Sirkka Turkka (b.1939) is widely acknowledged as a major figure in contemporary Finnish poetry. Since her first collection A Room in Space in 1973, she has published some twenty collections to critical acclaim, winning both the Finlandia Prize and the Eino Leino Prize. This collection, A Sure Star in a Moonless Night, has been translated by Emily Jeremiah, and contains poems between 1973-1993.
Turkka’s work is unexpected but in many ways hauntingly familiar. The commonality of life, love and death are explored here with audaciousness and wry wit. There are instances here of sly humour:
It’s six o’clock in the evening and already
I’m an orphan, thanks to the
hefty cow, between whose horns the poem withers.
And also expressions of frailty and sadness
And amidst a snow shower I wait for
The one and only, for a face
[…] when you finally come,
years and years later,
then I’m an old person, ready for departure.
There is throughout a sense of unravelling, as if in seeking to articulate the mental processes of others, Turkka releases all her own thoughts onto the page in half-formed connections and conflicting ideas. Much of the work is characterised by a tone of unapologetic whimsy, such as “a short pale winter day can fit/into the tip of a dog’s tail, say”.
The book is difficult to navigate (a nod to the moonless night perhaps?). There are no titles, or any thematic sub-divisions. The reader is plunged headlong into the text, which is no doubt intentional. It is a case of sink or swim. The unflinching word choice, the sharp twists in tone between the sardonic and the poignant, all serve to disorientate and sweep away any preconceptions the reader might have of the poet’s work.
In the introduction, the editor quotes from a Jukka Koskelainen article, in which cadence is identified as a touchstone in Turkka’s poetry. Cadence, he suggests, is the ability to draw together “…elliptic structures, recurring patterns [and] variations to form a rhythmic whole”. For me, it is the lack of rhythm that marks the authenticity of this work. There is a disjointedness about it which is both pleasing and disturbing. Line lengths are conspicuously uneven, with multi-syllabic words, odd syntax and inventive compound words, as in the following example:
Today I stumbled over a branch and the path, the forest’s own river,
hit me in the heart with its moss-fist.
I gasped there for a moment.
Many of the pieces are prose poems, ranging from the three pages of a re-imagined Hamlet, to tiny, beautiful observances:
Aspens and maples sparkle. Small shrubs burn. Their leaf-veins already pierced by the glowing, quivering thread of death.
There is a strange aesthetic bleakness to the way the words appear on the page; the shorter poems seem to huddle in the margins, leaving copious amounts of white space. Turkka’s ambiguity almost begs the reader to pick up the thread of her narrative…
On the wall, a map. I run my finger along the coastline.
Here’s a small headland, from which smoke rises. And I am
here, soon to be covered by smoke.
A Sure Star in a Moonless Night is a thought-provoking, engaging collection, sensitively translated by Jeremiah to preserve the rich sense of colour, sound and landscape. It is a collection to invest time in. Too idiosyncratic to be thoroughly digested in one sitting, it invites the reader to dip in again and again.