Thursday, 30 June 2011


By Lassi Nummi


I would like to begin as if unnoticed – not right now or a little earlier,
also not later; neither with this particular subject, nor with something else:
I would like to begin as animals gods and children begin, as love begins, that which is told about –
not as: "do I really dare?” or "did I interpret the shine in your eyes correctly?" or "do you know that your resistance is crumbling?"
but as the waves, the trees of the forest, and the wind – the most transient, most everlasting. I would like the thoughts
to break unnoticed into words, and so that each has time to take root
in the soil of silence, where they will blossom alone. I would like the words to turn into speech as if by a whim of chance, and the speech into song, and the song into a song without words,
and the wordless song dissolve into music, and the music to flow over our heads towards silence. At its edge I would like to draw black lines, not very many,
about something that has occurred to me – or that I have supposed might occur to me -- or that might
occur to me, as we sit with our friends on a honeyed autumn evening.


I have written many strange songs on strange subjects.
Today I am going to write a serious song on a serious subject.
My theme is your ear. I have researched it, grown thoroughly acquainted with it,
studied it from every angle in streaming light and twilight and semi-darkness
against the grapevine; when you are speaking, laughing, or when you are silent;
when tea is brought in. In a moment of music, a moment of hubbub, or when everyone is simultaneously silent
and the distant murmur of the streets is borne on the evening air through open windows.


Your ear – it is white, but not marble-like; I would say that everywhere in it a warm rosy shading can be observed. A slender labyrinth of furrows and bulges
– I deliberately use emphatic diction – thus acquires a deeper, more human content
through the affinity with
organic nature, transience and the brilliance of moments. Towards it many things
gather, and its time is short; gleaming as its backdrop
it has the gold of your hair.

Towards, past it your hair
is gathered through a golden comb in a bob at the back of your neck:
the morning fresh swell glitters, through which, quite close to the shoreline, gleam
shellfish or the white labyrinth of coral.

Near it your face is gathered – this almost motionless and very lively face,
This Greek and Asian face, unconscious of its consciousness, closed in its clarity – face of the Goddess of Mercy, Mary, Diana
This face of a birch tree, a maiden, a girl reflected in a pond, this white-stemmed face,
born from the smile of Artemis, smile dissolved back into a spring, born as Artemis,
born as Diana

Towards it voices are gathered – a sea’s thundering and whispering voices:
the hubbub of the city’s sea, the hubbub of the park’s sea of leaves, which the giant seashell of the house
repeats; the house’s hubbub, the laughter and uproar and talking and whispering and music
and the cry of a ship far away; the rustling of foliage, as if some brown god
were silently watching us.
Your ear’s shell rests
on the shore of the sea of voices. But silence has grown within its heart like a pearl.


Now I will tell you what I have thought this honeyed evening, autumn-honeyed,
among our noisy and sincerely many-faceted friends. I have thought: if my hand were to pluck
the flowers of your skin, it might stop and with closed eyes wake up and listen
to the streams, the brooks, the veins’ pulse, the soil’s pulse and the silence and swell of your heart. Into itself it might gather you, every voice
and everything that is silent. On the seashore the seashell opens to the thunder of the surf.


I know that the moon is rising. The shutters are opened
in the rooms that face the moon’s rising; or perhaps it was just a door. The Asian gods of my father's house
smile at the touch of the moonlight. Often, on hearing them murmur to one another,
I have intervened in their talk. Once – I must have been twelve at the time – I said to the Healer of Eye Diseases:
"Oh, teach me to see!" And when they were silent, I said angrily:
"You turban-head you could very well
take me to the God of War and Riches and order him to run me through with his sword
and let my family die out with me – provided you take this cataract and let me
look for a few moments into the heart of existence!"— Then for the first time I saw the gods’ faces fall:
in amazement they stared at me from their pedestals; disapproving, severe, stiff, or thoughtful;
but the God of Fertility had turned away, trying in vain to hide his bronze smile.


The Buddha is so heavily gilded, and on the topmost shelf: I do not speak to him – let him sit on his private lotus
and let the river roll by. – But you, God of Fishing, who keep watch near the shore
with your vigilant nets – I talk to you: could you not fill our house with invisible water so that the fish would swim everywhere in our midst – turn our speech into fishes, so that my words would leave my lips
and swim towards her hair – seaweed, golden sand, amidst which the contours of shell or coral are dimly visible?


You stir slightly, your hair flickers. I know: the moon is rising. They said just now
that Venus has fled Taurus and entered the figure of Aquarius, which is really
far more dangerous.
The moon is rising. Wild vine covers the house. The troubled brightness of the preludes
rises up the leaves like dew. The music is turned on, and the wind that flows in
behind it wakens the gods to listen.
Oh, what I would give, if everything were to stop now!
Only the music would flow on, and we would float with it, until we awoke in a network
of wild vine
wild vine growing through us.
– Dew, the brightness of the preludes. The moon is rising
between and above the wild vine. The leaves are flickering. Wild vine covers
the houses and covers the hearts, our bold, childish and trembling hearts.

The music has stopped. The pagodas rise from the twilight. Something new has caught on its fingertips the bird of your gaze.


The ivory goddess from Himalaya has raised her light hands.
The two at the top hold a lotus, each their own,
in a divine balance with her head and on a level with her girlish face.
A third supports the cloak, lightly wards off, on a level with her breasts..
A fourth, lower down, points, as if approving.
When you understand the posture
its frozen movement comes to life: even if the moon were not shining on the ivory-white skin,
you would see it moving and hear the music through the movements. I, at last, would understand the music
even without seeing the sculpture, as the light that rises from within your face
and melts into the semi-twilight of the moon; as the silence that thickens around you, until
the hand’s light movement is ripe to release, the gaze to brush the distance,
to shine forth, a half-unconscious laughter, like the chiming of the ankle-ring when the dance suddenly dies.


I know that the way, the truth and the life open in the moonlight as the nocturnal lotus flower opens.
But I have been taught to be sceptical. When I search for the truth, I find fossils,
characters, corals, the skeletons of hieroglyphics that have passed away; to reconstruct
the spark of life
into them – and in general – requires a talent for alchemy. -- On the other hand I have been raised
to search for wisdom, which is not so much waking or sleep than a continual awakening
from sleep to consciousness, from waking to a sleep that is permeated by consciousness: a tightrope semi-sleep-
walker, whom the images of two worlds bruise and entice:
a wind that towers to the heights and the depth of the ravine. – Raised to study
the mysteries, not so much in order to solve them as to learn the right way to approach
the kernel of the riddle: to listen to the humming, to attain the pearl.
– The Asian gods
smile doubtfully. Without grain and signs, lifeless, they reminisce about the man
about whom my mother talks: years before he went to follow the Lord Jesus Christ,
he raised in place of the gods on his altar the signs of heaven and earth.
I have not learned how to write them, but I love the golden grain and the wind
and I know that something of immortal beauty, vanishing and eternal,
is between them.

My earth-dream, my heaven-dream narrate it over an abyss, and the piercing wind takes my tears.


Have I told you that my heart once heard your heart’s shy speech
and now cannot distinguish the thundering voices of the world’s sea through it?
For that reason everything in me gathers into you. If you gather all this
into your pearly brilliance, will you one day repeat these voices like a far, forgotten sea?


I have wanted to tell you all this, and also less, this honeyed autumn evening
when our friends have gathered to celebrate the moon, which blesses their marriage, and endless sonatas are played
and talk is unrestrained and tea is drunk, to conceal the true nature of the ritual
and make the evil spirits go astray; I have wanted to say
that everything in me is gathered in you, and sings.
-- This painful secret
you have known of course, and we have talked about it; or might I have caressed it
into your hair? and might you have danced it for me?
But today it is new, reborn – as all true secrets and enigmas are reborn
over and over again: not to be solved, but to be realized and approached.
So approach its essence
and touch it.

I know that these years are vanishing,
have almost already slipped out of my hands. The moon has risen. Everything is ending
almost before it has begun. Look, the wild wine withered
and burst into clusters. The foreign voices
descended on its leaves like dust.


Hellene or barbarian – I do not know. This sense of change and flux, and this sense of changelessness and stasis
will always survive. I am perhaps a European, and I ought to understand
the demands of the age, serious business, commercial prosperity, or compensation for oppression
in new-fangled arrangements where that
term is not used. Or I am Asian,
arrived with a wandering nomadic tribe, here grown decadent: reciting spells, stimulating oneself into ecstasy,
conjuring past and future; meat curing over the sides of the saddle; opening the door to the non-existent garden
and submitting.

Are wreaths being made
for the wine festival? Dionysus, spirit of music,
is he is in our midst? Do flutes glimmer
everywhere, from mountains and ravines, stimulating us to processions and dances, into a wild ecstasy,
until we are ripe to fall on our faces
before the mystery?
Or does Apollo gesture
from further away, from a landscape of midday and majestic light -- raising the lyre,
playing his white peace through us?

The Asian gods
are watching us. Between the leaves I think for a moment I have attained a shining gaze
full of hidden meaning.

The gods of my country gaze from the heavy memorial tree group
at the sacred innocence of the birch trees, as the mist rises, the dance of the forest nymphs,
dissolving back into the spring.

I do not know, I do not know.
I know that I have seen the smile of Aphrodite rising white-stemmed
from the gold-glittering foam, where the corals the shells the clams happily conceal
their secret.


I would like to end as if imperceptibly. I would like my speech to slowly dissolve into
music, the music to dissolve into the light, into the silence of the light that streams through the doors.
As if you were already gone, all of you gone, the rooms filled with a pearl-brilliant silence,
the shutters forgotten, the moon descending,
with a curtain of dewdrops covering the sleeping wild wine.

"Here the country palace is empty, empty as a dream..."

In the semi-dusk of the moonlight the gods are staring. But they are only black lacquered wood
and the images of our fears and our desires; and we are skin, blood, dreams
and bone. Everything is in flux. And yet: there is the truth, and the way. It begins in the moonlight before my front steps,
and if I go on a journey without taking anything with me, bowing to the gods and praying to the Lord Jesus Christ,
there is a fleeting hope that I shall get back before I am seventy, and when I perceive I have completed the round trip
I would understand that I know less and am closer to the truth that lives in the circle’s hidden centre.


You sleep in the chamber of my anxiety. I pray. Then I bow to kiss
the cowrie shell the sea has brought. The curtains flicker. The world’s pearl ceiling
bends over us and repeats the echoes. We listen, and we are listened to
we are the cowrie shell, we are the sea. We dissolve into the world and the world into us.
We are the wild vine and the dew, we are the brightness of the preludes, we rest in the world’s gastropod
which shuts everything out, but repeats the voices of an unknown distant ocean.

[from Taivaan ja maan merkit (Marks of Sky and Earth), 1956]

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Diary of William N.

Following on from Mr. Darwin's Gardener, which won the Finnish State Prize for Literature in 2010, Kristina Carlson has written another novel on a theme drawn from the history of 19th century science. The Diary of Wlliam N. [William N. Päiväkirja, Otava 2011] is a fictional portrait of the Finnish botanist and entomologist William Nylander (1822-1899), who specialized in lichenology and lived in Paris from 1863 until his death.

The book is really a study of what it means to be an outsider - by virtue of his "difficult" temperament and his unconventional approach to scientific and university matters (sometimes perverse in its wrong-headedness), Nylander lives as an institutionless exile from his native land, subsisting in poverty while still maintaining his often shaky links with the scientific community both in Finland and abroad. Presented in the form of diary entries, the novel takes the reader through the final years of Nylander's life in Paris, and the narrative is broken by reflections on art and science - the botanist is also fascinated by contemporary French painting and other developments in modern art, and this makes for an interesting meditation on the meaning and significance of the new century which Nylander does not quite live to see.

In some ways the book is reminiscent of other Finnish and Finland-Swedish essays in the genre, possibly the most notable being Bo Carpelan's Sibelius study, Axel. But Kristina Carlson has gone further in evoking the atmosphere and reality of a bygone era and milieu, with a vivid and intricate account of the details of Parisian social, scientific and academic life viewed through the psychological lens of a Nordic mind that is steeped in Gallic wit and black humour. The figure and presence of August Strindberg are never far away, and with his antagonism to the status quo and embittered view of bourgeois life and marriage, Nylander becomes a link to the future - alienated from the suffocating climate of the age, he joins company at least in spirit with the artists, writers, philosophers and poets who seek a way out of the 19th century's moral and aesthetic cul-de-sac.

Sunday, 19 June 2011


by Sjón

when your eyes
pause on the ball
that hangs on the third branch from a star
you remember why it got dark and why it is getting light again

the earth (like the heart) leans back in its seat
and like that it travels along an orbit
drawn in the darkness

unpolished pearl in sky-black palm of hand
flickering sun-flame

you remember
that you yourself are a light-bearer
who receives her radiance from others

translated from Icelandic by David McDuff


þegar augu þín
nema staðar við kúluna
sem hangir á þriðju grein frá stjörnu
þá manstu afhverju dimmdi og athverju birtir á ný

jörðin hallast í sætinu (eins og hjartað)
og þannig ferð ast hún eftir sporbraut
teiknaðri í myrkrið

ófægð perla í himinsvörtum lófa
flöktandi sólarlogi

þá manstu
að sjálf ertu ljósberi
sem þiggur ljóma sinn af öðrum

Friday, 17 June 2011


by Pia Tafdrup

Wild geese are gathering on the field
soon the whole flock will rise,
flying up over the woods, out across the water.
An ocean rolls within me
  wide open. 
I am too slow
for quick changes,
          too quick 
for things to go so slowly that life
                                becomes futureless.
Dreams start
  even before one learns to walk.
From the other side of the Atlantic
I can see better
what Scandinavia is –
the black duckling, the white swan,
Ibsen, Strindberg, Kierkegaard,
  gravity, melancholy, irony,
the wind settling round the trees,
  no other embrace,
the grey-white light of winter days,                         
loneliness enough
           for all.
In a Chinese street
where I try
to distil meaning out
of the words’ acoustics
I understand the dependence
on my Danish language
             the aorta
that runs underground in my body
no matter how aimlessly I 
travel around, buoyed up
by the light.
I move forward,
  the same sky seen
from different angles,
  the same Earth,
the blood’s cadence sets the pace.
Every detour I make
goes by way of myself alone. 

translated from Danish by David McDuff