It has been a night of passionate love-making. Next morning, the speaker in this short poem thinks teasingly: Sinä olet minulle hiukan uskoton = You are a little unfaithful to me. She/he lies there awake, reading in the lover’s look a hint of doubt about the depths of their feelings for one another. A need for reassurance — in words — appears to be necessary . . .
This is the unspoken question runs through the heart of this poem: Do you really love me? Of course, a simple yes or no is not enough — it’s not just what answer you give but the degree of conviction you are capable of conveying. In this sense, Immonen’s poem is not just about love. It’s also about poetry. In poetry, too, it’s not just a matter of making sense but of indicating heartfeltness. Once again, Immonen demonstrates that she is equal to the task.
Within the poem itself, the speaker provides no satisfactory answer. The body has spoken, and that should be enough. But the lover’s doubts within the situation will be answered “outside” when he/she comes cross a copy of the poem, left casually in a place where it is sure to be noticed, a candid declaration in the guise of a feigned reproach.
The language of the poem is beautifully simple, the only difficulty being the word levänneenä, a part participle derived from the verb levätä, meaning “to rest, to have a rest, to repose”. Finnish past participles have both singular and plural forms (levännyt/levänneet); interestingly, the stem form is based on the plural levännee-, which can then take case endings like any other noun or adjective. Fred Karlsson gives an unforgettable example of the part participle used with case-endings in his Finsk grammatik:
Pommin löytäneelle koiralle anettiin mitali = A medal was given to the dog which found the bomb. (198)
The case in this instance is the essive, expressed by the ending –nä. The wonderous Arthur H. Whitney outlines three uses of the essive, the most relevant for this instance being “the state or temporary character of something or someone” (Finnish).
A little oddly to non-Finnish speakers, the word ruumis, meaning “body”, can also mean “corpse”, but fortunately not in this particular jewel of a poem.
Sinä olet minulle
Kun herään unesta, levänneenä,
sinun katseesi kysyy minua,
etkä saa parempaa vastausta
kuin ruumiini sinulle antaa,
ja sinä epäilet,
vaikka minun ruumiini tietää
enemmän kuin luuletkaan.
You are being unfaithful to me
just that tiny little bit.
As I lie here awake
and reposed, you question me with your gaze,
wondering whether you could get a better answer
than my body gives you.
Indeed, you believe you might —
even though my body knows
much more than you think.
To me, poetry at its best, always gets the reader thinking about her own response to things. Resonant in itself, it can also create resonance in others and — by intimating rather than lecturing — allow discoveries to be made of their own accord, as if by magic.
This poem — literally “memory poem” [muistoruno] — is very understated in its presentation. What I take from it is a kind of double death, by which I mean that Immonen commemorates in her poem the death of certain kind of Dark Death, the grim imagery of the “black butterfly” and the “scythe” [viikate]. As she matter-of-factly points out, mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä = “people still die all the time”, but perhaps now without that mediaeval terror. The closing lines suggest a more natural-accepting attitude to death: from the butterfly and the cicada, we finish with cornflowers and sedge grass, things that meet the end of their living without fuss and as a matter of course. I think that is why the poem has yhtä | ruiskukan ja saraheinän kanssa or “the equal of the cornflower and the sedge-grass”, a thought that can take one back to Walt Whitman, leaning and loafing as he observes “a spear of Summer grass”.
An innocuous piece of structural language is crucial, I think, to an understanding of the sense of the whole poem. The phrase tälta osin is used with the meanings of “in this connection; to this end”, perhaps also “in this regard”. The opening lines thus read “The time of the black butterfly | is tälta osin over”, leaving us to ponder the question of what exactly in death is over, especially given the contradiction of the line that comes immediately after it, mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä = “but people are continually dying”.
I struggled with the what is to me the most striking image in “Muistoruno” presented in lines 4-5: “who have never taken the trouble | to raise their voices above the song of the cicadas”. According to my little Finnish-English dictionary compiled by Aino Wuolle, the verb viitsia = “to care to”, but the only example given for it is en viitsinyt = “I couldn’t be bothered”, which suggests an element of laziness or unwillingness. However, I have chosen (perhaps wrongly) to interpret the phrase as meaning something positive, along the lines of “who have never wasted their time complaining or lamenting about the terrors of death”. Also, from the little research I have done, I get the impression that kaskas is a kind of insect like a leaf-hopper, but a laulukaskas or “song leaf-hopper” is the usual term for a cicada. However, in the case of cicadas, the word “song” seems a bit misleading: “cry” or “screech” is probably closer to the mark.
There is another little piece of vocabulary used in the poem to great effect: yhtä = “equal”. From the short-lived cicadas calling from the tree-tops, we are plunged down to ground level, where the mown flowers lie. This down-to-earth-ness reinforces the kind of attitude Immonen wants to share with us about dying. As Mr Emerson, in conversation with his son, says about Heaven in the novel Room with a View:
“You will never go up […]. You and I, dear boy, will lie at peace in the earth that bore us, and our names will disappear as surely as our work survives.”
This means, death as an equalization with the Earth, and not an annihilation.
“Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting”, said Robert Frost, and then followed this up with “Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it”. I think Immonen melts wonderfully well, and even across the language barrier is capable of carrying any patient reader along with her.
Mustan perhosen aika
on tälta osin ohi,
mutta jatkuvasti kuolee ihmisiä
jotka koskaan eivät viitsineet
korottaa ääntään kaskaiden laulun yläpuolelle
ja lopulta olivat yhtä
ruiskukan ja saraheinän kanssa
The time of the black butterfly
is over — in one respect,
but people go on dying nevertheless,
people who never once cared
to raise their voice above the cry of the cicadas
and who — in the end —
were the equals of cornflower and sedge-grass,
I recently watched the Finnish film Mestari Cheng, about a chef from Shanghai who goes looking for an old friend in the north of Finland. It’s special when two of one’s interest come together in such an unexpected yet satisfying way, and there is much to enjoy in this trilingual film (English is used as the bridging language) — linguistically, culturally and spiritually. The whole of the film resonates with a translator’s sensibility . . .
One thing that struck me powerfully was the landscape with its vast stretches of rock and water, and the special light at twilight in Summer. I have never been to Finland, but I have been to Finnish, and I sensed, very vaguely, that I was seeing in the natural environment something that I had very faintly once perceived in the rhythms, sounds and grammatical twinings of that language. Eager for more, I took out a small book of poems by Liisa Immonen entitled Synnyin maailmaan (I was born into the world, 1982) and found in it a very short poem that has something of that same quality in it, reminiscent of that hymn Cat Stevens used to sing (“Morning has broken / Like the first morning”), but tougher, more prehistoric, elemental.
I am no expert in the language, but I was helped and guided by the absence of verbs and the strong contrasts in the poem. Firstly, there is the very palpable contrast between the “hot springs” and the “chill zones”, the idea of “zone” expressed by the noun vyöhyke. Then comes a second contrast, boosted by a strong parallelism, between muinainen = “ancient” and äsken luotu, which I think means “just now created” but am not entirely sure about (please feel free to correct me!). Finally, there is an imagistic contrast, in which the smoothness and quick movement of the sisiliskot (“lizards”) is the diametric opposite of the rough and immobile rantakivikko or “the stony soil of the shore”. With simple means, Immonen evokes that double quality of time as both vast temporal continuum and a reptile-fleet instant. And to me it’s wonderful the way the rhythms instantly quicken at the end when — amongst all that inert matter — darting Life suddenly appears on the scene.
Aamut nousevat, kummat lähteet
Ja kaikki on muinaista,
Ja kaikki on äsken luotua,
Dawn after dawn. Hot springs
in frigid zones.
And everything so ancient
and so now freshly created:
lizards darting in amongst the pebbles of the shore.