Keeping silence

Issue 4/1987 | Archives online, Authors

The October sunlight filters through the dense pine forest. Nature is completely silent, waiting for winter.

Through the open window over the forest and the lake floats the sound of an old grand piano, made in St Petersburg in the days of the Tsars, a tiny, exquisite fragment of Tchaikovsky.

Mirkka Rekola is playing the piano. For her aphorism has become reality. In her book Silmänkantama (‘As far as the eye can see’), she wrote: ‘Trees like delirium, myself in twilight mood, I open the door, the forest is inside the house.’ In these days of voracious publicity, Mirkka Rekola is an unusual and estimable figure in the Finnish media circus: she does not give interviews, does not open her home to the media, does not appear on chat shows or take part in other public entertainments. She avoids being photographed, shunning the camera as she shuns all other journalistic intrusions.

All the same, she is at the centre of Finnish literature. Her poetry and aphorisms are not nearly as inaccessible as their author. But she believes that it is the words that matter, not their writer. She may be withdrawn, but she is no hermit. Her speech is lively and there is a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Her roots are in Häme in southern Finland, but she has made herself very much at home in Heinävesi, in the east.

‘Even as I speak I can hear myself keep silence,’ writes Mirkka Rekola.

Mirkka Rekola published her first volume of poetry, Vedessä palaa (‘Burning water’), in the same year as Väinö Linna’s Tuntematon sotilas (The Unknown Soldier), 1954. Linna’s novel caused a great deal of debate; Mirkka Rekola’s book was received more quietly but nevertheless to some critical acclaim. From the very beginning, she knew she would become a poet.

‘Ever since I was about five I knew I would spend the rest of my life writing poetry – and that the poems had to be good!’

Now, many years later, Mirkka Rekola acknowledges that it was undeniably a fairly difficult and demanding choice. At that time in Finland it was not customary for someone to become a writer just like that. There were no grants or other forms of financial support. You had to look after yourself. She admits it: ‘People don’t know what a long and arduous road it sometimes was. Particularly at the end; of the 1950s and during the 1960s, a time of show and spectacle. I felt myself somehow to be so terribly alone. Later poetry became political – and then, too, I just had to go on believing that somewhere, somehow, my poems would find their readers.’

She says that for a lyric poet like herself it has always been perfectly clear that her readership would be very small.

‘Lyric poetry is something that can be talked about a lot and of which many demands and challenges can be made. A lot of people form their opinion of a poet by following what the papers say, not by reading his or her work. It’s undeniable that poetry – read properly – can often be difficult, and that may be true of my own work… There are never more than a very few people whose life is poetry.

‘And critics can never dictate what the poet will write about. Critics always come second. And they have to do that, even though they can sometimes see further ahead.’

Mirkka Rekola says it’s not worth listening to exterior voices or demands. The poet’s music has its own score, and he has to know it by heart.

In his book Suomalaisia nykykirjailijoita (‘Contemporary Finnish writers’), the critic Pekka Tarkka writes: ‘Mirkka Rekola feels herself to be at one with creation and sees in it her introverted world. Side by side with this runs her feeling of strangeness and foreignness.’

Does the poet identify herself with the various interpretations made of herself and her work?

‘Along the decades, I’ve begun to recognise myself a little bit more. It was a long time, for instance, before they cottoned on to the “ambiguity” of my poetic language; but then, that’s not an end in itself for me, but just one of the characteristics of my poetry, one of many.’ She specifies that the essential thing is what the poet says – the message, the matter of the poems. ‘If a poem isn’t alive, if it doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t mean anything to me.’

An important turning point in Mirkka Rekola’s work was the publication of Muistikirja (‘Notebook’) in 1969. It marked a renewal in her lyric poetry and a turning towards aphorism.

‘I knew myself, too, that what I was writing was more aphorism than poetry. Afterwards more aphorisms began to be published. But about Muistikirja – it isn’t just a notebook. It’s a book about memory.’

Aphorisms, thoughts and landscapes appear, too, in the collections Maailman lumet vesistössä (‘The world’s snows in water’) and Silmänkantama. These three volumes have now been published under one cover, together with an entirely new collection. The title of the new work is Tuoreessa muistissa kevät (‘Springtime fresh in the memory’).

The publication of the collected poems in 1979 was also a significant event. Soon afterwards Rekola received the coveted Eino Leino Prize. The collected poems were followed by Kuutamourakka (‘Moonlighting’) and Puun syleilemällä (‘Embracing a tree’). Soon afterwards Masku began to take shape in Mirkka Rekola’s mind.

Who or what was Masku? She recounts, in explanation, one of the Mickey stories: ‘Mickey rushed into the barber’s. “Are you busy, can you do something about my hair?” He lifted his cap. “Look, all the hairs are loose at the other end.” ‘The poet illustrated the Mickey stories herself. The drawings are small, minimalist.

‘I did little doodles, completely unintentional – just like, in a way, the entire text. First I looked at them for a long time and thought, how peculiar, I couldn’t make out what they were, really. I like them a bit better now…’

What is the true role of the writer in today’s world?

‘This world of ours is so hard and so wretched that no one can live here without being conscious of its bitterness. Poetry is one way of getting on, of moving forward. Poetry halts the world for a moment. If those moments are let pass, there isn’t much else left…

Mirkka Rekola walks out to the yard. Behind the house are pine trees. Some of the lower branches are damaged.

‘I should really ring up a tree expert and ask how serious that is. Isn’t even this quiet lake landscape of mine pure any more?’

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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