Speaking about the heart

Issue 2/1991 | Archives online, Articles

New Finnish poetry, translated and introduced by Herbert Lomas

The ‘modernist’ revolution in Finnish poetry is now 40 years old, and the art must be ripe for changes.

Of course, the modernism of post-war Finnish poetry was not – except in Haavikko and to some extent in Saarikoski – extremely modernist. The poets were more interested in their content than their experiments. They were perhaps closer to ancient Chinese poets and early Pound than to Eliot in their elided brief juxtapositions and meditations on nature, society and moment-to-moment transience. The poets picked up a few liberties that unshackled them from metrical and rhyming formalities uncongenial to Finnish stress, syntax and phonemics; and they took off to speak about the heart. That is the strength of this poetry, and its originality, since all originality consists in being oneself – which includes one’s national self, and ultimately other people’s selves. And every generation still has to make a new start, admittedly in new circumstances, with the experience of its forefathers from birth to death.

Looking through these new volumes one is of course looking for enjoyment, but also for signs of the times. New antennae have certainly been apparent in Finland. The experiments with rhyme of Ilpo Tiihonen are interesting. The theatrical, almost operatic, arias of Arto Melleri are something new.

The most interesting of the newcomers is Satu Marttila: the least like anyone else, and so surely deploying her idiosyncratic juxtapositions and verbs in a surrealistic mythologisation of passionate female desire. Her themes are not too distant from the celebrations of sexual passion, death and ecstasy in Satu Salminiitty, though for Salminiitty familiarity is seen as closing in, getting more threatening.

Tiina Kaila is fishing in still waters. She sits and watches, listening to her awareness. The weird shapes of the world cast their familiar words off and come out naked. Kirsti Simonsuuri continues her paideuma round the world and her self, and earlier signs of a more poignant frankness are maturing.

Melleri is still bringing out his stand into the market place and declaiming his soliloquies. But already 35, the right age for Jung’s famous mid-term crisis, he reminds us that youth, with its message of renaissance, is really a time of confusion, uncertainty, inadequacy and false fronts, and that such youth can continue into old age.

Nothing could be a greater contrast than Harri Nordell’s minimalist water­colours, words apparently thrown up by a transcendental solitude: a difficult mode, requiring luck as well as sensitivity. The occasional dud tug on the line must be suffered for the spectacular catch. Kari Aronpuro also writes short poems, but he plays the clown at the poetic circus, wittily mimicking the straight men for laughs.

Hannu Salakka’s poems are extended aphorisms, paradoxical reports on what it’s like to be alive in the dubious world we have to accept, running perhaps dangerously close to popular wisdom. Jari Tervo reports, with the defensive irony of a sufferer, on the abrupt behaviour of northern characters in a language they’d understand.

All these poets are thinking of their readers, knowing the readers are out there waiting. Some perhaps feel readers are more easily entertained, but if the formalists were right and the task of poetry is foregrounding of language and defamiliarisation, then the best of these are at the right bench.

Contemporary Finnish Poetry, edited and translated into English by Herbert Lomas, was published by Bloodaxe Books of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1991


He drops anchor
in you, and it’s as if you’re remembering
your first sea-tangled
dream –

a seagull-and-oyster dream, oceany,
tangy and free.

His anchor has earth-warmth in it,
the fever of striking root;
He’s out to fasten on the furthest reach of your womb,
running up freedom-flags on the mast.

His tongue’s a sail, commanded by wind,
his fingertips
surging with blood and the blood’s
wide-open eyes: you can’t do a thing, he sees you
as a chopped-up dream
a preserved rose
this night
he takes you on his tongue, a whole world
like a wave on his tongue-tip.

If only I could listen to my skin again, to your skin,
plough up the beaten tracks of pleasure
misdirect the trains
draw up at the foot of the spiral staircase
and watch.
I’ve lost the smell of your manhood
in thousands of nights’
nooks and crannies,
in the fading pictures of diminishing rooms.
You love me with a tired face.
But the sea’s been here,
because the shores have built up,
and the water-edge ridges,
and the sand’s soft and precise hieroglyphics –
because the boats are all set,
the lighthouse is flashing – and,
yes, the sea’s been here.

From Raottuvien ovien valo
(‘Light through opening doors’), 1989


Tower Room

Steps high and narrow,
every day I creep
before you to the tower room,
feeling your close breathing
on the hairs of my neck;
the cobwebs cling
to my red nails –
loud as bloodberries
in the twilit mould.
A nightspider skitters
into a pitchblack hole;
your spurred boots
jangle on the stone stairs,
leather creaking as you step –
stairs damp and narrow –
every day, the stone vault
sweating drops – from the dark
a bat’s leather wing,
powered by blindness alone,
like us by our fate, the tower room –
every day, these spiral steps
high, damp and narrow,
the colour of lust in your eyes
black as storm.

Cloth of Roses

Curtains on the window. Heat.
Party yesterday, today an empty glass.
The skin’s producing cyclamens,
the pasture blue horses,
a mane of fire, thistles.
The day’s burning, a full glass,
through the curtains a spruce observes
the wine flutter in your glass
as your hand lowers it
onto the tablecloth of roses.
The blossoms go moist, the thorns.

Mouvement Oscillatoire

don’t look careful now not too close careful don’t wake careful
don’t touch take me smash me come inside me disturb don’t calm
me rest me be my luck thorn in the flesh laugh and burn go away
come close give me your hand go off creep along the phonewire
wrap yourself up in my sheets give me a lucky cherry ignore me
turn your back on me look at me let me rest on your shoulder
be quiet tell me a story be silent light a fire with me

From Tornihuone (‘Tower room’), 1989


1. The Trees in Headington

In a garden
crossed by a stream
they’ve set some weird trees.
All the leaves, almost,
are already gone
and through them you can see
the amazed faces of the people wandering the paths
are blooming with configurations
more remarkable than the trees:
how their expressions are sprouting
with the tendrils, leaves
and switches of romance and absurdity!
I rest on the riverbank
and admire these spiritual beings
as they glide past with invisible trains,
topsails, wings, and
whisper softly to each other –
lest they disturb the performers,
and this drama of dead trees
should suddenly stop.

2. The Trees in Tapanila

Sleet dripped from the dark.
The pine growled in the wind:
alive, it was – you knew it at once –
and preternaturally strong:
unbrokenly linked
to the forestfather,
listening, nodding,
and transmitting secret signals.
I watched in panic –
for truth broke just then:
trees are inhabiting here.
The land’s being colonised by living trees.
We’re the minority
and we hardly notice they’ve
got us in their grip.
How the wildernesses wuther through our heads.
The forests are investing the towns.
And how sleepy and subservient
our faces are.

From Valon nälkä (‘Hunger for light’), 1986


Year of Mourning

Twice this year
the soil has fallen
on a coffin lid,
twice the earth has ingested its own,
crabbedly grabbing
what it calmly awaited for decades,
opening its black fur coat of soil.
The everlasting grass is sprouting
from the thin sob of dead topsoil:
no longer sighing, no longer withering,
its mouths open into words,
its lips grope almost audibly,
its eyes moisten.
Language has uttered itself into extinction
language must go into the bowels of the earth
and create new generations.

Monologue 2

When you’ve said it,
je t’aime, ich liebe dich, te quiero,
ti amo, I love you and so on,
when you’ve said it many times over
and many other things, and every other time
meant what you said,
meant it enough to split head and anus
for the sake of a single word:

there comes the moment when loneliness
seems, you think, best,
and for one solitary moment you’d like
to be the world’s loneliest person.

From Enkelten pysäkki (‘Angel stop’), 1990


In April, at nightfall,
when the forest's only sounds are a thrush 
	      and coursing water,
the sky's bright
and everything else a lifeless darkening,
when there's no name or aim for your restlessness,
you suddenly clearly understand why a car inexplicably 
swerves into the opposite lane on a straight road.

Because there’s no curve, bend, junction, fork.

So when you go free down the garden path wherever it suits you 
topped up with rich hopeful pictures of the future
and are astounded to see
that the world's illness
	     in spite of your bright outlook 
shows no faintest symptom of recovery,
	you've seriously come back to life.

From Yöllä näin kaiken vapaan maan (‘At night I saw the whole free land’), 1990


A crow grouses like a cloud uttering blackness from a firtop’s
dark. The fir shouts in the cemetery, and the next firs next to it
asylum the wind, it blows. Then it sheds white crowflakes
into the mourners’ necks, the bird’s snowless as they
bury dad. Not a pretty man and not prettified by death. Death,
in the form of a dislodged precast concrete block,
stepped on dad’s mug in a squall of sleet. Dad
was left fishing for a flake with his tongue. Mother wanted
the coffin kept open in the church, dad’s eldest brother wanted
mother kept shut. She let fly with some businesslike wails.
After the salmon sandwiches, the brothers, all three, went
to three pubs including The Lapland Lad, on a whim. They’ve
no pub in common – well, the Lapland Lad, but who goes there?
In the morning Valtteri’s up and off to his building site,
the middle one’s off to the post, the youngest is stuck with
flu. It’s going round, says the boss consolingly. A day
dead is a longer time than sixty years alive, thinks Valtteri,
at the spot where the bolt fell. It’s almost four,
and soon it’s later.

From Muistoja Pohjolasta (‘Memories of the North’), 1990


You’re given birth. You drop from womb
to noose.
You’re a bloodstained bait.
A wait.


Twinkle of Dogstar,
nail hammered in a palm.
Astray in heaven
goes the race of ancients,

and a horse runs with hooves of glass


Freezing sky
full of draught,
blank yellow.

The quiet
sires wait.
In the breathing
a smell of wet lime.

Night’s a black stain
where memory wails.


The dead
curled-up embryos
on dark’s palm,
tongue of dumb flame,
and the soul remembers itself


Bilberries – thunderblue.
Forest-glimpses of white wings,
from the other side of death.
I am the name of a child.


I break the blood-chains,
strip off darkness like skin,
sew my face
with iron’s cold light,
and look,
I’m not forgiven.


I saw in my dream
a horse run through me,
and a sob
like a split hoof
stuck in me.

From Veden kuvat (‘Water’s aquarelles’), 1990


O! (An Artistic Happening)

I gave an old poem
		too close a reading
				and couldn't fathom at first 
	what a fellow-writer had in mind –
		starting with a zero
					and an exclamation mark

Dreams and Visions

I'm from a comparatively wealthy and cultivated family
	I was decanting claret in our 'summer-residence' dining room 
		near the rubber-plant and the aspidistra
			grandfather was seated in a wicker chair
		and describing a vision he'd seen
				in a little church near Sophia
	For him dreams and visions were something special 
							a dimension of reality

From Rihmasto (‘Mycelium’), 1989


What I Leave Unwritten

I need you
but I'm leaving that out of this letter 
The perfume’s name is Poison – 
myrkky in Finnish
I open the window, air the room, clean up –
a good-for-nothing room
	and you're no good for me
I'm a good-for-nothing
and I don't need you go just go
You smoke too much: 43 lipstick-stained 
stumps in the bedside scallop-shell
smoke go on smoke what's it to me
I air the room
and I don't want you to reading this 
not over my shoulder either
I'll bury the letter in damp soil
by the stone wall at the end of the autumn 
	garden left of the compost heap
The cumulus clouds cock their eyebrows 
a carrier pigeon flies out from under
straight into the molten sun
No, I'm not crying, it's just
a pollen allergy I've got, slight

From Viiden aistin todellisuus (‘Reality of the five senses’), 1990


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