30 June 2006 | Fiction, poetry

Poems from Yhtä juhlaa (‘It’s all a big celebration’, WSOY, 2006)

(a square metre, 3.)

Now for the-kick-of-being-the-good-mum:
after the rye porridge
after the sons washed with camomile foam
and slipped into clean sheets
with mummy singing a sweet song.
Something about shadowed snow
and how at the blue twilit-moment one can
go inwards. If you’re up to looking. All that garbage and slag:
ash from the too-small days, clotted with
non-combustible blots, even though here
the sky’s clear
and the windows open to the winds.
Good grief, here we’re making new people.
But all I’d time for
was the track from the dishcloth to the nappy bin,
and back from the children’s painting-table
to the sink. No job
for spoilt girls, this: the prissiest minx
would soon turn woman in this fix:
kids coming next after next,
years of full-time labour
in a square metre where
you make no point about peccadilloes,
because so much is at stake.
You’re no longer a rose,
pimpinella, rosabella,
but subsoil: loam
and spots of unrottable compost.
A feebler person would have reversed on
the first tantrum;
the child’s learnt to say things
and is saying things
I never thought would come.

This morning there was news
of a death, the breath of knowing
you’re next in line. The wind coughs
and lungs collapse; books on the shelves,
letters still unaddressed,
oh, household gods,
let’s have a nod or two from
the memoried past – I’ve
no time to read your messages,
no time to strive
across altering distances, those fragile thresholds,
through thick thrilling books that
once gave me my fill;
luckily there’s now the thrill
of chocolate bitter
as a page of the calendar,
and black coffee, for my heart’s sake, for my heart’s sake,
there’s this superior mop I can always
buff the bathroom spotless with,
creating one cranny of the universe that’s clean.
Snotty-cold-type burbling-on
about unsuitable topics – that
won’t send the kiddies off to sleep,
let alone their mothers, and let’s forget the lullabies:
I’ll leave the nightlight burning
and move to another dimension;
everything’s altered now, once and for all:
you don’t fall in love head over heels, you don’t
flit through a quick exit,
the anchor’s hooked below and the days so fraught
you’ve no resource in seriousness any more.


The bridge curves on high,
all-of-a-piece against the light,
and I keep pointing:
look, I’ve walked up there.
Listen, I’ve walked
over the smooth timber
staring at the moon, the clouds,
the skyline.
All was in order:
the books in my bedsit,
the city roofs,
the conversations in cafés,
the rose petals in my cup.
Sleeked in oil my hands were smooth,
no blistered palms, no dirt in the wounds,
no smarting teardrops
for moonlighting as an undertaker.

The child doesn’t believe:
I wouldn’t be up to it –
I wouldn’t squeeze through.
I did used to, I say,
I was slim, walked the quiet bridge.
Won’t tell him how I fled:
how I spread myself around
in derelict houses and railway yards,
on the splintery floors of back rooms,
in nocturnal woodland clearings,
or how I
crashed off the bridge
when I opened my mouth
and missed my footing,
had my ankle grabbed by the merman
and was trapped in burning pondweed
with marshy brown water
filling my eyes as I went under.
I shan’t tell that, and I shan’t tell either how
my papers got filthied
and the song washed off the music,
and dark blood welled up from the depths,
familiar from long ago.

A beautiful, beautiful bridge, says the child,
it curves: a ballerina’s waist,
the arc of a marble ankle,
pure white, classic,
It’s beautiful, yes that is beautiful;
crossing over the bridge
you cross the stream with dry feet,
I say, teaching him.

(Give way! 1.)

I skied through an arch of trees
into snow-forest, onto the track,
and yelled to you from far back:
‘Now I know! Penelope had given birth!’
The antique heroic journey,
the leap into the unknown,
the way down into Hades,
the miracle and the self-conquest –
Oh Odysseus, you had to rush.
I fall flat on my face in the snow,
a ski stuck in a bush,
and somewhere far away you’re flashing downhill,
far away freighted trucks are trundling along,
I’m weaving my web unhurrying,
day in day out,
and snow’s gently descending and burying me.

I’ve taken a swipe at the surface of the magic pond
with my ski pole, I’ve smashed the one-night’s ice
and the pictured images, colours
I tried to camouflage myself with.
The font’s a fouled-up kaleidoscope
with the bits rattling, and on the bottom
knowledge and truth: they’re a thread of grey and gold
I’ve got to roll into a ball I could throw
or weave into a kite’s long rope.

I’ve fingered the dust by the wall,
and now I’ve slicked my hands on
full-blooded, ripe, sticky clay;
give me a little more time to mould it;
wise old women
often take off in an odd direction,
bonneted with snow-white
they rescue pieces of porcelain,
happiness is making others feel good.

I lie awake at night and see
down to the end of the track: the snow’s melting
and the children are messing about in the mud
with bare feet, making them bird-legged,
their shoulder blades sharp,
their hair light and silky as a newborn sun.
By day we make binoculars out of toilet rolls –
here you are, you’ll see the truth with them,
but don’t get scared, it’s bald,
and, stripped off, it’s nothing at all,
till you toss it into the works
to spin round, getting crushed in the cogs:
you feed the final product to the hungry.

Don’t laugh. Many stop half way,
basking in an insight,
what would I know about that, I’m a tabula rasa,
the unread texts
vanish from me as if swept by a great sleeve
with a sneezing and a snorting;
when I ladle porridge onto the plates,
I’m ladling golden porridge.

(Give way! 2.)

It’s always worth it to take to your skis,
but I had to be this old
to know it.

You’ve always got to go to a snow-forest,
to a wet forest
and join the heather and twigs.
You’re down in a hollow, then uphill
on the way home, then home.

In the sauna you can brood over your old bones,
but people don’t age these days,
the middle years don’t start at 35
not even at 40,
in our time everyone dies young.
I’ve wrinkles on the backs of my hands,
bags under my eyes from sleepless nights,
yet my jeans are tight, and my calves,
and till the end I’ll ski, with blood in my mouth,
and yearn for the coppiced hollow
with its soft smell of willow
and the milky white bast under the wet bark,
and toting naked babies under my arms, at my breast.

The truth’s new again, step into the stream,
what made you happy yesterday
won’t today, your diaphragm’s tightening,
emptiness is gaining power
and you need a fresh backlash: ski harder,
weariness and sweat may make you aware,
a hot sauna may make you aware,
cresting a wave may make you aware
of something new, and it’s not to be
tarted up; speak out, get on the ferry,
the fluttering signpost’s pointing a new way.

Polish the draining-board, throw some herbs in the soup,
endure the emptiness, it’ll mould you anew,
like the fortune-telling hot tin
chucked in the cold-water bucket on New Year’s Eve,
or, formed by a child’s fist,
brown plasticine birds with stubby wings.

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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