In no-woman’s-land

Issue 1/2003 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Ten years ago, when Kaarina Valoaalto moved to the country, to the village of Toivakka in central Finland, I received a note from her:

‘350g of me has just moved, the other 99kg is still in the thick of things. The final truckload – the chickens, the ducks, the goats, the geese, the cat – is leaving tomorrow at six (a.m.) in special boxes carried by volunteers. The current has taken my heart and the rapids my brain….’

Kaarina Valoaalto embodies the myth of the poet’s ‘creative madness’ by writing the way she lives and by living the way she writes. In the fragment ‘Hometalo’ (‘The mouldy house’) from a collection of poems, Räppiä saarnaspöntöstä (‘Rap from the pulpit’, 1997) two sisters, Eine and Tyyne, move into the house of their dreams in the countryside only to be met by a sharp smell: mould. The reality in the heart of the country reveals itself to the newcomers in a tragicomic way.

The poetry of Kaarina Valoaalto (born 1948, who disguises her true identity under a pseudonym) requires both courage and a sense of humour. Is the poet attempting to fit the whole world into her complex poems? For her, this represents an enticing kind of chaos. The scenography of many different dramas has been set up on the stage these poems inhabit. The reader is at once confronted with philosophical truth, a cry straight from the heart of a feeling fellow human being (the poet herself), or an ironic everyday aside to be shared with other people who keep up with what is happening in the world, The reader may find all this hard to stomach, but he or she has to take sides.

In the last twenty or so years Kaarina Valoaalto has published fourteen works of poetry and prose. Many of these are situated in the no-man’s-land between genres. Her latest book, Einen keittiö, Eines kök (‘Eine’s kitchen’, Tammi, 2002), a work based largely on memories of childhood and adolescence.

The book is set in 1950s Helsinki, in the spartan years immediately after the war. In a block of flats there lives a middle-class family, whose children seem like random biological objects to their parents. The narrator, a sensitive girl who is also a talented poet, becomes a scribe, the one who writes down the most painful things.

She zooms in on her past with the precision of a microscope and ultimately sees through it: these eccentric memories, knowing neither mercy nor shame, both make us laugh and shock us. By using her poet’s magic wand, she succeeds in touching what is most painful in her memory, and by doing so, she begins to understand her extraordinary parents, eventually bringing herself to embrace them – with her words.

Kaarina Valoaalto has written: ‘Once a poet has left, everything goes quiet. The curtains are not torn back nor do rocks split in two. Yet the strangest thing of all is that once she has left, she leaves everything of herself behind.’

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