Myth at large – an echo when life is mute

Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Authors

At the end of Karen Blixen’s The Immortal Story certain characters have used all their contrivance to make a popular sailor’s fantasy – in which a crewman is invited to rich house, dined, wined and offered a woman – take place in reality. The crewman is found, all the events occur, but their actuality is entirely different from what was imagined and planned. The final image is a shell held to the ear – a sound that seems to have been heard long ago. The sound of the cosmos is the unpredictable voice of the Puppet Master who subtly alters the plots of the puppet masters.

Eeva-Liisa Manner writes both poetry and prose but carefully distinguishes the two:

Prose, let it be hard as you like, let it  make you restless.
But poetry's an echo heard when life is mute.

The sound in the shell is what her poetry is after, that ‘echo heard when life is mute’. For Manner poetry is ‘a letter from far pushed under the door’ – ‘so large and white it’s filling the whole house’. The image recurs:

I thought it was a letter thrown on the porch.
It was only a piece of moonglow.
I picked the light up off the floor.
It was so light, that moonletter,
and everything sagged, like bent iron, over there.

The world as she perceives it is phantasmagoric. Her metaphysics are experienced on the senses and in the heart: ‘I can feel the autumn light with my hand.’ Things are at once messages, spiritual correspondences, and masks symbolising and concealing the Ding an sich. It’s as though the hand could go right through matter and touch something realer on the other side:

A jetty, and two steps down:
space is white.
Across what void?
Or not a drop at all?
Merely a vanished lake
and a swan’s wake on the water

Where everything is an apparition it’s not surprising to encounter an apparition:

An ancient man came to meet me on the riverbank,
with a broken thread in his wrist.
Moonlight shimmered through him
and through his entrails,
his heart pulsed like a lampwick.
He laid his old hand on my head:
The boat's waiting,
no need for oars or a wind.

Manner, as this vision of, say, Charon suggests, is a vates – the Latin word implying a blend of prophet and poet. Perhaps sybil or shaman is the appropriate word. She lives in a world of atmospheres, where everything is animated yet evanescent; but the dreamlike state induced by the felt presence of death, whatever that is, and concretised by mist, is not dimmer but vivider than prosaic consciousness:

Morning came to the meadow,
Horses were born from mist…

One rested his head on his beloved's harness.
His breath rose warm, his moist eye 
gleamed in the daybreak

His coat was like a kasbah carpet-weaver's
hand-woven pile,
his muzzle softer than a phallus

Though she may pass out of her body and see it ticking there like a clock, it’s our world that she’s witnessing, though it’s our world seen without comforting illusions. The water table’s rising, and the cellars are slopping. If grief smoked, the smoke would shroud the earth. There are cartridge puffs on the book’s pages, but also on the actual fields of blood. Breaking is necessary for beauty. Even by a blazing fire she shivers: ‘The cold’s under the skin, it won’t go.’ We are one, but ‘a mist of gross logic’ is separating us, and we’re surrounded by dead waters – stagnant, or the stillness between ebb and flow. ‘Night’s daughters are knitting shocking sights, quietly.’ Behind them is a perhaps supernatural evil.

The desolation in her work might suggest a longing for death: but although there’s undoubtedly a morbid dimension to her feeling-life, something essential to her art, that makes her vision possible, death is perhaps something positive, something that ‘life’ deprives us of.

And with all this, there’s a splendid sanity in her work, a kind of super-sanity that can only appear morbid through its super-perception of a common morbidity. She’s no mere neglectful observer of this world: in her iconography actuality becomes myth and reveals its hidden painful spirit; myth teaches us the meaning of reality. Her desolation is an outgrowth of her social concern, her aliveness to political currents, at home and in the world at large. Her oeuvre, her poetry, her drama and her prose, is a work that heals by listening and recovering.

And I have not even mentioned this complex artist’s wonderful sense of humour.

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