Selected Poems by Jaan Kaplinski (trans. Jaan Kaplinski, Sam Hamill, Hildi Hawkins, and Fiona Sampson). Dufour Editions Inc. 256 pp., $27.95
Jaan Kaplinksi is a humanist, having worked as a sociologist, a researcher in linguistics, an ecologist, and a lecturer on the History of Western Civilization at Tartu University. He has been a student of Mahayana Buddhism, as well as other Eastern philosophies. His humanism and spiritual inquiry is evidenced through the opening poem of the Selected, as he gestures to the East,
Sails come sailing out
from foreign pictures
sails on the Yangtze
sails on the River Li
but even when the poems are populated by more homely images, a Buddhist sensibility imbues their attentiveness to nature, their concern with transience, and their unadorned language. Much of this work is meditative, inviting contemplation.
Though sometimes referred to as a Modernist, Kaplinski’s poetry often has the feel of a classical, and older, poetics. The poems have a gravitas; they do not mock, toy, or play with the reader. They invite the reader to eavesdrop on the thoughts, remembrances, and philosophy of a person as they flicker and flow. This contemplative, philosophic strain is present in much of the work, but not all. History and politics appear and punctuate the air. This is not surprising since Kaplinski was a member of the post-Revolution Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) from 1992-1995, and has written extensively on politics and society. What is mildly surprising, perhaps, is how infrequently the poems turn outward and invite the world onto the page. When they do, the effect is often illuminating and vaguely threatening.
we are given too much and we are
we are taught too much and we know
but we too we do not want
to inhabit the same world
as an Oliver Cromwell or a Josef Stalin
Kaplinksi was born in Tartu, Estonia (the City of Good Thoughts) in 1941 to an Estonian mother and a Polish father. His father died in a Soviet labor camp while Jaan was a young boy. This primal loss seems to have imparted an acute awareness of mortality and the fragility of life. The cyclical patterns of nature are a leitmotif throughout these often musical, rhythmic poems. The natural environment is not background, stage setting, or capework. It is the thing itself. Describing the natural world through language is central to Kaplinski’s ontology. “There is so little that remains . . .” begins the opening poem of Through the Forest, then a catalogue of what remains in memory—the feel of snow, the wind, the perfume of the day:
There is so little that remains: the handful of last year’s snow
that I squeezed in my hand as we skied, the three of us,
towards Kvissental across the peat pond.
The wind in the heather between Vild and Audaku.
The scent of St. John’s wort and marjoram tea in Aruküla in the early morning.
Many of the poems in the Selected create such catalogues of memory, shoring up intimate, sensuous encounters with the natural world: vivid images of a bird flying across the dusk, aspen and birch trees, leaves, branches and sky. These are the memories of a man looking for, and making, meaning through the act of description. They are not the stained memories of a grim childhood or failed human relationships. They are not engines of bitterness. This type of memory is not nostalgia; it is poetic memory as an instrument of thinking. Later in the same poem:
Between the great fingers of the twilight,
which slowly close tight around us,
a few tiny crumbs sometimes fall. Something of us.
Something of the world. Something that remains undiscovered.
Goes on falling. We do not know where from, we do not know where to.
Knowing and not knowing and the inability of humans to feel secure in their knowledge of the world is a central concern. Kaplinski seems at home in this uncertainty. Arriving at knowing might be out of reach, but thinking, metacognition, inquiring, and searching for understanding are his major concerns.
He understands man as both a meaning maker and an image maker. In the poem that begins “Lines do not perhaps exist; . . .” he writes:
Points are of themselves, lines of us.
Lines are not real. Constellations, contours, profiles,
Outlines, ground plans, principles, reasons,
Ulterior motives and consequences . . .
He undertakes this meaning-making through the process of writing, in full awareness of the limitations of words and of the failure inherent in these instruments.
In the poem that begins “I do not write, do not make poetry, about summer, about autumn,” he writes:
If there is something I can do, perhaps it’s
observing that observation, grasping that seeing.
If that’s knowledge; perhaps it’s the opposite.
Perhaps, after all, poetry comes entirely from ignorance.
Is a particular sort of ignorance. And that
is much harder to learn than knowing.
This metacognition of the act of writing, of his social role as a writer and, specifically a poet, emerges in Through the Forest. He comments on himself, sitting at a table in an old “outbuilding” in front of the page, waiting for the poem to take shape. He writes about the struggle to write, about the not-knowing that is implicit in the act of creation. He observes that language fails repeatedly; despite this, poems are not exercises in futility. In “I ended up in literature . . .” he expresses this inherent tension between language and its limitations, understanding full well what is lost in the process of translating the world:
I sometimes dream of a language where there are no nouns, only verbs. . . . Like a remainder of an earlier living, changing and flowing world that gradually congeals, freezes into nouns, fossils, ice, theories, principles, and to which you try, more and more desperately and more and more resignedly, to speak of its own youth, of light, which as a flowing and a surging, and of life, which is light.
A remarkable feature of this Selected is the consistency of poetic voice. Four translators, Kaplinski included, create a cloth that feels whole. His music—its tempo, rhythms, tonalities—are not distorted by the different instruments. Perhaps his voice is too strong, or perhaps the instruments themselves are extraordinarily attuned to him. In either case, the effect is satisfying. A reader is not plagued with that uneasy thought that the poems would be better in the original.
The style, over the course of 30 years, evolves. Sometimes the formal appearance is spare, skeletal, consisting of two spinal columns down the sides of a page; sometimes a dense parade of words fill lyric prose poems. The language is mostly literal, often simple language. There is very little abstraction or obliqueness. The focus is on the image. Language is respected as a vehicle for expressing real things; language is not used for language’s sake. Words, though empty shells, have meaning. A folk tradition wreathes through many of the poems in repetitions, variations, and an interconnectedness of nature imagery that bespeaks an ancient cosmology.
This Selected brings together decades of poetic inquiry from one of Europe’s major poets. Like Chinese ink drawings, these poems have a deceptive simplicity, astonishing depth, and a purity that can only be achieved by a master in full command of his eye, heart, and hand.
Nicole Zdeb is a poet and educational assessment designer in Portland, OR. Her most recent chapbook, The Friction of Distance, (2011), was published by Bedouin Books. Find out more at nicolezdeb.com.
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