LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 28, No. 4 - Winter 1982
Editor of this issue: Jonas Zdanys, Yale University
Copyright © 1982 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Aleksis Rannit. Signum et Verbum.
Translated from the Estonian by Henry Lyman. Woodcuts by Jacques Hnizdovsky. New Rochelle, New York: The Elizabeth Press, 1981. 43 pages. $10 Trade. $120 Deluxe Edition.
This third volume of poetry in translation by Estonian poet, critic, and art historian Aleksis Rannit (born 1914) continues the themes and the concern with form and presentation of his earlier two works in English translation, Donum Estonicum (1976) and Cantus Firmus (1977). (See Lituanus 25:3, 1979, pp. 74-77). As in those two earlier collections, the poems in Signum et Verbum exhibit a stripped purity of line and conciseness and transparency of image, free of historical constraints and emotional coloration and focused on the exploration of the dimensions of the aesthetic.
Signum et Verbum, with its concern with Art as the embodiment of "purposiveness without purpose" where, as Rannit writes in "Small Beginning,"
death of face,
cast into purity of form,
is part of a kind of continuing "ars poetica" in which the poems included self-consciously comment on the processes of the aesthetic and the linked and limned dimensions of Art.
There is another aspect of the function of poetry explored in the book. As the title suggests, poetry is at once sign and word, and is hence a part of a communicative process — word — and a thing — sign; it is signifier and aesthetic object. Poetry as word, as Rannit tells us, is that which "makes humans human" and which "comes/ a marvel to our lips". Poetry as aesthetic object is a thing of "dry, lean contours" which incorporates, too, a different, transforming and transfiguring configuration, and which exists, ultimately, in the dichotomy between being and becoming, between things living and not, as
the moment's edge
suddenly to crystal
bursting into bloom.
It is a hermetic universe in which these things take place; poetry is its vital element, and Art the elemental whole.
Like all of Rannit's books in Estonian and in English translation, Signum et Verbum exhibits a profound concern for the way in which the poem is presented. The book — like Cantus Firmus and Donum Estonicum — was designed by noted book maker Martino Mardersteig and was printed by Stamperia Valdonega in Verona, Italy. The materials used are of first quality, and that may in part explain why the book — and especially the limited deluxe edition — is so expensive. Despite the cost, though, because of the aesthetic dimensions presented, and because of the grace of the poetry itself, the book would be a valuable addition to collections of Baltic literature, European poetry, and modern poetry in general.