Category Archives: Finnish literature

From the Sonata Pathetique

there is love
beyond all the biblical and the social
beyond all restricting conventionality
love that bursts into the veins giving muscles new blood
love that feeds and nourishes without asking what form it should take
realizing its own primordial, haunted, eternal will
love that crushes ruthlessly like a strong current
obstacles in its way, even a weaker love,
that lacks the strength to defend its position or to thrive
love that experiences divinity in its own being
love that tolerates no tyranny,
that is its own omnipotent ruler, its strength and honour
all-powerful, the ten commandments
each of which reads: live, experience love, experience death
love that speaks with the lips of eternity and whose jurisdiction
is infinity; the one it captures feels freedom without dimensions
love that has only one expression and manifestation: the beloved
love that has only one word, melody, and phrase: the beloved
love that has only one path and possibility: the beloved
love that only one who dares may receive: the beloved.

– Lasse Heikkila (translated by Borje Vahamaki)

Love Is Not Cleansed

Love is not cleansed by fire
nor by needless sacrifices
Love is tried on gray ordinary days,
moments of weariness, in deadening work.

The imaginary bride in poetry
twists her gold ring
in her infinite, idle loneliness —
but true love is near
where a man praises his wife’s worn, wrinkled
hands in the dim light of a night lamp
as sleep approaches.

Viljo Kajava (translated by Aili Jarvenpa)

Song of Love

And one day
we bend forward and reach around each other
and with a click get linked together, never again to come loose,
your ailing limbs interlocked with my gout,
my stomach ulcer beside your hear condition
and my arthritis against your sciatica,
we will never, ever part.

And, my dear, you forget your arhythmia, your shortness of breath
and the gangrene
which already resides in your heart
and I forget my catarrh, my restless legs
and the nagging pain in my left side
and may frost and troubles and sorrow come too.

Take my breasts, empty and flat
into your hands, my dear
for one day as you look at them they will hang low,
will you love me then
My bumble bee, my humble-bumble boy?

Lord, teach us to accept the love of the aged,
the love of the young, the love of the middle-aged,
the love of the ugly, the love of the poor,
the love of the ragged
and the love of the lonely.
Teach us to accept love,
for we fear it so.

-Eeva Kilpi-

A month for love, the Finnish kind

So I have been on hiatus – losing the 10 lbs I gained eating pulla, laatikko and all the other goodies over December. No special Finnish recipe for weight loss  except maybe don’t eat pulla, laatikko or other goodies.

I have been thinking about this blog for the past week or so, wondering if I would pick up again and if so, what would I want to focus on for one month. It came to me last night, after spending the day trying write for a class I am in. I spent quite a bit of time trying to put together a short piece, in the style of Finnish poet Eeva Kilpi. She is a beautiful poet, whose short, quick-witted poems capture so much of the ordinary mystery of love and loneliness. After coming up short yet again on my own attempts, it occurred to me that I needed to study love, the Finnish kind, in order to get what it is that Eeva is clearly and concisely capturing.

So it is February, and I will be studying love. Not the love that involves cards, candy, and jewelry that seems to dominate this month (although I like all three just fine). I want to explore ordinary love, a wake-up-in-the-morning-to-the-same-pillow-marked- cheeks-and-bleary-eyed-face with joy kind of love, the kind that has saggy boobs, and knarled toes. Or what about the love that is silent, determined and unmoved, even a bit foolish. Sad, lonely love. Love without the frills. Practical love.

What is this Finnish love I am speaking about?

I don’t know, but I like what I read and see in film so I want to explore it.

To start me off, here is a little Eeva Kilpi for a Tuesday in February:

Tell Me Immediately if I am Disturbing You

Tell me immediately if I’m disturbing you,
He said, coming in the door,
And I will leave right away.

You not only disturb,
I answered,
You shake my whole being.
– Eeva Kilpi –

Eeva Kilpi – Love is Rest

Love is rest.
Actually, the only rest humans have.
And nothing is as exhausting.
And it is freedom.
And yet, nothing binds us as securely.
Therein lies love’s paradox.
Without love, it is as if one carried a burden
All the time and was prisoner to his loneliness,
No matter how free he is in his aloneness. 


Rakkaus on lepo. 
Oikeastaan ainoa lepo mitä ihmisellä on. 
Eikä mikään ole niin rasittavaa. 
Ja se on vapautta. 
Eikä kuitenkaan mikään sido niin paljon. 
Siinä on rakkauden paradoksi. 
Ilman rakkautta ihminen kantaa kuin taakkaa 
koko ajan ja on yksinäisyytensä vanki, 
niin vapaa kuin yksin ollessaan onkin.

– Eeva Kilpi –

Kalevala: Aino and the spring cuckoo bird

Poor Aino. She was promised to an old wizard by her foolish brother, and rather than help to protect her, her mother gives her gifts to make her even more beautiful, telling her to go to this old man. Her mother tells her:

There is no cause to be glum
no reason to be downcast
God’s sun also shines
elsewhere in the world —
not at your father’s windows
your brother’s gateway.
There are berries on a hill
and in glades strawberries too
for you, luckless one, to pick
further afield, not always
in your father’s glades, upon
your brother’s burnt-over heaths.

But Aino has no interest in going, can’t stand the thought having to care for such a decrepit man, so she runs away. She runs to the ocean, where she is lured into the water to bathe and soon  drowns in the water.  She is a little like Ophelia, though not shunned by love, she has been forced to relinquish herself to another without her own consent.

In her mother’s grief  she weeps three rivers and sprouting from these rivers rise three peaks and upon each peak sit a cuckoo bird. The cuckoo birds each call out their own message: love, love for the loveless Aino; bridegroom, bridegroom for the lonely Väinämöinen; and joy, joy to the mother who weeps all her days.

When the cuckoo is calling
my heart is throbbing
tears come to my eyes
waters down my cheeks
flow thicker than peas
and fatter than beans:
by an ell my life passes
by a span my frame grows old
my whole body is blighted
when I hear the spring cuckoo

I have heard the call of the cuckoo bird, calling from the woods near my grandmother’s house in Metsäkylä. It was almost a whisper, not something that jars you to attention, like a crow or magpie. When I heard it I thought of the passage of time, the cuckoo call reminding me of clocks marking the hour. I like the idea of Aino’s mother marking time with the cuckoo’s refrain — joy, joy.

Time for a winter epic: Kalevala

In 2005, I visited the Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki and found a collection of impressionist works all conveying scenes from the Kalevala; scenes with Aino and the swans, maidens and heros. They were beautiful but I knew I was missing something as I had never studied the Kalevala. Flashforward seven years, and I find myself looking for archetypes and myths that have informed some of the references to Finland and Finns in books that I loved. For example, Ondaatje includes a scene early in In the Skin of Lion that is pivotal to the multicultural tone of the novel; Patrick (the narrator) watches as Finnish workers from a nearby logging camp skate on a frozen lake in the dark of night, carrying torches to light their way. The scene is one of my favourite (I can recreate the cold, the whites of the snow and the men, and bright orange of their torches at a moment’s notice – Ondaatje knows how to engage the senses); it was the first time I found a Finn in something I was reading.

Now I found myself wondering how would a knowledge of the Kalevala change my reading of those Finnish night skaters? Maybe not at all, but after years of studying the myths, sagas and cultural icons of the English literature, I think its time to take on the Finnish epic.

This summer I bought a translation of the Kalevala (Oxford World Classic 1989 Edition, translated by Keith Bosley). I am on page 15 of 666. Here is what I found so far:

Of the egg that created the world:

“The bits changed into good things
the pieces into fair things:
an egg’s lower half
become mother earth below
an egg’s upper half
became heaven above;
the upper half that was yolk
became the sun for shining
the upper half that was white
became the moon gleaming;
what in an egg was mottled
became the stars in the sky
what in an egg was blackish
became the clouds of the air.”

There is a cultural center for my Aku Ankka collection

The Scandinavian Cultural Center in my area is one of the cool things about moving to the lower mainland. Aside from the Finnishness that would enter my life through the friends and social life of my parents, I did not have the benefit of complete Finnish community growing up. My brothers grew up in Ontario in the Finnish communities of Sudbury and Sault St. Marie where they had Finnish friends and were part of a larger Finnish community where it was normal to speak the language. For me, while I had Finnish friends, two other girls from Finnish families whose parents were friends with mine, I did not speak Finnish with those girls. In fact, in every respect, we were Canadian girls whose parents spoke a different language and often forced us to celebrate holidays in ways that were different from our Canadian peers. It was not always a comfortable difference.

Moving to the mainland and taking part in some of the events and language classes offered by the Finland House at the Scandinavian Cultural Center was a first peek at what it would be like to have my own Finnish community. In taking intermediate Finnish classes, I met a group of people, older and younger than me, who had the same memories of holiday’s celebrated with Lanttuulatikko and Jouluapuki instead of turkey stuffing and Santa Claus. I wasn’t really sure what I would encounter joining a language class – aside from speaking Finnish while travelling I had long since lost the naturalness of the language that my mother claims I had as a child. I was also curious about the idea of Finnish culture – how different was this center’s representation of culture, or the experiences of other members for that matter, from my own experiences growing up in the north Okanagan. Or even more acute was the question of whether my experiences could even be counted as big C culturual.  My Finnish childhood, as opposed to my Canadian childhood, was predominantly spent with old people and as I mentioned sad it odd opposition to the normalized life as a girl in small town BC. In fact, we three Finnish girls, who were really more Canadian than Finnish, only had old Finns to tell us or show us what was particularly Finnish about our life and for me, this was not an obvious set of voices from which to take direction and develop a cultural identify from.

Finnishness was the house slippers worn by my mother’s friends, bright orange slip-ons with strange bumps on the soles. I would slip my feet into them when she wasn’t looking and giggle at the strange, uncomfortable feel. I remember looking at the woman who wore them, a large, white-haired, fair-skinned woman who was old then, and continues to be old now. What kind of woman could wear those shoes all day long?

There were the open-faced Finnish rye bread sandwiches, with butter, maybe ham, mild cheese and a slice of cucumber. The rye bread was coarse and baked in the shape of a pizza with a hole in the center. Cakes filled with jam, not creamy butter icing or pudding. And of course the sauna Saturdays spent at the homes of other Finns, my parents stopping at a corner store on the way over to buy a glass bottle of 7Up for after sauna.

We did have some toys and books that were distinctly Finnish – I had copies of Aku Ankka, comics featuring the Finnish Donald Duck, and cassette tapes with Finnish songs that I would sing by myself. I had stickers from Finland in my sticker collection and a doll with Finnish traditional clothes that matched an outfit my mother made for me in grade one for a multi-cultural pageant. But what I remember most about these items was the strangeness of them. They were not toys shared with Canadian friends. The colours were off somehow – too bright, wrong shade of reds or yellows. They did not fit in with the Strawberry Shortcakes and Barbie Dream RV. What I see as the distinct difference between the childhoods of my brothers and my own is that being Finnish was weird in my world. It was something that had to be explained. Why was my name different? What is a sauna and why do you have one in your basement? Not to mention the accents of my parents. My peer group was distinctly “Canadian” which at the time meant English-speaking, white, small town folks. They were families who ate white bread with peanut butter and jelly, whose mom’s bought clothes at K-mart, and the sugary cereals that my mother rarely let me eat.

So, while a long time has passed since I felt that way about my Finnishness, I came to the Finnish classes  curious about whether or not my memories of things Finnish would connect me in someway with others. What I found was a mix of people who were coming to their Finnishness from places that were different from mine and the same. Some were married to Finns and were looking to improve their Finnish to ensure their children would learn the language (and I assume learn to love sauna and pulla – although one takes decidedly less effort than the other). Others were like me having spent some part of childhood in both worlds and now wanting to bring some of those experiences back in adulthood. As we stumbled through language lessons, I recognized in others the moments of excitement when a word is remembered, or an entire phrase repeated that had once been forgotten. Like tasting anew a fruit once enjoyed but forgotten long ago.

Last christmas the cultural center held craft fairs to highlight Scandinavian products and baked goods. What I saw when I attended was an entire complex of people who were like me and my family and all those finnish friends of my parents. Pulla, joulutortu, karelinen pirrakka and fazer chocolates filled tables next to second-hand marimekko designs and iitala glassware and jewelry that reflected the sleek modern designs so common in Scandinavian. I found a translation of the Kalevala and other books in Finnish and English.

So in all that what I found at the Scandinavian cultural center was a little microcosm where my Finnishness was normal. And I guess I can say that I was able to quantify what it means to have a place, a school or a community where one can go to be connected to that part of one’s self that is not a part of the wider social context. It’s a strange realization to make in such diverse society as ours but there is an invisibility to my Finnishness that I want to uncover.