Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Love that so terrifies us: a review of Eeva Kilpi’s A Landscape Blossoms within Me (Arc Publications, 2014)

Marc Sharp reviews a translation of the Finnish poet Eeva Kilpi’s work.

Arc Publications’ release of A Landscape Blossoms Within Me is the first extensive translation of Eeva Kilpi’s poetry into English. Kilpi was born in Karelia, Finland, in 1928, and is one of Finland’s best-loved poets. She has won several prestigious literary awards and was awarded the Order of the Lion of Finland. She has been Chair of the Finnish PEN and was nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize. From this information, provided in the inside sleeve of the book, I expected sparse, academic poems and a feeling of dread set in. The dark blues and browns of the impressionistic painting on the cover were, perhaps, cause for apprehension. But it was the list of awards and my complete ignorance of Finnish poetry that influenced my preconceptions most. The introduction by the translator and poet, Donald Adamson, describes Kilpi’s style as ‘full of irony and self-mockery’, influenced by the work of the English Metaphysical poets. Once I had read the introduction any preconceived ideas formed by my initial impressions had vanished as had my vision of a sombre poet.

A Landscape Blossoms Within Me is a collection consisting of 70 poems selected from work published between 1972 and 2000. The poems are arranged chronologically by date of composition with Adamson’s English translation printed alongside the original Finnish. This arrangement is helpful for anyone wishing to use this book for academic purposes. Although I do not speak Finnish, I enjoyed looking at the unfamiliar patterns of double ks and umlauted vowels, and viewing the two languages alongside one another drew my attention to the meticulous choices taken in the practice of translation. I like the simplicity of language, the conversational tone, and how well it expresses both the bawdy witticisms ‘That was true love. When I farted he said: - How beautiful!’ and thoughtful musings ‘So is it to be just once a year and so briefly?’ indicative of Kilpi’s style. Although subjects such as aging and dying are noticeable in titles such as ‘Before Death’ and ‘Voices from an Old People’s Home’ the self-mocking title ‘Granny-ography’ better reflects the light and stoic approach Kilpi takes in the treatment of conventionally morbid topics. The poems in this collection range from pithy aphorisms that leave you thinking long after you’ve finished reading ‘You change the order of words in me//Hush now, let it happen’ to longer compositions on religion ‘These days I still say a prayer’ and the natural world – in ‘Animalia’.

The finest poems of the collection are ones in which an all-encompassing, transcendent love blossoms out of candid descriptions of physical aging. The inclusiveness characteristic of the pantheistic Christianity Kilpi believes in is illustrated best by the poem ‘A Song about Love’. In this poem the poetic voice prays for help in accepting the love of all people, ‘a love that so terrifies us’. The poem begins in medias res, a recurring feature in Kilpi’s poems, with a lover imagining a future of ‘stiff joints, rheumatism and lumbago’, but a future in which she and her partner are ‘hooked round each other’. The description of the aging couple is beautiful in its honesty and the image of the multiple becoming one is beatific. The description of suffering ‘lumps and folds of skin’ and the union of ‘wrinkles into creases’ is interrupted by the lover’s ‘soft’ prayer for the other’s easy death. This view of death as an escape from suffering must be read in light of the final lines: ‘Arm in arm we’ll walk together/And our sky will always be bright.’ Kilpi views love as something that continues to exist long after physical deterioration and death. This powerful belief that love’s potential to unify in life continues into death is wonderfully expressed throughout this and other poems in the collection.

A Landscape Blossoms Within Me is a wonderful collection of poetry that has elicited both laughter and contemplation from everyone with whom I have shared the poems. Kilpi’s humorous quips about the differences between men and women and her concern with issues such as religious tolerance and global warming make her an accessible and profound voice in the contemporary moment. It’s hard for me to find serious fault with this book. The dates of composition could have been included on the title page of each new section. Instead, the information relating to publication dates is placed, nondescriptly, in the notes on the text and translation. Matching the Finnish titles to the corresponding English ones is not difficult but could be avoided if the original dates of publication were printed next to the titles on the contents page. Having read this funny, emotive and provoking collection, it is easy to see why Eeva Kilpi is one of Finland’s best-loved poets, and why her work has been translated into so many languages.

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