On presence and absence

30 December 2004 | Authors, Reviews

 Sanna Karlström

Photo: Irmeli Jung

The calm, precisely defined atmosphere of Sanna Karlström’s poems is interlined by the fragility and seriousness of the ‘I’, suggesting a certain sorrow. The clarity and purity of Finnish modernism’s tradition shows up in her controlled style; one may detect glimpses of the classically modernist images of Paavo Haavikko (1931–2008) in her poems. Karlström’s collection, Taivaan mittakaava (‘The scale of the sky’, Otava, 2004) does consider ‘the scale of the sky’, but her gaze is more centred on what is close at hand, the small. The ‘scale’ she works on is that of windows and rooms, which reflect both the self and ‘the other’.

Sanna Karlström (born 1975) published her first volume Taivaan mittakaava last spring. In November she was awarded the Helsingin Sanomat Literary Prize for the best first work of 2004.

The relation of the ‘I’ of the poems to another person is often questioned – and often considered post-obit, through separation and absence. The persona is carrying on a one-sided dialogue with a chess master, an architect, or her mother, who don’t seem to reply. Her closest people are only present as phantoms of a sort, disturbances, vibrations. The writing signals an absence, the afterimage of someone’s presence. All these severances may well be creating the vague sorrow that colours the poems, suggesting the painful break-up of first human relationships and isolation. Maybe that too is the source of the persona’s fragility and susceptibility; she even feels she may not exist.

The title of the collection is a link to another of the book’s structural themes: the measuring of the measureless, and mankind’s aspiration to engineer and control his environment. This emerges in the ‘architect’ sequence, for instance: ‘today he’s been holding fields / between his thumb and forefinger / says they’re windy and misty places’. In controlling the world, the architect even resembles God: his words and lines cause blocks of flats to rise, and he ‘seamlessly unites night and day’. Mankind’s aspirations may leave huge evidence of its existence on the world, but the last word remains with man’s insignificance – and his most important trace: the one that can only be left on another human being. It’s indicative that when the persona hugs the architect, ‘he leaves a trace on me much smaller than himself’.

One may, in fact, read in Karlström’s poems a pursuit of completeness, and a critique of rectilinearity and excessive planning. Organising the sky is impossible, and certainly not desirable. Alongside the architect’s great landmarks and pillars Karlström erects man’s insignificance and transience, ‘a scarf fluttering in the wind’. That may be the most important trace scribbled on the mind of Karlström’s reader: a fragile and piercing representation of the transience of our presence – an important reason for the poetry’s value.


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