Nature girl: on the poetry of Sirkka Turkka

21 January 2010 | Authors, Reviews

Sirkka Turkka with a friend. Photo: Pertti Nisonen

Sirkka Turkka writes precise, lucid sentences, as if composing a treatise. But her poems often relate utterly loopy things; the work is playful, frisky. It is not based on explication or hidden themes. When it refers to abstract matters, it always couples them with concrete reality, with natural or everyday occurrences. ‘Trees have the snowy faces of ancestors, and on the road where dogs walk in their wind-blasted trousers, silence eats itself like silk.’

The poems contain numerous allusions to literature and culture, including popular culture. The tone can be parodic in these instances, but not critical; rather, a new point of departure is established, as when Turkka writes about Hamlet in her 1970s collection, Yö aukeaa kuin vilja (‘The night opens like corn’). ‘On long, silent winter days, when his father immersed himself in additional studies or demonstrations of learning, Hamlet would shut himself up in his room in order to rewrite history. He colonised countries and swapped their locations. At one stage he even thought of making the sun rise in the West and America encounter Columbus, but he restrained himself.’

Turkka (born 1939) has worked with horses and as a librarian, and made her debut as a poet with the collection Huone avaruudessa (‘A room in space’) in 1973. Tule takaisin, pikku Sheba (‘Come back, little Sheba’), for which Turkka won the Finlandia Prize for Fiction in 1986, is considered one of her major achievements as a writer. It is replete with traces of battles with natural forces, sometimes concrete traces: ‘On my right thumb, I have / signs of both Horse and Dog. / One made by a shoeing knife, the other / by, yes, a canine. / Out of scars, life grows….’(Translated by Anselm Hollo for Books from Finland 2/1987)

The collection is extremely physical, breathless, thoughts are experienced corporeally. The landscape is mythical, as if emerging from a struggle for creation, but at the same time it is firmly anchored in the Finnish countryside and in concrete things. Of cultural traces, music has the strongest presence, and is likened to storms or other natural forces.

In her later collections there is an increasing emphasis on the play between popular culture and loftier strains. Turkka quotes pop songs, rock lyrics, the Bible, folklore and proverbs. The quotations form an organic part of the poems, but still just a part; they are neither a mere effect nor a sign of linguistic incontinence, for Turkka’s own, strong voice is always discernible.

The prose monologues in the collection Yö aukeaa kuin vilja (‘The night opens like corn’, 1978) refer also to the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger: ‘According to Martin Heidegger, man is a being who experiences care.This differentiates him from plants and animals. (…) I am a being with as little care as possible, an animal that looks back to the past. A mad dog that does not desist from grieving.’

Turkka replaces Heidegger’s emphasis on care (Sorge) as paramount with the idea of grief; that for her is the most basic, deepest feeling. Sometimes she sees through all grief, but even then grief is not static, simply a melancholy mood; through it, the world looks full of movement.

The constant presence of death is reminiscent of the early thinking of Heidegger concerning ‘being-toward-death’ (Sein zum Tod): only by remembering death can one live authentically. For Turkka, however, remembering death is not a requirement, an existential imperative that echoes in the void. Death is an active, functioning element that remains undefined. It is present now, not merely a harsh imposition waiting in the future. Death may be the big unknown, but even now it sets a lot of things in motion, and its presence stirs up animals, plants, and people.

What is most fascinating about the poems is a factor that cannot be explained directly; it could be called cadence (poljento), which in Turkka’s poems does not only mean rhythm. Cadence is an interpretation of language and has to do with the possibilities of language. The way words are ordered is crucial. Cadence involves the ability to create elliptical structures, recurring patterns, variations; and to keep all the ingredients together in a rhythmic whole. It means that tone is a key factor in a poem. Sarcasm, irony, and humour are blended with a solemn, high style, and so a colourful mixture is born, which functions on the basis of its cadence.

It is as if a savage had written these poems. They feel immediate, although they are multivalent. Turkka’s aesthetic can be deemed a kind of ‘realism of the mind’, for the poems are based extensively on associations and they follow the flow of thoughts freely – or they seem to follow nature itself, the current of a river, plants growing wild. But this impression is partly illusory; the incantatory tone often creates the impression that the mind governs nature as much as nature does the mind, and the language of the poems is polished to the utmost – no question here of a stream of consciousness.

The poems do not depict nature as it is; rather they present it as it is seen through our cultural coding. This coding is ironised, twisted and turned every which way, but still Turkka’s poems preserve their stamp as cultural products. They possess the rhythm of spells, elements of myth, a prayer-like note, but they are clearly distinct from primitive spells, and from the tone of revelry found in folk poetry. But all of these elements form part of Turkka’s poems. Cadence could be defined as this ability to form an original, rhythmic, effective poem which is firmly imprinted on the mind but which escapes analysis.

Sirkka Turkka has the ability to create a vision of the world by means of language; it is formed of landscapes drawn with both sharp, brutal slashes and soft, gentle brushstrokes.

Translated by Emily Jeremiah

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