If grief smoked

Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Poems from six collections of poetry. Introduction by Herbert Lomas

The City

How the houses have ascended in this city,
the abysses deepened, the water blackened,
soon to be creeping along the streets.

The railings are rusting through,
the water table’s rising,
the cellars are slopping.

Fear is rising, or being covered up
behind strangling discretion,
outbreaks of crime.

We’ll have to take to the boats,
can’t you hear the water brawling,
take to the boats and forget your hats.

Or if you do plunge in, oh bravely,
take the word out
to the far side of the distress lights.

From Tämä matka (‘This journey’, 1956)


My room, smelling of forest,
reddens earlier and earlier
with the setting sun .

The heart of the redwood walls is darkening,
the diffracted light is cold.

Evening is red and old
as an iron spectrum.


If grief smoked,
the smoke would shroud the earth.
Yet under this grief there’s fire,
my heart that burns, burns
and doesn’t burn out.

From Niin vaihtuivat vuoden ajat (‘Thus the seasons changed’, 1964)


And now put ice in your music.
It’ll turn into mathematics.
Put ice in your music now.

From Fahrenheit 121 (1968)


I open it by lamplight –
a yellowing book that smells of grass and mould.

Leafing the pages, a sound like rain
issues and a light breeze crosses

from page to page of a battlefield.
Cartridge smoke scatters like dandelion clocks.

Uproar. Silence. Many a horse is wandering,
and men without horses. Through chinks in shutters

peasant sounds and smells. Swallow’s shrieks.
Aniseed, cow parsley. Poppy, dandelion clocks

and cartridge puffs on a book’s pages.
The circle of soft lamplight invests a field of blood.


The being of things I don’t know, their qualities I do.
Your being I do know, your qualities I don’t.

How come this endless intrigue and caprice?
Coldness said scaldingly, scaldingness coldly?

Squaring the circle, all those edges,
and beginning again from the beginning, writing on mist,

looking at what a writing hand does in a looking-glass.
Everything it does, it does the wrong way round.


Time doesn’t cross over the river
all my time is this side.
On the other bank a house of ashes and a dissolved clock:
endurance of memory.

From Jos suru savuaisi (‘If grief smoked’, 1968)


Dedication to Ogai Mori

Three things are needed for the aesthetic experience
(said Thomas): clarity, harmony, and beauty.

And breaking, I add; for beauty
in itself is no longer beautiful –

and never was. Hunters know this:
those who love the creature killed for pleasure:

that moment of seeing in the animal’s eyes
the life breaking.

If it’s true that when I go
I needn’t go alone,
that you’ll come too, riding on your horse beside me,
its coat shining earth in the moonlight
(half-earth itself, half-wind)

if it’s true what you promised, if
you’ll ride to the gate – it’s a gate of mist
(the gale’s dropped, the grass isn’t bending) –

I want to go now,
I want you now.


Day’s always dying here, snow always dawning,
even in the summer. The earth’s heart won’t melt.
Unconscious, the lake’s watching like an iron eye.

From Paetkaa purret kepein purjein (‘Flee, boats, with light sails’, 1971)


Empty paths. Feet:
a bird scampering on the roof.
In the morning so dense a mist
you could spin wool out of it,
as the trees spin their fibres
on intangible looms.

A jetty, and two steps clown:
space is white.
Across what void?
Or not a drop at all?
Merely a vanished lake
and a swan’s wake on the water?


A mallard honks
and in the morning the grass is rimed with hoar.
Like glass: a filmy ice-tinkle.
Giddy with longing.
Almost winter. I shiver –
even by the blazing fire.
The cold’s under the skin, it won’t go.


A strange grieving in the forest –
while the village is sleeping.
A strange feeble grieving
like a child weeping.
You open the door. You listen. Nothing.
You close the door. It’s there again.
Who’s lost in the dark?
Who’s been abandoned?
Who are they drowning somewhere?
A strange long grieving
as if a memory were weeping, or a shadow, or an echo –
right across the lake.


The moon rises at midnight
and reconnoitres earth like a cave.
A crime has occurred,
there’s a knife on the doorsill.

A red moon rises
and reconnoitres all the wells.
A crime has occurred,
there’s blood in the well.

The moon turns its dark side.
Nothing has occurred.
Only night and a tarn’s eye
and wolflight and a footfall

and a fish on the doorsill
and a wounded oak,
the stone of the blood and a covered well
and hypnotic iron.


‘Nose puede vivir sin amar.’
‘Si, se puede,’ I said
and dressed myself in black
for the last masked ball.

And my mouth felt full of dust
as if I’d wept my throat dry –
though I haven’t wept for half a century.

Compañeros, I don’t want your heavens –
infamous lights, false friends
streets for kissing, the lies
of flying mirrors.

I want to break the seal, the last,
the moon that gives no light,
the night where nothing shines.

From Kuolleet vedet (‘Dead waters’, 1977)

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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