A tubby muse

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Eeva-Liisa Manner (1921–1995) is one of the great lyric poets of the second half of the 20th century and a pathfinder for Finnish modernism. Less well-known are her sporadically produced prose works of the 1950s: three novels, a collection of short stories, and stories published in magazines.

Prose was a concomitant of her poetry, where she could try out diverse subjects and stylistic experiments. For the reader, the poet’s prose provides a framework for understanding the poems: it contextualises their background, experience and thinking. In spite of the difference of genre, the style is recognisably from the same hand: sensitive and violent, abruptly montaged, full of intelligent humour and tragedy.

The short-story collection Kävelymusiikkia pienille virtahevoille (‘Passacaglia for small hippopotami’, 1958) created alongside the poetry volume Tämä matka (‘This journey’, 1956) and to some extent performing variations on the same themes and motifs – is subtitled ‘an exercise’. The ‘exercises’ are small, elegant, verbally crafted works of art, mysterious and surprising. One of the aims is ‘the joy of insight’, the workings of the mind; though, as the narrator says, ‘intuition sometimes grant a more unalloyed joy than semi-comprehension’. Looking at the constellations or Sanskrit texts or reading poetry, even without comprehension, the ‘I’ of the stories feels a profound aesthetic pleasure.

Thoughtfully the narrator asks where everything has come from. She herself can be a playful, divine creator. Walking along with hippopotamuses, or riding on a rhinoceros, a lizard or an elephant, the narrator, through light hints, dreams and imagery, navigates a current of metamorphoses. Laughing and carried away by enthusiasm for her creations, she creates more and more new creations, until the creatures start creating new forms of existence out of each other. But this can lead to a world accumulating disagreeable phenomena, from which the creator, its primal cause, finally thinks it best to withdraw.

The stories are full of movement – walking, running or dancing in a spirit of enjoyment, fear, flight or attraction. The movement involves an encounter that vitalises and remains an inspiration – or it may wound and lead to rejection, but without losing its positive force. The progress of the story, however delicate it may be, rests on the significance of the moment.

In ‘The Hippopotamus’ the ‘I’ has a mysterious bundle thrust upon her: it contains a hippopotamus. Willy-nilly she finds herself in a mythical time-dimension where people and animals still live together and need and understand each other, and where the animals have superior skills and admirable qualities. The hippopotamus steps into the workaday human world and transforms the atmosphere. It has all the hippopotamus’s morphological features – though it doesn’t weigh tons – as if it had just emerged, puffing and blowing its ‘guttural’ language, from the warm mud of the Nile to partake of a vegetarian meal. He is a masculine, civilised being and treats his feminine narrator chivalrously. It is very likely he is a Muse and brings with him a mythic world’s midwifery – a connection with the goddess of giving birth. As well as this, he shows the most superior human qualities – excellent manners, good taste, the ability to read poetry, to perform Bach, and he also serves non-vegetarian dishes of pork tongue for his hostess. He’s even a dab hand at washing up.

Through her hippopotamus figure the poet seems, with a twinkle in her eye, to be charting the origins and new opportunities of her modernism. From T.S. Eliot’s carbolic-smelling constricting images of dryness she turns to the onomatopoiesis and ebullient African landscape of Luis Pales Matos’s black poetry. But the hippopotamus’s discerning touch finds in, not only Pales Matos’s art, but also in Eliot’s and Bach’s, a pleasurable, spontaneous, physical, hippopotamian basis for existence. Melopoeia, logopoeia and rhythm form, together, a stream from which the pyknic muse of modern poetry arises.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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