A birthday visit

Issue 2/1990 | Archives online, Authors

Last June the master Nieminen – poet, translator, sinologist – was sixty. So we – a group of his friends, publishers and colleagues – set off on a visit to Myllykylä to congratulate him. This is the village where, with his wife, Nelli, he has been teaching primary school since the early 1950s – right up to his retirement, at the end of the 1989 summer term.

At the approach to the school, the road petered out into a single gravel track, and someone announced his astonishment that roads like this were still around in Finland. It brought to mind a poem of the master’s:

Here I live, out of the way,
out of earshot of the city tattle;
and what the papers say
I forget the same day.
One ear’s cocked to the street
and the children’s squabble.
How come I tend to feel
there’ll be no end to their babble,
even if their growth
makes them gentlemen, or fools, or both.

Nieminen was waiting to meet us on the school porch. There were no speeches: we just handed him the greeting card we had written. I myself was the twenty-first name there. We wanted to adjust slightly the master’s persuasion, for he had asserted, hadn’t he, that

Four friends I’ve got – that’s the lot.
Myself, I’m the fifth.

Nieminen took hold of the card, turned over the pages and burst out laughing: ‘And I thinking I’d written my own greeting card!’ He was referring to his Mandarin – just out and under his arm: a book of essays on the culture of ancient China, particularly the poetry. The keenest visitors were also giving individual presents – the most memorable for me being the boxes of cigars and the weird-looking rum bottles. The bestowers had undoubtedly had a poem like this in mind:

I drink and lick my lips,
I lick my lips and come:
I come to the glimmer of rum
and the burn of the blackest cigar.
Oh lissom little girls,
Oh wives with soft thighs,
hang on – my glass is full.
And you, all you skinflints of living,
sleep well at nights!
The Creator’s best creations
are the Devil’s temptations:
I’ll sleep
when life’s over.

There are already enough of Pertti Nieminen’s cigar-poems to form a complete volume, and he’s enhanced Finnish erotica not only with his own poems but with translations of Pierre Louys, Erich Arendt, Reiner Kunze and Géza Képes.

We toasted him in the school entrance hall, and then went to one of the classrooms for coffee. I asked him how it felt to have abandoned this other vocation. ‘Nostalgic: he replied: ‘this, you know, has been the children’s home as well.’ I looked out of the window and across the yard at the headmaster’s house, with its circling birches and aspens. This, I reflected, has been Pertti Nieminen’s lifelong stamping ground, surrounded by schoolchildren and his family, where he has written ten volumes of poems and delighted Finnish poetry-lovers with translations of Chinese poetry that are the equivalents of Arthur Waley’s and Kenneth Rexroth’s.

In a taped interview for the Finnish Literature Society, Nieminen said that he’d have been unable to continue writing without his wife’s support. The world is loaded with novels and poems about broken homes and the sexes’ ina­bility to understand each other. Very few writers treat ordinary, harmonious family life and the friendly companionship of husband and wife, involving sexual happiness. Nieminen does – warmly, tenderly, and with a seasoning of humour, he brings out how those near and dear make us cling to this world even in our worst moments:

I’d like to be hard again,
but I can’t. When you look in my eyes,
natter on, or start worrying,
I adore the world you belong to.
That’s all you wanted to see:
you hold my hand, and we take a walk.

The feeling of nostalgia dominates his poems about childhood. A part of Nieminen’s work is about my home territory. We both of us grew up – though in different generations – on the shores of the Gulf of Finland, in Vaasa. It is fascinating how much one’s reading is enhanced by familiarity with the poem’s setting. The sounding-board is enlarged:

It always makes me fade
to think how fiery the sun felt
and the tar smelt
on the Promenade
forty-three years ago.

For me this is a very sensuous evocation of those hot days in Vaasa: I visualise a lovely weekend – the men tarring their keels down there between the Kalaranta shore and the County Surveying Office, where the boats have been on the stocks throughout the winter. I can localise the poem as precisely as that. It goes on:

When I was three or four
my mother woke me to watch the rising sun
firing the sea-mist to flames.
Dad was off, rowing to the ship.

Nieminen’s deep attachment to nature is part of his family inheritance:

You taught me to hear the wryneck’s cry
at rain, you showed me the redstart
in the cherry tree;
you pointed to the stars and
the Northern Lights;
you taught me the way to read the landscape.

Nieminen doesn’t wander off into the untouched wildernesses: he concentrates on the natural world right there before us day and night: things growing in the yard, the animals there, and the night sky. But he’s no romancer: he knows what’s what in our environment:

Forest-murmurs now,
though no wind in the forest.
You’re not consulted when it falls –
falls slowly, maybe, but interminably:
too slowly
to give you time
to get out from under.

There is always a person vividly present in Nieminen’s nature poems, either as an observer or – as in the next poem – properly hard-at-it in a natural setting:

Today they came, the spotted flycatchers:
made a close study first
of the plumber’s bench and tools,
then looked for a nesting place
in a birch-tree fork.
Maybe they feel safe with that
stout silent fellow
welding away there
and humming to himself,
who speaks standard Finnish.

The poem is a fine illustration of Nieminen’s characteristic respect for ordinary common-or-garden work and the people who do it. He has written four short poems honouring his grandfather, who was a blacksmith; there he claims to regret not carrying on the trade, as he intended in childhood:

Then, at any rate,
it wouldn’t have come into my head
to compare myself to an aspen
and be ashamed of not shaking.

An amateur of music, Nieminen often recalls natural sounds in his poems: the rustle of the rain on the Japanese bistort leaves, the singing of crickets, the corncrake’s nocturnal ‘crex-crex’. Nor would he be in character if he didn’t bring a little polemic into these matters:

The nightingale is nattering, tu-weeting,
jugging and sputtering half a mile off –
robbing the weary of their sleep.
Composers, all of you, ancient and modern,
and poets, William S. in particular:
say what you like, but the high-winging
skylark’s a prettier singer!

Vivaldi is Nieminen’s master. ‘Vivaldi’s chamber concertos are the summit of music for me, the dearest-conceived, the friskiest-paced, the sparest-designed,’ he confesses in one of his many prose­ poems about composers – which are, in a way, mini-theses. In a couple of poems, he refers to Nisi Domini Gloria and a Miserere:

how else
tell the sorrow
that every day
we vainly trail words for?

Grief, despair and fear have incubated Nieminen’s protests in the eighties. These are mostly short pensées or epigrams, ‘unpoetic aphorisms’, though there are also longer declarative pieces in a vocabulary drenched in mythology, both ancient and Scandinavian. Nieminen lashes those who possess the kingdom, the power and the glory – a word-triad that becomes familiar to his readers – and demands disobedience from both adults and children alike: humility is proper only before nature.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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