One and twenty

Issue 3/2007 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

(Extracts from the epic poem Kaksikymmentä ja yksi, Otava, 1974)

[Canto I]

Twenty-one and a sail, days and nights.
              Nights, they sleep. Days, they row, days and days up the Nevá,
they row, stop at night, pull the vessel with ten pairs of oars
              across the bare water,
from the Nevá to the Roiling Waves, from the Roiling Waves
              up to Novgorod, from Novgorod to the headwaters,
                        and from there across the isthmus,
over round logs, running the last log up to the prow, they pull,
they row, they descend, they pull, they sail toward Pohja,
               the Southland.
Twenty-one and a sail, days and nights,
              nights, they sleep, they row, day and night, up the Nevá.
The rower turns into arms, the arms turn into palms,
              the palms turn into oars, the oars turn into the river, the river runs.
Night changes to day, day changes to autumn, autumn to wind,
              the wind turns into a sail,
as one single bird ten pairs of oars pairs of wings fly upriver,
              across the isthmus, all night without stopping
they pull, they float the vessel, they keep going
              toward the Southland.
And South is the name of a slave.
 …
They stand in the Southland's yard.
              Bent, Bent, Nightbird, Big Toe, Crow's Son, Cuckoo's Son,
Väinö's Son, Dead Man’s Son, Whitefish, Black Dick
              Man’s Wood, Broom, Lover Boy, Pumpkin,
Water Cloak, Fishless, Stocking Foot, Fist, Mast and Fishery.
              Bent and Bent are twins, their father is also a Bent,
                      Bent the Guardian of the Spears.

[Canto 8]

The guards: at the Palace, Water Cloak, Bent, Bent, Nightbird,
              Fishless, Stocking Foot, Black Dick and Mast,
at the Gate: Dead Man's Son, Cuckoo's Son, Love Child,
              at the Mint: Broom, Whitefish, Big Toe and Fist,
Fishery and Gourd, and one for the boat, that's Bent.
              Byzantium has its own men guarding the prison.
                                                        They guard
the innermost quadrant of the Palace, not entered by anyone
              upon whose entry the ruler does not raise his finger.
Others enter the land of spear points, the empire of swords,
              skewered for God to dine on. They guard
the mint's outermost fortifications, barred walls,
              no one enters the place where money is born,
where the money womb extrudes its golden bees.
              It must have an enormous pelvis, a terrifying waistline!
A terrible birthing apparatus.
              The guards tell each other stories they've been told.
About the mint's other building where a stone is fed gold.
              This has been seen. Seen by the eyes of slaves.
…
Whitefish, the little fellow, attached the rope
              around the lid of many colors, the Sampo, tying knots,
while Fist greased the hinges, smoothed the locks with bones,
              greased the door hinges while Broom
opened the locks with nimble fingers,
                                   nine locks
              protecting the Sampo, the lid of many colors
behind nine locks, and a tenth,
              and Mast took an ox from the Southland
to plow loose the Sampo
              with an ox with a hundred horns, a thousand-horned beast,
out from the copper mountain, .from a depth of nine fathoms,
              from behind nine locks.

[Canto 10]

...and here come Broom, Whitefish, Big Toe and Fist,
                                                        Fishery and Gourd,
              the Sampo's one hundred and twenty fingers and toes
upon which it walks, on their shoulders the Sampo,
              wrapped in blankets, hidden, stolen,
                                                        the lid of many colors,
it's being carried, brought to the wall, the steep place,
              where they tie a rope to a pillar and winch it down,
to be carried again by Whitefish, Big Toe and Fist, Fishery and Gourd
                            now hundred-toed, two-stroke Sampo,
                                                        Byzantium's soul:
its happiness, its money's eternal worth
                                                                that despises the devaluator.
It is lowered into the boat, and Man's Wood brings the men from the Palace,
              Dead Man's Son the men that were guarding the Gate,
they have a roll call, and the roll is complete: one and twenty.
              And everyone is that one, the rest are the twenty.
They leave Byzantium, like robbers, thieves in the night.

[Canto 11]

They row southward, the men, the one and twenty,
              their boat like a flea on a plate.
The mist girl, the island virgin, spreads fog in the air,
              holds boat and men within the blue sea.
The wind does not rise, the waves don't swell, the sail does not fill,
              they keep on rowing, the one and twenty, for the third day now,
then hear the sound of loud rowing, see the Southland's vessel
              coming on, with a hundred oarlocks, a hundred men with swords, a
                                                                            thousand.
Big Toe starts buying wind from the Gods, throws a gold coin
              into the sea, throws a green copper coin,
he buys now since he isn't selling, the way he sold wind
              to passing rowers, waited for them at the Hanko headland,
for rowers weary and cursing, sold them wind,
              wind in bundles, stormwind in skeins,
woolen, spun threads, so that when the seafarer
              pulled the short curly string, the wind
started blowing, and when he pulled the stronger, longer
              one, a storm arose, bought, paid for, ordered.
He buys now that he isn't selling, Big Toe, buys wind
              with hard cash, paid into the sea, where the Gods collect.
Big Toe drops into the sea's chest a coin and a coin and a
 coin and a coin and a coin and a coin,
 not hurrying but not going slow either, to pay the full price,
 as it may have been set and demanded.
 Sooner or later it must be paid in full.
 …
Big Toe keeps buying wind, tossing coins into the sea
              open-handed, coins, coins and coins.
So the Gods receive enough gold, a crawful,
              they eat it, they release the wind from their hoard.
Now Man's Wood, the helmsman, steers their boat into the islands,
              and the islands flicker past with their shoals:
fish can be seen, black-backed,
              as the boat, under sail now, glides over the sea's-threshold.
But here comes the Southland vessel, a hundred men straining
              at the oars, a thousand ready to fight.
They reach the islands' thresholds, they throw the Sampo overboard,
              the boat slides across,
there is a small reef in the sea, a rock under water, too shallow
              to serve as a grave for a big ship,
but just right for a charnel ground. They watch the Sampo sink,
              slide into the depths, like a fish, a sturgeon
with its bumpy neck,
              there it went, the Sampo, one summer's day.
This land is poor, the sea is wealthy,
              because the Sampo fell into the sea.
And there the Southland vessel ran aground, one hundred oarlocks and all.
              Its high stem slid over the reef and rose.
Tried to change into a bird, a big bird, an eagle,
              the hull stayed in place but the bow rose,
the wings rose, the ship didn't rise, the oars
              flail the air, the ship doesn't rise, does not move.
They round the island, the one and twenty, approach
              the stern. It hangs down low.
The Southland ship sits like a log fort at water's edge,
              a collapsing fish trap, a thousand men in it.
The attack is led by Man's Wood, Fist, Mast and Fishery
              against the waterside gable,
the defenders send men there, a tight pack of ironsides,
              side by side they stood and dropped like salmon
                            to the bottom of the ship, ironsided
men, dense-scaled, chainmailed, yes, they dropped,
              swordsmen, pikemen, archers,
as Man's Wood struck and stabbed and cut,
              branded them Death’s own,
                            took their heads like turnips from their stalks,
ears of grain from a straw,
              struck an iron hand like an iron bird's claw,
struck the claw, it was a hand, and it dropped, it was a claw,
              a bird's claw, one claw cut, a thousand to go.
Then Fist was pierced by a spear through his lungs,
                                          the way a wild boar still alive begins to turn
                            into a statue, a decoration.
They pulled Fist away and left,
                                                        cast off from the Southland ship.
              Rowed away in the suddenly fading light of the sun.
They did not pull out the spear from Fist, they left him
              curled up on his side on the boat's bottom,
the spear aligned with the boat,
                                                                      he died.
They bury him, the twenty, on a green island with trees,
              on a slope, in a sarcophagus.
…
As the sun wakes up in the east, they rise, the twenty,
              replenish the water barrel, eat.
No point trying to head north, they cannot pass through the straits
                                                        out to the sea without islands,
                                          the blustery black one,
Byzantium guards its straits, a virgin her virginity,
              and south lies the islanded sea, this one, and from it
to the sea without islands, toward the sunset,
                                                                      always west,
              to the end of the world, but before that
turn north.
No one among us has ever traveled that way, that way
              goes a tale that knows sheltered harbors,
the way we know the stars in the sky but not
              what lies between them.
The world is shaped like a large coin, only bigger,
              moldy silver, green copper, gold.
It bears the Emperor's image, he looks human,
              his nose a snow-capped mountain, his eyes valleys
                                                        with grass growing,
the neck a ridge, the chest high plains, the fingers
              boulders descending to the sea, flat rocks by the shore
                                                                      his finger nails,
walruses in the cracks of cliffs, submarine seals
              you can't see when you look across the water.
You won't get out of this world by sailing, my boy.
              You won't sail away from this world ....

Translated by Anselm Hollo

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