Images of isolation

Issue 1/1992 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Poems by Helvi Juvonen, commentary by Soila Lehtonen

Little is known of the circumstances of Helvi Juvonen’s life. Her fame rests on five collections of poetry – mixing humility and celebration with an uncompromising rigour – published in the ten years before her death at the age of 40 (a sixth appeared posthumously). Her existence, in the drab surroundings of post-war Helsinki, was modest: after studies at Helsinki University, and posts as a bank clerk and proof-reader, she lived by writing and translation, including some brilliant renderings into Finnish of the poems of the 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson.

Helvi Juvonen’s universe is crowded with ostensibly insignificant phenomena: her eye discerns a mole, lichen, dwarf-trees, a shrew; she studies tones of stone and moss; she ‘doesn’t often dare to look at the clouds’.


Rocks, forgotten within themselves,
have grown dear to me.
The trees’ singing, so useless,
is my friend.

Silver lichen,
brother in beggary,
please don’t hate my shadow
on the streaked rock.

Little animals,
your mystery in your eyes,
don’t reject me,
even if my feet
leave human prints.

Come back, stories
back to me from the long road.
We’re both waiting
for what’s coming,
coming leaf-green,
with lit eyes
that don’t slash,
and a voice in the mouth
that won’t shatter.
No quiver of wrong
in him.

Juvonen’s typical flora and fauna are not pretty little furry animals or beautiful flowers; her images are the maggot, the blind mole, the hunchbacked dwarf. In her first collection, Kääpiöpuu (‘The dwarf tree’, 1949), the creatures and things she studies are free from existential pain: for them, it is enough to exist, ‘to be silent, to be small’, ‘half-air, half-soil’, like the mushroom, bush or grass. A human being can be a dwarf­-mushroom rising from the decaying earth, and only dreams bring secret joy.

In ‘The bear’, she creates a grotesque and disturbing self-portrait:

The bear

Alive? Long horn-claws, shagginess,
in a world of the living.

Ear takes in no word of mouth,
eye seeks eye, and reads a void,
forest entrance never opens,
sky affords no coat of snow,
heavily, lightly
bare foot shuffles.

So the coat was taken and the nails cut?
The teeth slowly crumbled?
Wind laughs, while I roam with it.
Day laughs, when it dazzles eyes.
When I laugh, I laugh in my skull.

Juvonen’s poetry is disciplined, ascetic, sparse; she moves freely between the traditional and the modern, between rhyme and free verse. Her images are of a laconic simplicity. Nature is more to her than the place where she finds small, or dwarfed, creatures: it is her solace, where she finds brief moments of joy. Her themes are often biblical. By realising the Creator is to be trusted, she finds love; Christianity is an opportunity for personal conversation.

God’s church

In the middle of your aisle
I became volatile for a while –

a beast and tree of stunted growth,
both ear and opened mouth.

What fascinates me, reading her poems thirty-three years after her death, are not her biblical themes or her metres – though she is as skilful as the earlier poets Aaro Hellaakoski or Uuno Kailas – but her original images and her uncompromising yet humble outlook. ‘Humble’, deriving from the Latin humilis (low), and humus (earth, ground, soil), is a word rather out of vogue: it seems apt to Juvonen’s world, however: ‘Kneel before what’s smaller than you, listening with your eyes. A word’s hidden there, bright and quiet.’ What she finds there is very real for her, and valuable. She does not feign modesty by lowering herself, or escape what life is giving her – she holds her ground.

At last she grasped what was ahead. Not, in fact, discrete sunrises or sunsets, not some particular burning day here or there, but the present moment unfolding forward by itself. Coiling forward, it rolls into a ball within her brain, within her consciousness and beneath it. It is pastness living in herself and in the present moment. To meet the past you must meet yourself. Suddenly she grasped that you could find yourself in another’s eyes, live in another’s interior, note it as a fact, close your eyes and forget, repose in recipience of peace, because you’ve driven into peace the dead living within you, or the shades they left behind, dream-beings repeating events of long ago.

After Kääpiöpuu, Juvonen published four collections of poems: Kuningas Kultatakki (‘King Goldcoat’, 1950), Pohjajäätä (‘Permafrost’, 1952), Päivästä päivään (‘From day to day’, 1954) and Kalliopohja (‘Bedrock’, 1955). Sanantuoja (‘The messenger’) appeared posthumously in 1959. Prose fragments and short fairy-tales, Pikku karhun talviunet (‘The little bear’s winter dreams’) were published in 1974, edited by Juvonen’s friend, the poet Mirkka Rekola. Juvonen planned to write novels, but only fragments and sketches are left.

Fairy-tales are Juvonen’s playground. Her delicious sense of humour, only hinted at in the poems, and at times absurd, is given full play in the prose. Her fairy-tale creatures are elusive: she does not let us weigh them up, or grasp and define them. They are characters in their own right, in the capricious world she has created. Pikku karhun talviunet also gives glimpses of the poet’s life in post-war Helsinki. Her modest room is a small area – a metaphor for her circumscribed life, which was often penurious. But her rent is reasonable, she says ironically: ‘a mere 150 small loaves a month’.


Nothing happening.
Everything outside
is unreal:
like some old walls,
it is changing.

Nothing happening.
My hand picked
a dustspeck from the floor:
like one’s own day
it was taken into the past.

Emily Dickinson, the highly original 19th-century poet-recluse of Amherst, Massachusetts, wrote:

The Bee is not afraid of me.
I know the Butterfly.
The pretty people in the Woods
Receive me cordially –

En mehiläistä pelota
ja tunnen perhosen.
Metsän väen kohtelu
on sydämellinen.

The poem’s witty appropriation of natural imagery for social isolation must have appealed to Helvi Juvonen, who translated it a hundred years later, along with a handful – eleven, in all – of other poems by Dickinson; she also wrote, in 1958, an award-winning essay on Dickinson’s poetry for the literary magazine Parnasso. For Juvonen, Dickinson’s poems are ‘soul-adventures’, and their distinctive qualities are ‘tenderness, humour, intensity, calm matter-of-factness and analysis’ – all characteristics shared by Juvonen. Elsewhere, the two poets meet on a merrier note:

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards cooped in Pearl –
Nor all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!
– When 'Landlords' turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door –
Butterflies – renounce their 'drams' –
I shall but drink the more!
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun –
Ei reininviini-tynnyrit
sellaista juomaa anna,
veroista maistamani, sen,
jota ei käymään panna!
Kun mehiläiset päihtyneet
kukista potkitaan
perhoset ryypyn torjuvat
juon minä yhä vaan,
serafit kunnes tervehtii,
käy pyhät akkunaan
nähdäkseen juopon pikkuisen
aurinkoon nojallaan.

Both women lived in solitude, and, inevitably, in loneliness too, loyal to themselves, seeking, not public recognition, but inner peace. They are potent in their impotence, acknowledging the suffering and pain in their lives without wallowing or revelling in it.


At mid-day the cranes flit.
The furrow is slashed bare.
Voices cry
with longing for some place away from here,
with longing for somewhere else away from here.

They share the same devotion to nature and an unconventional, solitary sense of divinity, Creator. Dickinson writes:

The soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more

And this is one of the poems Juvonen selects, from the hundreds available, for translation. She must have been fascinated too, by Dickinson’s intuitive juxtaposition of unexpected words, her enigmatic obscurity, her mysteries. Dickinson is extremely difficult to translate; the problem is less in the words than in the visions, the idiosyncrasy of the images and their correspondence with actualities. There is a similar incongruence in Juvonen. In her essay on Dickinson she writes: ‘Her music is in the relationships between things and images. Listening to it, one hears too the bird and the wind, a pilgrim’s song and the change of the seasons.’


My joy is permafrost.
It doesn’t melt.
Deep down
a vein of water
flows inexhaustible:
a water-spring dimly visible
through my silver
clear-as-glass ice.

You see my ice.
Don’t touch.
It really is cold,

You see a person’s face,
you see your own,
a good face.

One of her last poems is Elämä (‘Life’), written when she was already ill:


One day there’ll be
the great occasion
with no one
to share
the cool lingering blue
the sky will rise
as a chalice-rim
in each windowpane
a face will change.

The poet and critic Tuomas Anhava interprets Life as a jisei, or Japanese death poem, a last greeting or insight: the lonely moment of death. But in the poem’s final vision, ‘-– in each windowpane/ a face will change’. ‘What happened to the solitude?’ Anhava asks. ‘It didn’t fade into thin air, but found a significant counterpart: there is no one to share the “cool blue” – except members of an audience? The question and the insight linger, a paradox without a resolution: the insight of a mystic.’

Life for Helvi Juvonen is mere dust, and yet eternal; it may be a paradox, but for her, I believe, it is not a mystery. To be dust, human, is to be close to humus, so full of life; and for Juvonen, small is no less than large. For me, Helvi Juvonen, like the recluse of Amherst, is a soul-adventurer.

The mole sleeps
spade-paw, velvet coat
seeing soft dreams of darkness

Poems translated by Herbert Lomas

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