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This review is taken from PN Review 216, Volume 40 Number 4, March - April 2014.

Life in the Time-Aquarium jaan kaplinski, Selected Poems (Bloodaxe) £12

This book brings together poems from five collections written between 1973 and 2004. The absence of an introduction or critical preface means that the reader is plunged directly into the first of these collections, The Same Sea in Us All (1985), in which the pattern of Jaan Kaplinski’s primary concerns is set: the absence and presence of self; vanishing forms of the natural world; a preternatural querulousness about the value and worth of writing poetry.

‘Everything is only lightning / reflected in dewdrops’. Such precise condensations conceal and expose extended layers of meaning; the reader is simultaneously invited in and kept at a certain distance. The implication is that all is evanescence, unknowable, oppositional. There are numerous examples of this kind of lyrical distillation across the collections. However, and this may be where Kaplinski comes into his own as a poet, there are an equally large number of poems in which unalloyed joy and wonder at Nature are expressed to quite startling effect; poems formally and thematically complex in which the poet holds up his hands or else presents the world ‘as it is’. Some reviewers have found this a problematic strategy in that it appears to involve neither allusion to nor codification of the world. In this respect the book might not be to all tastes.

To a very large extent Kaplinski writes half-poems. Readers might be reminded of the work of Tomas Tranströmer. Both look for a point of access to the world and then, almost exegetically, draw a sense or meaning from it, ...


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