A poet of the fresh air

Issue 2/1987 | Archives online, Authors, Interviews

Sirkka Turkka

Sirkka Turkka. Photo: Pertti Nisonen

Sirkka Turkka is interviewed by Markku Huotari

Snowflakes are already covering the forest, and an angry wind is blowing off Lake Lohjanjärvi. It is autumn, and in the courtyard, at the roots of a stunted rowan, is a lounge chair, its paint already peeling.

‘I’ve left the chair there because my mother used to sit in it and knit.’

I start at Sirkka Turkka’s comment. In my mind is her last-but-one volume of poetry, Vaikka on kesä (‘Although it’s summer’, 1983); its poems sound a contemporary lament, occasioned by her mother’s death.

‘There’s nothing made-up in my poetry,’ says Sirkka Turkka.

Landscape, nature, the circular path of life – all of these have left their wounds in Sirkka Turkka’s poetry. But as she writes in Tule takaisin, pikku Sheba (‘Come back, little Sheba’, 1986), winner of the Finlandia Prize 1987, ‘from the wounds life grows’.

Now, in autumn, the landscape of Turkka’s summer home is as bleak as it can be in Finland. All the same, as we walk in the garden, the puddles are not just any old muddy puddles.

‘The road’s pock-marked face/ after the rain at night,/ each puddle holds a sky,’ says the poem in Sheba.

We walk out on to the jetty and the wind whistles maliciously off the lake. Turkka quotes from the poet Saima Harmaja, who decades ago sought comfort from these shores and wrote: ‘The lake, a reflection of blessedness…’ It was summer then. But Sirkka Turkka’s poems have austere and absolute qualities; she looks life straight in the eye, at its joys and comfortlessness: ‘I believe, that in the darkness of our lives I am to someone a richness/ and a comfort,/ Kleinod und Trost/ to someone/ a seem star in a moonless night.’ (Mies joka rakasti vaimoaan liikaa, ‘The man who loved his wife too much’, 1979).

Animals have an important role in Sirkka Turkka’s poetry, and this is particularly clearly apparent in Sheba. They are real creatures, but at the same time metaphors for nature and life and mythical beings.

‘Many of the animal characters in this book originate from a country town in Häme, the Honkola mansion in Urjala. I still spend part of the year there working in the stables,’ says the poet. ‘There’s a fairytale atmosphere; H.C. Andersen and Astrid Lindgren would have found plenty to write about there.’

Humour, too, peeps out of the mansion’s stables and into Turkka’s poems, for instance in the poem about the rooster who, first thing in the morning, hears the voice of Yves Montand wailing in stereo about how lovers are parted.

‘This creature is a real equerry. It mounts a shoe and the result is a litter of cheeping pink training shoes. The one in Honkola behaves the same way, and when you are in the hen coop you have to be careful of your shoes!’

The poet’s dog Barum growls in agreement; then, as his mistress warms to her subject, begins to wag his tail.

‘I do believe that dogs go to heaven, just like people. Since we humans are part of nature, why don’t we admit that we and nature are of the same value, at the same high level, a species among species? Man has, for no reason, got into his head the destructive notion that he is king of creation.’

Folk poetry is another subject, besides the care of horses, that Sirkka Turkka has studied. Nature, of course, is one of folk poetry’s central subject areas. The tradition includes calming songs and calls for animals and forests. Trees are so highly honoured that it was necessary to ask their forgiveness before felling them. So they were not felled in vain.

Just as in folk poetry, nature in Turkka’s poems comes alive: the stone weeps, trees sigh, the rain is sad. The surprising thing about this old-fashioned lyrical language is how Turkka uses these images in a spontaneously contemporary way.

‘When I write of autumn as an old driver, I don’t do it to embellish my poetry, but because that’s exactly how it happens to be. I can’t write poetry by consciously “making”it. It’s truer to say that my poems write me. There’s perhaps something similar in music. Listening to a concert, I feel that it’s the music that is using me, rather than me the music. It’s the music that’s playing the players, too.’

How controlled, then, is your writing?

‘I might compare my role to, for example, that of a secretary or a scrivener. When inspiration takes hold of my pen, I have to be quick to get everything down. It is sad and joyful work, but lacking any artistic romanticism.’

‘Another stage is the melting down and welding together of texts born at different times. It, too, is a fiery job, and I have to have a concrete physical contact with where everything has come from. I don’t know any other way of bringing forth from myself the forces that are at work there, apart from by writing.

‘Perhaps it’s that poetry gives a satisfying answer even when you don’t know the question.’

In Vaikka on kesä Turkka writes out of herself her grief at the mother’s death. The basic colour of the volume is black. It resounds with a funeral march, a song of loss and of sorrow. But, typically, Turkka is not unaware of her role as a poet. ‘Death is a good vitamin,’ she writes.

There is a death ride in Sheba, too. But in these poems the dark melodies are not oppressive, unlike the pathos-laden and pathetic struggles of the soul in recent Finnish theatre.

‘You couldn’t always be depressed. When some study or another found that a third of Finns were going through psychological crises, the psychiatrist Kivi Lydecken commented, “Only a third? What about the rest of us – we go from crisis to crisis”.

‘I think that poetry is working with feelings, and people do it the whole time, poets or not. It is silly suddenly to fasten one’s attention on one or two examples of depression instead of learning to live with all of them.

‘Bertrand Russell says somewhere, quite rightly, that after a ten-mile walk problems look quite different. I’m used to moving. I need my daily fix of oxygen.’

That same fresh air blows through Sirkka Turkka’s poetry. 

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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