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Review: Shape of Time, by Doris Kareva

Of the two Estonians here, Doris Kareva is the senior figure with fourteen volumes of poetry and one of essays published over the last three decades finding a readership in many countries. ... Both have appealed to synaesthesia in their respective titles but in the case of Kareva an indication is given that her collection is to be read as if it were a musical composition in three movements, albeit with a fourth part (coda?), which can be seen as an explanation of her title, since music can be said to give shape to time. The problem here, however, that Kareva's style is assertive, axiomatic, almost gnomic, and does not carry enough of a sense of variation between these movements. The three longer movements ('After the World', 'Deo et Die', 'Shape of Time') make up the main body of the volume and consist of short, untitled lyrics set in a timeless zone composed of forest, fire, water and shadowy figures (even when the pronoun I appears) with language as a major actor. A strong sense of a mythical dimension to existence dominates and the contemporary world makes only one startling appearance as a rapid motorcycle speeds through the night. Underpinning it all is the sense that with birth comes exile from paradise so that the language we speak can only occasionally and imperfectly reflect the divine word. The fourth and briefest section - 'Zero Point Reflexion' - consists of three longer poems (Zero Point Reflexion, Shape of Time and Deo et Die) made up of lines, mainly first lines, taken from earlier lyrics but the meanings that these lines take on or invite are altered by the context as though they are being reordered into a new language. Where the reader is likely to have difficulty with this poetry is in the near absence of a sense of the consciousness which records the sense impressions that make up the bulk of these short poems so that the perceptions of the world are offered as absolutes rather than as recording an individual's experience. Together with the elements which compose the world in which these lyrics exist - forest, sea, river and lake - there is the difficulty for readers of attuning oneself to the environment. Occasional flashes of wit season these otherwise oblique perceptions -

From what material is a materialist made
the mystic has not a clue.
Everything is breath for him,
everything is the soul

What keeps singing in him,
is the sublime voice:
everything is born from beauty's grace.
Everything flows in life's service.

- which flow mainly from a Christian perspective.

... Arc are to be congratulated for their policy of parallel text presentation of the poetry in their translation series.