A Note on Nine Contemporary Poems from Finland

Issue 1/1987 | Archives online, Articles, Fiction, Non-fiction, poetry

Contemporary Finnish poetry, translated and introduced by Anselm Hollo

The last couple of months, it has been my pleasure to browse around in a tightly ­packed shelf of books of poetry published in Finland in the last five years. On the showing of these, and of the excellent anthology Modern finlandssvensk lyrik (‘Modern Finland-Swedish poetry’, 1980), edited by Claes Andersson and Bo Carpelan, poetry certainly seems to be alive and well in the old homeland. In a way, the sheaf translated here is just first travel notes, individual works that struck my fancy seemed translatable: thus, by no means a ‘representative selection’.

Claes Andersson’s poem ‘When I was born, Helsinki was…’ was quite simply a direct hit (perhaps an unfortunate metaphor in that it deals, in part, with the WW2 air raids on Helsinki) – it brought back personal memories from my early childhood. But beyond those immediate circumstances, it is also a very moving evocation of the magnificent and terrifying world of magic children inhabit. Helena Anhava’s ‘These years…’, with its marvelous image of the great hinge turning in the human psyche at certain points familiar to anyone who has lived into middle age, seemed a fine example of her impressive body of meditative lyric poems, sharing a tenor of wistfulness not uncommon in Finland’s poetry with Bo Carpelan’s ‘You drive up…’, which is also a poem of the pangs of change. In Carpelan’s text, the clash between ‘wonderful clear Vivaldi’ on the protagonist’s car radio and the perceived tawdriness of the environment is beautifully balanced between genuine revulsion for the latter and a self-irony directed against the self-declared ‘finer sensibilities’ of the class that can afford them. Tua Forsström‘s ‘Do you want to hear something’ moves in a lovely dance figure from myth to everyday present: we see the interior world that is Nausicaa’s island shimmering through the exterior in which ‘someone’s/ balcony door whines all night like a cat’.

Section III/2 from Kalevi Seilonen’s book-length poem ‘Four Revolutions’ gives a taste of what seems to me a remarkable work, a kind of latter-day, secular ‘Four Quartets’ that encompasses politics, history, and myth in a cinematic sweep. Arja Tiainen’s ‘I Love You to the Point of Ridicule’ demonstrates her sisterhood with a (by now) fairly large and vocal school of plain-talk, ‘tough’ feminist poetry in English, while also being as timeless as Catullus. Ilpo Tiihonen, a young poet with an extraordinary talent for the demotic and a strong parodic streak, seems for the most part to defy translation, but I hope that I’ve been able to bring across the two short poems ‘To Be’ and ‘How Warm in the Twilight’. And I loved the almost eerie stillness of ‘A Room in Space’ by Sirkka Turkka, whose sequence ‘Come Back, Little Sheba’ I have just finished translating – a whirlwind of vivid imagery and emotions.

Claes Andersson

When I was born, Helsinki was a medium-size
city with cobblestone streets
A few years later came the war
I had just learned to shut up
Old ladies lay scattered in the streets
after the bombings They were trying to kill us all
It was unconscionable
One of those raging nights when everything turned black
Mama carried me down to the cellar
Then she disappeared, she had no eyes
It became cold and damp and dark
You could feel it in your lungs
There was an iron door you weren’t allowed to open
When I squeezed my eyes shut the house was transformed
into a swing of cobwebs where they hung
all the dead from long ropes in the cellar hallway
Just as a bomb landed quite close Mama
and Papa hugged each other for the last time
just like in an R-rated movie
The sirens had gone crazy, they got to
my ears through my earmuffs
Papa was gone all that time but we didn’t think
I carried my white cat down to the cellar We sat there
long enough for it to turn blind and run away
Someone found it, its head blown off
in a box marked Newspapers
I knew it was my cat, I understood
that one couldn’t trust anybody
I didn’t cry, I was quite dry-eyed
Somehow I levitated out of myself and saw
myself lying there sans head
I held my breath until my cat was whole again
It never worked
My lungs were in bad shape, I would die soon
We lived in the water under a crust of ice
I was a quiet child, I shot the heads
off rats with my BB gun
It was far too much trouble to breathe
Something swung back and forth like a pendulum
on the bottom under the water
It was like the remains of a small boy
in plus fours frozen under the ice

From Under (‘Wonders’, 1984)

Helena Anhava

These years
when you’d like to take unpaid leave
from life, a convalescent vacation
to both pain and joy.
This age, belittled by those
who are younger, even the women,
pooh-poohed as if
they’d never reach it,
this seesaw of moods
that makes you boil over like milk,
unpredictably, spill
out of your bounds
or slowly crawl on, clutching a straw
not to be plunged into gloom.

And so, even this one
who has always been sifting herself
who imagined she knew every hidden place – –
wouldn’t you know:
some charge, encapsulated long ago
kept from exploding in its time
shook loose and struck
the storm center of the mind
and once again
the picture has changed,
the terrain looks different.
These years,
courage hangs by a thread,
its safety: a spider’s web.

It is like the turning of a great hinge,
rusty, strident
almost twisting off its frame,
this last puberty of the human being,
stepping into the vestibule of old age.
Its demand: that the player
become worthy of her instrument,
that the slow movement
turn into the finale.

From Hidas osa (‘The slow movement’, 1979)

Bo Carpelan

You drive up to the premium pump
there’s always another car there, empty, dirty,
just sitting there, its owner god knows where
a local, by the looks of the license plate.
At the self-service pump, no one
It is dirty and cold, fluorescent light here as well
and a power drill slams your ears shut
digging a pit for a new tank

While paying, you can contemplate the purchase
of nougat candy, cassettes, porno mags, contraceptives
then, filled up, oil checked, behind a clean windshield
you pull out into the dark terrain
before someone from the gang that hangs out there
has time to grab the door and, reeling, with a face
white as paper, yell something
you don’t comprehend but are afraid of
or enraged by, later
when you’re alone on the road and the radio
plays the wonderful clear Vivaldi

From I de mörka rummen, i de ljusa (‘In the dark rooms, in the light ones’, 1976)

Tua Forsström

Do you want to hear something no one has seen?
A Man was cast ashore here.
It was sunny weather with a sou’-westerly
wind, the wash was almost dry
when the ball flew in an arc
far out into the waves…
I’m only a girl.
Nausicaa, what is it you do
with a strange male who, wearing his body
staggers out of the water, torn and hungry?
I led him to a shaded room
I offered him food to eat, wine and water
I gave him a bed
He was a Man and he came from the sea, he
looked at me, another than who I had known
I told him my Dad was the king of this island
I asked him for his name
How long would he stay?
I’ve forgotten it all
He slept a lot, day was like night
like shadows of driven clouds
through green transparent water
I understood very little, learned
nothing, Nausicaa:
I am Dad’s and Mom’s princess
again, take walks in the garden, play ball
for a while with the slave girls down there
by the shore while the wash is drying
Wake with the light in my eyes. Someone’s
balcony door whines all night like a cat

From September, 1983

Kalevi Seilonen

An extract from Neljä vallankumousta (‘Four revolutions’, 1981)


In Havana, there is a nightclub that goes all the way up to heaven.
Fifteen women glitter in blue.
The rats of Miami are afraid of it.
I go there and stamp my boot on the floor.
I go to Ethiopia and Angola. I go to Kabul.
I stamp my boot on the floor.
The shaft of one scythe clashes with another.
The bourgeoisie sleeps in its books and papers.
Play, gypsy,
immerse and drown us in a tremulous voice.
Let it brim over
the way the sea once reached Siberia.

A woman raised her knee out of the water
and gave birth to stars, clouds, and gauzy rain
that spread and covered everything.
I remember so little of that.
The boundaries of that kingdom have been washed away.
A forest grew on the sea.
If there was rage, it was only somewhere.

And the shaman sets out,
eats fly-agaric, leaves his body on the floor.
Drumbeats hang on the night sky.
Walks down the slope to the River of Death
where white fishes swim by moving their fins.
I sit in the corner and listen.

And the shaman returns,
twitches in his own body
and wipes the shadows off his chest.
The drum beats its own sounds off the sky.
One must not go there. One has to go there alone.

Arja Tiainen

I Love You to the Point of Ridicule

Don't know how to smear you enough 
and really hate you, I don't
can't wipe you off my brain,
you won't evaporate
Can't beat you down, fire won't burn you,
wind and rain can't kill you, you won't emigrate.
 		I love you, to the point of ridicule,
sightlessly, beautifully, horribly.
I lust, I want, I whine, I scream, I utter threats.
You Hateful One.
You Indifferent and Niggardly Male. 
You-who-don't t-give-a-damn-about-me.
If only you hated me. Despised me. 
Dragged my name through the mud
				with your buddies.
Gossiped, laughed heartily in the taverns! 
Pepper in my eyes. Tar in my hair.
If only you hanged me, cut me with your blade
killed me, strangled me with your own hands.
But you are gone and stay gone.
From Saatanan tytär (‘Satan’s daughter’, 1980)

Ilpo Tiihonen

How Warm in the Twilight

A pike’s head floats slowly
in the green broth. You wake up shivering, beside you
a burning giraffe and the snows of yesteryear
your father spoke his chosen words about.

What are you writing, you ask. I’m just
trying to see that long journey
alongside the animals, a long
long way from here, past death.


To Be

Great that you are, enough
as we sit and for a moment children
climb our branches, great
that you are, this way we've come 
through dozens of wars
into whose setting smoke
you toss your braid off your shoulder
			like hope
not old, not young 
we be and sit
our compassion a little smirk 
when a truckload of cash
rolls down the hill
			in flames 
and you laugh like a child
		through whom a sentence
flashes and sinks to the bottom again

a moment's fluff
		from the unknown
above the mirror floats
From Hyvät, pahat ja rumat (‘The good, the bad and the ugly’, 1984)

Sirkka Turkka

A Room in Space

the stylus
	trundles down
the groove to the end
	of the sonata.
Silence. The dog's asleep, 
beside it the plastic toy,
its smile the same, 
	asleep or awake.
A gob of sleet
thumps into the window.
That won't wake them up. 
I look at their sleeping.
A tic
	twitches my eyelid 
in space, in this room 
docked on earth.
Slowly. The ball turns.
From Huone avaruudessa (‘A room in space’, 1973)

Translated from the Swedish and Finnish by Anselm Hollo


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