Air, blue and gold

16 January 2014 | Fiction, poetry

Poems. Introduction by Tuula Hökkä

The arch bridge

From Ylitse vuoren lasisen (‘Over the glass mountain’, 1949)

And God said: to others I’ll give other tasks, but the task I’ll give to you
is to make a curving bridge, my child, with an arch that’s round and true.
For everywhere around the earth human beings are laden with gloom,
and they’ll come to cross an arching bridge in their anguish and their doom.
Make a bridge that spans the precipice, a bridge over the abyss,
one that shines to my glory with radiance, sparkling like this.
I said: They will come with heavy boots, and heels caked with clay –
how can my bridge withstand their weight, yet also shine this way,
not tarnish or break apart as their crowding presence nears?
And God said: well, it can only be done by means of blood and tears.
Your heart is stronger than mountain rock, the ore that’s buried there –
Put a piece of it into the bridge support, and you’ll get the bridge to bear.
Add a piece of the hearts of those you love, and I know they won’t condemn,
but will surely grant you forgiveness if you make a bridge for them.
Make a bridge to the glory of God, my child, make a bridge with arching light
that will span the depths and shine for ever, with radiance sparkling bright.
Don’t lock the sorrow out of your heart as the bridge you make appears.
Nothing gleams more beautifully than the brilliance of pure tears.


From Yhdeksän kaupunkia (‘The nine cities’, 1958)

My lambs grew in the mountain meadow,
my lambs drank the water of springs.
I did not envy anyone
and did not shrink from anyone.
I dyed the pale wool of my ewes
with purple of Tyre, with blue of herbs.
To the pillars of the West I fastened the cloth,
stretched my warp
across the arching vault of the sky.
When I struck my reed, the Pleiades rang,
Orion’s dog barked,
in the thicket rustled
Leo and Capricorn.

But you, Destructress,
why have you shattered my loom?
You have broken my warp, I do not recognise my rags.
Remove, remove
these spider’s webs,
this sad cobweb
that unwinds and runs
only from I to I
and that the Messenger
mockingly dyes
with purple of Tyre, with blue of herbs –!
Give me back
my lofty loom,
I will make you a picture, a true picture,
of what in vain
the Chaldeans spied from their towers.

The fox climbs a wooded mountain

From Maailmanteatteri (‘The theatre of the world’, 1961)

In the heart’s naiveté (but we lose it)
 up a wooded slope the fox climbs
 fiery red amid deep green
 and the fox is immense
                     the mountain tiny
 if he wanted to he could leap across
 and the fir tree spreads its sparse branches
 making the number of needles clearly visible
 like a film developed in a darkroom
 the ravine ascends to the clouds the slope sinks
 and the mountain is immense
                    the fox tiny
 when the forest turns black the trees are numberless.

Ballad of the importance of poetry

From Balladeja ja romansseja (‘Ballads and romances’, 1967)

One or two poor musicians,
 one or two wanderers,
 what power could we ever have,
 who’d be afraid of us? 
                    The reed, the brown reed.
We shall play in the market,
 and when our reed pipes wail,
 everyone will laugh
 and the King will turn pale.
                     The reed, the brown reed.
What use will be the black walls,
 the sentries at the door,
 what use the muskets and the spikes,
 the orders stern and dour?
                     The reed, the brown reed.
The King hid his secret,
 put a helmet on his head,
 and the castle’s poor barbers
 because of that lay dead.
                     The reed, the brown reed.
To keep his life one promised
 never to say a word,
 only once on the sandy shore
 he dared to make it heard.
                     The reed, the brown reed.
But from the sand the reed grew,
 and the reed moaned and sighed.
 And now every reed pipe
 tells that secret far and wide.
                     The reed, the brown reed.
What use will be the black walls
 the sentries at the door,
 what use the muskets and the spikes,
 the orders stern and dour?
                     The reed, the brown reed.
For now every city
 and every village hears
 the King's hidden secret,
 the King’s ass’s ears.
                     The reed, the brown reed.

Ballad of the miller’s son

From Pidä rastaan laulusta kiinni (‘Hold on to the thrush’s song’, 1969)

Whatever is too wretched
at first brings no grief at all.
On the knoll the mill is empty,
its sails rise and fall.
Wings in the wind teeter,
an empty, whishing sound,
stepping over and over
the empty steps go round.

I had boots, a hat with a feather,
my only hat I twirled,
when with my cat I wandered
into the big wide world,
I had boots and a hat with a feather,
thought money would amass.
Whose are these spacious wheatlands?
The Marquis of Carabas.

I had boots, a hat with a feather,
but the boots they soon wore out,
and my cat died of hunger,
hard times, without a doubt.
The wind blew off my feather,
and my hat, too, fled in the blast,
until on the head of a scarecrow
I planted it at last.

The airy castles shattered,
I forgot the princesses there.
the grass was burnt and shriveled,
the forest’s trees lay bare.
To the knoll I am returning,
I can see the desolate land.
The mills grind slowly onward,
large and silent they stand.

Sails in the wind, teetering,
continue their rise and fall.
Whatever is too wretched
doesn’t make one grieve at all.

I don’t know if you’re there

From Vihreys (‘Verdancy’, 1979)

I don’t know if you’re there,
maybe you are not.
Like plants and animals
we decay and rot
and perhaps the soul
is evanescent, bright,
like Alchemilla gleaming
in morning’s radiant light.

And then to you I talk,
the way I used to do,
when night arrives I climb
the high tower to you,
the ladder made of silk,
the winding stair of dreams,
where lovers have no weight,
and all’s not what it seems.

Bowed over a book
a dark, familiar head,
the air is blue and gold,
the breeze a gentle thread.
You raise your head and smile,
your reading you forgot,
and yet I do not know
if you are there or not.

Translated by David McDuff


No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment