Beneath the surface

Issue 2/1992 | Archives online, Authors

Kari Aronpuro (born 1940) is not a traditional poet. Rather, he is a loader and unloader of meaning – a deconstructionist who continually encodes and decodes the meanings communicated by language. ‘I do not speak language/ language speaks me,’ he wrote in 1981.

Moving freely outside the mainstream of literature, Aronpuro writes poems whose meaning flows exuberantly from one sentence to the next and constantly plays tricks with the reader’s expectations. Unmoved by the dialogue between soul and nature so very familiar in Finnish poetry, he examines, instead, the interaction between consciousness and meaning.

At the same time, Aronpuro makes fun of the concept of poetry itself. His poetry forces its readers to examine their idea of what is poetry and what is not.

In successive collections, Aronpuro has juxtaposed ordinary life and theory with ever greater daring. I’ve taken 26 nappies/ out of the washing-machine and thrown them/ open/ The expression/ is a compression and a wrapping/ and the signs symptoms of power’, he writes in the 40-page title poem of Tasanko 967, published last year, in which one strand articulates the experience of pregnancy, birth and breast-feeding. These are not followed chronologically by the ‘I’ of the poem; Aronpuro cuts without warning between times and layers of narrative. The result is a cunning pendulum swing whose motion transforms small into large – and vice versa.

Aronpuro accords the same treatement to high and low, comic and tragic, preparing the ground for his often wayward comparisons, which mix the known and the unknown. The child inspires the 
poem’s narrator to many ingenious perceptions whose comic effect is often born of the reduction of living things to the material level. ‘I carry the baby on my shoulder from room to room/ babies have to be shaken after filling.’

Such parallels open up a perspective in another direction. They hint, without illusion, at the reversal of values in a society which personifies the inanimate and reduces living things to the material.

Aronpuro’s oeuvre as a whole (he published his first poems in 1964) shows an unusual logical consistency. The key elements of his 1960s work are concretism, dadaism and documentary expression of perception, with a strong current of irony underlying the apparent objectivity.

The 1970s saw a change in direction as a result of Aronpuro’s interest in the new thoughts of the French Left, although he continued in largely the same vein stylistically until the new beginning of Kalpea aavistus verenkierrosta (‘A pale presentiment of circulating blood’, 1977). He discovered structuralism and semioties, which he has never since abandoned. They are, for him, an intellectual kaleidoscope which demonstrates that we are ‘incapable of thinking without signs’, as the American semiologist Charles S. Peirce has put lt. The world – like the sign itself – is a sign, the mark of object, event, or emotion. The sign is their external form. Thus he writes, in his collection Kirjaimet tulevat (‘The coming of the letters’, 1986): ‘In the beginning was the mark.’

Aronpuro’s early work was largely based on collage. In his more recent collections, he has adopted subtler techniques, making sometimes highly ironic use of the writings of Charles S. Peirce, Umberto Eco, Jacques Derrida, Francis Lyotard, Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze as bases for his own poems.

An earlier collection, Rihmasto (‘Mycelium’, 1989), centred, as its name suggests, precisely on the texts that creep, fungus-like, beneath the surface of language. No text is pure, no text is entirely without references to other writing, Aronpuro gives us to understand. And vice versa: the absent text can act so strongly upon the actual that it wipes it away, unwrites it. Indeed, Aronpuro often falls back on games of differences in which the reader finds in the text that which he is accustomed to find, and not what the poet has written.

The world of texts is quite concretely available to Aronpuro, for this Tampere poet works as a librarian in one of the city’s branch libraries. He is a bookish man, through and through.

Aronpuro calls the poems of his newest collection nomadic poems. The reference is to the nomad concept proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari; but it casts a much longer shadow over the world of literature and myth. Why does Aronpuro choose the role of nomad in the technocratic Finland of the 1990s? Does he want to turn the clock back? Must we abandon our culture and prosperity?

The answer is tied to Ahasuerus, the wandering Jew, who was condemned to eternal movement because he showed no sympathy to Jesus as he went towards the Cross. Aronpuro parallels Ahasuerus with the nomad: both are outsiders, because neither can put down roots. Neither must the poet join forces with society and its values, Aronpuro insists: the poet, too, is always an outsider, who must always seek to see the world anew, as a child sees it. Thus there is no need to turn back the clock. Aronpuro has no moral guidance to offer humanity. He merely defines his own place: the poet must abandon consensus, and believe in the power of dissent.

The span of Aronpuro’s nomadic poetry is broad: it stretches from the capture of the television headquarters in Vilnius and the gulf war to cooking recipes and the deportation of Pehr Evind Svinhufvud, who became Finland’s president in 1931, to Siberia in 1914. The focus, however, is firmly on the present, which is not without a past. Aronpuro’s image of Finland is unadorned: no valleys, no hills – only the nameless Tasanko (Plain) 967. He makes play with the spiritual flatlands which, in these days of economic depression, increasingly dominate the landscape. Their image is the current president, collapsed in a picnic chair, with a face of white marble and a black felt hat, and twelve quarrelling magpies in a naked wound.

All that is left is the child, the child’s untarnished wisdom. When the poem’s narrator asks his three-year-old, at table, ‘do you know that/ the use of language is the use of power/ he threw a tantrum, stuck out his tongue/ and snorted.’ That demonstrates the relationship of theory to ordinary life.

Tasanko 967 brings theory and ordinary life into sometimes flamboyant contact, and allows them to cause each other to disintegrate. It is difficult to find a point of poetic comparison for Aronpuro’s highly original style. His poetic vision gushes and dashes like the multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton; or, more accurately, like Braxton’s solos with interludes by Spike Jones.

This is perhaps most clearly to be seen in one of the three poems of Tasanko 967 that accompany the nomadic poem. The poem’s title is ‘On holiday somewhere in Spain’: ‘I opened a sardine tin:/ there, in the olive oil, lay/ three Aronpuros interlocked/ at a ratio of 1:21.’

Kari Aronpuro’s poems are to be read at a ratio of at least 1:21.

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