Night city

30 June 1998 | Authors

Stephen Kuusisto

Stephen Kuusisto

The German poet Novalis wrote: ‘Daylight has got limits and hours, but the hegemony of Night penetrates through space and through time.’ In effect he says that the night is always with us, even when the sun is out. The lines always bring me back to Helsinki, the city where night permeates every wall and cobblestone.

I first came to Helsinki as a three-year-old boy, wrapped up in a heavy wool coat. My father, an American Finn, had been invited to the University of Helsinki as a Fulbright scholar. While my father taught courses in political science I practiced and perfected a child’s insomnia and remained energetically awake during hours of the day and night. I lived in a perpetual state of shadow-sleep and never closed my eyes. As a result my emerging brain absorbed Helsinki the way a night-blooming flower takes in the moon.

Even as a boy my eyes were very poor and I had to lean close to objects to see them. I pushed my face against the faces of strangers on the streetcars and spoke to them without self-consciousness. I suppose you could say that since I was a child I was talking directly to Helsinki and not to individuals. And the city spoke back with images and words that will be stamped on my psyche until my dying breath. I saw elderly people whose faces still reflected the Winter War, faces that loomed, grey and tired, faces with sharp eyes and papery yellow skin. The adults rose before me and I understood instantly that the world contains dark and unknown modes of being. There are moments when children experience the erotic terror of reality. In many cases poets will revisit these experiences in their poems ­ Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ comes to mind, or the Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski, who describes the trees of boyhood whispering like foreign soldiers.

O Helsinki! With your forests and islands and the music of your boats at anchor.

Helsinki! Where I saw two slender girls in white dresses, each playing a wooden flute. They danced right through the could light of my infancy and live now in my unconscious, the archetypal angels of the Kaivopuisto park!

Helsinki! Snowy city! The fish in your markets shining despite the early dusk.

City of violinists, of speed skaters, opera singers, economists, hockey players, scientists….

Black bread, herring, coffee, candles on the table….

Red hot sauna stones!

Helsinki, where night is never far off: the darkness pushing through the stones of the Czarist buildings, whispering behind the laughter of people in the harbor.

Life in the dark requires what the philosopher Santayana called ‘animal faith’ ­ an intuitive sense of purpose, a stoicism coupled with an affection for one’s surroundings. Santayana should have visited Helsinki, where the parks offer an annual display of the world’s most intricate and imaginative ice and snow sculptures.

Perhaps my memories of Helsinki circa 1959 are so vivid because my vision has failed in adulthood. I don’t know for certain. I do know that darkness adds an intensity to one’s love for life. At dusk the people of Helsinki line up to buy flowers and then they carry them home in the winter night.

There is an acerbic vitality in this city. And this is where I saw the world first. Now that seeing is mostly a memory for me I am grateful to Helsinki for her exemplary display of animal faith.

Oh yes, I almost forgot the wind. In Helsinki the wind waits for you to get confidently out of the house, then it lifts you, buffets you entire gestalt, makes you certain of your existence. There are no flabby sons and daughters of Jean-Paul Sartre walking the Mannerheimintie street. No sir. In Helsinki people arrive home with their flowers, out of breath, whispering, ‘made it again, made it again.’