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Pentti Saarikoski
Translated by Anselm Hollo
La Alameda Press ($18)

by Gregory Farnum

Look for information on Pentti Saarikoski at your local library or (in English) on the net, and you'll find precious little. Yet he is a major Finnish poet, and Trilogy, completed shortly before his death in 1983, is his crowning work. Fortunately the cycle has been masterfully translated by the Finnish-born Anselm Hollo (who grew up to be a German poet, then a British poet, and is now indisputably an American poet), the man who, along with the Englishman Herbert Lomas, has made Saarikoski's work accessible to the Anglophone world. Hollo eloquently describes Saarikoski's legacy in the forward to Trilogy:

He left us twenty-two books of poems, six volumes of essayistic and autobiographical prose, three plays written for radio, a posthumous volume of diaries, and seventy book-length translations into Finnish from classical Greek, Latin, Italian, German, English, and Swedish, including Homer's Odyssey and James Joyce's Ulysses, the fragments of Herakleitos, Sappho's poems, Aristotle's Poetics...

And on and on. On top of all this, Hollo goes on to say,

He was, for a time, a youth idol—the popular press referred to him as 'The Blond Beatle of the North'—whose often scandalous behavior and pronouncements, combined with his introduction of uninhibited Finnish vernacular into the language of literature . . . shocked his elders in much the same way that William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg jolted the establishment in the United States.

Saarikoski twice ran for parliament as a Communist, and was famed for his extrovert tendencies during the '60s. In the '70s, however, he moved with his new wife, the writer Mia Berner, to an island off the coast of Sweden to live a quieter, more private, rustic life. At this point one can hear the noise of half-witted comedians, bow-tied conservatives, newspaper jabberers and other fast thinkers who dominate so much of our mental ecology speaking disparagingly of hippies and their laughable back-to-nature efforts. Here are Saarikoski's words:

Snakes with their small tongues
licked my ears clean
once again I can hear
the sounds of the world
the rowan-berries

I want to keep this peace
in which I have creatures sit on my shoulders
and dance floor on the mountain

That's the fifth poem constituting The Dance Floor on the Mountain; published in 1977, it was the first volume in the trilogy, followed in 1980 by Invitation to the Dance. In both, the poems are numbered rather than titled, and cling to the left of the page as they ramble, jaggedly and serendipitously, between the personal and the universal, the present and the ever-present past. The classical motifs (serpents' tongues and the dance) recur throughout in a manner that is consistently discovered rather than merely cited.

The dance motif might be seen by American readers as a charming metaphor striving to overcome its encrusted overlay of triteness, but Saarikoski means something more profound; think instead of martial arts or healing disciplines, or contemporary physics, such as string theory—i.e., the magical power of movement and rhythm to open doors. That rhythm includes the less bucolic aspects of the poet's environment, such as the factories on the island. Saarikoski, a streetwise leftist, was very familiar with factories. The yuppie getaway villas on the prime beach-front real estate were a newer phenomenon:

in the café I sit
look at tall villas on the opposite shore
inhabited by people with their own brand of contentment
other people
they've turned the wind around so the spirit of the city
won't breathe on them
sunny mornings busy with sailboats
on the bay
cool highballs early summer evenings
they have those coming to them
new thoughts won't be needed for a long time

The final volume in the trilogy, The Dark One's Dances, hearkens back to Saarikoski's groundbreaking 1962 work What Is Really Going On (as discussed by Hollo in the introduction)—the lines are jagged, dancing around the page and creating their own form, and the Dark One (Herakleitos) is ever more present. Pound, an acknowledged precursor, is there, but so perhaps is Ron Padgett—an example (which Herakleitos would no doubt approve of) of remembering the future:

I make the kind of observations a depressed person makes
the boat's been left there
to rot in the water
now that he who used to row it
is dead

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2003/2004 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003/2004