This hybrid piece presents a substantial piece of unpublished work in progress, a representative selection from a prose poetry sequence with the working title Evi and the devil. Set on the offshore islands of Estonia and written in the persona of a poet silent since the last days of the Soviet regime, this evolved out of and may in its turn evoke a new prose narrative. Exploring ways to account for its origins and so elucidate the creative quandary it presents to its author in its unfinished state, a three-part introduction sets the extracts against three kinds of discourse—a storytelling approach (with implications for creative writing pedagogy, in particular the ‘critical reflection’), a historical contextualisation against a set of British poetry collections speaking in the voices of invented writers in a Cold War setting, and a discussion of the lyric and narrative modes in the creation and evolution of this piece.
Keywords: Prose poetry – Estonia – persona – narrative – authorial intention – reflective commentary
When I was a girl I ran into the forest. No one came to find me.
I lay in a heap of pine needles. Maybe the ants consumed me, I
can’t tell. My parents still don’t know a thing about this. As far
as they know, what walked out of the forest, what sat down with
her dolls by the sand pit, was a little girl.
1. A Creation Story
There is a voice in the forest. The tone, the timbre of it, is unfamiliar to me ... though the forest, and the island on which it lies, both are real enough. They exist on the map. How they come to be inhabited by that disembodied voice ... that is another question.
For this writer, not having the answer, for now, is a pleasure, a touch of jouissance that adds a new dynamic to the writing. The prospect of explaining it seems to offer less, creatively—at best, closure and a chance to create a piece of knowledge from the experience; at worst, foreclosure, which would be a failure to discover where a still unfinished writing process might have led.
But this writer is also a teacher and researcher of creative writing, one who sees a point to making processes articulate. If poetics is a useful study for creative writers, that must be because it increases our range of choice, makes us aware that there are choices and helps us track how our own choices come about. Beyond that, we are out of poetics and into other fields—aesthetics, ethics, politics and yes, economics, as we negotiate the way between the writing and its audience.
This voice in the forest, the one in the short-linked texts I am provisionally calling Evi and the devil, concerns me—bugs me, in fact, because it seems to speak poetically. What makes me sure of this is, paradoxically, that it speaks in prose. It resists poetry. I have tried recasting it into verse lines and every way says wrong, wrong, wrong! For a writer of 30 years’ experience, who can hardly avoid having picked up a sense of his own styles and procedures, to find himself writing in an unfamiliar form raises a question of poetics. From a pedagogic angle, I have written about the value of befriending these poetic ‘waifs and strays’ (Gross 2010: 33-40). As a writer, engaging with that voice-in-progress refreshes questions we need never to stop asking: Why is this writing like this? and Is this (or Why is this) poetry?
Why? questions, in the arts at least, do not have single answers. It helps clear the mind to start with the mundane first. At the time of writing these short prose poems, I had just acquired an iPhone. With it, the possibility of my whole office inbox travelled with me on the train, in those stray moments when I would normally take out a notebook and free-think. But instead of casting anxious eyes on the inbox, I found myself tapping notes into the notepad. Displacement activity, yes … but looking at them, short prose blocks of just the size and shape for one glance on the screen, I saw something whose unfamiliarity intrigued me.
The screen was too small, the time too short, the finger-touch too crude, for satisfying editing, so I used another available function and shot the text off in an email to myself. Out of sight, out of mind. Only when I came back to them at my desk, hours or days later, the unfamiliarity persisted, plus a slightly uncanny suspicion that the shape of them, their wry, clipped tone, their unwillingness to hang around to be questioned, their tendency to throw the questions back at me as reader, was all of a piece. Out of sight, out of my mind, maybe, but there seemed to be a mind at work.
The world behind the writing was one that I recognised. The island had clear origins in Hiiumaa, one of the larger islands off the mainland of Estonia, which I had visited some years before. I had known then I would write about it—partly because the islands seem to hold something of the historical and geographical truth about Estonia, and Estonia was my refugee father’s birthplace. His years of silence about it are built into the foundations of my writing life.
Besides, the place had a presence that seemed to need to be accounted for. Another fictional voice experiences the approach to it, by sea, like this:
The jetty, its couple of blue cranes, is a long way back, sunk in surrounding reed beds. In front, though, the island looks no nearer. It is only the thrub of the engine, and the slight wake, that hints at motion. The island is palpably still as low and flat, though the line of it is wider, maybe. It accounts for more of the horizon. The grey-blue of the Baltic and the blue-grey of the sky could have been simply ruled apart, the line inked in along a straightedge.
There seems to be a problem with dimensions hereabouts, he thinks. It would be a relief to find that a second dimension applied, let alone the third it takes to gives a place full-bodied life … and as for the notional fourth, time, well …
This was a viewpoint from a try-out for a novel, written and laid aside in the years between the visit and the iPhone moment on the train. The obstacle then had been the observer, Howard, less of a man than a self-absorbed inert intelligence. In that story, he was on his way to trace a lost writer, a female poet briefly feted in the West as a dissident in the last years of the Cold War. After a brief rush of appearances, she dropped from sight; not long after, the Soviet bloc crumbled and in the sudden new uncensored but unsubsidised world of publishing—the commercial world that writers in the West are used to—nothing more was heard of her.
At the start of the novel, there are questions within questions: Is it true that she is living on the island? Has she really been silent as a writer all these years? Are we sure she was as great a writer as we were assured back then, meeting her in what seemed rather crude translation? Or, looking back at that slim body of poems, are we sure it was she who wrote them, after all?
Stalled in a draft of a fiction, Howard never got there to find out, though the problem of unlocking him never quite stopped nagging at the novelist’s part of my mind. It was only when I started opening the urgent little emails from my mobile that I realised that the unknown, unmet her had got fed up with waiting. Yes, I know this is mythical thinking, with the kinds of unfactual as-if truth that metaphor and myth possess. I know that she does not exist, but she had found a way to get her voice through anyway.
2. Other Voices
The tale above is lightly told, unashamedly anecdotal. It is an account of, not an accounting for, the process. But like any creation story, it is also an exercise in descriptive poetics, in which the selective memories and metaphors we choose to speak about origins embody choices and values in the here and now. As a writing teacher, I see how false an exercise reflective commentary is for many students, encouraging them to create accounts that privately they will confide were post hoc rationalisation, cast in terms of strategies and conscious intentions that the course seemed to demand. Accounts that are allowed, or even expected, to tell stories often happen on a more convincing truth.
This is not to deny a place for the other voices of poetics—the analytical (the voice of theory) and the intentional (the voice of manifestoes and opinion-based reviews). Creation stories can release material that the analytical can scrutinise. Whether that in turn leads on to the intentional, the should of writing, is another and maybe political choice. My own has been away from that conscious intention, towards disciplines and games that free a space in which the unexpected might arise. This too is a choice, of seeing writing as the means by which we are created (as writers, certainly, and arguably on every level) more than as a means of expressing our known selves.
Reflecting on such ‘found’ poetics need not be naive. It opens the way to historical reflection, necessarily—the personal-literary history of ‘influences’ certainly, and in this case also the context of a specific decade. The fictional project had a dynamic, a ‘problem’ both cultural and personal, located at a point in history—the last years of the Soviet era—and raising the question of what became of writers once prominent as dissidents, especially those celebrated, maybe idealised, in the West. Visiting Estonia not long after independence in 1991, I spoke to writers needing to take a deep breath, and sometimes a creative pause, to adjust not just to new market conditions but to the sudden break in a consensus under which everyone, the authorities, the intellectuals and a large readership agreed on the importance of writers. Poets in particular had been people who could give a voice to things otherwise unsaid.
That power ascribed to writing had been noticed too by writers in the West. There were many good reasons to be concerned for the dissident writers of Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 80s, but as a young writer coming to consciousness of the writer’s place in that time, I acknowledge a touch of the syndrome Pankaj Mishra, provocatively, has described:
The western writer’s instinctive reverence for ‘dissidents’ is driven at least partly by wounded egoism. As Roth hinted, the writer living in the consumer societies of Europe and America knows that he can never acquire the moral authority and political importance his dissident counterpart naturally possesses. (Mishra 2008)
Spotting context and influence is another kind of creation story, either as an exercise in literary criticism or, for the writer still in progress, as an aid to understanding the dynamics of the work. I would not be the first writer to invent an alter ego from the other side in the Cold War. In The poems of Z by Paul Hyland (1982) a fictional spy from an Eastern Bloc state writes poems that are both an expression of his distance from the world around him and also a reaching for an authenticity, in memory and emotion—‘this intelligence in / my other tongue’—that his profession denies (1982 poem XXXIV: n.p.).
Hyland’s book constructs his framing fiction with a brief Preface in his own name, down to a photocopy of a manuscript poem in its writer’s hand. Deftly he deflects the need for further background:
It will be clear why it is difficult for me to disclose how these poems came into my possession. Their unexpectedness and their unexpected power, that made such an impact on me, are the important things about them. In any case, I have nothing to say about their background, for all my knowledge of it comes from them. (1982 Preface: n.p.)
By 1988, glasnost was opening the state archives in Russia, and Duncan Bush could frame his mixed-form collection The Genre of Silence as a scholarly treatment of material newly available about a silenced poetic voice from the days of the Stalinist purges. The poems in the name of Victor Bal take up less than half of the book. The rest is background, circumstantial evidence. This method both acknowledges and plays with a sense many of us had first meeting the work of samizdat writers in translation, that one had to take on trust the greatness of this writing, since the English version often seemed a little thin. What we were missing, apart from the texture of language itself, was the cultural and historical resonance, partly filled in for us by the details of the writer’s life and fate. Bush’s imaginary scholar uses Mandestam and Babel, two figures of uncontested importance, as points of reference, and Bal’s sketched-in life overlaps with theirs at key points.
Whenever writers write about writers, we are likely to be doing business with our own poetics—all the more so when those other writers are invented ones. Hyland’s editor, Neil Astley, observed the paradox that Hyland seemed ‘able to confront more of himself through his Poems of Z ... than he could perhaps deal with in the supposedly more direct poetry of The stubborn forest’. (Astley: n.d.) Midway in time between the examples above, Christopher Reid’s 1985 collection Katerina Brac added more layers of distance from the author’s self by adopting the voice of a slightly stilted translation of a female writer somewhere in the Eastern bloc. In contrast to Bush’s book, whose effect is to sharpen our sense of its historical background, Reid’s uses what Tim Kendall (approvingly) calls ‘translationese’ to access a defamiliarised landscape of language more than a specific time and place.
A generation on, I am not the only writer to be making reference to that time, or to find himself on the borders between poetry and prose. Patrick McGuinness’ novel, The Last Hundred Days, mixes a taste of autobiography with fiction in a vivid account of the fall of the Ceausecu regime. It features a minor character, Liviu Campanu, a poet whose reference to Ovid registers internal exile and meditative mourning for a vanished cultural world. A few of the fictional poet’s poems had already appeared, with a ‘translator’s’ foreword, in McGuinness’ 2010 collection, Jilted city, with a complete collection promised ‘by’ Campanu soon.
3. Between Prose and Poetry
Considering these different takes on similar material brings me back to Evi and the devil. The extracts here mark one point of arrival, maybe temporary, in a process that has manifested itself sometimes as verse, sometimes prose. The project began with a visit to Hiiumaa in 2001, resulting in writing that was already hybrid—a poem-documentary Touching Estonia. In the years that followed, the unfinished business of it appeared first as a draft for a dark children’s novel then, crystallising around the enigmatic figure of the ‘silent’ writer, the novel for adults referred to in Part 1 above. In its latest form it produces the prose-poems below.
The quandary I am describing might seem to be between verse and prose—and significantly, three out of the four books touched on in Part 2 have some element of each—but that distinction might be superficial. These pieces hold no anxiety about the question Why is this poetry? Prose poetry is established as a form of poetry, and the brevity of the pieces I am dealing with, their play with rhythms of voice marked by punctuation rather than by line-breaks, their delight in asides and shifts of register, their intent to set out several interpretations of events, several kinds of truth, all mark them out as addressing a poetry-reading audience. For this voice to walk out dressed in prose is a clearly poetic choice. Yet there is a still a question.
The four authors above differ significantly in their treatment of specific historical material. In McGuinness, the Romanian setting is precise, informed by direct experience, and in the novel it is the historical narrative—including the complex sensations of living through the period—that predominates. The developing Campanu poems, with their wry informed intelligence not unlike McGuinness’ own, share that world of reference but need to move outside the structure of the novel and inhabit independently the space of poetry. The introductory note in Jilted city is very spare in its ficto-biography, in much the way Hyland disposed of any call for background detail. There is a move away from the documentary and narrative mode to the meditative and lyrical.
At one end of this continuum, the poetry of Bush’s Victor Bal depends on its precise placing in Soviet history; the poems themselves offer names and dates. At the other, Reid’s Katherina Brac mentions the political background in the lightest terms, with a nod towards a shadowy bureaucracy, or a near-Martian image like the ‘iron lily’ on a military speaker-van. The heart of the exercise, though, is interior, as in the final lines of the opening poem (almost mirrored in the final one): ‘colossal rearrangements / somewhere at the back of the mind’ (Reid 1985: 10).
The creative quandary that the material excerpted below may not be to do with outward form but, unexpectedly for me, with the classical polarity of lyric and epic (in modern terms, narrative). Almost never in my practice as a writer have I felt the need to ask whether a piece of mine is lyric—not even when they are literally cast as songs. That might be because the shortish poem crystallised around emotion is so omnipresent in the present culture that lyric has come to seem a synonym for poetry, and the assertively narrative poem, or that of intellectual argument, is the exception that needs naming.
A more satisfying answer is that lyric and narrative are principles, not demarcations. The Homeric epic is shot through with rich descriptive evocations charged with feeling; Alice Oswald’s brilliant stripping of The Iliad in her book Memorial swings to and fro between the catalogue of character and action on the one hand and, on the other, the great extended similes. Exposed like this, they are surely lyric. Meanwhile the default mode of contemporary British poetry is the condensed and then unfolded anecdote. Epiphanies depend on a sense of what led to them, and what (transformed by them, we guess) might happen beyond. If half the art is in not labouring the telling of events but letting the crucial moment speak, the other half is in trusting what we know of readers: that the narrative impulse is alive in them, and only needs a wink. The pull of the narrative is felt from within the lyric, and for the many poet-novelists now operating, vice versa.
The speaker’s voice in the pieces below would scoff at the word lyric, but may have to live with it. She seems to be spinning stories, hinting at real historical traumas as well as prehistory, improvising on folk tale—while doing everything to evade the flow of narrative. By invoking so much time, informed by but not confined to real or even metaphorical events, she seems to speak almost from the lyric’s ideal of the ‘timeless’ moment, infused with a spirit of a place, physical sensations and emotions. The voice that has come in from the forest in this latest draft is that of poetry, the lyric—through the unlikely medium of the iPhone screen. Off screen, the undischarged potential of the material behind the poems persists, now elaborated and explored in several notebooks. There are characters behind these pieces, with a dynamic and shifting relationship informed by politics, involving power and need. The more the prose-poetry voice speaks as lyric, the more it implies new possibilities in narrative. And the narrative voice, which may or may not manifest in separate prose writing, feels like the stray voice in the forest, not yet brought to book, for now.
The choice of the prose-poetry form in the pieces below is not a compromise. It may, though, be a sensitive way of registering an ambiguity—not the choice between lyric and narrative but their necessary coexistence, as the two poles that create a process. Most work in progress falls into a clear position in the field between them automatically. The fact that this work has maintained its shifting balance for so long might seem frustrating for the writer who wants a job done, but for the thinker-about-writing, who sees self-observation as one form of research for his pedagogy too, it should be an opportunity. While uncertainty exists, there is something to be learned. Or so that voice in the forest (ah, but can you trust her?) seems to say.
Selected pieces from Evi and the devil
You know those sudden round clearings in the forest? That’s
where the devil squats, grandly, to fart. Things wither. It’s
because he can’t resist the mushrooms. He asks the country
people which are good to eat, and they tell him the bad ones. In
the end, given time, he moves on. We build in the clearings. But
you have to let the air clear first.
The kind man from the Youth League gave me the toy
soldiers. He whittled them himself, with his beautiful knife. I
think he noticed that whenever a game was being got together I
would not be there. I stood them on the old tin tray, then made it
make a sound like far off thunder. Then they all marched one
way. They fell one by one, till they were a river of logs. One last
There are more people living in the village. The more there
are, the emptier it feels. The more rustling with life the forest.
Or maybe it’s the forest dwellers who are coming in to live
amongst us, in their thin disguises. Crane Beak Man, for
instance—I’ve seen how he looks at Frog Feet Woman. I don’t
remember when I was told (I was) that I wasn’t to mention these
things, or by whom.
Thin blooded, my grandfather slept on the stove. I used to
wonder at the energy with which my father stoked it. I
understand that better now. He wanted to dry him out
completely, to a stick figure we could keep propped up in the
window making a rude gesture—you know that fearless scorn
the old are blessed with—to frighten the devil away.
Bones make good foundations, said the old man. There seemed
to be no malice in his voice. See that lighthouse, he said, see that
gun emplacement, me or my grandfathers, we built that and that.
See this island? Limestone, ground up shells and bones. I
wouldn’t wonder my folks had a hand in that too.
One night I heard voices, a low mutiny of them, out among the
trees. I can be silent when I need to. As I came into the clearing
the whole circle of them turned. Who are you? I said, and as
they told, one by one, their faces faded and I knew that I would
never be able to hear those names again. Afterwards, when I met
people called the same I would stare straight through them—
even other children in my class.
In a corner of the woods lives the Glass Man. I’m almost sure
I’ve seen him now and then—sometimes a slight quirk in the
field of vision, sometimes a thin prismatic glint on its edge.
Once, I think, he was just like us—opaque, corporeal—but
completely consumed by his job, which strained out all the
slight impurities that impede the flow of light.
The Devil is a postman. Comes round with his sack of letters
from the whole wide world, his world, he says, with their pretty
duplicitous stamps. It’s probably true—it is his world—but he
lies anyway, because he likes to. Everybody needs a hobby. See
him licking his little translucent sticky hinges, arranging the lies,
the pretty ones, the important-looking ones, on the squared
pages in his album.
You say this is childish. Childish, you say, to pretend this way
to childhood when in reality I’m sitting on one of the lower
overhanging branches of the tree of knowledge, swinging my
bare legs, laughing,
The sea froze. It got so cold so fast that rows of foam fret
stopped in mid curl, without falling. From a high tree I saw
shipwrecks, people just abandoning their small boats, overboard
and hanging in the ice froth. At first I thought that it would save
them but no, it only meant that they’d be always drowning,
You say it’s the edge of the world but we are well connected.
Traders came here to find amber for Byzantium, Barbary
corsairs, the souk of Baghdad. The emperor Nero had a monocle
of amber—it made him feel like the sun god, shining on his
world. And sometimes like the small boy deep in the woods who
quite without emotion pokes another ant into the sticky resin and
watches it drown in slow motion, in time. Another gift of mine,
he’s thinking, to posterity.
They built a road through the forest, dead straight. Before
that the trees went on forever. Now they were forever on that
side, and again on this. All of a sudden, two infinities.
They found the Glass Man shattered. No clues, no one or
everyone accused. Nobody asked me, but I knew the whole
scene could be reconstructed—just measure the angles at which
we found them embedded in everybody else, those needle-thin
splinters of glass.
Changeling! said my mother in a sudden rage. Look at your
eyebrows, they meet in the middle. You weren’t born with ears
like that. It’s the way you watch me. And the soup boils over
every day. It was her face that changed, since dad—all soggy
but smouldering, like a house after the firemen have been and
have gone. I couldn't move. Stop staring, she said. Run back to
the woods where you belong.
The Devil cornered me as I was on my way home, out too late.
Ha-hah! he said, and Hah! in case I missed it first time. You
know what devils do with juicy little girls like you. I do, I said,
Aunt Katri told me. What? he said. Eat us, I said. Ho-hoh!
Worse than that. We slobber all over you while we do it. Uh-
huh. She said that too. He leaned very close up. Even in your
inmost creases, he breathed in my ear. Uh-huh. She said that
too? Oh yes, you and Aunt Katri, you agree about everything.
You ought to get married. Hrruh! he snorted, but he went off
through the woods in her direction, carefully brushing his tail.
The old man had a steam machine—half traction engine and
half kitchen stove. He called it Moloch, half fond, half appalled
by it like someone adopted for better or worse by a terrible dog.
He fed it papers, page after page of his great unpublished novel,
and wrote more and fed it, night by night by night. He turned
grey with it, his hair was ash already, then one night his drawer
was empty and he went out empty handed. After that we’d hear
it roaring in the dark without him. It had started hunting for
There are walls in the air. First they build one. Then they tell
you it’s not there, never was, the word ‘wall’ is your own
invention. You might not believe them, quite, but can you walk
through where it isn’t? No. This was an early lesson. Nothing,
you say, if not trite. It’s not trite. Therefore it must be nothing.
Like the wall.
Everyone died. I went into the woods one morning, in a huff
about something, something over breakfast. When I came back
there they were, all the bodies laid out in a line. The house
ripped open and everything gone. I started to retell the story as
quick as I could, so they all came back, mama, papa, Timo, and
my whole class from school, which was good of me, you must
agree. Only, nothing they said to each other sounded quite the
same, and when I looked away they said nothing at all.
There were many strange things in my grandfather’s toolkit
but no one could ever account for the trepanning saw. Then
again, holes have been found in skulls from the Stone Age,
round holes, neatly made and healed. People guess at some urge
to transcend. I see it rather as a manhole for the gods, or at least
the lower class of them, to be sent down to investigate when
there’s a bad smell and a blockage in the drains.
You say I’m going on a bit about the devil. There are angels
out there too, playing their grave boys’ games in the forest.
Sometimes you find small heaps of pinecones stacked like fossil
hand grenades. I found one of those too, from the war. No, I
won’t tell you where I hid it, just in case.
Oh, mother, mother, always dusting. So much of the dust must
be me. Hairs, skin flakes, healed scabs, tears dried with a little
crusty stain. They all went into your dustpan. Really, you must
have kept more of me that way than I ever gave you of my
livingbreathing self. Did you keep it, I wonder. Could we
assemble a new me (and you) from the parts again?
The real ghosts in this place aren’t the dead. The dead are
vivid—constant flash-glints off dark water, in whatever tarmac
puddle, culvert, drainage ditch. The ghosts are the ones who’ve
given up on living, with their lost loves/lands/hopes, mousey-
shredded self-respect. It’s a kind of listless treason. I know they
can’t resist. But still, they’re punished. Life. Internal exile. They
go on and on.
All this seems a long time ago although it isn’t. Or is and
always was already. Is that’s what it’s like for the old, time
breaking up like ice floes in the spring thaw? Stay back from the
edge, said mother, from the bank, from where the falls were just
unlocking. But who wouldn’t want to edge a little nearer, is that
what grandma was doing, without moving? Just to look.
I am willing to answer your questions if you let me choose my
language. Today it has to be that of the swans, the great
whoopers. They should know a thing or two we don’t. But you
must let me see the sky, because distance is part of their syntax.
Their speech makes no sense without it, not to them or to us.
The hurt gull tumbles down the chimney. Hunkers in the dark
back corner, with its barb-tipped beak. All the child wants is to
mend it. Feed it fish scraps, keep it for its own good. Make it see
sense about life as a pet. The child almost loves the scars the
beak leaves, every time the child reaches in. You think it’s
another of my once-upon-a’s, don’t you? What have I got to
write with in here but my beak’s nib, a drop of your blood.
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