Hot and cool

30 March 2008 | Authors, Reviews

The spiritual map of poetry contains many levels, and poetry happens in many decades at once.

Rakel Liehu (born 1939) published her her first poems in 1974, but she writes as freshly as any young poet of the 21st century, often about the same concomitant themes of womanhood and writing.

Liehu has the same spirit as the German dadaist Kurt Schwitters, who was a great supporter of ‘doing things differently’. There is a constant frenzy of doing things differently in her poems that reaches beyond genres. She couldn’t care less about the expectations of the times or of the mainstream. Even under threat of isolation, conventionality is anathema to her.

Helene, Liehu’s novel about the painter Helene Schjerfbeck (see Books from Finland 3/2003) won the Runeberg Prize for Literature in 2004. Bul bul (WSOY, 2007) is Liehu’s twelfth collection of poetry, the first in a decade. Her familiar ingredients, compounded of history and mythology, are safely here, but the form is different. The indented, typographically restless lines have been exchanged for longer phrasing that approaches the prose poem, and the tempo is classical, lingering. The change feels good. The separate poems, serially connected, are also more expansive than before, typically a couple of pages in length.

Liehu’s innovative collage technique is beguiling. The narrative voice of the poem is simultaneously the experiencer of the events of the poem and the creator who cuts and pastes the text. This double exposure works, it rewards the reader, who views the great panorama of history and culture, always aware of being led by the poet, within the reality of the poem.

The reality of the poem is teeming with little seven-fingered girls, talking bees, the blind who are granted sight, mystics who ‘incantate the world into a unity’. Madame Blavatsky concocts herself a past as effortlessly as Nefertiti, who is seen driving her shiny Citroën.

This is reckless poetry, not frosty or erudite but hot, personally witnessed.

The earlier Liehu, conscious of her language and her tools of expression, is present from the outset. ‘I’d spent years in language labs’, the voice of the first poem says. What follows is not merely an apology, but rather an ecstatic exhilaration at finding an expressive, natural language for the poet’s experience.

That language tolerates digressions and quick cuts to the concrete. The collage- maker shifts her sights nimbly and changes the scale as needed. Suddenly the story falls to pieces and pure nonsense emerges: ‘cinNamon and clove! saFr’. Crazy, but so logical according to this poetics.

She also addresses the reader and incites participation: ‘change the words in these poems, to make them / resemble you’, she writes. This is possible, of course, but is it useful, or altogether necessary? I think the reader does this instinctively, anyway. That’s what reading is, reading poetry generally, and Liehu’s poems in particular: not passively reading, as from a primer, but actively ‘doing things differently’.


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