Hamlet in blue velvet

22 January 2010 | Fiction, poetry

Physical, mythical, sensual, playful: Sirkka Turkka’s poems, never abstract, speak of life, death, dogs, horses, nature and humans. In her universe the humorous and the grave socialise without effort. These texts, in prose form, with Hamlet as one of the characters, are often set in a wintry landscape (see Nature girl)

Poems from Yö aukeaa kuin vilja (‘The night opens like corn’, Tammi, 1978)

Of his early childhood, Hamlet really only remembered his father’s slightly crooked and gnarled index finger, pointing at the lowest branch of a holly oak. A small owl sat on it. It can’t see anything, it’s asleep now. It won’t fly off until night. These were the only words Hamlet remembered his father saying to him during the first six years of his life. Later, all he saw of his father was his back, bent over in study of agricultural conditions in a village called Jawohl or of waterside traffic on the river Vistula at the turn of a particular century. When it came to governmental matters, the king placed his trust chiefly in his unconscious and in wheat bread, thick white slices of which he devoured from the moment he awoke.

On long, silent winter days, when his father immersed himself in additional studies or demonstrations of learning, Hamlet would shut himself up in his room in order to rewrite history. He colonised countries and swapped their locations. At one stage he even thought of making the sun rise in the West and America encounter Columbus, but he restrained himself. He decided to forget certain dates completely; others, he turned upside down. He made Napoleon beat Blücher at Waterloo, and, lengthily and earnestly, he researched mercantilism from an eel’s point of view. He proved the part fescue grass had, via a certain hen and the protein and vitamins it produced, in ensuring Alfred Nobel’s name was inscribed in the annals of history. After that, he was inspired to praise the character of fescue grass, how it was humbly passed from field to dunghill by hand, like a string bag. He spiced up his history by means of short tales, like that of a certain female personage in St Petersburg who happened to peer into the secrets of Russian cuisine, which were then transported to Denmark in her apron pocket.

The Danish winter cannot be compared to anything, except perhaps the English one. It is a vast, icy baton that travels through fog, and the fog is so thick that you could cut it into pieces and store it on cellar shelves. In autumn, when the morning mist became dense and fell, splashing, on to the leaves of the trees and the ground, when the sunlight was pure honey, and leaves hopped like sparrows on the earth, the king began to manifest ever increasing symptoms of irritation. Trigeminal-nerve problems attacked the left side of his face in fiery, increasingly frequent waves.

Although he was a man in his place, although he had a hoof in his heart, his trousers began to hang regressively in the winter months, his ice-blue eyes to fade into colourlessness, like old blotting paper. Every morsel of food brought pain, occasionally he had to get up mid-meal and bang his head against the wall. He wandered night in, night out from room to room, he scarcely glanced at the queen.

Since there seemed to be no cure, the royal family’s personal physician asked if he could drill a hole in the king’s temple and take a peek at what was really going on in there. As to the outcomes of this operation, he presented two sure-fire alternatives: definitive removal of the pain and at the least a more or less mild form of unilateral facial paralysis, or death. The king refused absolutely.

During one routine check the doctor had indeed established that a hoof had grown in the king’s heart. This had actually happened in early manhood. Madame Queen had a drop-shaped but otherwise normal heart, or so-called ‘drop heart’, and a high, narrow palate like a church’s vault, which meant that her heartbeats echoed there. When the queen opened her mouth, it sounded like she had a clock underneath her tongue.

During the turbulent years of his youth, the doctor married a Polish dancer who had refused to utter a single word to anyone for the past thirty years. So the doctor spent the best part of his time on the table at his practice, listening to the workings of his gall bladder, conversing with his pancreas and liver. In this way, he had progressed so far in his profession that he was able to say what ailed someone before he or she had even crossed the floor to shake his hand.

He was a benign person who had gone through a lot, and because he and his silence-embracing wife had not been blessed with a single heir, he loved the royals like they were his own children. The king’s roars, an electric-blue curtain, sped along the corridors to his room, they belonged to winter like Northern lights in Arctic regions.

That meant that a new morning had begun. In his room, Hamlet pulled on dark-blue velvet trousers and buttoned up his dark-blue velvet jacket. Every morning he looked in the rippling mirror, with its dim surface, and combed his ash-blond hair from the front to the side, then backwards from the sides, and the last thing he always saw on the surface of the mirror was his round, nut-brown eyes.

The queen generally got up last. She sat in her bed and with the help of a hand-mirror carried out the painful daily ritual of finding the beauty spot that had disappeared. It was her pride and her adornment, but it had a bad habit of moving of its own accord. If, in the evening, it had been on the left cheek, then the following day it could be located on the shoulder, the neck, the sole of the foot or on the other cheek.

On Sundays, and sometimes also on weekdays, the royal family, along with Polonius and Ophelia and a group of Hamlet’s friends, made riding excursions to nearby oak- and beech-woods. The queen rode a shining black pony called Paul, whose mane and tail dragged on the ground. In tall grass, the pony disappeared totally from view, and the queen looked as if she were wading up to her waist through an emerald-green sea of grass.

In general, the members of the royal family interacted with each other in a friendly and cheerful way, as tundra wolves do with other members of the pack. But on riding excursions, the king could not tolerate the sight of Hamlet and ordered the latter to remain as far behind as possible. Hamlet sat on his saddle dangling the reins, his feet sticking outwards, and stared unseeing at the landscape that opened up between the horse’s ears. The horse, for its part, played now the tired spinner-woman, deliberately stumbling, and now the flax-weeder in the field, when it stood on its knees in a ditch.

And yet the prince was five when he was first lifted on to a saddle. There he had to sit, now facing the direction of travel, now the opposite way. He had to learn how to jump on to a horse’s back from behind, using the hindquarters for support and the gambrels as a spring-board. He had to learn how to stand on the saddle during all gaits, as well as how to fall from horseback at full gallop without injury. In general, exercises had begun early in the morning, when, first of all, two bucketfuls of ice-cold water were poured over the boy. Gymnastic activities followed, with various exercises for in between. In winter, these were replaced by cycle-rides over furrowed fields that were frozen rock-hard; according to the king, this activity strengthened internal organs and improved balance.

Hamlet strode in the cold wind; it tried to tear off his short jacket, which was blotchy with wear. Wet scraps of leaves flew in the wind, along with all manner of small objects. The shore’s sand was grey and dull like a shroud. In summer, when the sea finally warmed up, the sand glowed like white-gold, it shifted and glittered and carried with it the eggs of seabirds, whole nests with chicks, heaps of reeds, dried starfish, seashells hollowly sighing, and now and then some seafarer, swollen out of recognition. Among the populace it had sometimes been rumoured that baby Moses had been washed up just here, on this coast, and not into the reeds of the Nile. The people solved the mystery of shooting stars by believing that having fallen, the stars hid under the eyelids of a drowning person, to become replacement eyes, so that those who had perished could see to walk in the kingdom of death.


Oh, sorrow. In a night-blue dressing-gown, hems adorned with heavy, silver-coloured braid, Hamlet looked more distant, ever lonelier, ever paler. He was a star hurled into space, he travelled his course without a backwards glance. The murmur of strange tongues in his ears, the everlasting flame of love in his breast. Forehead like a snowy Alpine precipice; arm, in its slenderness, like underwater coral, independent music, detached from the body.

From January to January the colonel smokes cigarettes, cigarettes by the dozen, and in between a couple of panatelas. He walks in the upstairs rooms, he wanders in them as on summer nights and listens to the snow singing in the cellars. January is made of thin paper and apples, January smiles from every nook and cranny, and the colonel smiles back. January comes, with armfuls of medals and flower-baskets, it shoes the horses and shoots the hares. One of them is ready and willing, and hangs from the wall of the cowshed, its ears like folded sheets of paper. The hares, those small forest shrubs, are bundled up and taken away and January covers January like a napkin. In January, heaven holds dances, in January boy-children and butterflies are born. In January, the organ of autumn finally falls silent and the road is trodden only by moon and dog, that old soulless fisher who has never been told where the steps are that lead to heaven. January is also a serenade to a beautiful lady whose gaze is always muddled by sleep, but the colonel doesn’t know that. He sleeps, the sleepless one, dreaming that he is finally asleep and the lump of sugar in his glass sinks through the steaming tea towards the heart of the earth. The night carries the sleepless colonel and the sugar-lump on its shoulders and through the door there comes January, along with thousands of Januaries.

In cold seasons, blue tits erupt on the branches like warm fluffy flowers. This is the village of cherry blossom and cherries, which the birds cover at intervals like a vast dark wave, whose open field the falcon guards. This is Emilia’s village, hers, who long ago was lovely and sought-after, and Emil’s, who owned the finest peony shrub in the land. And the village of mad horses and of Paul, who shod them, and Kalle and Verner, dyed-in-the-wool horsemen and dead, the pair of them. Only the ancient staff officer is missing, who would fly alongside the greenly billowing corn-field, like an iron angel with flaring trouser legs. He would be as eternal as his bicycle, and if he were Socrates or indeed anyone and cycled with a fox under the hem of his shirt, his expression not wavering, saluting, then he would ride straight into a ditch at the former co-op. Or there would be a few horses running loose and a couple of old women watering them or even a curse which would rise up from deep within the forest meadow. But all the same, work and love are forgotten, joy and sorrow. There is nothing but the gold of the evening which flows from branches into the water, the cry of the falcon and the peony, flaming sun-like. And windows that are slowly covered by the cream-coloured blossom of the honeysuckle.

A poor dog has little to give to the moon. No luggage, no lighted rooms, no compartments hidden in the heart. It has only its heart. Only a bark, long and narrow like a tunnel, released from its brown muzzle. Like a small abandoned ice-cube it echoes from shore to shore. Strange, how the heart can be carelessly left behind in bed-linen, on long, endless streets, in dust behind curtains or in a glass, like teeth. Dogs ceased talking and received in place of a mouth an inky line, but man lost his heart, his ear can no longer pick out songs from inside a tree. He  swears criss-cross on his heart, he thinks it’s a distant island, or then he looks for it in his trousers; in many, the heart looks like a bottom and vice versa. But in dogs it is where it should be: just after the muzzle, boulder-like, baby-faced and willing.

Night, and stars side by side, enormous pieces of metal swaying above the alders. Trees and endless music and a bridge, against whose railing the young poet leant his coughing frame. You can still hear his short, gasping breath above the water. His brother fell from the sky like a bird, a bomb under his arm, into the midst of flowering July. A little after that or before it his sister, roses and all, was taken away from him. But the waters do not forget her, nor does the light, nor the faithful trees. Soon he too was nothing but pallid grass, dimly visible against the light, bending and bending as the wind played the short life that was given him. He wrote of the lake and of the light lingering over the lake, of the gulf which flows from far away in the past, passing generations. The heart had to travel in its bony cage for so many days and nights before finally it was free. Yet another small mysterious poem burst from his lips as he bent down over the trees, the light, the water. A small song like grass, like flowing water, like light, which rang out, rang out.

A small pine looks out from the thicket with coal-black eyes, stones sing hymns on the hillside. A tiny angel lives inside each of us, longing for a home of its own, and loneliness enfolds us as it does the woodland creature. It cannot be taken from us, nor the creature from the forest. Everywhere fields have curled up to sleep; the ant-track, the ant, and the fragile bird-bones are sleeping against the heart of the island. Trees have the snowy faces of ancestors, and on the road where dogs walk in their wind-blasted trousers, silence eats itself like silk. I play the typewriter, appassionata, where has everyone gone? Where were you at the time of the first snow, where now, when there’s nothing but snow all around, soon we’ll descend through the ice ages towards the final darkness. I leaf through the history of soil-covered poets with sooty fingers. A humbug my pillow, I listen to the hares peeling apple-trees at night, and in the morning, in the whiteness of the earth and the sky, a green woodpecker flies like a poor man’s field.

Translated by Emily Jeremiah (with Fleur Jeremiah)


1 comment:

  1. Sarah Barnsley

    ‘Hamlet in blue velvet’ – the title alone startles and snares the reader. I was utterly enthralled with these poems from the very beginning. Sirkka Turkka’s technique is certainly ‘never abstract,’ for every phrase, clause, and sentence delivers up an intoxicating mix of sensual, quirky imagery compacted in such a cool, detached voice that it seems perfectly rational to hear AND see a roar in ‘electric-blue’ or a dog’s bark ‘long and narrow like a tunnel.’ These overwhelmingly compelling poems, finely translated by Emily Jeremiah, not only involve all the senses, they ripple right through them, compounding the visual with the auditory, the auditory with the synaesthetic. And there are lots of dogs, hearts, and trousers, too, as the boundaries of humanity blur and smudge in the most delightful, comical, indeed ecstatic way. Marvellous stuff!

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