The forest, everything
Lassi Nummi (1928–2012) considered himself a prose-writer who has strayed into poetry. In a career spanning almost half a century and 25 collections of poetry, his preoccupations, and his central metaphors, remained constant: landscape, trees, bushes, blades of grass. Interview (1997) by Tarja Roinila
Now I can see how distinct each twig is on the bush, each grassblade with, all around, the void
My first encounter with the poet Lassi Nummi came with Maisema (‘Landscape’), a novella which appeared in the same year as his first collection of poetry. The experience was startling. The text delineates the building timbers of his subsequent poetry: trees, bushes, blades of grass. Maisema is a dazzlingly modern work, a complete realisation of something Virginia Woolf wrote in the same year, 1925: ‘Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.’
When I contact Lassi Nummi to arrange an interview, I am startled once again, for almost in his first words he defines himself as ‘a prose-writer who has strayed into poetry’. Quite an odyssey: 25 collections of poetry, of which the first, Intohimo olemassaoloon (‘A passion for existence’) appeared in 1949 and the most recent, Hengitys yössä (‘Breathing in the night’), in 1995. A volume of Lassi Nummi’s collected poetry from 1980 to 1995 is to appear this year. The first volume, which appeared in 1978, comprises almost 500 pages.
The bright living stream passes through the leaves, sparkles through countless objects, bends into a glittering curve. From nowhere, to nowhere: lightly, astonishingly freely and bravely it gurgles onward: free from the violence of ending and of beginning, from the whirlpool of toward-past-away: on the palm of death, completely born and budding with every new moment. Free of the constriction of outlines: no form, only movement: unconditional being-in-itself. Born in dying without remains, flows to-from-to: close, unattainable, here, now. Flows above me, rinses: I submit, disappear, languish: from the depths, weightless, see for a fleeting moment the gestures of the great branches above, far off, high up.
My gaze sinks again.
When I cautiously suggest that this extract from Maisema might serve as Nummi’s poetics, he exclaims:
‘My world view has regressed fom that stage; that sounds really very appealing now! I am prepared to confess it to be my aesthetic programme. Perhaps, however, I have not been able to realise it very much in my life and work. Perhaps this is one answer to the question of why I became a poet: this sort of instantaneous reflection is very important to me.’
Maisema is above all a visual work. The fundamentality of geometric forms and the fragmented, complex observation bring cubism to mind, while the independent role of colour recalls impressionism. It is also easy to imagine the work as a film in which the camera follows the gaze of the main character, accompanying the topography and moving rapidly from low to high.
‘The use of what might be called a subjective camera was a conscious choice, as is a certain cubist method. Another starting-point was the formal structures of music. I wanted to write about how landscape changes, how it behaves differently at different times – sometimes it is threatening, sometimes it fragments, goes far away, sometimes I see it as surfaces, sometimes as colours.’
There is a story to Maisema, too. A parachutist is dropped in a strange landscape, and it is a shock: he has lost his self and has to rebuild both it and his language.
‘It was the story that freed me to write without a story. The leap into the new made it possible to set out from zero, provided a framework in which I could freely submerge myself and set out to construct language from the very beginning.’
The question of why Lassi Nummi became a poet has recently been giving Lassi Nummi pause for thought. Among the reasons he mentions his many extra-literary tasks.
‘During my “social period” I was on the board of the Writers’ Union, and its chairman from 1969 to 1972; after that I worked for the Uusi Suomi newspaper and for the PEN Club, whose chairman I was from 1983 to 1988. I was a member of the Bible translation committee for the entire period of its existence, 17 years. A completely different choice would have been to become either a Buddhist or a Christian monk, or then to be a really convinced down-and-out- that might have been the most elegant solution. One could have regulated one’s liquid intake, but the freedom of movement would have been pleasant. At the moment I am working out how much of my original conviction is really left. I wonder whether I didn’t write my best texts in 1948 and 1949.’
Nummi’s first work, Intohimo olemassaoloon, has been hailed by many as a flagship of modernism. From a contemporary perspective, this is surprising, particularly in the light of English-language modernism – most of the poems in the collection are metrical, and they are fairly traditional in their imagery. Nummi says he, too, has wondered about this.
‘Intohimo olemassaoloon is definitely more old-fashioned than its reputation. Perhaps I was declared a modernist before there was any real evidence for it. Many people knew about my “peculiar novel”, and perhaps my poetry was read through my prose.’
The imagery, free verse and speech-like quality of modernism form only one strand in Nummi’s work. His central programme is not so much a formal revolution as the cultivation of numerous different poetic forms and traditions. Romantic pastorals and Chinese poetry are visible, for example, in his collection Vuoripaimen (‘Mountain shepherd’), which appeared in the same year as his first work.
‘Vuoripaimen, too, was considered surprisingly modern. It is in the Finnish tradition of free metre. In the end, I am a fairly old-fashioned poet.’
For Nummi, the 1950s marked the search for a synthesis between modernism and traditionalism. The monumental collection Tahdon sinun kuulevan (‘I want you to hear’), which appeared in 1954, had a mixed reception.
‘In some big newspapers it was praised, but my own generation panned it. It was “unsuitably broad”; according to the prevailing aesthetic, a collection of poetry had to be thin and carefully chosen. Perhaps the form of the book as a whole didn’t really work, but the fact that I was defending the place of traditional, rhymed form alongside free and modern poetry may have played its part.
‘The sequence “Chaconne”, which I published in my next collection, Taivaan ja maan merkit (‘Marks of sky and earth’), was a clear turning point; I managed to find a temporary solution to the the problem of modernism and tradition, and the poem also became a synthesis of my world-view up to then. “Chaconne” is written in the form of a stream-of-consciousness monologue, and it has strongly romantic elements.’
‘Chaconne’ was written in four days, something which surprised even the poet himself. Nummi, who generally characterises himself as ‘deliberate and purposeful’, is nevertheless cautious in speaking of inspiration.
Nummi has a living relationship with metre, and finding a new metre has often been the prime force behind a poem or collection.
‘That is what happened with my first poem with “free hexameters”, which I wrote in 1956; in it, the metre came to me all at once, as a gift. The poem was not published until Portaikko pilvissä (‘A stairway in the clouds’), as its opening poem, in 1992, but it is still an anomaly in my work as a whole: it is a visionary, surrealist poem that somehow horrifies me, but may – who knows – be a prologue to what I write in the future. That is, if I go on writing poetry; it may be that the future is nothing but prose….’
Diversity is visible in Nummi’s poetry both in the richness of literary taditions and on the religious level. His nature poetry is characterised by pantheism, his love poetry addresses both the loved one and divinity. Wonderment, opening up to the world, is at one extreme the anxiety brought by emptiness and at the other a visionary moment of meaning.
‘I suppose I must be a fairly simple person, since the wonder of existence continues to amaze me. It always seems to be the same basic experience, even though there are differences in tone and aroma.
‘The “Chaconne” sequence is also a synthesis in the religious sense. The charismatic Christian background of my parents is present, but “Lord Christ” comes from Lorca: through Jarno Pennanen’s Lorca translations I realised that I could put it into a poem. A Christian interpretation is present in my texts as one possibility. There is much between the dogmatic Christ and the humanised Christ: teacher, proclaimer of love, victim, crucifix. I think the cross is present in many of my trees, although I do not sense that image in the trees of Maisema.’
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About the writer
Tarja Roinila (born 1964) is a writer and translator who lives in Helsinki. She translates from German, Spanish and French. Together with Jukka Koskelainen she published an anthology of contemporary Spanish poetry in 2008, entitled Katu kadulta taivaaseen (‘Street by street to heaven’).
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