Vivarium, Maarja Pärtna (translated by Jayde Will)
The Emma Press, 2020 £6.50
Mimicry and illusion, the songs of a caged bird
At times, Pärtna’s poems (translated from the Estonian by Jayde Will) seem like written versions of optical illusions. Vivarium’s opening poem, ‘house’, describes the speaker’s return to her former home, now demolished. Akin to Magritte’s painting ‘The Empire of Light’, where daylight and night coexist in one scene, the house in this poem is at once present and absent. ‘I am standing,’ says the speaker,
on a threshold that doesn’t exist
in a house whose very foundations
have been carried back to the fields
stone by stone.
Yet she also says:
I look over my shoulder
at the house through time
that’s standing still.
In ‘the well’, as elsewhere, an echoing, circular relationship is established between the inner self and the exterior world. Like an Escher staircase, looping and looping, the self cannot escape endless reflection:
at the bottom of the eye is a well
down the well is a city
in the centre of that city
at the well’s edge
I lean over and fall
Throughout Vivarium, Pärtna’s poems explore coexistent contradictions — the past as both past and ever-present, the individual both breaking free and remaining trapped in their mind. Several poems use birds as symbols of mimicry or imprisonment. In ‘garden’, the speaker remembers a ‘starling’ in her garden ‘that last Soviet summer’, imitating a cat. The cat, the bird’s natural predator,
gives nothing away
of what she thinks
of this imitation.
Is the starling mocking or flattering the cat? Mimicry, in the case of this bird, is both rebellion and compliance.
The poem brings to mind the story of Stalin’s parrot, whose head he crushed one day with his pipe. He killed it, allegedly, in retaliation for its mimicry of him as he smoked and coughed and spluttered.
The parallel between the two stories is an apt one. Pärtna’s poems, as the blurb states, explore ‘the effects of Soviet rule on Estonian society’, as well as ‘humanity’s treatment of natural habitats.’ These are subtle, crafted poems whose examinations of power and identity are needed, now more than ever.