tulip, ‘tulip’, and Tulip

Issue 3/1996 | Archives online, Authors

There are times when, on first reading, an entire collection of poems seems anchored to a single line. The overture to Annukka Peura’s Erotus* (1995) ends with such a crystallized moment:

I pulled the curtains aside,
and there, behind the green-
speckled glass,
dazzling,

was the 20th century.

This expansive sigh became instantly memorable; the landscape it offers is so vast. Most works of art have, in addition to their title, some detail, line, or moment for which a space is reserved in one’s memory, privileged above the work’s other components. For me, Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is represented by the adagietto’s veiled, secretive life, the cathedral at Chartres consists neither of the enormity of its towers nor the abundance of its rosette, but of the sacristy’s specific odor of sacral dust.

Annukka Peura’s book, with all its synesthetic intersections and its references to history and philosophy, affects me precisely by means of the merciless clarity of the cited stanza: there it was, the twentieth century.

It is hardly worthwhile to make the personal acquaintance of any author, especially not if you’re interested in literature. You are left with a strange feeling, akin to a taste of dregs in your mouth, after listening for a whole evening to a Nobel Prize Winner complaining, at a restaurant table, about royalties, sales figures, and the machinations of agents. Writers are travesties created by their works.

Annukka Peura and I belong to the same generation. Despite all that, I do not know her. Thus no exterior friction or magnetic attraction adheres to the written word to prevent me from approaching her book – even less so since I believe in Italo Calvino’s thesis that ‘the task of literature is to serve as a medium of communication between those who are different due to their difference, not leveling but praising difference in the manner specific to literary language.’

The collection consists of seven sections. An eye practiced in musical analysis immediately suspects pyramidal symmetry. One of the basics of musical analysis consists in slicing up total duration along the axis of time. And there are, indeed, very clear material indications that Peura’s book is shaped in the spirit of symmetry. There is a kinship between sections 1 and 7, 2 and 6, 3 and 5, with the core/peak/ solitary section 4 in the middle. (It opens with the autoironic line: ‘The first task of poetry is to explain’.)

There is something attractive and trust-inspiring about such thoughtful planning and contrapuntal arrangement of integral subjects.

However, only a factually crafted composition will reveal its nuances and shades in the course of time and repeated readings. It is pleasing to think that here, words, Iines, and stanzas do not only represent themselves, but also something of the totality of the universe bound between these particular covers. As a scholarly poet, Annukka Peura’s integrity compels her to write ‘learned poetry and to endure accusations of elitism with a scholar’s stoic calm. She seems to long for some kind of overarching, historico-linguistic lingua franca, a universal language. Phrases in Latin and in modern European languages fit comfortably into her text, even though their occurrence in a Finnish book of poetry may restrict her readership quite severely.

Only in sections 3 and 5, ‘Confessions’, does Peura construct her Iines in the sense of treating a line as a bundle of materials to be kneaded, stirred, and hardened to a point of material fatigue. In all the other sections, she employs a huge apparatus of references which can be managed only by means of frequently complex, meandering sentences. Ever curious, Peura wanders through her labyrinths: ‘(This work of art that smelled of a miracle and lived – as if for the first time, for me – and that in the catalogues received the afterwise name Stilleben or nature morte, was my breakfast.)’

Peura builds her collection as if setting out to pursue a boundless continuum. Diction, perception, and language are governed by horizonless expansion. For many lyric poets, cutting and fine-tuning is a virtue and primary goal. Thus Mirkka Rekola, for instance, a master, seems to traverse the chosen continuum from end to beginning; when point zero is reached, the material has been completely used up. Rekola seems to invite into her books none but the exact words that belong, not a word more. But Annukka Peura is haunted by this curse and blessing: It’s the 20th century out there, and it has a craving for words.

She does not, however, confine herself to embracing the whole World. Spinoza’s name appears in the first section’s title, and the philosopher of the Baroque was both a monistic determinist and a professional polisher of optical lenses. Peura also introduces into her text the winged ones preserved between glass slides, butterflies and angels, and they are observed in an atmosphere of merciless intimacy and penetration. Thus, the message of her book is characterized by a dialectic that operates on multiple levels. There is the macrocosm but also the microcosm: the twentieth century as well as the world opened up by the microscope’s cold eye.

There is thought, there is touch: ‘1. This is writing, this is not the truth. // 2. The trace of a hand on my knee is truth, the perception of a trace.’ There is a world both interior and exterior, aptly described by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his essay ‘The Eye and the Mind’: neither a poem nor a drawing belongs to the world as such. ‘It is the interior of the exterior world, and the exterior of the interior world. This makes possible the dual nature of perception. This also makes it possible to comprehend not only the apparent presence of the imaginary world, but also its immediate visibility.’

I have now read Erotus about twenty times. I have been frustrated twenty times, I have been charmed twenty times. I have learned least two different ways of reading it. The first one follows a story line:

‘For long stretches I woke up in a darkened room… I got out of bed… and walked across the floor… when I opened my eyes, a tray had been brought to the bedside… I arrived in the breakfast room after sunrise… I had my coffee and walked back to my room… I sat at the narrower end of the bed, wrapped in a blanket… I read books… I carried the food to the kitchen… at three in the morning, the first squeal out of the red-eyed rooster… and I, as if I were real, go on writing.’

The other way of reading makes the story spicier. Now we are cruising that deeper terrain, among elements much more formidable than the senses, upon which the visible tale has been constructed. Perhaps the book’s real home lies precisely in the ‘difference’ (erotus) between these two ways of reading?

Translated by Anselm Hollo

*) Translator’s note: The Finnish word erotus has multiple connotations:’ 1. separation (of reindeer, poro), 2. distinction, 3. difference, (math) remainder

Tags: