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Review: The Scent of Your Shadow, by Kristiina Ehin

Maria do Cebreiro, trans.Helena Miguelez-Carballeira I Am Not from Here, Shearsman £8.95
Kristiina Ehin, trans. llmar Lehtpere The Scent of Your Shadow, Arc £9.95

These two very different collections, which sometimes share themes of love and family memories, reveal telling dichotomies that are instructive for contemporary poetics at large. The Galician poet Maria do Cebreiro (b. 1976) writes long, cognitively complex poems based on asides, fragmentary narratives, and maxim-like statements, whereas her Estonian counterpart, Kristiina Ehin (b.1977), often draws on the folkloric heritage of her homeland and seeks a sort of purity of vision and sentiment that is rarely seen in English-language verse nowadays.

Ehin can pen lines like Sea Maidens come keep the cows / But keep your hearts clear and cool / like the morning dew or sip the steeped buttercups of your feelings a bit more boldly, while Cebreiro posits that emotions are not what's personal, thereby alluding to current philosophical debates about the paradoxes of subjectivity and the role of feelings in thinking. What the Estonian poet presupposes tends to be called into question by the Galician; and sometimes aphoristic statements in the latter's verse that overturn received psychological or philosophical notions are as important to the overall meaning of a poem as the ostensible subject matter. Cebreiro's poetry is as much a questioning or hypothetical staging of how we truly think, feel, remember, and anticipate as a direct evocation of primary physical and mental experience. Concrete details are mentioned, but her poetry is also abstract in this overarching sense; and fascinatingly abstract in, for instance, her puzzling sequence of brief, elliptic pieces, Bangor, of which this initial example: Don't forget to bring your heart. / But I was left wondering about the wind's habits. There are some touching and even thought provoking moments in Ehin's poems about motherhood (in the second section, Your Eyes inside Me), but alongside Cebreiro's heady poetics hers can seem naive (though surely to some readers, refreshingly spontaneous).

The lyric and emotional beauty that Ehin seeks can thus be set against the intellectuality, and the less immediate emotionality, of Cebreiro (whose poetry is nonetheless moving, sometimes at one remove). Cebreiro's poems are at once intricately and obliquely structured, sometimes cryptic, and often provocative, even in their unusual page layout, justified to the right margin, not to the left-which forces one to read more slowly, less smoothly, even anti-lyrically as it were. In contrast, Ehin's verse, especially in the first section of The Scent of Your Shadow, can appear traditional in its world-view, even resolutely turned toward the objects, lifestyles, and values of the past. In the opening poem of Warm Life at the Foot of the Iceberg, she notably rejects the present and takes refuge in daydreams:

Grandfather built this house beside a
cobblestone road
But now what roars past
is a main road
I had a dream that in place of the main road
a river flows past our house
sparkling yellow from the sun serene
its banks full of pearl mussels like
before Catherine II's time.

This is not how Cebreiro evokes the places and family memories that are equally essential to her significantly entitled I Am Not from Here. Nostalgia and yearning are absent from her poetic approach, which seeks to be lucid about mobility, distance, departure, and uprootedness:

a locked
dining-room and the furniture
almost always
covered with drapes.
The Day of the Dead.
The visits.
We heal the past
just like that, as it comes,
no soap and with our backs to it.
From behind.

Cebreiro takes little for granted and she has forged an original poetic form because of this. The implicit emotions of her verse already include her awareness of and reflections on the emotional experience at hand; similarly, perceptions are in fact apperceptions because she is simultaneously conscious of being involved in an act of observing something or someone en face. The poet creates no facile transitions between lines (or groupings of lines); she attempts to build no discourses or story lines into one cumulative effect. Instead, unlikely connections are depicted and tested, amid various tangents. This method is especially convincing when she turns to love. All relationships / are long distance, she writes, but I am not / from here and I leave / no descendants, / I want no other origin / than this bridge / for as long as it holds us. This stimulating volume is indeed about what sometimes joins, unexpectedly, and what must fall asunder - as if junctions, however ephemeral, were now more essential to our lives than beginnings or conclusions and only 'confusing things' could 'feel familiar'.