AUGUST 27, 2015
I AM NOT an expert on Finland. I have never been to the country or eaten at a Finnish restaurant or danced the Finnish tango. My connection with Finland extends to having a grudging respect for Formula One driver Kimi Räikkönen and an ungrudging respect for composer Jean Sibelius. But two recent books of poems by Maria Takolander and Niina Pollari have prompted me to think about the country and its people — especially when country and people have been separated.
In the popular consciousness, modern diaspora wears the face of the desperate migrants cast adrift by people-smugglers in the Mediterranean or in the sea lanes leading to Australia. According to the United Nations, in 2014 there were 19 million refugees and asylum seekers who had fled conflict zones in their countries and gone abroad. But these worst cases represent only a fraction of the 232 million people in the world today who live outside their country of origin (to say nothing of second-generation immigrants). Dislocation and diaspora have countless, unguessable guises.
It is easy to think of people who have emigrated recently from Western Europe as part of a “soft” diaspora. These migrants have probably left willingly (if reluctantly). Perhaps they had what people in their destination countries would consider “enough money.” These are people that no one is going to pity, nor do they expect pity. But this does not mean that there is not a sadness stamped on these emigrants like a visa in a passport. And what if they write? Can one write of a lost home without sadness? What can we discover from the writings of first- and second-generation Finns in the Anglosphere who write, sometimes, about the old country?
Maria Takolander is Melbourne-born, of Finnish parents. She alludes to her Finnishness frequently in both poems and essays, including in her new book, The End of the World (Giramondo, 2014). Niina Pollari is Finnish-born but long resident in the United States. Finnishness is not a common subject in her debut volume of poems, Dead Horse (Birds, LLC, 2015) (although it is necessarily present in her translation of Tytti Heikkinen’s selected poems, Täytetyn eläimen lämpö or The Warmth of the Taxidermied Animal [Action Books, 2014]).
Takolander has written of her sense of not quite belonging in the land where she actually grew up. Comparing herself to the main character of Diego Marani’s novel New Finnish Grammar, she writes:
Like Karjalainen, I had been cast adrift in a new world — although in my case it was Australia rather than Finland. Like Karjalainen, I had been compelled to learn a new language and fit into a new culture. My nostalgic parents had bestowed on me a sense of having lost a homeland that was integral to my identity. Like Karjalainen, I too had been inspired to recapture a lost source of identity bound up with Finland.
In Marani’s novel, a battered, amnesiac sailor is (mistakenly) assumed to be Finnish because a nametag sewn into his coat bears a Finnish name: Karjalainen. Takolander, growing up in Australia, has the opposite experience. Her parents have essentially sewn a “Takolander” tag onto her, but no one is reading the tag. As she describes it, she is mistaken for Australian, against her will.
In her essay “The Turn to Diaspora,” Lily Cho writes of diaspora:
Diaspora is not a function of socio-historical and disciplinary phenomena, but emerges from deeply subjective processes of racial memory, of grieving for losses which cannot always be articulated and longings which hang at the edge of possibility. It is constituted in the spectrality of sorrow and the pleasures of “obscure miracles of connection.”
This may not always be true. The sober, hard-nosed reader can certainly imagine arguments for the intuitive position that, actually, diaspora is a function of socio-historical phenomena. But Cho’s mournful proposition — that you’re as diasporic as you feel — accurately describes Takolander’s poetics.
The poem “Mushrooms,” from the new book The End of the World, illustrates both Takolander’s investment in her ancestral homeland and her staid, tightly controlled style. This is the best of a half a dozen or so poems in the middle of the volume that deal with Finland by alloying memory and history like copper and tin to produce a poetry that is both attractive and hard-wearing.
In the poem, she reports on a trip to Finland to visit family still living there. She and her uncle and her little cousin are taking a woodland walk, for which walk “My uncle / wears gumboots and carries a bucket for mushrooms.” In other words, it’s a trip into a swamp. The poem begins:
Trailing after my elderly uncle and his grandson,
through the pagan tangle of forest and mosquitoes,
the sky glowering with an endless twilight,
the path clammy with grass, my uncle stops
and waits for me, just a tourist really. He points
out the suo — the bog — behind the murk of trees.
It is a sump layered with moss and looks solid.
This is to be an unsparing look at the country she feels is hers but knows isn’t. It can’t have been easy for Takolander to write the words “just a tourist really,” but she did it. Using a Finnish word, suo, immediately after this admission is an understandable coping mechanism, a reassertion of expertise that tells the English-speaking reader: “See, I know the language of this place. The people here may not accept me as one of them, but you will accept that I could be, because I have ancestral knowledge.” A bog, of course, is a place that preserves the past while also constantly recycling portions of it into new materials. The bogs of Finland may not be as famous as those of Ireland or Denmark for producing the bodies of kings or treasure, but this does not mean that they are not full of old secrets. In this case, it is hoped that they will yield mushrooms, decomposers masquerading as food.
As the poem continues, Takolander reveals details about her uncle’s character. He is apparently “soft,” or nassuja, and a problem drinker. The third and fourth stanzas suggest that he has psychic or moral objections to violence and thus is at odds with the hard-man world he comes from:
There was midsummer’s night, when he raised the flag
of the country defended by his father, who had killed so many
men resembling his brothers and sons. My mother always said
that my grandfather resurrected his enemies with a bottle,
loosing its sad genies into my grandmother’s kitchen
during winter, when the iconic sun was in hiding
and the lakes in that land of mirrors sheeted with cold.
The flagpole on midsummer’s night was planted (somehow)
on a granite rise, and my uncle could not stand by it for long.
This evening, though, he is sturdy and rational,
like the youth I imagined walking out of Karelia
with his parents and siblings when the Russians came,
their house burned down to the grave snow so that,
no matter what happened, their enemies would not find a home.
The drinking has been passed down the generations — a worrying inheritance. Especially for men: alcohol is actually the leading killer of Finnish men aged 15 to 64. And it’s not just from the grandfather to the uncle. The poem “Missing in Action,” also in this book, lists causes of death for Takolander’s family members. Out of eight entries, two begin “My youngest uncle: alcohol” and “My cousin (and his wife): alcohol.” And the afterthought in “Three other uncles: heart attacks — possibly euphemistic” strongly suggests further booze-related fates. It is not pleasant to admit that alcoholism, too, constitutes Finnishness.
It is implied that breaking down in the end, even though you’re “sturdy and rational,” is part of the psychic cost of being steadfast. Takolander elsewhere identifies this as “a quality they call ‘sisu,’” which is “strength and stoicism and endurance and determination. And it is this quality of sisu that gave Finns the edge in the Winter War, in that battle against Soviet Russia.” (I could quote some Adrienne Rich lines here which would work as an amazing punch line to Takolander’s poem: “I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled / this isn’t a Russian poem.”) Burning your own house down to make sure no one else can have it: now that’s sisu.
The poem ends on a surprisingly muffled note:
My uncle picks up manure — that of an elk — for me to inspect
and the glowing orb of a cloudberry, which disappears
into the silver-haired boy’s mouth. Finally, he stoops beside
a growth of mushrooms, wart-like, sallow as the sky.
His grandson kneels too, exposing his pale neck.
The butterfly net is cast aside, and soon the mushrooms
are filling the bucket, with a soft but steady sound.
It is a willful, unimaginative reading to insist that the soft but steady sound of mushrooms hitting bucket signifies the tread of Death approaching, and that the kneeling grandson is “exposing his pale neck” as to an executioner’s blade. But what is a good reading then? Surely it is that the collaborative work and living by a family persists in spite of the specter of death haunting everyday life. The sound of thunking mushrooms in the last line was originally described as “soft but certain” when the poem was first published; it was changed to “soft but steady” in the book. Nevertheless, a ghost of that certainty remains. And for Takolander what remains, perhaps barely detectable, is vital and expressed my Marani:
Finland is what remains of something else: take away the Slavs, the Scandinavians, the Orthodox, the Catholics, the sea salt, the birch forests, scrape off a few hundred thousand tons of granite and what you are left with is Finland. If you were once Finnish, at some point or other you will find all this with you, because all this is stored in your memory, it cannot be mislaid. It is in your blood, your guts.
Niina Pollari’s debut collection of poems, Dead Horse, situates us where the guts meet the economy: two of the book’s sections are called “Bones” and “Blood,” and the other is called “Money.” But before these three sections there is a prefatory poem called “I Am Skinless in a Limo.”
It begins this way (I quote the whole thing in order, with some breaks):
A little bit of context:
I am skinless in a limo
But I have like a dress on
It’s a green dress like a bird from a very green place
Because I have no skin
I am afraid of touching the sour door handle
I’m very vulnerable
I can’t really leave
So far, so graphic — but it’s an unmoored metaphor. Why is the (presumably) psychic pain the speaker is feeling being literalized in this way? This becomes clearer as Pollari continues:
But my friend
When I think about you
I am having a hard time understanding
We lost touch
When we were children in a faraway country:
You and me
Orange-tan and happy
I was eating tiny fried fish at the square
Grinding up their mini-mini skeletons
Chewing their soft spines
With my teeth
It was such a sunny day
The sun was petting us
I didn’t have to lick you
I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want
But that was back when I had skin
It should be obvious that the “faraway country” is Finland, if only for reasons of biography. And another thing points to Finland, as well: the fish made, it seems, entirely of bones. Until reading these lines I’d forgotten that I once strongly connected bony fish and Finland in my mind, possibly because of a story my father used to tell about when he traveled to Scandinavia for work in the ’70s. (It involved choking.) Pollari’s childhood Finland in this poem is Exhibit A of the L. P. Hartley maxim “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
It definitely is, and they definitely do. I should return to Lily Cho at this point, because a word about the skin in the essay I quoted earlier made me think about Pollari’s poem in the first place. It made this essay possible. Cho says:
To live in diaspora is to be haunted by histories that sit uncomfortably out of joint, ambivalently ahead of their time and yet behind it too. It is to feel a small tingle on the skin at the back of your neck and know that something is not quite right about where you are now, but to know also that you cannot leave. To be un-homed is a process. To be unhomely is a state of diasporic consciousness.
Imagine that you sort of feel that tingle on the skin, but not in the ordinary way. Because imagine that you’re in the process of being un-homed, and that you don’t have that skin on the back of your neck anymore. Pollari literalizes this idea of homelessness as skinlessness. For Pollari, anything that you could imagine might be different between now and then is different, in the diasporic consciousness way. “It’s raining now? Well, it was sunny then.” “I was orange-tan then? Well, that was lovely; I don’t even have skin now, motherfucker!” She concludes:
Now I’m sad and nasty
Grafting on to the seat
Wetly in a long car
As outside it rains,
And is also
If I went into the rainstorm now
All of me would wash off except my dress
Which would be ruined
The green fluff turning to soggy brown
Covered with the red of my body
It’s so good knowing
The skin is the largest organ in the body
It breathes and eats on its own
And it’s very talkative,
And I miss it
In the quiet car
But there is no changing the present,
And there is no fucking with what happened
So here is a statement of the facts:
My friend is somewhere else
And I am skinless in a limo
And we are headed down
It is as if the transportation of her body from one place to another damaged it irrevocably, as if it was entrusted to those dodgy movers who advertise on lampposts. (And no cargo is as likely to be damaged in transit as the human body.) Nothing can ever be the way it was. In her essay “Diasporic Subjects and Migration,” Sandra Ponzanesi writes about the female body as it is constituted by diaspora theory:
Various theories of nomadism and cosmopolitanism have tried to encapsulate the notion of the migrant as an embodiment of the contemporary condition of dislocation, not only in spatial terms but as crossing existing categories, of gender restrictions and bodily limitations. Notions such as diaspora (Brah, Hall, Gilroy, Smadar, Swedenborg, Barkan), borderlands (Anzaldua), edges (hooks), eccentric subject (De Lauretis), margins (Spivak), in-betweenness (Bhabha), rhizome (Deleuze), exile (Said), nomadic subject (Braidotti), cyborg (Haraway), transversal politics (Yuval-Davies), borders (Balibar), [and] multiple geographies (Stanford-Freeman) all emphasize theories of space as a way of describing the postmodern condition as encapsulating multiple variables of female subjectivity.
In other words, as Ponzanesi says further along, “from a feminist standpoint, the migrant trope helps to envision the intersection of sex, class, race, age and lifestyle as fundamental axes of differentiation.” As Pollari is both a woman and a migrant, she is “differentiated” along at least two axes.
On this reading, the specifically female “Bones” and “Blood” of the rest of the book are first exposed by the traumatic wrenching-away from a homeland alluded to in this poem. But this mention of her lost Finnish home is just that, a passing allusion, the superhero’s origin story briefly sketched. Pollari’s poetic interests lie elsewhere. As reviewer Carleen Tibbetts puts it, Pollari primarily interrogates “the female body — what is it supposed to do, how is it supposed to feel, what are its shortcomings, and how do they affect a woman’s sense of self?” But the compulsion to explain where it all started, by placing that body back in its country of origin in a poem, cannot be entirely resisted.
For both Takolander and Pollari, the loss they feel is due a changed relationship not just with national borders, but with their own histories. After all, neither of them seems to wish she was back in Finland. (“But there is no changing the present, / And there is no fucking with what happened.”) Their quarrel is with decisions made in the past, not with obstacles that exist in the present. They both presumably recognize their circumstances now for what they are: comfortable. They have no “right” to complain, but they need to — viscerally — anyway. This makes the pain of their dislocation, which is already unassuageable, seem doubly unhelpful. But they have probably done the calculations and accept that it’s worth it to ruminate on a lost Finland of the mind in poems, even if the only result will be more poems. A struggle can be futile even if you fight with “strength and stoicism and endurance and determination.”