Featured review

The Scent of Your Shadow

By Kristiina Ehin

Translated by Ilmar Lehtpere

Arc
Series 3 No.15 - Poetry and the State

Review by Saradha Soobrayen

Estonian poet Kristiina Ehin’s The Scent of Your Shadow is one of the ‘Visible Poets’ series from Arc. The poems are selected from a collection written after the birth of her child, Emapuhkus (2009), and made a resounding impact on the bilingual Estonian translator Ilmar Lehtpere who claims ‘to have begun to understand what it means to be a woman, to be a mother’ after translating the poems. As a child of Estonian refugees, Ilmar Lehtpere had access to Estonia through the culture and language. The act of translating Ehin’s work is an act of repatriation, of recovery of an identity and personal history ‘only a stone’s throw away from Kristiina’s flat’. The friendship and intimacy between translator and poet is perfectly tuned to creating a texture of voice that belongs to Ehin and yet is not quite Ehin: ‘I hear Kristiina’s voice in my head and listen to her reading what I have written. If it sounds natural, if it sounds like her, I know it is right.’

I don’t give you my breast any more
the apple trees are in blossom for the second time in your life
I lull you to sleep beneath our garden’s
first and only Antonovka apple tree
and the juice sloshing around in your baby-bottle
is from that very same tree

‘Your eyes inside me’

Ehin’s voice through translation is a trustworthy voice steeped in the residue of Estonian history. Folksong traditions permeate the poems without detracting from the lived human experience. Ehin’s themes emerge from her sense of becoming a mother and defender of her child in a landscape familiar and ever-changing:

Sand martins sea-stone black
gulls sea-foam white
you screech over the harbour
sweep over the churches
circle over the city walls
the breaking waves and me
birds city birds
what tales do you tell of Tallinn

You tell of
how the alarm bells were rung
how mothers ran with their children
when everywhere walls were in the way
and the Russian bombers kept coming and coming
from the east
when it was all burning screaming and crumbling
cracking and bursting

Even now I hear the weeping
this stony medieval beauty’s
this age-old city’s
black dress rustling
I feel the wind
the soothing soft wind of the present
that makes feathers and sand fly

‘Warm life at the foot of an iceberg’

Six of Kristiina Ehin’s poems were published in MPT 3/9, ‘Palestine’, and a further seven in 3/13, ‘Transplants’. We shall publish a pamphlet of new poems by her, translated by Ilmar Lehtpere, as the second of our MPT Poets Series in April.

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