A passion for darkness

Issue 4/1997 | Archives online, Authors, Essays

In the fourth part of an occasional series on writers and their inspirations, the essayist and short-story writer Leena Krohn considers the poet Uuno Kailas (1901–1933)

I’m far from claiming that Uuno Kailas has ever been my favourite author. But I definitely had a close affinity to him in an early phase of my life.

There were a lot of his volumes on the shelves in my childhood home. I leafed through them at a very early age – in my sixth, seventh and eighth years. There were times when, as a child, I was very afraid of the dark. I might lie awake at night, stiff with fear, hardly daring to breathe. Presumably that’s why I was drawn to his poem ‘On the edge’:

I’m afraid in my room,
I’m afraid of the window.
And the shadows
of people the window shows
as reptiles – lizards crawling
across my wall.
I’m afraid to look at the door,
it opens on dark.
The doorknob gleams:
it could turn
and they’d be there
the ones I’ve no name for,
the ones I see in my dreams.

The scholar and critic Pertti Lassila has said of this poem: ‘The poem dramatises irrational fear, nightmare, and passes in a flash from unendurable angst to an ultimate metaphysical question, the poem leaving us with no answer.’ The last question’s unendurable but inescapable unanswerableness has stayed with me – and with my writing, I might add.

Many of Kailas’s poems have remained unforgettable for me: they were imprinted on soft earth just emerging from the water. I can’t claim this as a complete blessing. In fact, rhythmically, I find many of the poems awkwardly contrived and monotonous. It’s a minor affliction if they start going round in one’s head when one’s feverish, weary or sleepless.

Before I was ten I discovered more Kailas in the bookcase: a rather slim purple volume showing a wax-pale, high-domed, narrow-headed, bespectacled man’s face staring out from the cover. His mouth was as small and shapely as a woman’s, almost as if it had been lipsticked, and it somehow looked sick. The book was Kailas’s short stories. Its prose had a powerful fascination for me. ‘Bruno is dead’, ‘These two legs don’t suit me’, ‘What they did to me four hundred years ago’, and especially ‘The shadow of smoke’ appealed to the primeval nightside of my child’s soul. Through these things, these things, too, I became acquainted with such sombre realities as guilt, fear, suffering and death.

Kailas’s poetic vocabulary soon became familiar to me: ‘graveyard’, ‘cross’, ‘shadow’, ‘darkness’, ‘net’, ‘border’, ‘wall’, ‘burden’, ‘contrition’, ’emptiness’. But it would be a mistake to remember these alone. One summer I listened to my actress aunt preparing for an approaching one of life after death. And how many joyful, enthusiastic, radiantly youthful verses there were, as well, about earthly happiness:

Roofs dissolve above our heads
and the walls disappear
As if we skimmed the Alps like birds,
our eyes fixed far from here.

A couple of years later, on a cousin’s birthday, I found another book, which I was enchantedly reading in the midst of the children’s party. It was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven which had just been translated, as the first of a new detective novel series. Kailas and Poe had the same virus in their blood; they were feverish with an incurable malaise, a passion for darkness.

Later, when I was studying Finnish literature, I and a couple of my fellow students took a look at the last photograph taken of Uuno Kailas. There he stands, in early springtime Nice, with the wife and little daughter of the composer Armas Launis. Kallas is wearing winter clothes, a thick overcoat and a muffler tucked up high. A peaked cap is tugged well down, almost to his eyebrows. The items of clothing look inappropriate too large, since his face is so thin and compressed. His body is turned to one side, away from the camera, as if he were afraid the thing was about to strike him on the head. Through thick round glasses a burning look is piercing straight into the camera lens. He seems to be glowering at the observer paranoically, with outright terror. The child on the other hand isn’t looking at the camera: she has turned to Kailas and is staring at him with a concentrated and meditative look.

Kailas gives the impression of a curiously aged spectre, and yet he was still a young man, only 31. His image set off an inappropriate and wicked reaction in us: we burst into uncontrollable laughter. Looking at that picture now, I find it difficult to understand our heartless mirth.

Kailas looks wretched because he was dying. There was never to be any ‘rich high noon’ for him. He had come to Nice not only to seek health in the southern climate but to find a little tenderness in the arms of some kindly disposed young lad. But the illness he is thought to have neglected advanced without check, and he found only death, like Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach. The family that was keeping him company in the photograph was all the time afraid his illness might infect the child. Uuno Kailas wept the whole day before his lonely death in the sanatorium, where he had never for a moment felt comfortable.

Kailas’s fate brushed my family slightly. While he was still at high school, my father AIf Krohn became friends with Uuno Kailas, probably through his brother Ernst Krohn. I don’t know how closely, as I never had the opportunity to ask him. Both Alf and Ernst died young. But my mother once told me that the poem ‘Exchanging eyes’ was written for my father. It’s undoubtedly a love poem:

Why’s it like this now, you said.
All we did was exchange eyes.
You got the eyes that I once had,
I found myself with yours.

Uuno Kailas wanted my father to go abroad with him, to Italy. But my father never accompanied Kailas on any journey. Perhaps he himself didn’t want to go, but my otherwise so tolerant grandparents would hardly have agreed to such a trip.

It was only as an adult that I was drawn to certain poems I’d completely ignored in childhood and youth. One such is ‘Contemplation’, a poem whose resigned, undulating rhythm, refinement and oblique illumination still accompany my days:

The sky’s not clearing above my head:
the new day brings old clouds.
And every day I see
is a little eternity.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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