapuhkus: throughout the collection she restores colour and lyricism both to the word and the life season. Ehin’s own two years with her little son did indeed allow her to draw breath, for poetry to flow, and for it to bump over real-world obstacles with the gracious help of words—the absence of places for children in a busy airport, the dream image of a bird harmed by an oilslick jarring with the peaceful glimpse of her sleeping infant. Most of the collection does not take the tone of reproach, nor does it fall into cooing, pink-and-blue sentiment. Ehin`s poetic motherhood may at times be a blatant sort of theme, at times understated, but throughout she celebrates her subject, fiercely, as is proper to poetry. In this collection, more than in her earlier ones, the personal becomes public, and locates the verge of the political: making a world habitable for children and other human beings must insist on a liveable environment, and provoke the caring to make it so.

Some Estonian readers may find that by making her motherhood thematic, Ehin defects from lyricism, reflecting squeamishness about explicit mention of a woman’s body in the condition of motherhood, however traditionally honourable the role. The spectre of ‘feminism’ of whatever kind and feather remains a spook in Estonian public discourse, met most frequently with embarrassment, or a derisive laugh. But why not make mothering visible in full colour? Kristiina Ehin is in good company among Estonian women poets in this respect—Tiia Toomet, Katre Ligi, Kauksi Ülle, and the poet’s own mother, Ly Seppel-Ehin, to mention a few, have also written poetry about motherhood—its humour, quick flickers of deep wisdom, as well as its ordinary, repetitive, and drab aspects. If the emphatic quality of her thematization of mothering extends slightly beyond the Estonian comfort zone, Ehin brushes fingers with women poets elsewhere in the world, such as Robin Morgan, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Dorothy Livesay, Marie Ponsot, Margaret Atwood-- in their evocations of the mother-condition.
Kristiina Ehin`s poetry is brewed from folklore, which continues to rouse her imagination. The depth and range of her knowledge points to her university studies, with an MA thesis in comparative folklore on feminist possibilities for the interpretation of Estonian folk poetry. Many of the best, most pungent poems in Emapuhkus are narrative, and paradoxically the images in these poems are brighter and more definite than in her more discursive free-verse poems in which the extraordinary is born or stands revealed from the peeled skin of the ordinary. Many of the poems breathe in the tempo of ritual, and draw on Finno-Ugric myths and folktales. There are bold accents, appropriations and reversals: processions of maidens in this collection (Neiud  kui me lähme haprad küünlakroonid peas/Maidens when we go bearing fragile crowns of candles), on their way to a wedding or to feed the blue sea-cattle on the shore are passionate, not demure. In one of the early poems, the poet is taking off (instead of putting on) a white silk wedding dress—perhaps one she has never worn--, in order to shape-shift into a bright bird, the bearer of ‘feathered humans’ into the world.

Indeed, the spice and beauty of this collection comes in part from the fact that in becoming and singing ‘mother’, Kristiina Ehin is vitally attuned to the maiden and the crone.  The voice of the older woman is emphatically present through family tradition, and she speaks in prose.  As Ehin explains on the book’s flyleaf, she has framed her own experience of mothering with excerpts from the written memoirs of women in her motherline, inserted in handwritten pages between groups of her own poems: aunts, great-aunts and great-grandmothers speak in their own voice and dialect, their names and birthdates embroidered on a blanket photographed on the facing page, growing ever denser in its web of references over the course of the collection. This maneuver is both deeply honouring as well as risky: quoting from memoirs is a subtle but real appropriation of others’ speech—even when the speakers are ‘close ones’—one’s blood relatives and intimates. There is an implicit warning here to respect reticence when that may have been the speaker’s wish—to be remembered quietly. Would it not have been enough to evoke the names on the blanket? Ehin shows her tact and does not trespass this often slender boundary: she refrains from „taking the voice“ of the foremother deported to Siberia, or the one who buried a child who died of plague-- and writes no poems in which she embodies another.

Emapuhkus is a book of exquisite visual design, rich in pattern and colour, a book to touch and treasure: in dire economic times, with a stiff sales tax on books, this is a book to own and give.  As there is already one fine collection of Kristiina Ehin`s poetry translated into English (The Drums of Silence, Oleander Press, 2007), it is to be hoped that this one will follow closely on its heels.

Tiina Kirss