Indebted to the centuries

Issue 3/2007 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Poems from Jouni Inkala’s Minuutin ja sen puolikkaan laajenevassa universumissa. Valitut runot 1992–2007 (‘In a minute and its half’s expanding universe’, WSOY, 2007)

Tail references

Mice don’t know that in the case of a human being
the death of a dear one may paralyse
a person’s capacity for years and years.

But in two things they’re more experienced than we.
They understand they’re in constant mortal danger.
That the trap is swift and silent.
That poison is a tear of awareness rising from the heart.

They also realise that in a cat’s claws they fly
like jackknives in the hands of a knife thrower.
And that when the audience finally gets round
to wakening up their hand~ in a rising storm of applause,
they won’t be distinguishable from the arena spotlights
or the ringmaster’s tails.

After their full term of service the mice pass out
from this time to the other side, and there see a miracle:
the sun’s heart beating six hundred times a minute.

                            In Helsinki, recalling
                            the Pinder Circus

A seminar paper

A.D.     Saw artificial light for the first time.
 ´´        Realised that a human being can freeze, being almost entirely water.
 ´´        Felt sorrow.
 ´´        Touched pain.
 ´´        Lost what can only be lost once.
 ´´        Fought at high school in the mass graves of foreign languages, history and psychology.
 ´´        Wounded, took to art school where stepped on a proof mine.
 ´´        Saw deeply into things for the first time.
 ´´        Returned changed from London.
 ´´        Realised that a cloth will be unravelled in the dark of night because a Greek woman 
           is continually begging Hypnos to have intercourse with her in its softness.
 ´´        Got invited with soul for the first time.
 ´´        Still stood there.
 ´´        On the first of May passed out on Cleopatra's neck as a perfume and also on Dido’s lips 
           as the rim of the goblet.
 ´´        Bid farewell to the century of birth.
 ´´        Had to take a look at the wing feathers for the first time.
 ´´        Decided to take a closer look.

An email to the virus

Do you really want the future Nobel Prize -winning novel
to be destroyed in Paris’s cinquième arrondissement.
Do you want the patient records of the Central Hospital’s
new Maternity Ward to be destroyed.
Are you hoping to see half the Pensioner Club’s money
flop into the illegal porn industry’s coffers
on the Cayman Islands.

Do you rejoice when you hear you’ve ruined
the Olympics result service, when you see
the hot-weather marathon-winner’s
medal denied him.
Perhaps it gives you delight that a message
that would have saved a marriage didn’t take off
because you’d held it up.

What about an attack on a big city’s electricity supply,
the panic in the trams and the underground.
What about the crash of a passenger plane
through failing controls, doesn’t even that move you.
Not even if you yourself happened to be
sitting in first class.

Are you afraid I’ll visit you in the manner of
Virgil, Beatrice or Dante.

You don’t reply. You don’t have
the courage to reply.
You can’t even spit out


Along my chin ploughs a trace of my forefathers’ ploughshare,
and in my eye-corner my grandmother’s hand is chopping firewood.
I exist, but only because my grandparents’ parents
weren’t daunted even when a hard frost
wiped out the whole of the Mid-Ostrobothnian crop,
in the way sleeping Rome was torched by lust.
The red cells in my veins are deeply indebted
to the centuries that hold us up for display
like a stand supporting a silent framed family photograph.
I weight-lift with my biceps
because no bread ever missed being taken out of grandmother’s oven
at precisely the right moment. Because no child was left
to die on the mountainside in the Spartan manner.
With contented steps I can head for the service station
because my granddad’s granddad was once able
to save the household’s only cow from mastitis.
Everything in me is a contagious debt
and my heart has nothing to pay it with,
since the echoes of its pulse cannot go backwards.

A group portrait of sentences

I now know the difficulties Leonardo and Rafael
          faced in front of every painting. I write a letter
with a tongue that doesn't stay in my mouth. I understand
the colour pigments of words, the importance of shading.
          New thick coats of paint. I realise how easily I sound like
an inspector standing in the middle of
a handsome country house's forecourt. And not even one of the
                                         EU inspectors, at that.
          I try to hide my meagre skills
in the fantastic shooting stars of the adjective family,
which dash black momentary slashes across the white
          notepaper. I try to think that the words I find
understand, though stifling their yawns, it's true,
why they're not allowed to shine in a finer
          landscape than this. And I summon up a hope they'll
not step on each others' feet too badlyin the coming group photograph. As I seal the envelope
          it's like the Pilgrims' Door drawn shut by the Pope
in the heart of the Vatican once every fifty years.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

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