Saturday, 18 April 2009

Eva Wichman: Five Poems

Eva Wichman (1905-1979) is something of a neglected Modernist. There is virtually nothing about her in English on the Internet, and precious little in any other language. Wichman began her career as a doll designer in a factory, not the most usual start for a Modernist poet.

Her first books were in fact prose. Her early novels, starting with the novel
Mania (1937), were about young artistic women carving out a place for themselves in life. Her first collection of poetry Ormöga (Snake’s Eye) appeared in 1946.

She joined the Communist Party in the 1950s, after which, it has to be said, some of her poetry deteriorated into agit-prop, though she never quite lost touch with Modernism, and later in life returned to more tranquil waters. By the mid-1960s, her poetry was poetry once more and had lost its shrillness.

The poems I have chosen to translate here come from various decades, before, during and after her “conversion”.


Will the roses bloom forever?
Now autumn is here, listen –
you see the grass has yellowed, a rotting
smell emerges from the fallen leaves,
chilled breath enters
the shrunken breast,
and glances sail calmly
over the indifferent surface of the leaden lake.

The swallows flew off. The ducklings
now swim around alone
and damp seeps in everywhere.
But the roses:
are blooming glowingly red
Soon will fall the first night frost:
all be prepared
for decline to come!

(From the collection: Ormöga, 1946)



Seething, splashing, rushing –
rush hour wandering home.
A whiff of petrol –
a huge caravan of traffic
proceeds into the thundering city.

At that very moment
exactly, precisely
lorries, like mastodons splashing
As if all given the signal –
huge white Zims
and Volgas, ordinary Pobedas
engines, cycles, carts –
they all stand still:

for now a man,
an ordinary worker
in soot-stained overalls
crosses the road.
His arm around several loaves
– quite calmly –
walks across the sixty metres breadth of road.

They are holding their breath, everyone
: for someone in working clothes
calmly going home
with his burden of bread.

(From the collection Dikter, 1960)



(A wasp
drowned in a coffee cup
and the night rain on top)

Sun, that gets up
one blinded autumn day
gives my puzzled ego
a glimpse of terrace
of shining white breast of bird.

Woe, muddled ego
who does not glance up. What
is it I have downed!
Poison of an old wasp
in stagnant liquid –
What disgusting medicine
I ended up swallowing
(what a dirty drink
on a clear autumn day
must spit it out!)

The little drop
of contrast –
Without that
I would perhaps never
have fathomed – guessed: the greatness
of the autumn dawn

– glimpse of blinding white breast of bird.

(From the collection Det sker med ens, 1964)



O chance, what are you then –
if not the struggle
between many grey
to snatch the prey.

If not the game itself
– urged by strong insights –
suggests: from desperation light!
The grip released
makes his way towards it.

(From the collection: Det sker med ens, 1964)



They lie spread out
in an ancient city
Districts where cats
sneak around and live
have their paths in
the sign of the sun
with cheerful click-on-
from backyard washing

At night they have got up
And darker
than the dark over the city
a black massif
huge houses of giants
stand conjured up from the depths
And only at midnight
a grim light can be seen
in the vaulted windows
high up under the roof

What unknown being
is now awake?
Who came who
went – for whom
was the light switched on – what
parley was there
What vibrations
knock the house out
towards the city
In the morning grey
it is taken down We again
see: the peaceful district.

(From the collection Orientering, 1967)


Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens


David McDuff said...

It would be interesting to see a list showing which modern Finland-Swedish writers belonged to the CP, and which didn't. Carpelan didn't, for example, and neither did Warburton, but many others did - I think it's quite disturbing at one level, but at another, creative one, it somehow doesn't matter. What seems extraordinary is that so many were Communists, when they lived practically next door to the horrors themselves.

Eric Dickens said...

From my experience - and I lived amongst Finland-Swedes for four years during the 1970s - most Finland-Swedish authors have at some time in their lives been left-wing, especially those from more humble backgrounds in Ostrobothnia. In the 1970s, an F-S author who was not in any way connected with the Communist Party was somehow less salonfähig, especially among those who were around 20 years old at the time.

However, even those literary movements that included young people from the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party (i.e. the ones that wore blue uniform shirts to meetings) were often affiliated with avant garde literary movements that would have been regarded as scandalously bourgeois in the Soviet Union. But amongst Finnish youth, doublethink was the order of the day.

For instance, the Otid movement, centred around the Helsinki literary magazine of that name, with some very haute bourgeois kids as members, wrote some of the most interesting Modernist literature. If you look at the following website of former Finland-Swedish taistolaiset / taistoiter, i.e. Stalinists, it seem ironic that people like Kerstin Smeds (daughter, I think of the Helsinki mayor at the time), Gunilla Hemming, Eva Odrischinsky (who later emigrated to Israel), and other people attached to the (boring!) Stalinist organ "Enhet" doubled up as literary Modernists.

I would urge anyone who can read Swedish and wants to really understand the Zeitgeist at the time among Finnish and F-S youth to read Henrik Jansson's documentary novel "Protokollsutdrag från subversiva möten", where Jansson wrestles with his naïveté at the time.

One key document that Jansson mentions in that novel is a book called "Ansats - Meddelanden från 70-talet", written by Smeds, Hemming, and Odrischinsky as mentioned above, when they began to wrestle with the whole problem of their affiliations, once they began to realise that something was wrong, and that reality did not square with their youthful idealism. At that point in time, and partly due to the more Bahro-oriented liberal Marxist periodical "Uudistuva ihmiskunta", Green ideas began to undermine the hardline Communist ones.

Because of Finlandisation, there was little in the Finnish press of any colour that gave an inkling about the compass of Russian slave labour camps. Ironically, you could get more information about, for instance, Estonia in the liberal Communist daily "Kansan Uutiset" (and sometimes "Hufvudstadsbladet") than in the main Finnish paper "Helsingin Sanomat".

And one list, at least of those Swedish-speakers that adhered to the Stalinist wing of the Party, exists:

That list of erstwhile sympathisers with the more Stalinist wing of the party includes people who are now perfectly respectable in the literary field including authors, publishers and members of the family of quite well-known cultural figures.

I'd love to meet some of these erstwhile "Stalinists" again now that they are over 50 years of age, and see what they think now.

David McDuff said...

There's a difference between being "left wing" and espousing the kind of fanatical intolerance that was characteristic of the programme of the so-called "Stalinist" or "minority" wing of the Finnish Communist Party.

The list on the Yahoo group is very revealing. What it suggests above all is that in Finland the political centre has never really established itself properly. If one examines the history of the 1930s, one finds that there was similar sympathy among Finnish and Finland-Swedish intellectuals for the ideas of extreme right-wing nationalism and national socialism. It's actually not unlike the situation that existed and still exists among quite large sections of the intelligentsia in Germany.

I don't believe that many of the erstwhile ultra-left wing sympathizers have really recanted. They haven't rejected the ideas that attracted them in their youth - they have merely suppressed them, and now find themselves in a kind of ideological vacuum where "Green" or "anti-globalist" messages float as an unsatisfying ersatz for the hard ideology of ultra-left socialism.

On the other hand, many of these people have made significant contributions in the field of literature, the media and the arts in general - and have generally surpassed the Nordic cultural average in this respect - the richness and diversity of Finland-Swedish literature is, after all, probably unique in the Nordic cultural space.

But here we're not too far from the paradox that George Steiner wrote about in Bluebeard's Castle when he pointed to the terrible irony of the fact that "one of the principal works that we have in the philosophy of language, in the total reading of Hölderlin's poetry, was composed almost within earshot of a death camp."

Eric Dickens said...

Although the wake of the poetry of Eva Wichman may be a slightly odd place to begin a public debate about Finnish Stalinism, I must make a plea, as someone who was there at the time, to recognise that not all 1970s Finnish Communists be tarred with the same brush. I certainly know of people who are nowadays accused of having, for instance, collaborated with the Stasi. That is one end of the spectrum.

On the other hand, the liberal Communist press was never as fanatic as the label "Communist" would suggest. Part of the Communism of youth in Finland was driven by the deep divisions that remained between the Whites and Reds when Finland gained independence in about 1918. Part by a Schwärmerei for Russia. Part by the youthful need to remain in opposition to the powers that be.

Both "Kansan Uutiset" and "Ny Tid", both organs, as it is termed, of that liberal wing, survive to this day. Whilst the excruciatingly boring an insurrectionary organs of the Stalinists "Tiedonantaja" and "Enhet" either no longer exist, or are a ghost of their former selves.

For instance, in the very important debate about Estonia, where certain factions are fomenting trouble in Finland (the names of the infiltrators and suggesters are well known), "Kansan Uutiset", of all newspapers, has a balanced article about the events when Oksanen and Paju launched their valuable book. See:

Even back in the 1970s, I, a fellow-traveller but never a member of any faction in Britain or Finland, saw how "Kansan Uutiset" and "Ny Tid" produced a good deal of interesting material on, for example, Estonia and literature in general. It would be a distortion of history to equate the blue shirts (Stalinists) with the red shirts (liberal Communists). Many of the latter had a Schwärmerei for Russia, in the same way as Brits like balalaikas and onion domes.

Important to remember is that the Russians (or Soviets) planned their infiltration and subversion amongst Finnish Social-Democrats, not among Communists. Also important is that because of the wiles of Kekkonen and his younger adviser Max Jakobson, Brezhnev never found any excuse to do a Czechoslovakia on Finland.

I admire Sofi Oksanen & Imbi Paju for having the guts to say that Finland should grow up and accept that, for instance, the Baltic States were occupied. But I neither can, nor want to distort the past as I perceived it, living among Finland-Swedes, mostly Communists, during the 1970s.

David McDuff said...

I'm afraid I don't share Eric's willingness to distinguish between Finland's so-called 1970s "Stalinists" and the other Finnish Communists. For one thing, all the Finnish Communists - whatever their internal stripe or colour - were funded, cultivated and encouraged by Moscow as part of the Finlandization policy, and the Taistoists were never expelled from the SKP. For another, Brezhnev's Soviet Union was just as "Stalinist" as Stalin's, and in some respects even more so. From the point of view of personal liberty the levels of political and social repression in the USSR during the early 1970s were every bit as bad as those that prevailed during the 1940s and 50s.

In 1970, as a British Council research student of Russian literature at TsGALI resident at Moscow State University (MGU), some of the people I met and talked with were Finnish journalists, and most of them were Communists. These people were actively involved in sharing information and intelligence with the Soviet authorities, and in reporting on the activities and behaviour of members of the Western groups staying in the university hostels.

During the 1970s, Finnish Comnmunists attended conferences and other gatherings in the USSR where they voiced support for Brezhnev's policies. Soviet dissidents who mistakenly wandered onto Finnish territory were sent back to the Soviet Union.

I care about getting the record straight on these issues, as from the early 1970s onwards I was active in countering the disinformation that was then being spread by official Soviet sources in the West. During those years I worked and met with dissident and persecuted Soviet writers including Joseph Brodsky, Tomas Venclova, Vladimir Bukovsky and others.

It seems to me now, as it did then, that the "Stalinist" label is an all-too convenient means by which Communists and ex-Communists - both in Eastern Europe and in the West- attempt to escape responsibility for the consequences of their political actions and allegiances. The CPSU (which exerted hegemony over Communist parties worldwide) made no such distinctions - and in spite of what many Western historians and political analysts tried to assert, Stalin's ideas and methods never really died out in the Soviet Union (indeed, they are still alive today in the Russia of Putin/Medvedev). Together with Lenin's theory and practice of state terror, Stalin's methodology has remained the foundation of Soviet Communism, and has represented its true essence.

While it's true that the Finnish Social Democrats were infiltrated and influenced by Moscow, and that in the latter stages of the Soviet empire the SKP lost ground to the SDP and the so-called "Eurocommunists", the fact remains that many Finnish intellectuals, writers and public figures remained members of the SKP until a very late date (some all the way until 1991). If it is true, the claim that these people remained loyal to Moscow largely out of a sentimental attachment to balalaikas and matryoshka dolls reveals the full absurdity and bankruptcy of their position.