From the Estonian bogs to the Norfolk Broads

Read Penny Boxall’s blog about her collaboration with the Estonian poet Maarja Pärtna.

When I first discovered I’d be collaborating with poet Maarja Pärtna and sound artist Liis Ring for the ‘Bring Your Own Utopia’ project in Prima Vista Literary Festival, I knew I wanted to create a new work about Estonian bogs. Maarja, along with our friends Piret and Illimar, had taken me on my very first trip to the mire in August 2022, while I was on residency in Tartu, and I’d been enchanted ever since.

The experience – swimming at dusk in a deep dark peaty pool, hearing cranes call through the dying light – had banked down deep in me. The bog was like nowhere else I’d ever visited. I dream about it. Like a poem with strange syntax and hazy imagery, I do not fully understand it. It is a completely other, secret world.

 

Tales from the Wetland

Fingerprints in the boardwalk,
berries clotting from red moss,
spindle-delicate pines… here
is somewhere on the edge
of sleep. Sundew opens a wise eye
from its sphagnum bed.

I do not know the stories
of this place. This peaty pool
in the mire might contain all manner
of sprites — but the water’s
invitingly murky, and all I can think
is to climb in, lean forward, sink.

Waking nights afterwards
for another sleepless patch
I hear the faraway calls of the cranes,
their wordless rising like the voices
of women retelling their tales;

like the sound of dark water; like mist.

Tartu, August 2022

 

Much of my writing is about trying to access those secret worlds by some means. Poetry has this effect of taking you outside reality while at the same time deepening your experience of it: and the bog seems to me like the most secretive and inviting of spaces I’ve ever known.

(I hope I am not being too mystical to suggest that the bog is a state of mind. It’s somewhere I revisit often in my thoughts. Above my writing desk at home I have a postcard image of duckboards stretching into the moss and the stunted pines, just as they do at the bog, and the image seems to lead me on, invite me in, to further stories; in fact, I’m now writing a children’s novel set in a magical Estonian bog.)

So, for Tartu 2024, Liis and Maarja and I needed to create work (an installation, we decided) that would convey something of how we feel about these special, wordless, mossy nowhere-places, and where we were all coming from.

When we first began this project, Maarja and I spent a little time comparing maps of our home cities. Both Tartu and Norwich have a Narrow Street (Kitsas); a Starling Street (Kuldnoka); various streets named for trees. Most pleasingly of all, I discovered a Utopia Way a little way out of Norwich: in Stalham, right near the Museum of the Broads, in fact. It paired nicely with Õnne (Lucky Street) in Tartu. There were many such chimes and resonances.

For example: the bog in Estonia is acidic, while the Norfolk Broads (which are man-made, plundered peatlands filled with water) are alkaline: they’re analogous, but opposite. We knew we wanted to think about these sympathies and mirrorings. Finding this common ground fed into our poems, which in turn became as much about correspondences, language and communication as the dark and watery bog.

I sent Norfolk Broads reeds to Liis and Maarja at TYPA paper museum, where Liis (also a paper-maker) had a residency, and they created paper from them: the paper looked like bog from above. A few weeks later, Liis stitched the paper into cones, like the ‘telephone game’ paper cups that children use to communicate. The finished installation comprised ten such cones, five pairs, each hiding a speaker; sound (insects buzzing over water, a poem, a snatch of song) emerged organically from them.

Liis, at home in Gothenburg, crafted together our readings with snippets of wind-borne music and found sounds (frogs in the bog from that first trip; a nightingale Maarja had recorded in Tartu’s Dendropark; the wind whistling in a Norfolk stove, and the ticking of a Broads church clock). Her composition is otherworldly, compelling, incantatory. Some of our texts Liis sang; others we read ourselves over shivering musical landscapes. For the soundscape, Liis asked me to read one poem by pronouncing only the consonants; the result was eerie, almost supernatural, as though the speaker were submerged and rising from lightless water.

 

Murmur

The car-noise has damped down at last;
the street names moss over.

Starlings breeze through the red light,
led by the weather,

forming themselves into infinite loops,
or rings of dark water.

No other sound above Starling Street,
no noise on Kuldnoka;

just these millions of wingbeats,
pulling together.

Tartu, February 2024

 

Maarja wrote about the impact of Soviet land-melioration projects on bogland, incorporating socially engaged ideas from riddles to personal essay; I developed a series of ‘future folktales’ about wetlands, imagining what tales might be told about those places five hundred years from now, when the cars have long since rusted and the moss has crept back. The resulting installation was mesmerising. The soundscape lasts over 30 minutes, but it’s very easy to lose time in it, to submerge yourself.

 

 

At the end of the festival, Maarja and I managed to sneak away with a few friends for a dusk trip to the bog. Standing barefoot in the freezing moss, with the cuckoos calling across that vast space, and the bats flitting over the dark lake – and, above everything, the expectant, wise silence of the bog – felt like completing the circle: not in a ‘final’ way, but in the sense that we’d completed a turn, a loop, and somehow made something whole. I swam in the lake as the bats swirled through what might have been sky and might have been water. The two were no longer distinguishable.

 

 

I know this is just the beginning of this deep and rich correspondence. We have hopes of releasing the soundscape as an album. Our collaboration will continue in Norfolk, and I will be returning several times to Estonia this year. Thank you, Tartu – thank you, Norwich – for these connections: they are the stuff of life.

 

 

Penny Boxall is a poet and children’s writer who has worked in various UK museums. She won the 2016 Edwin Morgan Poetry Award with her debut collection, Ship of the Line. Her fourth poetry book, The Curiosities, about the materiality of memory, is out in June 2024. She is writer-in-residence at Wytham Woods, University of Oxford, and was Visiting Research Fellow in the Creative Arts at Merton College, Oxford. She has held Royal Literary Fund Fellowships at the Universities of York and Cambridge, and is an RLF Bridge Fellow. She collaborated with Maarja Pärtna (Tartu) and Liis Ring (Gothenburg) on ‘Once was Mire. Siin Oli Soo‘, an installation and soundscape for Tartu Capital of Culture 2024. She’s writing poems for hiking cabins along the Nordlandsruta, Norway, for Bodø Capital of Culture. She’s held further residencies at Kraków UNESCO City of Literature, Hawthornden Castle, Château de Lavigny, Cove Park and Gladstone’s Library. Her debut novel for children is forthcoming in 2025.

 

Maarja Pärtna is a writer, translator, and editor. She was born in 1986 in northeastern Estonia. Pärtna has studied English language and literature at the University of Tartu and defended her master’s degree in world literature. Her first collection Rohujuurte juures (At the Grassroots) was published in 2010.

Pärtna’s writing addresses social-ecological themes. Her fourth collection of poems, Vivaarium (Vivarium, 2019), combines historical trauma with climate anxiety and articulates a growing sense of danger coming from biodiversity loss. Vivaarium delves further into poetry that has begun to be dominated by environmental concerns and the time-pressured cycle of human ecological decisions. An English pamphlet with the same title was also published in the UK in 2020.

Pärtna has worked as an editor of both a literary magazine and a cultural newspaper, and edited several poetry collections. Her poems have been translated into more than ten languages. She herself has translated essays by Kathleen Jamie, Margaret Atwood, Edward Said, and Robert Macfarlane.

Maarja Pärtna has been awarded the Gustav Suits Poetry Prize, the Juhan Liiv Poetry Prize and the title of Tartu’s Young Cultural Bearer. In 2024, she was chosen as the City Writer of Tartu. She is a member of the Estonian Writers’ Union since 2015. Pärtna has also participated in several international UNESCO Cities of Literature projects and organised literary events both in Estonia and abroad.

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