Bearded Madonna

Issue 4/1984 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Poems from Parrakas madonna (‘Bearded Madonna’, 1983). Introduction by Pertti Lassila

The first volume of poems by Eira Stenberg (born 1943) appeared in 1966; since then she has published both poems and children’s stories. In her most recent collection, she examines human relationships within the family, divorce, motherhood and childhood. Stenberg’s voice is clear and concrete. Her treatment of both mother and child is unsentimental, sometimes ironic; perceptively and far­sightedly she deals with the importance of childhood in the way it predestines the fate of the individual. No love or hate burns/ like that we receive as a gift from childhood, Stenberg writes in one of her poems. The home – protective, restrictive and punishing – is often the scene of her poems. The man, the father, is the butt of considerable irony and criticism, but Stenberg also destroys the myth of the madonna-like mother and the idyll of the home. Stenberg the poet is a social participator, although her concern is for the crisis of the nuclear family rather than for politics or other social issues. The material wealth of the welfare state is in stark contrast to the poverty of human relationships, and it is in the face of this contradiction that children must grow to maturity. Irrational violence and despair loom large in the world of Stenberg’s poems. She writes, too, with an archaic timelessness of the relationship between mother and child, of the joy of motherhood and apprehension of the future and the contrast of the child’s unselfconscious vitality and delight in life. But the knowledge that as it grows up, the child will be gripped by existential alienation, the adult experience of the world as both free and a prison, is constantly in the background.


Spring storm, the Milky Way

Sturm und Drang. Our street’s got the spring!
Braids of brook explode into ponds,
water and snot are flowing
the sap’s rising in the dogshit-composted
and the children are excavating sandcastles from under the sludge
(the Park’s only Atlantis).
Soot-light is streaming from the windows and
rippling up the steps of the staircase slush,
where the children are sliding on April with wet mittens.
The storm’s rising, opening the outside door,
a pike peeps through the doorjambs
a bogey’s socking in the radiators
and the neighbour’s cactus breaks into bloom on the stairway
dragging a crimson robe over its prickles.
The blackbirds are colonising the trees
the piss-drowned park
and wave after wave the lime trees are cresting into breakers.
Near the pavement a parked car
stands like a dog’s amputated head.

And when the storm’s over
knowledge comes to crown you with nettles.
‘Poet’, she whispers
‘life is a burning boat,
an anchor, a ruler’s rusted crown
and in the muddy wombs of queens
vacant navel-strings are dangling.’

And in the morning in May we crossed the sea’s
now-subsided towers
amenity’s swinging cradle
the suddenly opened beds
wounded childhood’s disappeared home
saline oblivion
we crossed over them like insight.

The eighth day of the week

The heat’s getting more and more stifling.
The oven’s glowing red,
the mothers’ aureoles are sparkling,
no use trying to touch.
The breakfast porridge is boiling over,
boiling and boiling the kitchen full,
creeping upstairs to the nursery,
into the cots
where the quilts imperceptibly change
into soil.
Suddenly the whipping tree in the yard bursts into flames,
the air boils like water
and the sky rains delirious birds.
A child thrusts out of the firegrate
laughing as it’s born.
Prophets alone laugh as they’re born
since they know
childhood’s the worst of the betrayals.
It’s decided to bypass that.
In a flash it milks its mother dry
and grows up.
It can’t cry.
It’s defined everyone’s heart
as a fuse.
It runs into the street and kicks to death
the first old lady.


No one notices a child’s dead or not
if it’s been filled with porridge.
The brighter the child
the more obedient she is
so anyone whatever can see
how well brought up she is.
But you mustn’t forget
the lucky coin and some honey,
or when she’s big she’ll claim
something’s missing:
like the stuff of life.
Even though she if anyone
ought to feel stuffed.

Bearded Madonna

In Ohrid’s Santa Sophia
–a painting of a bearded Madonna.
My knowing Macedonian friend explains:
the artist had thought
he was to paint Christ –
and forgot to paint out the beard from the Mother.
How I do respect people’s wisdom:
no one has killed
a child’s daydream.

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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