Nautilus

Issue 3/1996 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Poems from Erotus (WSOY, 1995). Introduction by Lauri Otonkoski

As the future First Mate dreams, embryonic sails in his eyes
and runs, a rat, from one ship to the next in the harbor, so I saw my image in the imago
pushing out of its chrysalis under my father’s hand that held the lens.
His other hand rested on my shoulder like a wing,
‘Resurrection!’ he cried out, and I felt my heart tumble.
And there it was: Parnassius Apollo or Parnassius Mnemosyne mnemosyne
on the glass slide, straightening its flying gear,
and a moment later, a narcotized, trembling piece of jewelry.
I handed my father a shiny pin, and he pushed it skillfully
through the body. Daylight adhered to the collection.
For the duration of the blink of an eye, all butterfly wings breathed.

My father was a scientist – a failure, he said –
because he himself was a bird – I decided that as a child, as I looked at him,
and he looked at me, his child, in whose perceptual development
he had no share (he said) – and laughed.
He looked straight into the soul, head cocked to the side, the way a bird looks
or the way one talks to a puppy. And he found there a petrified pearl-boat, or
the cool folds of Prima Materia, and was moved –

Under his aegis, I began to compile catalogues and taxonomies, learned
relations, names, cubes cubed, and the numbers of angelic pairs of wings
first, to remember them, then, to understand…

My curiosity drove me forward.
Everything I touched changed into something else, joined, branched, and divided
like a ray of light in a prism:
the spheres gave way, instruments and contraptions nailed down distances, tweezered
causes into bowls. The fish, my nocturnal company, whispered from their rooms
next to bathysphere railings; the fruit, whose innards I excavated,
imitated themselves on plates that gleamed in the sun; the chalk I had tormented
grew dark on the bottom of the chalice.

I calculated the constellation of the oxeye daisy. I copied creatures the fire crackling in the stove
reflected onto walls and the yellowed page of my book.
(I was convinced that the true nature of fire, like that of clouds, can be divined
from the motions of its shadows. I added: The shadows of my hand, but deleted that phrase
immediately.
And yet –)

Like philosophers and poets, I wanted to prove the next metamorphosis, raise
the veil of the next impenetrability. But I was a technician, I ground lenses,
I was charmed by the flying dust that calculated its course by heavenly bodies
and wintered in muddy Egypt.
Devoutly I read the great book of nature.
And at some stage, in the middle of the experimentum crucis, a somber word
was brought into my white study, and a moment later, I was an heiress.

Now the grass wraps the house of my childhood.
The shadow of my first garden grows ever shorter, until it falls,
presto, like a shackle from the wrist of a cupid:
a forgotten rosetum, onto which the thornbush insidiously lays its crown.
Nor does anything exist in the house anymore. Gone is the ebony table,
into whose surface a copper basin was sunk and fastened with copper rivets
(for boats and waterlilies); gone the chests out of whose drawers I pulled armfuls
of snow-white silk and embroidered eau-de-nil silk; gone the glass cabinets and the china;
gone the sturdy pots and the soft backs of books come loose from their sewing;
the samovar empty (since so non-existent),
and of the dacha, dacha, not a trace.

But there is another reality, the key under the doormat.
There is the dimension of space in which words are one with things.
Nor has nothing that is arrived yet.
(I am hopeful, I strain my memory. As when everything around me defined
me, when I became defined, in house and things and garden trembling
in the heat, and I myself addressed trees, berry bushes, fruit-trees by name,
I want to be precise.)

Esse, that is: Is.

Is the ants’ fort the peony, the pale currant,
the fuchsia that meant death,
the forget-me-nots gentle around the fence,
the enamel basins upside down on the steps, the water in the well,
the dog under the hawthorn
and the deaf-mute wedded to his pitchfork;
the desolation of the veranda after rain,
dripping windows and appletrees,
the turbanned black boy in the corner,
the shadows that deepened the farther away from the house I ventured,
under every stone a snake
or some other strange skin
and everywhere laughter, which belongs to the dead,
causes the dazzling green of treetops to tinkle
and snaps off the lizard’s tail
as one knows how to do
only after migrating to the far side of catastrophe.
This happened before the advent of winter,
before the death of wonder
(when I took leave of my childhood and water filled the cellars)

but one had to go forward, there were greater dreams and tasks.

Thus I became an expert of the vanishing and transient.
Mors absconditus, human mortality and its allegorical optics
was my calling. With tweezers I picked up the insect sample,
placed it under the magnifier and saw that only the exterior of a subject
can be understood, its inmost form points somewhere else.
As the larva’s being reflects the butterfly it will become, so a newborn infant’s
body contains the embryo of the soul, which will achieve fullness – well, where?
When he died, my father was as wise as it was possible for him to be, I don’t believe that his gifts
could have been put to use in the cathedral of roots. And what does a full-grown butterfly reflect?
I asked myself. (The idea of a butterfly, books claimed to know, but I was not convinced. After all,
I was a technician, trained to deal with tangible, visible creatures.)
And I, mere shell that I am, then asked, will my soul – wretched,
as I was made to understand – evaporate into the four winds?

The soul does not vanish (said the books) because it is God’s idea in man. I doubted,
did not believe I could be permitted to hold in my hands something indisputably divine. On
the other hand, when I looked at a person and read the presence of wonder in her face – I
believed in her?
I couldn’t be sure if the wonder was in my own eyes or in the one at whom I looked.
That may not be important.
In death, everyone takes along her own greatness or smallness.

Truth and curiosity. Veritas. Curiositas.
These, I served. Beauty came, too, in time (but not yet).
And eternity, it was present in the small and particular: it was here.
I saw worlds in a fly’s eye. In a planet I saw a fixed point.
I made wild leaps between fact and fact.
At the end of my life, when I would step back from a full canvas,
arms would be ready to receive me.

I was confident. I decided to do what I could. And yet
I often sat up late by an empty window, saw dawn
slowly bleach the wine, saw the trees awaken anxiety.
I felt my family tossing and turning, out of reach,
in the ever-changing swarm of planets and asteroids.

I decided to do what I could. I decided to save things and objects
(my childhood house and garden, wrapped by the grass). I wanted to stop the subject
and make an image of it. I thought it best to imitate truth by means of the finest possible
instrumentarium, and I adopted a new instrument: language.
As then, it still is an apparatus among others. Its essential nature –
precision – does not privilege it over decanters and rosewaters.
So I took pen in hand, wrote: ‘The coral-lipped maid slid down from the clock tower,
ribbons of seconds on her shoulders… ,’ and noticed, to my annoyance
that my instrument wasn’t so exact at all!

Sails and faraway lands. The imago’s flight.
Opening spirals and stairs.
The relation of silence to truth.
There were moments when language itself spoke, not I.
(One sentence, and you no longer doubt.)
I traveled. Taught. Discovered the miracle of dialogue.
Mirabile dictu.
And beauty arrived.

Did I nevertheless wait for a sign, for a word that would embrace,
make this-flesh come alive?
Truth caught up with me on a bridge on a late winter evening.
I had been happy among my objects.
Now I stood there with empty, probing hands.

Time: the throb in your temples.
This railing: the edge of existence.

My heart crouched like a welding flame
until it flared as a pillar into the air
lighting up your attentive face,
the navel of albion
around which the creaking universe turned.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

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