A taste of life

30 March 2004 | Authors, Reviews

Merja VirolainenThe origins of the world, personal histories and Finnish history intertwine in a language bringing new meanings to familiar words and placing newer words in their older contexts. In her new collection of poetry, her fourth, Olen tyttö, ihanaa! (‘I’m a girl, wonderful!’, Tammi, 2003), Merja Virolainen (born 1962) combines reality and make-believe, life lived and that yet to come, in an outstanding fusion of themes and images.

Virolainen is a master of words. Last year she published and edited a substantial body of long-awaited translations of poetry from two continents. The Finnish-German poetry anthology Toisen sanoin / Mit den Worten des Anderen (‘In someone else’s words’, Like, 2003) demonstrates how meanings and reading between the lines can open up across two languages. The volume Hän jota ei ole (‘The one who doesn’t exist’, Nihil Interit, 2003), focusing on contemporary English-language poetry from India, is a fine testament to the immense undertaking of its two editors, Virolainen and Markus Jääskeläinen. The anthology is the most extensive collection of post-colonial poetry ever published in Finland.

At the start of Virolainen’s new collection the reader becomes caught up in a process resembling a creation of sorts:
on the first day / I stretch lava legs from beneath the covers, / my toes sulphurous bubbles…. on the second day / Grandad wakes up, rises from Grandma’s side, / tells us not to get up yet, I crawl / in between them / into the Olduvai Gorge….

Once the process is complete, nature is full of things to admire. The title poem describes a girl’s first steps on the earth. The protagonist, full of the joy of life, could be any child; looking at the child even the alders stand spellbound.

Virolainen subtly fuses the very concrete perspective of the child with a complex, adult symbolism. Playing shop suddenly assumes new dimensions, when what’s for sale is a piece of a bygone age: What’ll it be today? / There’s buttercup butter, fool’s gold gold, / a pocket-sized Lake Ladoga, / the icon in the back room. / And how much would you like?

The presence of war, Grandad’s Second World War, and the process of coming to terms with that, can be felt strongly throughout. While gutting fish, Grandad wades into the field, into the beyond / those left behind shaking his hands through the barley. The child learns that there is more than inefficiency behind men’s drinking and fooling about.

Half-way through the collection the roles change. The child is joined by an adult, who follows him through the dusky house of time. Such a meeting is only possible in memory and language: you glide past me, towards me / deeper into the blossoming darkness. The adult speaker of the poem continues on a journey into the here and now, a place full of different fulfilments and partings: Waiting for me at every turn / is that which I have never been….

Virolainen skilfully and touchingly shows us the bare side of human relationships in all their subordination and ugliness. Ultimately, difficulties and loss turn out for the good. The speaker falls on her feet, just like the child dangling upside down from the ‘Antonovka branch’.

Clarity, sensuality and rhythm, common to Merja Virolainen’s poetry, are prominent features of the new collection. The texts also work beautifully when read aloud. At their very best, these poems show how skilful, personal description can shed light on entire years and decades.

Translated by David Hackston

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