Doris Kareva, Shape of Time

Translated Tiina Aleman, Arc Publications, 142 pages; hardback £13.99, paperback £10.99.

In her Translator’s Preface, Tiina Aleman explains how closely she and Doris Kareva worked on the poems in this volume. Kareva herself is a well-regarded translator who has translated widely from English into Estonian, so I assume these versions achieve a high level of fidelity to the originals. They certainly read well in English and many achieve great power:

I saw you for two and a half seconds
after two and a half years.
That blink of an eye burns in my vision,
devastating, renewing.

Lightning, quake, and flood together
in an instant.

I wasn’t even able to say hello.

Your strange sad radiance
pierces me like a shimmering sword.
The world,
the world just passes by.

I can’t think of anything originally written in English that is at all like that, though it strongly reminds me of a volume of impassioned lyrical addresses to Shiva written by Virasaiva poets in the tenth to twelfth centuries AD (Speaking of Siva, translated by A. K. Ramanujan, Penguin Classics, 1973). And that points to something essential about the volume. It is a work of pure lyricism that in a sense seems almost wholly rooted in personal feeling and experience. Some poems seem to have arisen almost immediately from specific occasions, if only through their flaring intensity; others to be a coming to terms with experience after time has passed. A number are addressed to a “you” who is apparently a lover. But there’s nothing self-centred about them, nor any sense that they’re limited by accidents of biography or even society or period. They seem simultaneously to be powered by and to step free from the poet’s own life. Purged to their lyrical essentials, they present bare, elemental surges and swerves of feeling, not the person having them or details of the situation that gives rise to them.

Many of the poems grow out of different kinds of pain such as the thwarting or loss of love, the attrition of time, or the anguish of an existence that seems meaningless, but the overall impact is exhilarating. Sometimes this is simply because the swiftness, energy and beauty of the poems themselves seem to reflect a resilience and generosity of spirit, a kind of implicit reaching out to embrace whatever life offers. In the hauntingly strange poem beginning “Desert dogs run through my dreams” the poet explicitly finds fulfilment in struggle and pain. However, I think there’s more to it than that. A number of poems offer glimpses of transcendent grace, associated with artistic vision but several times taking on the tinge of mystical epiphany. I wouldn’t want to press this idea too far, but here, perhaps, we return to that sense of affinity with the Virasaiva poets who found or aspired to find something eternal and absolute beyond the flow of time and mundane circumstance.

Overall, I found this an exciting and artistically very achieved volume of poems. However, I couldn’t make anything of a final section called “Zero Point Reflection”, which replays the preceding three by listing the first lines of their constituent poems in reverse order. This suggests that there is a level of coherence to the collection as a whole that I haven’t yet grasped.

Thanks to the editors of The Manchester Review for permission to reprint this piece, which I wrote for them. Unfortunately WordPress won’t allow the s with a diacritic mark that I should have for “Siva” and “virasaiva”.

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