Words like songs

17 May 2010 | Fiction, poetry

The Finnish poet Helvi Juvonen (1919–1959) often studies small things: moles, lichen, bees and dwarf trees; she ‘doesn’t often dare to look at the clouds’. But small is beautiful; her nature poems and fairy-tales mix humility and the celebration of life. Commentary by Emily Jeremiah

Cup lichen

Luke 17:21

The lichen raised its fragile cup,
and rain filled it, and in the drop
the sky glittered, holding back the wind.

The lichen raised its fragile cup:
Now let’s toast the richness of our lives.

From Pohjajäätä [‘Ground-ice’], 1952)

A strange tapir

In Borneo, in Borneo,
in the forest dense and lush
there sleeps a stone
of reddish hue
content, ablush,
concealed, a-hush.

A strange tapir
(the bi-coloured one)
a wondrous tapir
(the many-toed one)
circles the tree, goes round and about,
a small word hangs from the tip of his snout.
Thus speaks the odd tapir
(the bi-coloured one):

I know that you are there
content and ablush,
I know that you are there
stone of reddish hue.
You are round, you are red,
like the fairy tale said.
No snout gets crushed
by a sleeping stone
of reddish hue,
content, ablush,
concealed, a-hush.
In the forest dense and lush
in Borneo, in Borneo.

The tightrope walker

Two summits rose up above the dark.
Between them,
taut as a bow’s arc
the walker’s rope is strung.
If you look into the dark, dizziness strikes.
You need to have brains of ice.

I see the summits, both ablaze.
Back and forth, back and forth!

(From Kuningas Kultatakki [‘King Goldcoat’], 1950]

A new game

Phenomena and circumstances toyed with me,
and so I said to them:
You have become really dull.
Now I will start to toy with things myself,
and when I grow weary,
I will go away.

I will find a new habitat.
God the Father asks me thoughtfully:
Where should I put you,
you who have been capable
of neither goodness nor badness.
Then I will say it to Him,
then I will say it:
Let’s play that new game now,
the one in which we are happy
and everywhere.


My joy is made of ground-ice.
It does not melt.
A vein of water runs deep,
the spring shimmers
over my silver ice
clear as glass.

You see my ice.
Do not touch.
After all it is cold,
spring water.

You see a human face,
you see your own,
a good face.

In this life

I tell of an enduring summer,
streams that do not run out,
trees that do not shed their leaves,
land on which grass does not wilt.

In that land, the land of which I sing,
ravens fly, bringing food.
In that land, the land of which I sing,
there is always a hand for a human hand.

My friends, the chosen few,
I’m telling you
of truth’s enduring summer.

From Pohjajäätä [‘Ground-ice’], 1952)

The forest

Night swallowed day.
The forest was extinguished then.
Its green blackened,
and the empty paths
carried the day’s footprints
in their dreams
taking stopped time
into the morning.
But the wind got there first,
sounds rose.
The sleepy forest awoke,
not to sight,
not to light, to listen to itself
it ignited:
branches voiced their being,
treetops swished, leaves travelled,
not by means of tracks,
they moved only through sounds
from place to place
in the green of the shade,
hearing that which is truest
without the day.


In the morning, heaven’s weeping was visible:
its tear gleamed in the folds of leaves
like deepest pity,
which the day burns
when it begins a merciless heat,
a road through time.
The leaves twist and turn
and curl up with pain
when dust rains down
on the long road at whose end
evening’s sympathy is unchanging.

A fairy tale

A fairy tale is going round the forest:
A goblin child walks, a green scarf on her head,
and a harebell tinkles, a silver jingle.
At the places she touches with her hand, the grass revives,
the troll folk go into hiding  behind a tree stump.

A fairy tale is going round the forest in the guise of a goblin
the haircap moss is dewy and the hay is fragrant,
the white clover gives enough
nectar and gold-dust to the bumblebee.
The goblin eats nectar-bread and shares her joy
with the bumblebee.

Singing kettle

Singing kettle,
today you warmed my hand;
it was rigid from sleep,
numbed by morning.
Singing kettle,
why would a man
fail to meet amicably
the shape of a thing.

(From Päivästä päivään [‘From day to day’], 1954)

The mole sleeps,
spade-paw, velvet-fur
dreaming a dream, darkly soft

I would still give you
some small, dainty, green autumn poems
did you hear how the words
they were all like songs
each one sang one leaf
one leaf
as autumn blustered

(From Sanantuoja [‘The messenger’, posthumous, 1959. The last poem was dictated on 29 September, 1959. Helvi Juvonen died on 1st October.)

Little Bear’s winter dreams

‘Bon bons, bon bons.’ Little Bear inhaled air. ‘Bon bons, bon bons’. She dreamed of small suns and red spruce-cones. A bird had imprinted many small characters on the white snow, surely good and joyful, for they glittered like spring at the edges of the snowflakes.

When the sun returned, they would surely be living fairy tales in the forest. Until then, the forest was ruled by the bob-tailed, heavy-jowled Lynx Cat.

‘These are my own Northern Lights,’ Lynx Cat shrieked, arching her back. Then the whole of her fur crackled with multi-coloured sparks. ‘These are my own Northern Lights,’ Lynx Cat shrieked a second time and spat, for nobody in the forest was arguing.

‘Bon bons,’ Little Bear merely inhaled air.

Lynx Cat jumped off the tree and walked on the snow. Her paws imprinted round characters in the snow. Then the white witch came, pure gleaming white.

‘It’s time to rest now,’ she said and laughed. A playful whirlwind came directly and shook snow off the branches of many spruces.

‘Red cones, bon bons,’ Little Bear dreamed. Small suns shining quite golden on her fur. The same instant, her tummy started itching. She scratched her tummy and thought it was spring. ‘Bumblebees,’ she mumbled, ‘bumblebees are small bears who have been given wings. They eat honey drops. Honey drops are small, golden suns. They warm up your tummy. Bon bons, bon bons, I’ll lie this way round,’ Little Bear murmured, turning over at once. Then she began to snore and went on snoring till spring.

The snow melted and the bird sang: ‘Spring! Spring’s here!’

‘Spring,’ said the green goblin wife, who walked round the forest carrying a bunch of flowers to see if everything was all right.

‘Spring,’ Lynx Cat shrieked and snatched some cat’s-foot from the goblin wife’s hand with one of her sharp claws.

‘Spring,’ Little Bear yawned. The goblin wife had thrown bear’s-garlic at her and she realised she was squinting at the sun.

‘Yes, spring, isn’t it something of a miracle,’ the green goblin wife laughed, and in her laughter rang the harebells of all summers, small hare’s-foot stretched out and blackberries ripened. Lynx Cat laughed so hard that her beard trembled.

But Little Bear stared, matted and bemused, for her wits had been left under the cover of the forest. ‘Bon bons,’ she said and slapped herself, and then all was well.


In November, the soul in a human being curls up to sleep for the winter and has nightmares, in the meantime, the joyless body does what it can during the short grey days. But just think: in early April someone will find the first blue anemone of the spring. Is that not wonderful? To find a blue anemone after all that winter. Does it seem incredible to you, too. And the sea has melted. Soon you can have a bunch of flowers. Wildflowers, which you can take to someone as a sign of spring, if you have anyone to take them to.

(From Pikku Karhun talviunet [‘Little Bear’s winter dreams’, 1974; fragments and fairy-tales, collected and edited by Mirkka Rekola. Little Bear is Juvonen’s  fairy-tale self-portrait.)

Translated by Emily Jeremiah & Fleur Jeremiah


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  1. In praise of lichen « African Alchemy

    […] new discovery, the poems of Finnish poet Helvi Juvonen […]
    The lichen raised its fragile cup, and rain filled it, and in the drop the sky glittered, holding back the wind.The lichen raised its fragile cup, and rain filled it, and in the drop the sky glittered, holding back the wind.

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