Among the poetry published in Finland last year,
Jyrki Kiiskinen identifies four voices that continue
to reverberate long after their books are put down
Pentti Holappa (born 1927) and Sirkka Turkka (born 1939) are well-known
writers who have own many awards; both have received the Finnish Broadcasting
Company's Tanssiva Karhu (Dancing Bear) award, and Sirkka Turkka has
also been the recipient of Finland's biggest literary award, the Finlandia
Pentti Holappa was, in years gone by,
well-known as a political columnist and as a social democrat cultural
minister who was given a place on the Parnassus of poetry in 1997
in France when his selected poems were published in Gallimard's poetry
In a fresh and non-dogmatic way, Rakel
Liehu (born 1939) represents the feminine perspective: she has received
positive attention internationally in, among other publications, the
journal World Literature Today, where she was noted as diverging
from the sombre Scandinavian poetic tradition. Her colour-saturated
and cubist-like poems have been translated, among other languages,
The fourth poet of the series is Markku
Paasonen (born 1967), a young scholar and essayist whose first work
appeared, as the only collection of poetry, on the shortlist for the
Helsingin Sanomat literary prize. Paasonen has spent long periods
of time in Germany, and has participated in the group of poets centred
on the magazine Nuori Voima.
Pentti Holappa's collection Älä pelkää
('Do not be afraid') is a mausoleum for murdered love. The poems speak
from a juncture between present and past, in the obscurity of their
own consciousness: 'As soon as light penetrates the ambiguity of being,
/ the fruit falls outside the bounds of paradise.'
Holappa writes eulogies to dead lovers,
in the hope that a love now merely imagined will gain clarity of vision.
Clarity does indeed radiate from the formal mastery of poems
so solidly made in an otherwise chaotic world. Holappa sings and polishes
his lines with unobtrusive ease: their diction is both precise and
colloquial. The dissonance otherwise characteristic of Holappa's work
has become muted in this new book.
One by one, Holappa strips away illusions
that generally make life 'meaningful,' thus testing our powers of
endurance. The forces of fate in these poems are blind; the animals
on our fur farms suffer because we are cruel and lonely on a purposeless
via dolorosa: 'Why just me and / my flesh should be saved /
from the carving knife.'
Holappa carries the whole world's sorrows
on his back, but they are true sorrows. In Hades' vestibule, consolation
is offered by one of love's remembered elements, i.e. touch - which
Holappa calls the first sense. It moves him to write poems, and the
poet does not speak only the language we use to misunderstand each
'I did not choose the cause, the cause chose me,' wrote Pentti Saarikoski
in the Sixties, when he thought he had found his life's purpose in
communism. Thirty years later, Markku Paasonen in his first collection
Aurinkopunos ('Sunweave') writes : 'I did not choose / the
sea but the sea chose.'
The juxtaposition of those lines says
something about the change Finnish poetry has undergone. Paasonen
does not write poems
'reeking of life' but returns to primary elements, to a previously
proscribed lyrical vocabulary. Since nothing is born out of nothing,
Paasonen resists the romantic image only up to the point where he
needs to acknowledge his debt to tradition, and then stages an often
tongue-in-cheek conversation with it.
Even though the sea is a shopworn symbol,
there is room in it for all manner of flotsam, including ideologies.
There is no order in the world of Aurinkopunos, there are only
struggling forces: 'Let water and fire pierce one another. / This
is the world. This happens. / The void does not happen.' The opposing
forces mate in the alchemist's womb-shaped alembic, the poet cross-breeds
ideas and frames images and layers of history fertile with new ideas.
The scenery gains a historical dimension of depth.
Paasonen's poetic language is masterful,
reminiscent, even in its mannerisms, of the late Octavio Paz's exuberant
tropical poetry. But our man does live in Helsinki, where it may snow
Rakel Liehu takes her walks in the garden of life and death, with
not even a low hedge between her and the realm of the dead. We live
in a world of absurd suffering, one that Liehu aptly names the 'circular
(saw) circus.' We see a woman striving for balance in a splendid storm
Skorpionin sydän ('The
scorpion's heart') finds much of its inspiration in the mythology
of ancient Egypt, not least in its physical relationship to death.
Liehu's strong woman is closely attached to life: worms perform a
symphony in her innards, and her ovaries are as punctual as the stationmaster's
This woman is first and foremost a mother,
but also kin to Isis who gathers the pieces of her husband's body
from the river of death to revive them again: 'My Child My Almond
Eye / Do not be afraid / I too am afraid // Everyone in turn steps
out / into his yard / eyes pierced for a moment, seeing.' The book's
high point is reached in images of birth and death: a mother escorts
her child to death's gate.
Even though Liehu no longer fractures
language as much as in her previous works, traces of cubist experimentation
remain. There are times when the newfound freedom of expression bogs
down in its own abundance. Skorpionin sydän is an embodied
book, hard to approach from a purely intellectual point of view, but
nevertheless a pleasure to read in the enjoyment of unexpected verbal
vortices and an imagery both fantastic and decorative. Liehu's language
reflects an individual way of seeing. It is its own branch of knowledge.
Sirkka Turkka welds demotic expressions, Biblical overtones, and Finnish
pop songs together like a Jesus hanging out with publicans and prostitutes.
She does this quite seamlessly, creating a lively verbal landscape:
'Poetry / is completely senseless, like a mind / open all the time,
babbling.' But as it moves along in its self-identification with a
farrago of phrases and sayings, the babble turns dense and multidimensional.
The reader of Nousevan auringon talo ('The house of the rising
sun') is invited to watch the construction and continuous renewal
of an identity.
The house of the rising sun is a drafty
place, even though its windows are closed. The landscape is somber.
Boundaries between the interior and exterior dissolve, heat flows
outside and apple trees move indoors quite interactively. The tone
shifts from everyday drabness to visionary melancholia, and now and
again, the reader's finger gets pricked by a well-aimed humorous thorn.
Turkka's people are lame, only 'good at dragging each other / back
and forth, like specials on ground beef.'
But it is also a house populated by
more animals than people: dogs, horses, and a hamster the poet eulogizes
as a comrade in fate. Death can be conquered for moments, riding hard
on a horse with 'a jumping lip.' The beyond cannot be seen: 'The planets
are in opposition and the earth and I / have only one moon, which
always turns the same side to us.' Mercy walks with a steady stride,
bowed, but alive. Poems.
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