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The light itself

Issue 1/2008 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

What should you do when writer’s block strikes? Lie down and wait for inspiration to return, Petri Tamminen suggests

All autobiographical depictions of writer’s block are fundamentally flawed and false. If you happen to be suffering from writer’s block, these accounts make for painful reading.

The wittier, more carefully crafted and closely observed an account the writer gives of his affliction, the more gut-wrenching it feels. It’s like treading water and preparing to drown and having to listen to someone in dry clothes standing on the deck of a ship recalling a close call he had back in the seventies.

On the other hand, when you’re suffering from writer’s block everything annoys you. Good books seem overwhelmingly good, so much so that you realise you can never achieve that level of greatness. Similarly, bad books seem so overwhelmingly bad that you wonder why anyone bothers reading books and realise that it’s pointless trying to write one. More…

Mothers and sons

Issue 1/2008 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from Helvi Hämäläinen’s novel Raakileet (‘Unripe’, 1950. WSOY, 2007)

In front of the house grew a large old elm and a maple. The crown of the elm had been destroyed in the bombing and there was a large split in the trunk, revealing the grey, rotting wood. But every spring strong, verdant foliage sprouted from the thick trunk and branches; the tree lived its own powerful life. Its roots penetrated under the cement of the grey pavement and found rich soil; they wound their way under the pavement like strong, dark brown forearms. Cars rumbled over them, people walked, children played. On the cement of the pavement the brightly coloured litter of sweet papers, cigarette stubs and apple cores played; in the gutter or even in the street a pale rubber prophylactic might flourish, thrown from some window or dropped by some careless passer-by.

The sky arched blue over the six-and seven-storey buildings; in the evenings a glimmer could be seen at its edges, the reflection of the lights of the city. A group of large stone buildings, streets filled with vehicles, a small area filled with four hundred thousand people, an area in which they were born, died, owned something, earned their daily bread: the city – it lived, breathed….

Six springs had passed since the war…. Ilmari’s eyes gleamed yellow as a snake’s back, he took a dance step or two and bent over Kauko, pretending to stab him with a knife. More…

No place to go

Issue 1/2008 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Lakanasiivet (‘Linen wings’, Otava, 2007)

The clothesline swayed in the wind. Helvi closed her eyes and felt herself flutter into the air with the laundry. She flapped her white linen wings, straining higher, now seeing below the whole small peninsula city, its damp rooftops glittering in the morning sun, the blue sighs of the chimneys, the steamboats toiling on the lake and the trains chugging on their tracks. The whole of heaven was clear and blue; only far off in the east were there white pillars roiling – whether smoke or clouds, Helvi could not tell.

She flew north on her linen wings and saw the great bridges leading to the city, on whose flanks the hidden anti-aircraft batteries gasped the fumes of gun oil and iron, and continued her journey over the land, following the straight lines of the telephone wires. She flew over wooded hills and deep green fields, finally arriving on the slope of the great hill where her daughter now lived, in hiding from the war. More…

No country for young men

Issue 1/2008 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

When men go off to war, women must do their best to take their place at home. Lauri Sihvonen examines two fictional accounts – written in 1950 and 2007 – of women in the Second World War and its aftermath

When the Continuation War broke out in June 1941, Finland was in dire need of strength to fight the Soviet Union. Field Marshal and commanderin-chief of the armed forces Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim wrote to the Finns in an order of the day as follows:

‘I call upon you to embark with me upon a holy war against the enemy of our nation. The fallen heroes [of the Winter War, 1939–1940] will rise again from beneath the summer hillocks to stand beside us this day, as we set out on this crusade against our enemies, firm in our purpose to ensure the future of Finland, with the glorious military might of Germany at our side and as our brothers in arms.’

Sirpa Kähkönen (born in Kuopio in 1964) has taken this wild bit of zombie fiction as the basis for her new novel; Mannerheim gets exactly what he ordered.

Lakanasiivet (‘Linen wings’, Otava), the fourth independent instalment in Kähkönen’s novel series, tells of Kuopio on 1 July 1941. This was the only day on which this largest city in northern Savo, 400 kilometres northeast of Helsinki, was bombed during the Continuation War (1941–1944). More…

The search goes on

Issue 4/2007 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

The Finlandia Prize-winning author Kjell Westö recalls his literary adolescence, and the moment ­– of a dark January night – when he stopped worrying about writer’s block and began to write

When I was in my twenties, my urge to write was very strong. I was driven, almost consumed, by this ever-present zeal, which tore me apart nearly as inexorably and effectively as love did. But I wrote precious little. Now, some twenty years later, I have a general idea about the traps I so unknowingly walked into. More…

Word and non-word

Issue 4/2007 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

For the poet Gunnar Björling (1887–1960), writing was experence, not complete, finished thought. One of his contemporaries, the writer Hagar Olsson, said: ‘Björling doesn’t write Swedish, far from it, he simply writes Björlingian.’ Trygve Söderling introduces the world of his poems, translated into English by Fredrik Hertzberg

Strange tensions and fields of energy exist between words. In the work of the Finland-Swedish modernist poet Gunnar Björling (1887–1960), with its separation of the barriers between them and its re-creation of grammar, the magnetism of words, their attraction and yearning for one another, becomes visible. More…

It takes a life to say

Issue 4/2007 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Poems, published in You go the words (Action Books, Scandinavian Series, Indiana,  2007). Introduction by Trygve Söderling


We go and search
and we wander
we go and search
it is not in the words

it is not words
words not
but of a nothing
o your day


You go the
and where,
where you, it was
I know not and
that to your ear
and with the eye
just with finger


And spread out
the earth, rose
As a moment
burst from the breast

To only
that and we have
o that in you
it lives
through the room


The song
Hear me no more
in spaces captured
the song
the worldall songs
and worldsongs
in spaces captured
the song


One time
but not some one truly
and no one knows

I have a name
and name have
it only
o that one


a longing
and oflight
and on your
and in eye’s
like tights hut
and oflight
and on your
A longing
and of light


A morning’s
or that
that in everything
a memory, hope
or presence
leaf air, as everything
and everything – as
something or
as in forgotness play
and day turnedto


Words are words
and things are in my room

But word’s image
image and word and to word

Alas stay not
delay not, remember not:
it is no more It is


Fly out, my day
fly, fly day to meet
fly, fly, you the wretched's
                 their, everyone's
in all times
               peace and day
on ground's floor
               floor ground
o you
               in man's name


like a flame’s
day’s snow melt
in golden a black
– this beforemaydaycoolness


Dog bolts happy
boy mountainclimbs
day over earth
earth’s light and autumn


  And to not speak more
   it takes a life to say
  but –
   as the everyday moment
O no beauty But your light
  – a smile
   what and to know


And allthesame
and allthesame
the wordlight

The white day
and like facial
hand and ease eye’s featuers



Vi går och söker
och vi vandrar
vi går och söker
det är ej i orden

det är ej ord
ord ej
men av ett intet
o din dag


Du går de
och var
var du, det var
jag vet ej och
att till ditt öra
och med ögat
blott med finger


Och bredd ut
och jord, steg
Som en stund
sprängd ur bröstet

Att endast
det och vi har
o att i dej
det bor
genom rummet


Hör mig ej mer
i rymderna fången
världsalltet sånger
och världssångerna
i rymderna fången


En gång
men ej någon riktigt
och ej någon vet

Jag har ett namn
och namn har
det blott
o att ett


en längtan
och av ljus
och på din
och i ögas
likt tillslutet
och av ljus
och på din
En längtan
och av ljus


En morgons
eller att
att i allt
ett mine, hopp
eller närvaro
löv luft, som allt
och allt – som
något eller
som i glömdhet lek
och dag tillvänd


Ord är ord
och ting står i mitt rum

Men ords bild
bild och ord och till ord

Ack stanna ej
dröj ej kvar, ej minnes:
det är ej mer Det är


Flyg ut, min dag
flyg, flyg dag till möte
flyg, flyg, du de armas
                  deras, allas
i alla tider
                lugn och dag
på marks golv
                golv mark
o du
                i människans namn


som en flammas
dags snö smält
i gyllen ett svart
– denna föremajdagssvalka


Hund skenar glad
pojke bergsklättrar
dag över jord
jords ljus och höst


  Och att ej tala mer
  det tar ett liv att säga
  men –
  som vardagens stund
O ingen skönhet Men ditt ljus
  – ett leende
  vad och att veta


Och alltjämt
och alltjämt
det ordljus

Den vita dag
och som ansikts
hand och lätta ögats drag


Translated by Fredrik Hertzberg

Hearth, home – and writing

Issue 4/2007 | Archives online, Extracts, Non-fiction

Extracts from Fredrika Runeberg’s Min pennas saga, (‘The story of my pen’, ca. 1869–1877). Introduction by Merete Mazzarella

The joy and happiness I experience at being able to see into [her husband] Runeberg’s soul, at living with him in his heart and his thoughts, belong far too firmly to the mysteries of my soul that I should wish to attempt to express them in words. But of the life that existed around us I should like to try and give an impression of sorts.

We moved to Borgå in 1837. I was unfamiliar with the town and knew only a little old lady, weak with age, and found myself very lonely indeed, accustomed as I was to living with relatives and a genial circle of friends. I did, however, still have my two eldest sons at home to keep me happy and occupied. More…

A womanly pursuit

Issue 4/2007 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Fredrika Runeberg

Fredrika Runeberg. Photo: Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland

The wife of the national poet was not herself expected to write – quite the reverse, in fact. But, says Merete Mazzarella, Fredrika Runeberg (1804–1877) did

She was married to the national poet.

What is a national poet? Someone who is hugely admired in his own time, who helps to forge a national identity, who appears to bear the responsibility for the future of his people on his shoulders. Young nations like Finland – before 1809 a part of Sweden, from 1809 to 1917 an autonomous Grand Duchy under the Russian tsar – need national poets; old nations – like Sweden or Denmark – do not. A national poet is a father figure, thus almost inevitably a man.

Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804–1877) was to become the national poet of Finland; a journalist, teacher and writer. The first poem from his collection of epic poems, Fänrik Ståls sägner (‘The tales of Ensign Stål’, 1848–60), became the national anthem. Since he was Swedish-speaking – as was the whole of the educated class at that time – we have an interesting paradox: his concept of the Finnish national character was actually created in Swedish. More…

Heroes and villains of One and Twenty

Issue 3/2007 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

In his epic poem Kaksikymmentä ja yksi (One and Twenty, 1974) the poet Paavo Haavikko combines the imaginary ancient heroes of the national epic, the Kalevala, and the violent history of early second-millennium Byzantium, interpreting the mythical Sampo – a magical wealth-bringing device – of the Kalevala as the mint of the Byzantine empire. The American poet and critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis takes an outsider’s look at this metaphysical, capricious poetic chronicle

One and Twenty by Paavo Haavikko tells of a band of Northland adventurers who sail into the Black Sea to Byzantium via Russian lakes and portages and then return north. We do not know where the band of Twenty-One comes from precisely (are they from ‘Finland’ or from ‘Russia’)? We know only that their adventures propel them over a wide territory, from Novgorod to Byzantium. They are like nomadic mercenaries, and they witness a number of city-state and imperial power struggles in the 11th–13th centuries, well before the nation state consolidations of modernity that might call forth the idealising hero-creation of particular ‘national’ epics. More…

One and twenty

Issue 3/2007 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

(Extracts from the epic poem Kaksikymmentä ja yksi, Otava, 1974)

[Canto I]

Twenty-one and a sail, days and nights.
              Nights, they sleep. Days, they row, days and days up the Nevá,
they row, stop at night, pull the vessel with ten pairs of oars
              across the bare water,
from the Nevá to the Roiling Waves, from the Roiling Waves
              up to Novgorod, from Novgorod to the headwaters,
                        and from there across the isthmus,
over round logs, running the last log up to the prow, they pull,
they row, they descend, they pull, they sail toward Pohja,
               the Southland.
Twenty-one and a sail, days and nights,
              nights, they sleep, they row, day and night, up the Nevá.
The rower turns into arms, the arms turn into palms,
              the palms turn into oars, the oars turn into the river, the river runs.
Night changes to day, day changes to autumn, autumn to wind,
              the wind turns into a sail,
as one single bird ten pairs of oars pairs of wings fly upriver,
              across the isthmus, all night without stopping
they pull, they float the vessel, they keep going
              toward the Southland.
And South is the name of a slave.
They stand in the Southland's yard.
              Bent, Bent, Nightbird, Big Toe, Crow's Son, Cuckoo's Son,
Väinö's Son, Dead Man’s Son, Whitefish, Black Dick
              Man’s Wood, Broom, Lover Boy, Pumpkin,
Water Cloak, Fishless, Stocking Foot, Fist, Mast and Fishery.
              Bent and Bent are twins, their father is also a Bent,
                      Bent the Guardian of the Spears.



Issue 3/2007 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

The poet Jouni Inkala finds the words-to-be of his slowly forming poems unbribable

My little fingertip, the size of
a crocodile brain, and a turpentine-taste
on my palate monitor this moment
on the unoxygenated
planet of weariness.
One will be baptised – spray paint
suddenly swishing its message
in my brains – as often in my life,
with something darker than water
freezing in the font, and I'll recall
it's actually a donkey's-years-old
message from my own stanzas.  More...

On life and death

Issue 3/2007 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Jouni Inkala’s selected poems are subtitled Minuutin ja sen puolikkaan laajenevassa universumissa, meaning ‘In a minute and its half’s expanding universe’ (WSOY, 2007). It blends the poems’ studious precision with a dash of poetic freedom, open wonder before ultimate questions. Inkala’s eternal themes are in fact existential: the passage of time and the question of death preoccupy the persona.

But let’s be clear about this: Inkala’s poems are not without mischief and dark humour. ‘Tail references’ is a trope of humanity and mice. ‘In two things they’re [mice] more experienced than we. / They understand they’re in constant mortal danger. / That the trap is swift and silent.’ The current condition humana, with all its peculiarities, has generated much of his poetry. Sometimes a mythical reading is implied, a comtemporary, less ‘poetical’ occasion given a mythical dimension. ‘Only several thousands years after her friend / did a woman leap down from a fourth-floor balcony.’ (‘Ikaros in Helsinki’) More…

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


Telling the tale

Issue 2/2007 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

Half of the art of writing lies in not telling the reader everything, writes Kaari Utrio, historian and writer of historical fiction

Fantasy is a curse to science but the lifeblood of literature. The combination of these two opposing factors lies at the core of my work. In the expression, ‘historical novel’, the emphasis is on the word ‘novel’. To me a novel is a story, and I am a storyteller. This is an important basic definition for the genre of literature I write. More…