Romantic and political

30 June 2004 | Authors, Reviews

Tomi Kontio

Photo: Heini Lehväslaiho

If I had to describe Tomi Kontio’s new book of poems, Vaaksan päässä taivaasta (‘A span away from heaven’, Teos, 2004, page 93) in ten words or less, I would say that it is a succession of deep breaths taken between catastrophes great or small.

Since I have a few more words at my disposal here, I’ll also say that it meets every expectation set up by his previous three volumes of poetry: sonorous language, an essentially Romantic but not egocentric worldview, and extraordinary skill in combining straightforward narrative with spectacularly effortless runs of metaphors, as in these lines from the poem ‘Pietà’:

That moment felt so devout, the absence of time
so sacred, that I saw myself as the mother
of a dead person, the mother of the Son of Man,
in whose lap lies love, lost in winding sheets,
sculptural, pure, eternal.

The central object of the poem, a ‘Russian table clock’, is transformed into ‘the Son of Man’ and ‘pure love’, with the author seeing himself as Mary; finally, the clock – possibly a gift from a past lover – ends up as an ornamental bookend on the shelf.

Pathos and irony are equally evident in ‘According to his will’, an elegy for a tough-guy father, in which admiration dances a slow waltz with deep hurt:

He was the kind of man
who did not want his name carved in granite.
He wrote that name on our backs, with brass jaws.

In an interview given some years ago, Kontio (born 1966) declared his love for Charles Baudelaire, and he shares the great Frenchman’s preoccupation with the darker side of life and its ever-present sense of loss. However, Kontio does not get caught in the ‘loss cliché’ that has damaged the work of a great number of ‘confessional’ poets in the US and UK: he is saved from it by a sense of humor and a philosophical preoccupation with time, human time, understood not only as regrettably finite but as the element in which memory and affection can thrive.

‘Man’s wife’, the longest poem in the book, evokes the early films of Jean-Luc Godard:

The room is small.
The walls have been painted white, with a roller.
A curtain divides the sleeping alcove from
the rest of the room.
The man sits on the couch.
[ … ]
Divisions of water march through the room,
the advance guards of a soaked army.
Then they are gone, as if they had never existed.

It is a wonderful piece and restores this reader’s belief in the possibilities of narrative in contemporary poetry. Moving in and out of ‘the man’s’ mind and camera-objective observation of the room, it manages to expand the verbal rendition of a relatively commonplace situation into a text that has the authority of a political statement – by which I don’t mean any party or ideology, but genuine human politics.

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