Ecstasy and silence
Peter Mickwitz surveys new Finnish poetry in Finnish and Swedish
Considering all the talk about poetry’s ‘critical situation’ and its ‘marginalization,’ it is surprising to see how much poetry is being published in Finland, both in Finnish and Swedish. No less surprising is the fact that so much of it is excellent. Thus, it is not a difficult but a gratifying task to pick four poetry books published in 1999 for brief comment.
Ralf Andtbacka (born 1963), connoisseur and translator of Anglophone poetry – but first and foremost a Finland-Swedish poet – published his third collection of poems, Cafe Sjöjungfrun (,The Mermaid Cafe’, Söderströms, 1999), which was nominated for the Runeberg Prize in the fall of 1999. The first poem in the book, ‘Cesur’ (‘Caesura’), takes place in ‘the first evening of autumn / even though it is still July’ which reminds this reader, somewhat unexpectedly, of Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf’s poem ‘Eufori’ (‘Euphoria’), in which the poet’s alter ego sits in his garden at dusk and feels an intense connection to all there is. Andtbacka’s poem is less intense, more distanced, but the presence of things is as strong as in Ekelöf. While Ekelöf writes ‘as if this were the last evening before a long long journey,’ Andtbacka’s anticipation is of another kind, it describes a poetics: ‘a vacuum that waits to be filled / by something as inescapable / as our quiet conversation, here / and now, small demarcations / and corrections, openings / and dead ends, pauses.’
Pauses, spaces between, are what create the conversation, the words. Where Ekelöf expresses his euphoria in high-strung, intense poetic terms, Andtbacka’ s poem is more serene in its vocabulary and rhythm. His poetics relies as much on what is not said as on what is said: ‘all that remains of the message / are ups and downs, a caesura / when the conversation, at regular intervals, / reaches a rhythmic point of rest.’ Nevertheless, even in ‘Cesur’, anticipation ends in a kind of euphoria of inevitability: ‘Soon enough / words arrive, and when they do / we know they are ours and precisely the words / we have always been waiting for.’
The emphasis on pauses and ‘spaces between’ does not make Andtbacka a writer of ‘difficult’ or hermetically inaccessible poetry, neither linguistically nor in his relationship to the world and its events. The scenery of his poems is often familiar, easily recognized. Cafe Sjöjungfrun contains a number of poems dealing with childhood, and the title poem refers quite concretely to the author’s life. Andtbacka does not hesitate to use humorous or auto-ironic references, as in, for example, the poem ‘Little Joe’ which points to the Bonanza television serial of the 1960s: without batting an eyelid, Andtbacka notes that ‘Hoss is the reader you never had.’ Andtbacka’s poems scan the world from many different perspectives, moving from pastoral moods to a description of what it feels like to be locked into a glass factory.
In his third book of poems, Kuningasvesi (‘Aqua Regia’, WSOY, 1999), Panu Tuomi (born 1968) writes melodic, rhythmic, often almost singable verse. There may be a traditionalist stance in this manner of writing, but there is also something that points forward, perhaps to a kind of reinstatement of verse after all the decades of poetry that shunned such effects. The fluent but quite strictly cadenced verse of Kuningasvesi has its underpinning in Tuomi’s rather colorful vocabulary: ‘word patina’ed, breathing / the charity of darkened silver / the relic of a palm.’ ‘Spellbinding’ may be a rather shopworn term in the discussion of poetry, but Tuomi’s handling of language and form deserves that qualifier more than most. And there is something very attractive in this almost Romantic confidence in the power of his lines.
In Kuningasvesi, Tuomi arranges his poems in thematically determined sequences, often referring to historical and cultural data. One of these sequences is titled ‘Pääsiäismessu’ (‘Easter mass’), another, ‘Metroneitsyt’ (‘The metro virgin’), and the book does have a strong religious resonance. Sometimes, but infrequently, serious religious feeling is juxtaposed with the quotidian and private, for example in a poem where the speaker finds himself in a Chinese restaurant on Good Friday: ‘I can’t decide if the moon / reminds me of a communion wafer or a fortune cookie.’ But Tuomi’s art does not consist of deflating solemnity – which is easy to do, often only too easy. It is much harder to approach solemn subjects in a credible manner. Contrasting the high with the low, the great with the small is a tried and true strategy which Tuomi hardly uses at all. He takes the bull by the horns and remains true to his vision and sense of language. If true poetry requires daring, Tuomi certainly fulfills that requirement.
In 1997, Markku Paasonen (born 1967), published his first, well-received collection Aurinkopunos (‘Sun weave’). Last year saw the publication of his second book, Verkko (The net’, WSOY). In Paasonen’s case, the title does not refer only to the intricate weave or web that a good book of poems always is, but also to the sea, which appears ever-present in his poetry. When he writes about Helsinki, the city’s characteristic paving stones become fish: ‘Now the stones lie there quietly like / fish blown ashore / petrified by the sun.’ And in one section of the book, titled ‘Sea Circulation’ (a reference to the circulation of blood), the poems proceed in a garland: the second line of each stanza becomes the first line of the next one, thus creating a net.
The abundance of things, objects, is another prominent feature of Paasonen’s work. His erudition is evident in his finely tuned ability to incorporate history, music, and the visual arts in his poems. He has also studied theology, but there is less overt religiosity in his poetry than in, for example, Panu Tuomi’s. There is little of the solemn or sacramental in Paasonen’s style, which tends to be matter-of-fact, sometimes verificatory, sometimes narrative. But there are occasional, expressive deviations from that matter-of-factness.
Hannele Huovi (born 1949) brought out her second book of poems, Kiven vaitiolo (‘The stone’s silence’, Tammi), in 1999. She has also been recognized as a writer of prose, being the author of children’s books as well as short story collections. Her poetry, however, is not ‘prosaic’ in the least. Kiven vaitiolo is clearly the work of a full-fledged poet, and its untitled introductory poem can be read as both a dedication and a draft poetics. The poem, the book, are dedicated to the transient, to the star and the meteor in the top of the spruce tree, to the pen that has only air in its center…. The speaker of the poem calls it a letter to the vacuum that was found ‘when I was peeled,’ only to deny, in the next stanza, that the poem is letter at all. Not a letter but a tremor, not paper but a tree’s cry, not an embrace but a fumble. Such is Huovi’s poetics, and she uses it to great effect in Kiven vaitiolo.
At its most effective, Huovi’s poetry is like running, bubbling water, a brook. The bubbling is not always merry: there are strains of both melancholy and grief, as is only to be expected in the kind of poetry of fIrst and last things Huovi writes. Sometimes ‘a human being / is a hole in the water.’ Then again, there are many moments of a plainer, less complex presence, as in the lovely image of ‘the house of loved women’ house where ‘puffs / of thin sighs rise from every chimney, the wind / flutters ribbons of tulle.’ Thematically and linguistically, Huovi’s book demonstrates the author’s extraordinary versatility, and bodes well for her continued work in the poetic genre.
Translated by Anselm Hollo
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About the writer
Peter Mickwitz (born 1964) is a poet, journalist and translator who writes in Swedish. Among his works are six collections of poetry, the first of which was published in 1993. Mickwitz lives in Helsinki.
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