That remarkable man

Issue 4/1988 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Poems by Lauri Viita. Introduction by Kai Laitinen

Alfhild

Mothers alone, endowed
with hope, see God.
They’re given strength and given will,
to climb in dream from under the cloud,
and look from a higher hill.

Alfhild, she who gave me birth,
nightly sailed away from earth
to where her Eemeli growled his say,
coming and going, as he did in his day.
Now they walk
the bright star track,
father and mother, looking back
at the little hill and the family home,
the cats, the dogs, the people they’ve known,
waving and calling as best they can
lest any of us trip on Pispala’s stone.
On a distant planet on a garden swing
under a rowan they linger and cling
and silently remember their light and dark
as a courting couple in Tampere Park –
and if it was payday, the extra fun
of tucking away a coffee and bun.

And when the Pispala dawn turns red,
mother will come to make the bed,
and the birds, the birds will trill…

‘How wonderful to be alive! –
and see your children’s children thrive,
and tell your beautiful dreams as well –
Oh my children, love!’

On the way home

The streetlamp-curve
in its yellow queue
to the outer town
dogs the lonely foot that plods
from the whirl of walls
to the promise of home.

A black shadow coils
beneath the soles
in the pavement dirt,
becomes a giant, to retreat
in the beat of feet
and the new light.

Thought swoops around
a diminishing loop.
And no accompanist,
a mongrel dog with a goal of his own
jogs away inside the fog,
and will he ever be missed?

Revolt

A vigorous bedbug burned in his mind
to bring new freedom to his kind.
Summoning all to the Assembly Hall,
a bedpost cranny, he announced the Call,
and erect upon his column of straw,
spoke like a conquistador:

‘Countrymen – our eyes
will fail for lack of exercise.
Here in the dark, as our wings did once,
they’ll atrophy through indolence.
And through our lack of lebensraum
the birthrate’s going down!

Brother Bedbugs! Hear the call –
to conquer that Great Sea, The Wall!
Human blood – it should make you squirm:
proper food for the louse and worm.
A nobler harvest I affirm!’

He got about a dozen or so
volunteers who were willing to go.
As evening fell on the little squad
they drank a last drop of human blood –
ranged in line on the edge of the bed,
they went over the top to the weave of the mat
and plunging across the trenches of that,
led by their Chief to the brink of The Wall,
quickly advanced in single file.

And so the brave ascent began,
vertical but sovereign –
till, with the ceiling close, a hand
came cruelly down on the little band.
Sideways, backwards, forwards they flail:
the same result: popped in the pail.
Picked off one by one, they fall,
demagogued by a single fool.

A sad case. But such
is freedom’s touch.

Concrete mixer

A building site: cranes, lumber, junk,
towers, scaffolding, concrete chunks,
and round it a dead-pan city-block frown:
a large industrial town.

A concrete mixer, I was that,
with lungs of cement and a battered hat,
with crows in my nose,
and sweat in my shirt.

I lolled on a plank.
My morning nosh
quietly sank
in the tummy’s squash.
A policeman’s shape
statuesque and straight
dimmed by the gate.
A stink of smoking pitch.

The weather’s warm: eyes close,
I’m beginning to doze.

Somewhere I’m crawling,
lost and sprawling,
where can I be?
Cemented in, sweating lakes,
in a lizard swamp, swarming with snakes,
sometimes upside down in damp,
sometimes sucking a foot from the swamp,
escaping the Something that pants at my back,
running, tumbling, running, smack!
I swim away, away! –
Ah, and now I’m stuck!
That gap
between the knolls –
bottomless bogholes!
a death trap!

I’m sinking – heaven have mercy
on someone belt-deep and out of breath
in the sucking and swallowing night of death!
The marsh has swallowed my chest, my neck,
my mouth is filled with film and dreck –
I can hardly breathe!
And now, what now? – has the pressure gone?
Like the swirl of a wave that rears –
then breaks – all matter disappears!
Through the dark vacuity
I dive and dive, till thump:
on my plank I wake with a jump.
A little ghost of a cloud had cast
a drop or two on my face as it passed.

It’s warm again.
I shift my crotch,
loose my belt a notch –
and my weariness deepening
sink into dreaming
of a long-lost magic ring.

In fact I’ve arrived at a bony ball:
what we know as the human skull!

Some voice is explaining:
– This is that sick head
in which the lunacy is bred.
Is it a leak in the mould, a blast
in the alloy, or a fault in the cast?
Just for now, it can remain insane,
till it goes to the ladle to be cast again.
Some caprice, which we can’t assess,
seeds the essence of its flesh
with lust and hatred and a morbid mess,
in which the atoms of happiness,
pulsating waves of grief and joy,
are screwed up into hobbledehoy:
dissonance, remorse –
from which the toxins of virtue and vice,
seep to every seedling’s base.
Here, mirrored on the dungeon wall,
reason raises a caterwaul,
raving up schemes and sleights,
from which the mildews and the blights,
the arts, the images and the open wound,
the straight, the stooped, the uncribbed, the cocooned,
the molten lava of new-born and dead
are supposed to get their right to spread.
Here the beautiful and bad
monsters of art are nurtured and shed.
But now the show is starting!

The kaleidoscope in the human head
is beginning to turn and change the view;
the voice fades in the hullabaloo:

Images
wake and shake,
from cavities and holes and seams thrust out
the crowding dreams and lusts, and shout,
they steam, they scream,
they dance, expand and thicken,
they advance, they stand, they flee …
angels and devils with wings and horns,
rams and bulls and capricorns;
skeletons, scaffolding – gallows;
wheelbarrows,
concrete mixers …!

– Poor us, poor them,
oppressed for nothing, and then some! –

I went unconscious – no joke:
let’s say: I woke.

The wincher was poking my leg with a stick:
‘Get going, mixer, to your mix!’
The bricklayer fussed, the hodman cussed:

‘Thieves and whores! more mortar and bricks!’
Old ladies laboured, toting more
and oozing sweat:
it was life as before:
toil, toil, and toil on yet.

A skilled man, me, with a trinity
of materials: these three:
with gravel, water, and cement
I conjured concrete, as I was meant –
and some sweat I lent.

I was the Messiah man:
I was the male who poured the pail:
the shadow of The Great Mixer,
The Fixer
who into the deep, deep peace
of The Great Vacuity and Release
pours back the concrete mixer –
a tiny gnat
and a tiny fate
with lungs of cement
and a battered hat.

The wanderer

If something of this mystery
you’ve finally understood,
then give up all your history
and go and seek your God!

As for me, my hand is empty,
I’ve nothing I can give;
the way you’ve found can’t tempt me:
it was yours alone to live.

And ‘What for’ there’s no knowing;
I’m still asking ‘Why?’ –
and on my way keep going,
for I know nothing, I.

But maybe after trailing
moon-sea and earth-sea shores,
even I will find I’m sailing
to the cradle of the Cause.

From Betonimylläri, 1947

River

It flows there still, goes on and on
under its steep incline,
and the little lad with rod and line
still scampers in muddy boots –
along the field of oats he scoots,
across the lea where the river runs,
and the field fumes.

And the flowers, in their golden tints,
they’re left like yellow footprints,
prints of toe quintet and tiny heel.
And the shadow at his back,
the puppy with no collar, he’ll
be Blackie if he’s black.

Ah, to remember even the stone
that leads another fisherman on!
Like a strong and mighty-sided bream
with working fins
it gives a ride to the lad who dreams.
What if those fins are only weed?
The leisurely river will always flow
with seem and dream.
He’ll see earth’s substance go
and the water flow without a shore,
and feel the whale is real.

Under its steep incline it flows,
even to heaven the river goes
on to the sky.
It doesn’t tangle in trifling blocks,
or weary itself at turbines or locks,
or follow knowledge’s narrow tracks,
just wanders by.

And the boy will feed his perch with bait
and journey on.
He wanders till it’s getting late
and looks behind to investigate:
and the oatfield hasn’t gone.

The priest and the heathen

It’s the late dean’s word
that farmer Erkkilä listens to,
though time has passed and he’s aged too.

The truth is this: old and retired,
the dean wasn’t given to speak at length,
and scarce a word in church was heard;
mostly he just preserved his strength
to enjoy his pension and try to read
what it was that others said.
That Monday, crapulent, sick with dread,
Erkkilä was pulling the parish’s sins,
the lot of them, like a pile of hay,
down from a loft on his own frail head,
and the old dean smiled and pricked one ear
and cupped the other, so it wasn’t clear
which was the ear he was listening with.
That’s how it is, he finally said,
when Erkkilä looked with different eyes
on everything that troubled his head.
Those trees, said the dean, giving a nod,
they look to me like the fingers of God.
And Erkkilä said: They do indeed.
Or feet! he flashed, restored to wit,
yes, cubic feet.

And so the dean wished him good day,
and wandered down the woodland way.
That was Monday. Saturday next
either it was ‘Morning, morning’ said,
or else straight out ‘The dean is dead –
yes, now it’s him’: their usual text.

Those trees, said the dean, giving a nod,
they look to me like the fingers of God.
And farmer Erkkilä remembers the talk,
quite convinced it’s a text from The Book.
Dangling on his garden swing,
shaded by his bushy rowan,
the eternal spark in his pipe still going,
he rocks and quietly watches, watches
through the fingers of the branches
what the sun might be thinking of doing
with, for instance, that crop that’s growing.
Will it go ripe and brown in the sack,
or is the Lord considering black?

Big man

A big man came to a little town,
came, they say, and sat him down,
travelled, he must have, very far,
worn-out too, as travellers are:
you feel it when you weigh a pack,
handle and ponder any old pack,
weigh it, like a man in dismay,
pondering the fish that got away.

A big man came to a little town,
and sat him down, down on the ground,
that was the only bed he found,
and stretched him out, or so they say,
and flowers were blooming, that summer day,
and a measuring worm measuring away.
And a blue chirp here and a green whistle there –
and under the sun, but high in the air
a wisp of cloud like satinette
wiped away the beads of his sweat.

A big man came to a little town
and slept as soil sleeps on the soil,
quiet, without a breath, they say,
and man as man has no more to say.
Remarkably many packs are on,
but that remarkable man is gone.

From Käppyräinen, 1954

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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