Memory in my hands
A couple of years ago Timo Harju chose the non-military alternative to national service and was detailed to work at an old people’s home. Its director warned him that its inhabitants were ‘no sweet old grannies and grandpas’. Harju thought this might be a joke. In his first collection of poems, entitled Kastelimme heitä runsaasti kahvilla (‘We watered them abundantly with coffee’, Ntamo, 2009), he patiently gathers fragments of dreams and fears, memories and forgotten songs in the house of oblivion, treating them with gentle empathy. Commentary by Pia Ingström
Ward A5, Thursday
The clouds in the nursing home corridors, sky-open springlike after a bathe
and forgotten, in a frayed blue dressing-gown beside an osiery.
The grannies in the nursing home corridors, the last beautiful pride
you keep in a small wooden box behind your forehead:
if the lid opens by accident all the things may drop to the floor
topsy-turvy you won’t be able to find them, your back won’t let you
you won’t recognise them any more even if you do,
the springtime tears your insides to pieces.
Here they come, the grannies.
Better to stay here indoors, the journey to the dining room is a rough one
exposed like this
a long way and all by sleigh.
You stare at the keyhole: the clouds are coming.
Ward A5, Saturday
Each morning the nurses pull on rubber boots and leave
for the dark dark, for a dark swamp, in the dark swamp
when the gnarled pines howl, only a pack of diapers for a lamp.
Cotton-grass on granddad’s head, violence and homesickness they leave
for the dark swamp, with all their sighs and strained nerves
along hands elbows into the bogholes. They bake cakes
and open the oven door into the night, to make it cheerful with the smell.
A prize would be nice, but the nurses aren’t on the winning side.
Ward A5, Sunday
I can milk the cows. You don’t need to bother about it at all.
Of course, it must be done at once. I’ll go and do it now.
You can have your coffee in peace, and take that medication.
Yes, I know how to milk, I’ll take your memory in my hands.
Although I am only a boy. Don’t worry, granny.
I can ask Leena to come with me, Leena has done a lot of milking.
You cry in perfect peace. I’ll milk those cows.
Yes. The old woman tells me her tales of the seasons’ heartbeats. She tells me of rooms breathing through my tales, tells through the rooms and the breathing her stories of hips, joints, back. They are loosed and set free and they run outside, she lies under her quilt under her nightgown, as the tale’s end is beneath the tale. The stunned nursing home lies on the ground like a bird flown against the window. She picks it up in her wrinkled hands. She carries its pain like a dream of her own that belongs to no one else, in her voice the shadows of snowflakes collide lightly writing the garden, of shadows, of grass that whirling flowering darkens away, hidden in the grass a bird, hidden in the bird the wind I walk to the toilet to fetch water, the floor bears me as I walk, up to my knees in the dream.
Perhaps at this very moment your bed is freeing itself from its roots and clattering into the elevator, then down and outside to the shore of the lake. Sighing your bed plunges into the water. With calm strokes of all of its four legs your bed swims out to the middle. You notice that there’s a fishing rod beside you. You thought you had lost it seventy years ago, but apparently not! The float sinks below the surface, you are scared it will go all the way to your childhood, that a terrible, mighty bream will rise up, that your father will shout at you yet you won’t dare to strike the bream why is Dad still shouting pliable wriggling blood in the palms of your hands you go and hide under the covers. Even as you hide there, you know. That the rod is still jerking. How could you not take a peek. You take one. The summer floods under the covers and you realise that it isn’t like that. A lake yes a lake is full of light. You grab the rod with both hands. It tugs the bed and you and everything else below the surface. Circles spread in the calm water. Would you like to go and brush your teeth or would you rather sink into the light with your bed?
A dark toilet. Dingy clotheshangers. Dingy woollen blanket. At least five water mugs in different parts of the room. A dent. A wisp of hair. A wind. A white, flameless candle. The door a wobbly milk tooth. A crackling, a corridor. Blind stairs. Let loose.
Hilma is a lozenge box full of talk, rattles and rustling
to herself at the table.
One morning I went into her room: LOZENGE STORM
Always ready, always there.
All the way to cruelty, helplessness already.
She is a mere already.
Absolutely indeed. There she sits.
Stately as a plate of sausage soup.
On the prowl. Rushing motionless in her place
faster than the passing children,
a breakwater, a speechless heap of stones.
When we reach the shore, she trots willingly
towards us offers us her face:
a cleansed light framed by white hair,
thin, thin, thin, thin, thin, thin, thin, thin,
thin, thin, thin, thin,
thin, grannyice, covered in snow.
You are so pleased when I say to you Hello Erkki, I give my hand into your hands.
Your eyes you old dented ice-hole angler.
Helplessly eager your nod when I ask if you play solitaire.
When I try to help you with the six-piece puzzle you’re quick to lose your temper.
The name of the creature in the puzzle is a horse. Yes, you say.
I paint out your ice-angling prize.
I paint out the suspenders in the wardrobe and the teeth in the mug.
I paint milk over everything I have drawn.
All that remains is the room smudged with white finger-paint
which breathes. You can go there, if you want.
He falls to the floor of his room. He falls to the floor of the shower. He falls on top of the nurse. He falls when he tries to open the door. He falls on a sharp corner. We carry them all to his bed. There he lies seeking a position for his pain. You had sat up in bed. I wanted to tell you that the world is beautiful, I even did. You sat on the mercy of your bed, looked out of the window. You said: ‘Yes, of course nature is there. Very close to me.’
Translated by David McDuff