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Issue 1/2001 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Kari Sallamaa on new poems by Olli Heikkonen

Although Russia is Finland’s eastern neighbour, it is not a favoured subject in literature. Negative stereotypes recur, but Olli Heikkonen sketches an alternative Russia.

It is black as coal and iridescent as oil, an extraordinarily wide-open country. His image of Russia is not Russophobic or ethnocentric. When he published Jakutian aurinko (‘Sun of Yakutia’, 2000), the poet had visited Russia only once — and St Petersburg at that. The neo-classical megalopolis built on Ingrian land is, of course, not the whole of Russia; not even typical Russia.

The collection is built on a train journey across the gigantic country to Vladivostok in the east. The inspiration came from a book of photographs of such a journey which Heikkonen borrowed from the library. Since he had not actually visited the country, he was able to associate the photographs with his own thoughts and set his poetic engine in motion. The poet has also been inspired by classical Russian literature and the classics of Soviet cinema, such as the films of Eisenstein and Pudovkin.

Heikkonen’s Russia has the allure of dirty, crumbling romance. It is more the Soviet Union than contemporary Russia, but not in any obvious political sense. The poems are not anti-Soviet, because the state depicted in them is purely utopian. Ideals do not signify, only their semiotics and rhetoric. These façades are not those of Count Potemkin, but are created by the Stalinists. This is demonstrated by the conflict between the misery of everyday life and pathetic trackside visions and propaganda: ‘Again the tractors roll on to the fields, slogans split the air / The Hero of Labour is rewarded with roses and kisses, / Champagne may feed the soul.’

Sometimes, the poet sets the rough authenticity of these people and their crazy toil before the cold rationality of the west. The labourer is today a rare figure in Finnish poetry, having last appeared in the poems of Viljo Kajava or Arvo Turtiainen more than a half a century ago, but in Heikkonen’s poems the welder’s torch sizzles as the worker’s sun; the sweet murmur of the spring is replaced by an oil-well.

In this broad framework the poet sets love, the distance between people, the difficulty of intimacy, visions of nature. When Sputnik, that once astonishing mechanical falling star, whistles, the beloved can hope that the narrator will still love her. Most touching of all, however, is the poem about the dog Laika, who was lost in space: this spacesuited bitch guards our planet, but the noise that fills the sky drowns her barks.

Heikkonen’s poems function through strongly drawn images and concrete details which remain in my mind in the way shown by the great writers of early modernism: Lorca, Pound, Eliot. For a poem stands or falls by its images. It is somehow prophetic that such direct imagery is once again being recognised after the abstract argumentation and opaque rhetoric of so much of Finnish poetry.

There are some un-Russiannesses in the poems; it is difficult to know what the citizens of the republic of Saha (Yakutia) would say about the characterisation in the title poem, which talks of black and green gold and caviar but omits the real gold and diamonds. They are the republic’s real riches. It was because of them that Stalin built, on the bones of slave workers, the famous Kolyma road from Vladivostok to Yakutia. But because we are, in relation to other cultures, at the mercy of images and mental images, deliberate anachronism may tune the attention to what is typical.

Heikkonen could perhaps be called an ethnofuturist. I refer to a movement established by a group of young Estonian writers in Tartu in 1989, which has since spread among the young artists of the Finno-Ugrian nations of Russia and has increasingly become a northern ethnic movement with features of a national movement of salvation. Ethnofuturist literature and art uses myths and other imagery from the past to build the future. I find in Heikkonen’s poetry links with these themes. When the long journey ends in Vladivostok, on the edge of the continent, a primal woman tunes a guitar; she once created the sea and much else. She is clearly a relative of the primal mother of Lönnrot’s Kalevala, the Virgin of the Air. The lyrical you is urged to bow down beneath the sacred tree, the rowan. Elks, clan animals, frightened by the bullet train take of in a long run, marking the elements of the ‘primal home’: The sand of the puszta is on their hooves, then the steppe / and the tundra, there is smoke in their coats and the scent of tears. / In their eyes glitters the endless white sea.’

Even Russia, however, is not enough for the poet. It is a launchpad to the universe and prehistory: ‘I still remember this: one must go / to the light, against the light, to millions of explosions’. Poetry always opens alternative paths to a world where everything is different. It can be a better beginning or ending, a paradise where a wild beast suckles a lamb. The individual can choose. Wisdom is within: the bone-compass shows the way.’

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