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Review: Shape of Time, by Doris Kareva

Shape of Time is translated from the original Estonian by Tiina Aleman, who gives an interesting and helpful Preface; there is also an Introduction by the distinguished Penelope Shuttle, so you are not alone in approaching this work.

And this is a good thing, since Kareva deals with complex material in an often gnomic way. The sheer intensity of the vision is made the more powerful by her use of extreme condensation. The collection is divided into four sections, the first dealing with a situation of discontinuity and danger and breakdown, followed by a more tranquil and optimistic vision, with a third section of resolution and a short final series of celebratory notes.

Be brief, poet, / brief and to the point. / Please Kareva tells herself. She follows her own advice, and this sometimes results in an almost impenetrable compression of feeling and thought. So, reader, you need to be patient, and to read and re-read; and you need to feel and think, too. Much of any good poem's most important work is done in the spaces between words, and the spaces in Kareva's poems are considerable.

Time, Shuttle writes, plays a vital part, is a fluid and mercurial element in these poems; we are drawn onto the flux and mystery of time and memory, and the charm and terror of possible futures.

The first section is full of the imagery of distress and despair, the nightmare awful responsibility of the self amid a disintegrating universe, poems which chart the methodical agony of the desperate. Despite the context there is an underlying wit: the poems have no titles, but this short extract gives some sense of the agility of reference used by Kareva:

The dog with the third eye sees the shape of time
and is startled.

Irregularity regularity of the eleventh dimension
intersects his world as sugar bone music,
a pattern in the universe's pattern.
It carries a strange and beautiful danger,
a scent
so attractive, so inaccessible,
yet so inescapable through all his nights -
shape of time. God's whim,
rule of chaos, a septachord,

The clock moves
around the house and stops from time to time
at the foot of some sleeper's bed.

I keep my eyes closed,
and don't breathe.
His hands can be sharp.

As the face of any grandparent will prove.

There is a much greater sense of redemptive joy in the second section of the collection; duality, agelessness, stability, light are the counters she uses. Poetry is 'the dance of language' here:

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.

At this stage there is a certitude of direction, a tenderness to the human condition, an acceptance of the rule of idleness and the charging of the batteries, the need for mirth and laziness.

The third section ('Deo et Die') is the longest, and the most positive, both in diction and in tone. It interweaves and fuses echoes from the earlier sections, so that they are in a new relationship; they are redeemed, and shed on each other a new and integrating light. Here 'the new persists all the time':

what I'm talking about is
the dance of the dust mote
in the immeasurable sun

This is difficult, engaged writing, about the ambiguities and uncertainties of the journey through time; adventurous in both theme and treatment, it will not please every reader. But it will certainly challenge.