Sick with emptiness

Issue 3/1997 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

The poetry of Juhani Ahvenjärvi is a poetry of disorientation. Reducing its imagery to a bare minimum, it develops a luminously metaphorical quality through the act of reading.

I do not know Juhani Ahvenjärvi (born 1965), although I have drunk beer with him on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. I do not know what goes on inside his head and why he writes so strangely. In Helsinki and Tampere, audiences burst out laughing in the middle of his poems, but grow serious or confused toward the end. In Paris, the audience listened to Ahvenjärvi’s poems fervently, and it would not have occurred to them to laugh.

At funerals, too, laughter is, aftertears, the most common reaction.

I like Ahvenjärvi’s phrasing enormously: his sentences are dear in their construction and concrete in their images, but always astonishing in their content. In his language, a lost rhetoric flowers it sounds like Soviet, assuming that Soviet is a dead language, like Latin. Doesn’t the beginning of this poem sound as strange as Soviet society: ‘I used to feel sorry for supermarket trolleys. Now I have seen them creeping up to the edges of parking lots.’ In his lingeringly beautiful, political-sounding poems I also hear distant echoes of the poet Väinö Kirstinä’s work of the 1960s.

In Ahvenjärvi’s poems, people fall ill with emptiness; emptiness is a disease. Stones are cool, dolls hang themselves. But most tragic of all in childhood is that worms do not eat dolls that are buried in the ground. So the game does not end. Proportions change: in a dream, a thin girl, Marjatta, is fatter than the fat Kerttu. I listen to this with furrowed brow, knowing that it is important. In his poems rain smells of coffee, and drinking coffee is a political act. I have heard people laughing heartily at his coffee-poems: the beginning, ‘Hospital coffee is really good’, frees people from anxiety and fear of death. The ending, ‘Must remember to wash your hands in it’, silences the audience disbelief. The association is religious, holy. Is the poem over?

Ahvenjärvi does not fear the page. On the paper is much that is chattering and white in a wide-open landscape determined by funny little phrases. The genre of Viivoitettu uni (‘A ruled dream’) is not aphorism. It is hibernation, the snowy cave of the slow circulation the blood.

The movement in these poems is shameless and nimble: masterly shifts from clouds to chairs, from high days to the striped beloved, from Biblical language to the language of the pin-stripe, from definitions to images full of holes. And all the time there is the feeling that the text saying something quite different from what I read.

How can one write music with angel’s feathered wings, when music paper is dominated by dense staves?


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