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Review: Shape of Time, by Doris Kareva

What to make of a collection that begins The dog with a third eye sees the shape of time / and is startled? Some years ago I reviewed another Arc collection, by the Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun. I remember that in one poem he compared blood to little soldiers on skis. At the time I thought this was overdone. But it lodged in my brain becoming, somehow, more and more obvious. Now I can't think of blood in any other way. Shape of Time is a bit like that. There are startling metaphors that I just know will colonise my brain: On the heart's painstone / A bird sharpens its beak, for example, or The brackish tea / Of our last chance. But the metaphors aren't overdone. Rather they're dropped carefully into what are often deceptively simple lines, like a series of jewelled time bombs primed to detonate in the subconscious. Kareva's main concern, as the title suggests, is time - not in the abstract but in the way it shapes and defines human life and relationships.

The scalpel and the metronome
on my father's piano
kept a silence between them
when I was a child

she writes. Together - dissecting and measuring - they, or rather we, hone time to transparency. This poem appears in the first section of the book, After the World, which deals with destruction and decay: a post-apocalyptic picture of despair. It's here that her language is most strained and startling. The second section, in contrast, is a contemplation on nature and beauty offered as a counterpoint. Some of the poems here resemble Buddhist koans, for example:

Poetry is the dance of language.
Dance is the poetry of the body.

The body is the very language
of the universe:

hear, feel, and see

or Emptiness coming true / is everything that is - / in rhyme, frame, and room. A third 'movement' attempts a resolution, emphasising the redemptive power of nature, love, language and perhaps time itself. To quote one short poem in full:

I listen for hours and hours
to the sea's only sentence
wondering
how that should be written.

That, it seems to me, is what Kareva is trying to do. The effort is doomed, of course, but no less worthwhile for that. This minutely sculpted, effortlessly elegant, and endlessly expansive collection is further evidence of an important poet at the height other powers. Arc - who, along with Bloodaxe, have perhaps done more than any other press to bring the best of Eastern European poetry to an English-speaking audience - should be congratulated on another fascinating and well-produced collection.