February 22, 2013

Finnish Women Poets

Because my grandparents immigrated from Finland, and the language of Finnish was lost in me, I often wondered about the poets and writers of that country.  Thinking perhaps that their work was also part of my literary heritage, I searched for their work and found that yes, there was a common root.  This essay traces the history of Edith Irene Södergran, Kirsti Simonsuuri, and Marja-Liisa Vartio.

Edith Irene Södergran (4 April 1892 – 24 June 1923) was a well known modernist poet. She was Finnish, but she wrote in Swedish.  In her notebook, she wrote: "I do not write poems, I create myself; my poems are the way to my self."  She died young of tuberculosis.  Of her life and work, Holger Lillqvist wrote this:
The conflict between sensual, physical life and the spiritual, self-enclosed world of will and imagination structures Södergran's work from her adolescent poems to her last collection, published in 1920. In her first collection, published in 1916, this dichotomy surfaces in a few interrelated central themes - the mythical crisis-biography of the persona of the poems, focussing on the catastrophic fall from innocence and longing into alienating reality; the relation between the persona and the surrounding landscape; the persona's vision of escape from enslaving sensuality into pure spirituality and transcendence which offers a kind of everlasting virginity.
The pre-occupation with the speaker's 'fall' is mostly in an erotic context. The fall is depicted as a catastrophic encounter with a man, throwing the persona into the enslaving world of sexual drive. In a poem from this stage, To Eros, the persona exclaims:
Did not my soul hover like a happy star/ before it was drawn into your red ring?/ See, I am bound, both hands and feet,/ feel, I am forced in all my thoughts. For the persona, eroticism is the very incarnation of fearful sensual and time-bound reality - the world of birth, physical contact, decay and, eventually, death.

See this link for this and more biographical information: http://www.kansallisbiografia.fi/english/?id=4814

On Foot I Had to Cross the Solar System
by Edith Sodergran

On foot
I had to cross the solar system
before I found the first thread of my red dress.
I sense myself already.
Somewhere in space hangs my heart,
shaking in the void, from it stream sparks
into other intemperate hearts. 

by Edith Sodergran

My soul was a light blue dress the color of the sky;
I left it on a rock by the sea
and naked I came to you, looking like a woman.
And like a woman I sat at your table
and drank a toast in wine, inhaling the scent of
some roses.
You found me beautiful, like something you saw in
a dream,
I forgot everything, I forgot my childhood and my
I only knew that your caresses held me captive.
And smiling you held up a mirror and asked me
to look.
I saw that my shoulders were made of dust and
crumbled away,
I saw that my beauty was sick and wished only to –
Oh, hold me tight in your arms so close that
I need nothing.  

These poems are found on Poemhunter.com, and the translator is not credited. A volume of her work, titled Love and Solitude, translated by Stina Katchadourian was published in 1981 in San Francisco and I believe Katchadourian's translations are these.  Sodergran's work startled me because my own poems, especially in Echo and Lightning, had things in common.  In my book, the woman in love was in flight, a bird in a migration, traveling through sky.  She was Leda, Eurydyce, Mary (mother of Jesus), like in Edith Södergran's poems, she was almost immaterial, turning into wind.  

Then, I found excerpts of Enchanting Beasts, an anthology of Finnish women poets. The editor was Kirsti Simonsuuri, a poet and translator. She also included some of her own poems:

Mother Tongues
by Kirsti Simonsuuri

Then came solitude cool remote
away from the hell of others
I alone I spoke in all tongues
forged keys to secret codes
sweet water: Latin
wild strawberry: Finnish
my silence was as deep
as in the womb, once

Perhaps it was coincidence, but before I found this work, my first book of poems had been out for four years, The Mother Tongue. The Finnish culture is strongly connected to nature, so it is not so surprising I have inherited or that I have also found these images occurring in my own work. The landscape of Finland and northern Minnesota is very similar.  I have begun to believe that the landscape speaks through poets.  

A Woman and Landscape
by Marja-Liisa Vartio

I comb my hair this side and that,
from morning till night I comb my hair,
for the parting is not right,
for this stiff and long hair of mine
won't fall smoothly on one side of the other.
There's a mirror in my hand, but it doesn't show
my face.
The mirror doesn't give me my face.
When I raise it to eye level,
I see only a landscape,
only a mountain, water, plateau and horizon,
only black and red rivers crossing the plateaus,
only a landscape resting behind my shoulder.
I've changed places, I've sat against the airy void,
but when I raised the mirror to eye level,
there was only a landscape there.
Where could I go, I the hair-trimmer, I the mirror-holder;
wherever I went, the landscape followed
me in the mirror

Dreams throng about me.
Dreams open gates into me.
A landscape has risen against me,
a mountain roars. A voice cries to the mountain:
                                your hunchback is coming.
Thirst has cleft her anger into shreds,
it has cut her full anger into slivers.
This coming is a humiliation,
this clinging to the feet of the mountain
this bending down to drink
from the fountain that turns rivers black and red.

Waters rest on the breast, waters press the breast.
Waters open in vast expanses,
waters raise and cradle and carry.
Someone has feet, someone has clean feet,
some have not waddled through the shore's muddy sludge.

And birds burst open their wings,
their wings, black on top, white under, they burst open
flying to the horizon.
One alone, that tripterous one,
falls during the journey,
on the journey always falls dead.

And clouds travel across the landscape.
The shadows of clouds travel across the landscape.
Their shadows eat into my skin
dark, burning blotches,
on my eyes they fall and my eyes fill
with bitter, vast waters.
But those waters do not find their river beds.
Those waters stand still.
Those waters stand raging still
behind the dam of my eyelids.

But the clouds roll on,
the clouds snort,
the clouds get caught in the hair of the birch.
The birch has my hair, my long and wet hair.
Like a green stream my long hair
falls on the horizon's shoulders.

Then the landscape cringes.
Then its immobile curves
straighten, scurry against--
and like a plateau I open,
like a forest I rise,
I writhe like roads and fields.
Along rivers my blood rages,
it beats in the eyes of marshes and fountains,
for the landscape has assumed my shape,
the landscape has adjusted to my outlines.

With eyes open I lie,
without moving my pupils.
Silently I lie and stare
at the vanishing point of lines that pierce me.
The sickles of lightning cut scars on my hands.
The golden and blue oxen of the sky
trample my breast with their hooves,
sharp-edged leaves fall on my face.
There is no step, no step as light
that wouldn't leave a mark on me.
They light up for the ascent, they die for the descent,
but hot ashes fall onto me,
with every touch my skin cracks.
In my black mouth I swallow the sounds
meanly I hide them within me to keep
and from side to side the tapping rolls in me,
back and forth it dashes and sways
and a cry shoots up through my breast.
It stands black and frozen.
It pricks sharply the eye of the sky.
That cry is three spruces
in the middle of a convulsed plateau.

But like a forest I rise,
like a plateau I open,
I writhe like roads and fields.
I push up trees till they meet with heaven,
with the whisper of my trees I embrace the feet of the sky
I grow around my hips a thick and bouncing grass,
a thousand ravenous root mouths gorge my breasts.
My blood I give to the orchid,
hanging black trinkets on its ankles and wrists,
when it stands with its hardened stem, full of defiance
and desire
in the dusk along the roads.
My feet numb in the dew I give to the Parnassus grass,
as it lifts its black cross towards the moon.
From my finger tips I press
the hard shower of a sedge mound.

I lie with eyes open,
without moving my pupils.
Pierced by the lines I lie
and stare at the bottoms of the many-coloured boats
in the sky.
And when the green bark has slid by the red one,
when the furrow of the green bark
has melted into the red furrow,
all lines break up and make a circle
and with red tongues, panting, they chase each other.
Glow worms stand to make a circle.
Like a shiny ribbon they rise up and make a circle
along my outlines on the landscape.

In the morning I made a decision: now I'll break the mirror.
Rising to my full stature I threw it to my feet.
Rising to my full anger I cried across the landscape
I cried across all landscapes.
And from every mountain, water, plateau and horizon
I demanded me.
To every cardinal point I hurled my curses.

Did the mountain reveal its breast to the mirror,
did it grab the bottom of the waters?
Did it rip the veins from the back of the plateau's palm,
did it shake the horizon's shoulders?
The mirror lay at my feet in splinters.
From a chip a numb hand flashed;
a hand that rose, combing hair.
from Enchanting Beasts

translated by Kirsti Simonsuuri

 I honor these poets, and I hope that others will seek out their work and read them.

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