A life of letters

Issue 3/1995 | Archives online, Authors

Death is a central theme in the poetry 
of Eeva-Liisa Manner (1921–1995). In many poems she
 described the proximity of death and 
the last frontier in order to conquer
 death and laugh at it – often grimly,
 sometimes cheerlessly.

But actually I died ages ago,
 and when death comes, when it strikes
 the body that wears my clothes,
 it's all a predestined rendezvous:
 movement stops, words scatter like snow,
         the eyes' apparitions
 are off like a flight of pigeons....

Manner wrote in a collection entitled
 Niin vaihtuvat vuoden ajat (‘So change the
 seasons’), which appeared as early 
as 1964.

And there's rain in my mouth,
 it's been there long, the taste of death.
 Death fills up my mouth seven miles
 like rain's never-ending bread,

she wrote in Kirjoitettu kivi (‘The inscribed stone’), published two years 

Sometimes death only flashes by in a
 line – a breathing behind the words –
and Manner does not mention it by 
name. It is absent, but present nonethe
less: it is like a breath of wind creeping 
in through an open window, which 
swells the curtains a couple of times,
 then a quietly filling void, when the
 wind blows itself out. It is the last organ 
point before the calm, the last note 
before the final silence.

The words come and go.
I need words less and less.
Tomorrow maybe
I’ll not need a single one,

Manner wrote in Niin vaihtuvat vuoden

For Manner, emptiness and silence 
are pure concepts because it is they that 
bring the individual to the final stop on
 the circle of life, where he or she is 
liberated from the delusions of the
 visible world.

Death makes us all solemn. The
 strength of Manner’s poetry lies in the
 fact that she does not, nevertheless,
 approach this difficult subject with
 deadly seriousness. In fact, the basic
 concerns of Manner’s poetry are perceptively ambivalent. Central to them 
are the great, serious themes –such as 
death, the transience of all things,
 personal losses and the condition of 
absolute loss, which is viewed as a kind
 of pessimistic catharsis, annihilation.

Great structures of philosophical
 thought also have a central place in
 Manner’s poetry: she has gutted the
 work of philosophers (and writers), 
sucked dry their concepts and, later,
 retumed to them from a completely 
new perspective.

The extreme interpretive richness of 
her poems arises from Manner’s habit 
of approaching her serious themes with
 humour, comedy, irony, word-games
 and a sense of the grotesque – as in her 
first great collection of poetry, Tämä
 matka (‘This journey’, 1956). Manner’s 
poetry is full of conflicting voices, like a 
medieval fair in which the sacred and
 the profane, the high and the low are
c ombined into a folk carnival, into 
carnival laughter. For this reason,
 Manner should not be categorised as a
 mere modernist – for this canonisation
s eems, in her case, too narrow.

Manner herself became a hermit
 whom every day brought closer to the
 void, to death – although both Manner’s parents, too, were solitary people. 
She reserved language for literature – 
not for communicating with other 
people. Many-stranded reality, too, only 
came to life when it had been transformed into art. Manner truly was a 
woman of letters.

In her poems, Manner is constantly
 drawing the possible and impossible 
boundaries of the possible world: in her 
cosmos, only the uncertain is certain,
 for she will not consent to become the
 champion of one particular truth. She
 wants to be frankly subjective, because
 she has done with the deceptions of the 
objective world. And she knows how to
w in the reader over to her side by 
affecting self-irony:

I am like a daft elk
that sees its own reflection in water
and thinks it’s drowned.

I have always considered 
Manner – along with Paavo Haavikko – 
one of the most important post-war
 Finnish poets. This conviction only 
increased when I re-read her work. I was astonished to discover once 
more the wealth of directions in which 
these poems open up. Sometimes the 
beauty of her lines is breath-taking – even when she deliberately distorts
 them with onomatopoeic words:

Spring dangled its green swings on the 
the nightingale – shy, lurking bird –
tuned its song in secret, tak, jug-jug, errr,
dk, dk, dk, like a nutshell
tapped in the deep twilight.

Manner slices through the different
 registers of language, sometimes different languages – Spanish, English, Danish – she works her way through 
the different fields of language in the
 horizontal and vertical planes, but also 
in depth.

Poem extracts translated by 
Herbert Lomas

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