Poems by a Man of Many Trades

by Ene-Reet Soovik

Poems by a Man of Many Trades

“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” John Keats once wrote. There is a beautiful bilingual book that strives to make some things, if not last forever, at least vanish less quickly. The book gives voice to representatives of Estonia’s endangered species. What makes it unique is that these species – both animals and plants – are not objectified, listed and described from an external point of view, but have been attributed consciousness of their fates, which they share with the reader, speaking in the first person. These rare inhabitants of the nature of this country tell us about their past and disclose their fears for the future; often they reflect on disappearing habitats, yet occasionally also express the hope of surviving side by side with humans. Lending a voice to those without power of speech is rare, and it is by no means the only unusual thing about the book. This amply illustrated work, published on handmade paper, is born out of a rare cooperation, being the fruit of an international cultural project and joining the efforts of people from the American Embassy in Estonia, the Ukrainian community in Estonia and an Estonian poet. Its English-language title is The Poetics of Estonia’s Endangered Species (Poeetiline punane raamat, 2007) and it is written in verse. The author of the brief and suggestive lines is Timo Maran, a member of the Erakkond circle of poets, who has published two other collections of poetry – Ground Water (Põhjavesi, 2001) and Turning to the Forest (Metsa pööramine, 2007).

    While The Poetics merges different art forms and unites the skills of people from different nationalities and cultural backgrounds, Timo Maran’s activities demonstrate a similar blend of different fields, for he is indeed a man of many trades. Besides being a poet, he is also a biologist by training and a semiotician by vocation. As a scholar, he is a mimicry specialist – his doctoral dissertation discussed this phenomenon of deceptive similarity from the point of view of the semiotics of communication. His research may seem to lead towards theoretical abstractions, yet he is no stranger to Estonia’s wild fields and woods – his knowledge and experience of the local wildlife informs his poetry. He has also been involved in film-making (itself a collective art), participating in the film projects of his father, Rein Maran, a renowned director of nature documentaries.

     Critics who have written on Maran’s poetry have mostly proceeded from the premise that his work is best appreciated within a tradition labelled ‘nature poetry’. Indeed, nature writing and nature poetry are among the key words he mentions on his website (http://lepo.it.da.ut.ee/~timo_m/index.html). The tradition certainly has a venerable history in Estonian, from archaic folk songs, through the formulaic flowery meadows of the 19th century up to the 21st century, in which nature often stands side by side, or is intertwined, with markedly more technological landscapes and mindscapes. It seems to be taken for granted that Maran’s poetry can be compared to the biology-aware writings of Jaan Kaplinski, probably the internationally best-known contemporary Estonian poet, and Tõnu Õnnepalu, who also writes under the pseudonym of Emil Tode and is one of the internationally best-known contemporary Estonian novelists, although he started off as a poet and continues to write poetry. It certainly makes sense to read Maran’s poems in this light. However, the ease with which the tradition can be seen to accommodate his texts has made some reviewers wary. The critics who have wished to escape what they have perceived as facile labelling have ended up claiming the opposite, or rather erasing the absoluteness of the category. Thus, Maran undeniably appears to be a nature poet, but also more than that. And, as befits a semiotician, he is more than aware of the power of creating and blurring borders and categories. On the one hand, Timo Maran the scholar poses the direct question “Where do your borders lie?” as the title of an article on the semiotical ethics of nature. On the other hand, the persona of a poem from Ground Water warns the reader of the deceptiveness of water’s clarity and prefers to adopt the guise of an amphibian, dwelling in two realms close to the bank and seeking simple truths – certainly not the One Truth.

     Simplicity is another notion several readers of Maran’s poetry have focussed on. The perceptive critic and Maran’s fellow semiotician Sven Vabar has offered a persuasive discussion of Maran’s verse, raising questions to which he professes to have found no easy answers: Is the poetry so simple and clear as to make its ethically environmentalist point too obvious? Do you as a reader intellectually agree with the poems’ messages, while remaining emotionally aloof, or do you feel empathy with their quiet spirituality? In short, is Timo a Mimicry Man who presents himself as a poet to mediate his world view, his respect for the living? Or is he a Poet in the romantic sense, inspired by Nature, with no conscious agenda in mind? Such critical discussions once again draw attention to the impossibility of categorising the poems, their occasional balancing on the thin line between broad generality and intimate introspection. It appears that, in principle, simple truths could be discovered in both of these.
     Such an awareness of the instability of categorisations, seeing the world in a flux of change, often is stereotypically linked to what could be termed postmodernist playfulness. And it is here that the poems really part company with the expectations one might have in terms of form and linguistic texture. For their formal side indeed is simple, often directly referential, evoking sensory experiences of natural environments in short lines, proceeding in a rhyme and metre that lend a certain protective structure to the poems, as if to assure the reader: “Look! We are poems! We are truly poem-like!” Also, these texts are anything but excessive, although, paradoxically, it is Artur Alliksaar, the Estonian master of playful linguistic excess par excellence, whom Maran has mentioned as a favourite poet and to whom he pays explicit homage in Ground Water.

     The sensitive translations into English by Riina Kindlam emphasise the images – both visual and sound images – rather than the dialogue, with its formal traditions of versification. The small selection published here illustrates the qualities of waiting, anticipation, change and return, which are so characteristic of Maran’s poetic universe, the nooks and crannies of which give refuge to the furry bumblebee, tired at the end of its busy life, as well as the kingfisher, who also appears in The Poetics of Estonia’s Endangered Species and might be nearing extinction. In addition to manifesting itself in settings with tangibly sensory qualities, the universe has a marked temporal dimension, the past and future sliding into the present moment, caught in the particular frames of individual poems. The sections of space-time brought into focus by the lens of each text may be descriptive scenes that take the transparency of language for granted – such poems are more numerous in the earlier collection. Yet this predominantly traditional poetic world is seasoned throughout with indicators of other approaches, flotsam and jetsam that have seeped into the stream of poetry from other disciplines. The question of the sufficiency of verbal representation flashes by on the wings of the kingfisher, whose flight across the river’s surface makes the poet admit that for this there are no words. A conservationist’s Red Book of Endangered Species may be needed to read a human heart. In a twist of grammar, people become trees – the very title Metsa pööramine suddenly becomes ambiguous if interpreted from the point of view of grammatical terminology, for the Estonian words could also be translated as Conjugation of the forest.

     So, once again the texts generated by Maran manifest themselves as meeting places of different modes of expression, and different disciplines and genres. While they tend to reflect a material world with a strong ethical and spiritual dimension, they are also contained in a material world of books as objects. In this day and age of virtual reality, in which poems can spring up and live out their ephemeral lives on computer screens, his books are beautiful as material objects. While the poems themselves may have begun on odd scraps of paper, they have been allotted space to breathe on pages that also contain illustrations – tiny pale grey insects, spiders and tadpoles, drawn by the poet’s sister Kärt, scuttle across the pages in Ground Water; and drawings of birds in black and white have been inserted into the cloth-bound Turning to the Forest, which was selected as one of the twenty five most beautiful books in Estonia for the year 2007. Maran has taken care to create aesthetic environments for his poems to dwell in, and it is the balance and harmony of the environment we dwell in, even if fragile and endangered, that his words set out to seek and protect.