Speaking with silence

26 September 2013 | Reviews

Bo Carpelan. Photo: Charlotta Boucht / Schildts & Söderströms

Bo Carpelan. Photo: Charlotta Boucht / Schildts & Söderströms

Bo Carpelan
Mot natten
[Towards the night. Poems 2010]
Helsinki: Schildts & Söderströms, 2013. 69 p.
ISBN 978-951-52-32-20-5
€21, paperback

‘Don’t change, grow deeper ,’ wrote Bo Carpelan: over the years he broadened his poetic range and his personal idiom evolved, but it happened organically, without sudden upheavals of style or idea.

Mot natten (‘Towards the night’) is Carpelan’s last collection of poems. This is underlined by the book’s subtitle, Poems 2010. By then Carpelan (1926–2011) was already marked by the illness that took his life in early 2011. It doesn’t show in the quality of the poems, but knowing it may make it harder for the reader to approach them with unclouded eyes. When a great poet concludes his work one wants to seek a synthesis or a concluding message, and that may encumber one’s reading. So is there such a message? In some ways there is, but Carpelan was not a man of pointed formulations. His ideals emerged without much fuss.

Carpelan was always faithful to the real, and to his faith in poetry. Mot natten looks back to many older works in its belief that poetry can cope with all the tests that life sets for a human being. Despite the many dark streaks in Carpelan’s work he possessed a fundamental optimism and life-orientedness that were best expressed in poetry.

Mot natten is Carpelan’s twenty-third book of poetry since his debut in 1946. He also wrote novels, children’s literature, literary criticism, and much else. Versatile, and the recipient of diverse awards, he was one of the most important writers in Finland during the second half of the twentieth century.

The feelings of loneliness and loss in Mot natten are often powerful, and the poet struggles for the vital ability to connect with the surrounding world. In Carpelan’s work it was always a central idea that the connectedness with the world and with our fellow human beings which paved the way for creation was not something obvious but a gift, something for which the poet patiently waits and prepares himself. On many occasions he quoted John Keats’s words about ‘negative capability’, a concept that implies the enduring of that uncertainty. In Mot natten there is, for example, the poem ‘Ting’ (‘Things’), which describes a creative awakening:

Days we call
dead things, suddenly
when we see them
speak with silence
language as a part of our language’s
beauty,
usefulness

Also frequently depicted are situations in which the world grows alien, the self is assailed by loneliness and isolation, and memory turns into ‘a wolf / that became a shadow.’ The book’s dynamics and tensions are to a large degree created by this movement between meaning and meaninglessness, closeness to the world and distance from it.

Carpelan demonstrates his ability to span ages in ‘The Steppe’, a meditation on Anton Chekhov’s short story of the same name. It is the description of a little boy’s lonely journey across the steppe to enroll at a grammar school in a remote town. Carpelan focuses on the comforting power of nature, which gradually subdues the boy’s grief at his departure from everything familiar. In the new context offered by the collection – the world of an old, dying man – the Chekhovian theme finds room to grow. Just as in several other portrayals of childhood by Carpelan the book mingles young and old, light and dark, creating a conglomeration of the human.

Translated by David McDuff

Mot natten, Finnish translation:
Yötä vasten
Suom. [Translated by] Caj Westerberg
Helsinki: Otava, 2013. 67 p.
ISBN 978-951-1-27364-6
€28.40, hardback

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