The search for joy

Issue 4/1998 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

‘Thank heaven there are more important things than being right.’

Risto Ahti is a contemporary incarnation of the vates, the poet as a seer or prophet. Prophet of what? Perhaps Jonah’s desire to get out of the whale? Or humanity’s desire to get out of our conditioning.

Let’s say that Theseus has found the Minotaur and, far from killing him, has befriended him. He’d like to lead them both out of the Labyrinth, but Ariadne’s thread has been lost, and the cunning intricacy of the mind-forged walls are baffling. It’ s necessary to get lost – ‘so utterly lost, you don’t know whether you’re coming or going’. ‘The lost wander in their lostness till they come in sight of themselves and finally other people.’

Ahti’s sophisticated agnostic mysticism is closer to Rimbaud, Blake and Lawrence than to his Finnish contemporaries. He is both funny and deep, a great joker. His favourite form is the little narrative – a tale of miracle or foolishness, a surrealistic fantasy. He’s like someone who has woken up in a lucid dream and now can’t get out of it. The reader’s invited to be creative and solve the riddles and paradoxes. Laughter and caricature are the keys to insight. He’s not, of course, entirely liberated from the problems he defines, and he doesn’t disguise it: but he uses all the resources of playfulness to illuminate himself and us. Language plays around the imprecise boundaries of the Ding an sich. ‘Unlike the philosopher, the poet cannot be silent over what cannot be spoken,’ as the literary scholar Pertti Lassila once wrote. Ahti is one of the great comedians, like Aristophanes, who use laughter for liberation. And, as with all good comedy, there’s a critical, psychological and philosophical undertow.

The trouble starts in childhood. A child wants to go off into the forest, but his father howls like a wolf, out of his own fear, and terrifies him. Children are coming out of wells with wings on their backs, and the mothers cry ‘My darling angel!’ and tear the wings. A man slashes a child’s skin and sows his dream in the wounds, and yet the unknown can’t be kept out. There he is, even in the marriage bed, impertinently inserting himself between the lovers.

Ahti’s not content to stay where he is. In his new volume the heresies continue, but they’re taking new turns. There’s even rhyme, or pararhyme, in some poems, He begins with a ‘folk song’, and then goes on to tell stories as usual. But the persona also explains his inner life and his principles. He reports dreams, marital problems, his and his wife’s love affairs. He shambles and clowns through public and private conflict but remains indomitably his own man, making his own mistakes.

Ahti is difficult to translate. I always like to be as faithful to literalness as conceivable, but literalness can be very distorting. One has to aim at the effect of the original. With Narkissos talvella (‘Narcissus in winter’, 1982), I chose a desperate remedy, which, fortunately, Ahti found acceptable: I put his prose poems, an unfashionable form in England, into unrhyming couplets. Since he was writing with a kind of Hebrew parallelism, like the psalms, this worked very well, and magazine editors now began eagerly accepting my versions. Later, however, translating Loistava yksinäisyys (‘Shining solitude’, 1984), for my own pleasure, I’ve used the prose form, and it seems to work. The methods, like the rules, are there for guidance not law-enforcement, and Ahti gives the freedom he practices.

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