On Eeva-Liisa Manner

Issue 4/1978 | Archives online, Authors

Eeva-Liisa Manner

Eeva-Liisa Manner. Photo: Tammi.

It is difficult to discuss Eeva-Liisa Manner’s poetry in isolation from her other writing. In both prose and drama she is a significant figure in Finnish literature, and, for instance, one of her plays – Poltettu oranssi (‘The burnt-out orange’) – had a nine-year run at the Tampere Workers’ Theatre.

Seen from one angle, a Manner poem is an opportunity to speak, to have a say on the day’s occurrences, such as the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Yet a poem of hers is always distanced. Perhaps it is mediated through the eternal myth of the East and West; or perhaps the events are seen from some altered perspective – from ‘a distant present’. Our own time may be seen, for example, from the point of view of the Cambrian Age. Myths and the animals associated with myth are consciously brought forward by the ‘I’ of the poems, always with a delicate irony. The horse is the most prominent and beloved of these beasts (the Creator ‘succeeded best’ with him), and he is identified with Jung’s animus. Discursive philosophy is not prominent in Finland. Finnish philosophers tend to be philosophers of science and technology – the purveyors of wisdom are the poets, and they are by no means bad at it. Taking a risk with the reader’s indulgence I could define Eeva-Liisa Manner as a philosophical poet­ meaning that her lyricism is charged with implication. The fine control of semantic content, as always in lyrical poetry, is achieved through her imagery and music; but her thematic centres, the problems she confronts, are seriously or ironically philosophical. In some of her poems, such as ‘A Logical Tale’. she may actually build up the lyric within an apparently tight case of thought; this is, of course, both a dig at philosophy and a philosophical point. Sometimes the digs are very hard. The nuances are many.

The present translations come from Manner’s most recent volume, whose title is significant. Kuolleet vedet. Sarjoja yleisistä ja yksityisistä mytologioista (‘Dead waters. Series from collective and private mythologies’). Manner’s poetry has changed over a quarter of a century, but she has never come down into the market place: she has followed neither trends nor movements. Her development has been different and needs other terms. The most striking move has been her adaptation of myth from the collective to the private. Along with this has gone a powerful simplification and purification of her rhetoric. The stronger the poetry, the closer the language often is to the simplicity of prose.

How has a private mythology been created? The ‘I’ of the poem does not remain faithful to the mythical source. The myth is not given as found, untransformed, free from inaccuracies: it is metamorphosed, even turned inside out. The myth is used to expose the at once queer and ancient structure of a familiar contemporary phenomenon and underscore how the world has altered between the then of the old myth and the now of the new myth. The world has altered for the worse.

The first poem in the volume is ‘A faraway tucked-away room’ – a narrative of an unexplained change in an individual’s life. The hazily enormous expectations of childhood jade away into the void. This is a problem that has always preoccupied Manner and she has seen it as so dramatic that she has constructed a private mythology around it. The second poem in the volume moves into another cluster of problems endemic to Manner: the conflicts between intentions and achievements, ideals and actuality. The poem is entitled ‘Contradiction’. St John’s Gospel is turned upside down:

And darkness shineth in the light, and
The light comprehended it not.

An ancient myth is distorted, and the twisted myth or private mythology depicts the original state of the world. Its final state, to which the title Kuolleet vedet gestures, is evoked, or rather predicted and blenched at, through another myth, the Revelation of St John the Divine. The number of the Beast 666 has been expanded to 777, or into the date of the poem she wrote in Auschwitz, 7.7.77. The poet-seer considers the modern age one degree worse than the old one was.

It would be misleading to call Manner a pessimist. She is, of course, one.

But her desolation is like that of a person who has left pessimism behind as an earlier phase. Part of her tone is one of twofold mourning: for the death of the individual, and for the death of the race. These deaths are grievous in radically different ways. The death of the individual is part of the natural order, and so, while it is tragic, it is beautiful and unsullied. The race, on the other hand, should not die but continue: continuance is its concern. Humankind is, however, in danger of perishing – a long-standing disturbance of Manner’s. There is no beauty in the death of the race: the dead waters – the source of the destructive confusion – are putrid waters. Racial death evokes apes, disorganization and disfiguration. Dying, the individual sinks into ‘black waters’ – Hades, Lethe or Tuonela; the race goes into ‘dead waters’. The ultimate values of this wisdom are biological. In another volume in fact Manner calls water ‘the father itself’.

The poem ‘As an experiment . . . ‘ shows that Manner is one of those lucky poets who have a developed sense of humour. It helps her to focus the eternal conflict between spirit and matter into a grotesque situation uniting the mesmerists’ weird impulse to experiment and the threatening ‘triumph’ of contemporary physics. Mankind ought to be very cautious about its triumphs.

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