Five from Finland, 2001
by Michael Peverett
Mirrka Rekola, Kai Nieminen, Lauri Otonkoski, Tomi Kontio, Riina Katajavuori
This article is named and dated from Anselm Hollo’s translated selections, still available from Reality Street Editions. One of the poets, Mirkka Rekola, can also be sampled in Herbert Lomas’s Bloodaxe anthology, Contemporary Finnish Poetry (1991). Four of them have generous selections (with translations in multiple languages, some of them taken from Hollo's book) on the excellent Electric Verses site maintained by the literature and culture association Nuoren Voiman Liitto (which also supplies much more sensible introductions than I intend to do). None of them, however, happens to feature in Leevi Lehto’s My Short Anthology of Finnish Poetry, compiled in 2005 – Finnish poetry is a large field, even putting on one side the significant Finland-Swedish tradition.
If I could read any Finnish I might think about these poets completely differently. In the English-speaking world we rely on selections, never glimpsing more than the silvery flash of each poet. It’s easy enough to see that Finland has one of the important poetries of our time, but what we mostly wonder at, in the circumstances, is the life of a shoal. Our wonderings must seem ridiculous to a Finnish reader, and even more so to an embattled Finnish poet. Still, it's a fact that in the years of living with this book (this is almost a review, and parts of it were written five years ago) I sometimes forget which poet I'm reading and then I read something like that silvery flash that I stupidly think of as Finnish.
The landscape's deepest melody flowed on
over the banks of the resounding Middle Ages. (LO)
People in the river are waving their torches away.
A medieval woman bricked up in grief
is praying underneath the market square
with no missal. (RK - from the Electric Verses site)
New churches, old
harmonized organs and repetitions
like a prayer or a psalm for seven voices. (LO)
the door open, no one in the pews,
the organ playing, a choir
up in the gallery, it sang "hallelujah." (MR)
The odd thing is that when I forget about the author the poetry strikes deeper into me. I am not a reviewer then, I am in a state of receptivity which allows surprises. The words are just Anselm Hollo translating something, it doesn't matter about who the author is. They merge back into the shoal with their difficult-to-pronounce names. I think if someone stuck to leafing through Five from Finland in that incurious manner the anthology would speak as a sort of involuntary collaboration and it would have off-message things to say. But now I'll be professional and separate these harmonized repetitions back into the authors. When I do that, I realize that generous as these selections are, they leave me wanting to read whole books by each of them, all their books. And yet one has to be grateful that so relatively much modern Finnish poetry is translated, grateful pre-eminently to Hollo (who has translated around thirty volumes) - and to Herbert Lomas and the rest: may there soon be more!
I remember where the sun set, the boat headed out,
the water grew dark, the moon rose on the left, you greeted it,
and torches were burning at the King’s Gate.
You did not sleep much that night, nor did I
When we reached the harbor
the moon, almost full, was on our right,
a dazzling sun on the left,
I remember us in the air on that narrow bridge
but can’t remember on which side of you I was walking
The mind does a little helpless topography: so they left, heading south. Night, the moon passed overhead. Now the moon is setting in the west. So have they now arrived at a different, north-facing harbour; or have they returned, and are looking back, when the rising sun is on the left and the setting moon on the right? (Because after all, when you dock you always look back at the sea.) There’s no answer to this. The transforming, little-sleeping night has changed the harbour, even if it’s the same one. What, after all, does it mean to say the “same place” when the sun and moon have moved? But what has transformed most is personal: I and you. Yet memory, always wanting to locate, does not deal well with transformation. There’s a different tenderness in not remembering; how much that blur in the memory remembers! Are they caught standing still, the way that memory has it, on that narrow bridge – no, they are walking. Are they going home, or to somewhere else?
Mirkka Rekola is the sparest of the five poets here. I don't mean she necessarily writes fewer words - not much Finnish poetry that comes into English is expansive - but she gives less. And this ungiving durability is compelling.
Kai Nieminen’s Serious Poems (1997), from which these selections come, is rather dificult to represent briefly, since it consists of clusters of short pieces mostly in prose, employing a variety of modes. A lot of the work is done by juxtaposition of those prose pieces; nor are the clusters themselves entirely unconnected.
Thus one of the clusters is called In Praise of the Market Economy; it begins with a sarcastic song of the seasons, includes a breezy praise – again sarcastic – of Finnish cultural life, ends with this:
As soon as I’ve set the world to rights, I’ll write some pretty, apolitical poems again. If I have the time.
A little further back, we find this:
This can’t be hubris, hubris never lasts this long. But what, then, is it? Whatever I say, I immediately think that I know better, and then I try to humiliate myself. If I was split in two, one half could go into politics, the other into academia; I would find ways to get them into debates, ex cathedra and on television. Back home, I would zip them together again and clean out their wallets for our joint account. But as things are, only ideas are arguing, not men, and that is worse than useless: I consume wine for two and double my hangovers. The worst thing about it is that every victory is a painful defeat.
The split men, that active pair, would clearly contribute to the market economy, very valuably for all including the poet. They would be implicated, true enough, but then isn’t the internally divided speaker implicated too, with his double consumption? His lifelong hubris (of a sort) is a kind of ecstasy of disengagement, attracting its lifelong disasters. At the same time he does succeed in being a sarcastic spokesman, and that final aphorism (quoted above) is proud: he knows that we know that this is political poetry.
Finland’s cultural life is in good shape. To deny that is just sour grapes.
This both means it and means the opposite. By certain indices Finland surely is rich, privileged and highly cultured. But something is wrong all the same, some sort of hapless disengagement which makes the speaker, for example, worse than useless. Nieminen tries to pin it down again, by focussing his searchlights on a super-invested “leader” in Chuckling to myself, now and again. Here too the individual is going along very well, but detached from what he seems to perceive:
Even though I can’t see him, he is always in charge. This is how we are doing so well, how we can have peace, food, clothing, a home. Or so he tells us. And who would want to risk trying anything else, we can see what things are like in other places. He is always present, and sometimes I ask myself if it is I, after all, who orders me to do all these things? But it can’t be, I wouldn’t know how to.
Nieminen’s aphorisms (a key form in Nordic cultures) don’t speak from a superior vantage-point. An aphorism intrinsically generalizes, but instead of us submitting (as to Samuel Johnson, perhaps) with a How true! and How effortless! ¬– or else (more likely as time goes by) with an angry rejection of the coercive trick – we are invited to see the generalization as a matter of comic effort by someone who doesn’t count for anything. An effort that, occasionally, we may judge to be true without us being coerced. The only way we can make that judgment is to see the poems as being about ourselves.
I hesitated a long time over Nieminen, uncertain what to quote, uncertain if these simplicities would seem like anything worth thinking of as a poem at all.
Hitting and missing is part of the procedure here, and some of the misses seem just careless. But that I wouldn’t know how to in the last poem I’ve quoted casts a long beam. Here’s another that does that:
Poorly scrawled graffiti, clumsy tags: no question, they are repulsive and depressing to behold. But what if apathy grows so deep that no one even bothers to scratch the pictograph of a cunt on a lavatory wall – where do you think we’ll be then? In Paradise?
And one more:
All evening, night, and morning the waves lap the shore, I sit on the porch or on a rock, lie on my bed in front of the open window, and forget.
The writing is elegant, accessible, generous with its fun. But the effort required from us is nevertheless exhausting. In this space there isn’t an option to forget.
One of the thrills of Otonkoski's poetry - and it does seem, in contradistinction to Mirkka Rekola, like one of its gifts to us - is its miscellaneousness. It is very difficult to predict what the poem on the next page will contain - its subjects, forms, appearance, manners all seem up for grabs. The three parts of "Werther's Aphasia", for example, seem like three very different verbal designs, not only on the page but in their texture.
In the forest I often saw
the forest's wooden comment
(from Werther's Aphasia 1)
(from Werther's Aphasia 2)
The gables of houses fell silent like pocket watches pierced by rays beyond intention and
But you, still there, like the sound of a zipper after a thousand-year-long opera festival.
(from Werther's Aphasia 3)
Anyway, here's the kind of thing that it leads to in a whole poem:
On the Ear's Walk
The landscape's deepest melody flowed on
over the banks of the resounding Middle Ages.
Do you hear, do you hear it
the way a snail hears,
that snail there who teaches,
learns from the earth's replies, learning
the snail hears and gets there,
gets there for sure
even the slow one gets there,
even the slower one will
then get there, it will
surely get there, into the pot.
By the time we get to the punchline of that snail story, we've pretty much laid aside the resounding Middle Ages, but those opening lines have such a wide horizon compared to the garden path that follows, we can't forget them, and experience the odd satisfaction of feeling we've had two poems for the price of one.
This bifurcation says, perhaps, something about the strange contrast between the earthbound ear, what is it, just a cabbage, and the extraordinary carrying resonance, the enlargement of hearing.
On the cusp of the poem between its two components is the strange, urgent intimacy of Do you hear, do you hear it, and at the end a warm sarcasm; both of these feel like characteristic - no, not moves, that sounds too calculated - I feel like they are personal characteristics of the poet. Surprisingly for someone who writes with such miscellaneousness and jagged incompleteness, the poetry is somehow held together by portraiture.
Tomi Kontio's poems are irresistible, perhaps in an un-Finnish way. At any rate, he is a nature poet and his poems live continuously in a dazzling reaction of images, and that's what doesn't seem Finnish, where normally a birchleaf or autumn are used more like material words, i.e. to talk about something else, than as objects for exploration. In short, Kontio is an unashamedly popular poet, sometimes his poems make me think that, if Tranströmer wrote about the stars, and sometimes, if Redgrove had written about the stars... And perhaps he is also the only poet here who might suggest the word "domestic".
Here is one of the star poems: they assume knowledge of star-names, traditional symbolism, location in the sky and the shape of the constellation - in Cassiopeia's case, the "W" compared to stitching.
The dress sleeps on the back of the chair.
The chair stands outside, it is the Queen's chair.
The trees' blood stops, the forest crackles.
Frost burns the crows black.
Schedir, Caph, and Rucha are drawing a woman onto the sky.
The dress wakes up and glides across the pale landscape.
It secretly gathers birds from their branches and buries them in the ocean,
secretly gather the outlines of stars under its hem.
Cold hands traverse my dream,
tears freeze in my eyes, sweat crowns my forehead.
In every room, these figures are known,
this dance of fear, sewn through the eyes.
You can kind of see why Kontio is also a celebrated writer of children's books, though that's nothing unusual among Nordic poets. There's a certain grand simplification that underlines the breathtaking sense of wonder that Kontio calls fear; he makes us imagine that the fixed shapes of the constellations are seen through each and every one of the world's windows. Literalistically Cassiopeia will never be seen through a window in the southern hemisphere, or through a south-facing window, and not often through any window where trees or buildings obscure the horizon; and in fact for all sorts of reasons it is rather rare to notice constellations through windows, at least if you live in a town in a cloudy climate. And I call it grand because these petty objections don't matter, only the image of that eternally wheeling, eternally and unculturally tiled ballroom of the starry sky in the unpolluted night.
But is there a less childish aspect to this "dance of fear"? In Kontio's poems everything is staggeringly beautiful, but the beauty is unnervingly detached from goodness.
A tattered white cloak, the moon unfolds above the housing development. What a pock-marked monster! Or abused wife who quietly proceeds through her darkness like a coin dropping into an ocean abyss. How poetic the landscape becomes when the buildings retreat into their nocturnal lairs and children's prayers fade into the horizon...
The uncomfortableness of pointedly following up the gentle progress of the abused wife with "How poetic.." gives us a small, distasteful jolt. Kontio as it were displaces the sentimental nineteenth-century idea of the beauty of a woman's sacrifice with the less self-pleasing idea that what is really beautiful is a woman's suffering. Within the poems beauty is a fact, but it is not a meaning, not an easy one anyway. The apprehension is not only wide-eyed, it is also sharp-nosed.
Anselm Hollo tells us that Riina Katajavuori's poems are "collages of voices, observations, acts of speech and writing from the street, television, radio, lectures and books". Saila Susiluoto tells us that Katajavuori's "themes are motherhood, womanhood, writing, familiarity and unfamiliarity of the everyday". The following poem bears out both these claims, yet in such a way as to surprise us with how misleading it can be to read about poems we haven't seen.
If your child sleeps under a tree, you
must be ready to leap down from the balcony.
Soon there will be cobblers again, even in the United States.
How birds change their color.
The far shore is covered by emptiness.
Unknown species live there.
When you emigrate, you die
and lose your sun.
What we're not expecting is the distance covered by the poem; its actual words are such a long way from naming the poet's concerns. Somewhere off in this distance is a philosophical debate - in this case about mutability, children going through changes... it's surprising that an unphilosophical intensity makes itself heard. Reading through this selection of Katajavuori's poems - it always seems too few - I keep picking up the transmission of an intensity that I name anger, though I don't know if it's really anger; it just gives me that kind of feeling. In other words, I suppose I read them politically, even when they might not seem it; they still convey a critical view of the conditions of life. The poet's own existence is so remote from this interest that she can even pretend to put herself stage centre, and the poem remains restlessly political, it refuses to focus on her. I like that a lot.
I want to turn in a direction where
sentences burn with a big flame
the mouth with quick intelligence, if
the expression of speech is true.
I try to scratch an eye-sized opening
into the random, which is
Photos borrowed without permission as follows:
Mirka Rekola, from http://www.kaapeli.fi/rekola/ , which also has some poems in Finnish with translations into English and Swedish.
Kai Nieminen, photo by Musta Taide, from http://www.lukukeskus.fi/lehdet/kiiltomato_net/kai_nieminen.html
Lauri Otonkoski, photo by Irmeli Jung, from http://www.finlit.fi/booksfromfinland/bff/199/otonesit.htm (with useful mini-essay by Jyrki Kiiskinen translated by Herbert Lomas)
Tomi Kontio, from http://www.teos.fi/en/authors.php?id=6&start=h
Riina Katajavuori, from http://www.robertalanjamieson.info/katajavuori.html
(click on the link to read Robert Alan Jamieson's translation of three of Katajavuori's poems into Shetlandic Scots. )
Anselm Hollo, photo by Jane Dalrymple-Hollo, from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/522
Five from Finland, edited and translated by Anselm Hollo, was published by Reality Street Editions in 2001 (ISBN: 1-874400-21-0)