Animals, thy neighbours

30 March 2005 | Authors, Reviews

Sirkka Turkka.  Photo Tomi Kontio

Sirkka Turkka. Photo Tomi Kontio

‘Everyone’s always in a hurry. In the grave it stops.’

In her new volume Sirkka Turkka (born 1939) appears as an even greater and more pitiless poet. Niin kovaa se tuuli löi (‘So bitterly the wind struck’, Tammi, 2004) – her twelfth volume, the first having being published in 1973 – is an unadorned and searching portrayal of death and the grief that accompanies it. It takes a thoroughly mature poet to handle major feelings as uninhibitedly as she does, and without letting the empathetic glow fade under the documentation.

Animals have always played an important role in Turkka’s somewhat melancholy but vital verse, with its highly individualised concrete language. In 1987 she received the Finlandia Literature Prize for her Tule takaisin, pikku Sheba (‘Come back, little Sheba’, Tammi, 1986; see Books from Finland 4/1988). Little Sheba was a small dog, one of the poet’s dearest friends. Turkka has worked as a stable manager, and horses are frequently central in her work. Domestic and farm animals are always a presence, and here they appear as tokens of the fragility of life and mortality. A hare, a horse, a dog and a lamb are among the animals whose deaths are dramatised.

It’s rare to come across a volume in so consistently minor a key. The occasions become particularly moving when one recalls that these animals have always been the poet’s companions and friends. Turkka does not use the pronoun ‘it’ when referring to them:

‘I stand on two legs, she on four, / up to the armpits, both of us, in mud. / Little angel, how can such large eyes be / in such a narrow face, not even room for / a stripe, dark eyes full of suffering.’

An ordinary farmhouse landscape is the background and counterbalances the highly charged imagery. Thus the animals are illustrative of harrowing experiences but never lose their animal vitality. Perhaps the profoundest life force is summoned by an understanding of life’s limits. There is also a very evident religious dimension. The inevitability of all living things passing away is repeatedly juxtaposed with the fate of Jesus Christ. Turkka sees the man of Nazareth as an incarnation of consolation and companionship on the road of life, not as a surrogate or a scapegoat, but a fellow-sufferer: ‘When sorrow came and furrowed your face, / Jesus came to the door, oh those eyes, that / strange man transported to bliss, oh that gruelling sympathy.’

It may seem something of a boneyard, but Niin kovaa se tuuli löi is nevertheless, beyond doubt, one of the year’s best volumes. And if I focus carefully, I can see, a glimpse of light amongst all the grief, in the form of a simple exhortation: ‘Is there hope any more, none if / you don’t hope.’

This is an edited version of an article published in the literary magazine Parnasso 5/2004


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